The vulnerable ecosystems thousands of Colombia´s campesinos and indigenous communities live in – from glacier-fed river valleys to the jungle – are especially at risk to climate change, and with the trend far advanced, the country is opting for adaptation.
Now, these communities are teaming up with government agencies and scientific institutes, sometimes with their own ancestral teachings, to prevent some of the worst impacts extreme weather, such as droughts, torrential rains and floods, can have on their crops and livelihoods.
Elzbieta Bochno, of the Agriculture Ministry´s office of Technological Development and Health Protection, said that the government is analyzing on 47,000 hectares of land in 14 projects better alert and monitoring systems of the effects of climate change, as well as methods to save water and improve animal health.
Bochno added that the government is also putting a food safety network into place, along with green farming methods.
But the communities themselves are starting to adapt, says Piedad Martín, a climate change and energy expert at the United Nations Development Program´s Colombia office, which along with the UN Food and Agriculture Office, UNICEF and the Pan-American Health Organization is directing a program with five indigenous communities and 12 campesino groups along the Cauca River in southern Colombia.
In La Calera, along the Blanco River near Bogota, residents are growing other species of fruits, potatoes, “that are more resistant and less vulnerable to those climate impacts,” said Ricardo Lozano, director of the Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies Institute, or IDEAM, a governmental office.
He said that many campesino farmers are giving up some of their land so the community can conserve and repair areas of the river basins where they live that have been affected by climate change and subsequent extreme weather patterns.
On the islands of San Andres, Providencia and Rosario, the local population is storing enough water to supply half of the community´s daily needs, Lozano added.
Traditional knowledge at work
Ancestral teachings have been fundamental for some adaptation initiatives.
“With its traditional knowledge, the community is saving seeds, especially potato and corn, which allows them to have more diversity because even if they grow one or two varieties today, in the future, in other climate conditions … they could have the option to vary their crops,” said Martín.
John Bejarano, director of the Colombian Biocommerce Fund, a nonprofit umbrella group that provides funding for environmental initiatives, said: “Prehispanic crops like maca, amaranth and quinoa not only have ancestral and nutritional value, but also they are robust crops that resist climate change and have a great adaptability than a foreign species.”
“They are a good substitute for other crops that are more fragile and vulnerable to climate change,” he added.
The poor use of soil is also a trend that is being reversed by campesino and indigenous farmers. Germán Zamora, who has a small farm and livestock operation in La Calera, and lost two of his five cows to a prolonged summer and an unexpected plague of ticks, said that his community is building natural fences with native species to improve soil quality.
Zamora and his community are working with IDEAM and the University of Colombia for better use of water and implementation of organic farming methods, “using supplies and fertilizers that we can make with the communities´ own methods.”
But climate change is also causing some potentially damaging reactions, such as the broadening of farmland.
“People now see the possibility of growing crops in areas that were once very cold … which what seems to us a poor way to adapt to climate change because it destroys an ecosystem that is key to water management,” she said.
“We´re no longer denying climate change, because it´s already obvious that it is having an impact on the communities. [But it´s happening] so quickly that many times we don´t have enough time to react.”