Carolina and Steve were invited to meet with people of San Isidro, a community in the Cauca Valley, Colombia. The purpose was to understand their achievements and priorities. In this way, we would also gain an appreciation of their work with Ecofuturo, who facilitated the meeting. Community Works is starting a conversation with Ecofuturo about how can we work together in the future.

San Isidro sits high in the diverse and hilly region of Cauca, at an altitude of almost 1,900 metres. The population is 144 people and most of the houses, church and other buildings are situated along a sloping main street. At the lowest point of the main street and the first building a visitor encounters, is Palo e’ café, an important space for local meetings and a café managed by women who live in the village. This is where we met a group of around eight men and women of different ages with the purpose of learning about San Isidro.

One key feature the group immediately talked about was the way in which the smallholdings of the community were managed in a way that integrated them with the forest areas to be found at this altitude. They described their ‘finca reservas’ or farm reserves in which they grew a multitude of fruits and vegetables, They showed as a display of the current products including coffee, bananas, yucca, tomatoes, avocados and citrus fruits. While we were there, a truck arrived to collect the latest crop of bananas.

‘Our fincas are productive’ said one of the community members ‘but prices for crops taken to market are low. To overcome this problem, we want to process our coffee here, for example, so we add value to the coffee beans by drying, roasting and grinding them into retail coffee’. They showed us some bags they had produced. ‘But the cost of taking the beans to a processor is high and the investment in our own machinery is too much. So we have started using a hand grinder here in San Isidro’.

Ecofuturo is a non-government organisation that implements projects with communities to increase the long-term sustainability of their productive activities. San Isidro was a founder member of the organisation some twenty years ago. The farm reserves initiative is typical of their work and they showed us other projects including the planting of wildlife corridors between paddocks used for cattle and a place where a biogas digester has been built. We saw the Reserva Natural Campo Hermoso, which focuses on sustainable cattle farming and the Reserva Natural Vista Hermosa, which is for household food security. We also spoke with women who work in the Reserva Natural Pescadores.

One aspect of San Isidro that really stands out to a visitor is the degree to which the community organises itself. There are various groups and associations that enable the interface between people and natural resources to be managed in line with the objectives of the community. An example is Ayuda Mutua (Mutual Help). As the group explained, ‘Ayuda Mutua is a time each week that all the owners of smallholdings in the farm reserve work alongside each other so they can share their labour, offer each other advice and solve problems together’.

Despite the progress the community has made, they perceive a threat. Local people have been leaving the area. The population of the district has fallen by nearly a third in the last thirty years. Those with land have been selling their smallholdings to companies that combine them into large avocado plantations, some of which occupy the catchment for the river that supplies water to several communities in the region. People in San Isidro fear that high levels of use of agro-chemicals for large plantations will damage the local environment, especially through contamination of the water. ‘All existing vegetation will be removed to make way for avocados’ they said ‘It goes against the idea of diverse plantations that we have been cultivating for many years’.

As we left San Isidro and descended to the town of Bolivar, we could see rows of stakes in the ground and stretching into the distance. They marked the places where each avocado tree would be planted.

Steve Fisher, 23rdSeptember 2018