I just came back from a work trip to Colombia which had taken up all my available time and resources for weeks on end. However, in Colombia I also found inspiration and motivation for more posts, more stories, more writing. Yay for creative breaks and continuations!
Colombia is a fascinating place with so many layers of politics and history that one feels at times like a social archeologist, trying to peel back layer by layer without missing any contexts. I had this feeling particularly in Cartagena, the coastal port city that for many centuries constituted the entry point of the Spanish empire’s slave trade and exit point of natural resources such as gold, silver and emeralds. Today, it’s a popular cruise destination with an enchanting old town – completely restored to its colonial glory times – that is filled with luxury boutiques and jewelry shops selling gold, silver and emeralds in uncomfortable parallels to the past that few visitors seemed to glimpse.
Recently, even formerly poor parts of town such as Getsemani have been discovered by the tourist industry, putting into motion a gentrification boom that brings forth increasingly hip hostels and cafes, while pushing house taxes out of reach of current residents. Opposition is fierce and is expressed on the streets, primarily in street art and public demonstrations.
Due to the historical precedents, poverty is more concentrated in indigenous and afro-Caribbean communities. However, these are also the least visible communities, at least to foreign travelers, except in their roles as street vendors and performers. It is much harder to discover their cultural contributions as well as an honest account of their day-to-day challenges and activities, leading to an intense feeling of dissociation when wandering Cartagena’s beautiful streets.
It is in this context that I discovered the work of FEM (Fundación de Educación Multidimensional), a local NGO that aspires to bridge the inequality gap found in Colombia by fostering afro and indigenous community empowerment, intercultural dialogue and social entrepreneurship. They connect volunteers from around the world with local projects, organize responsible tourism outings (such as a tour of the local market, Bazurto, which I enjoyed immensely), and host community events all in that vein.
One of their projects that is just coming off the ground is called “Food Forest Colombia“, and aims to increase the number of trees in Colombian cities (starting with Cartagena) as a strategy to adapt to climate change, improve public spaces, provide employment to underserved communities, and provide active aging opportunities for seniors. In short, it’s brilliant.
It’s also a direly needed project since Cartagena as a coastal town is humid and hot (HOT I tell you) and getting hotter due to climate change. And indeed, I can remember two parks in the entire city, not nearly enough for the amount of residents the city has. Indeed, the guys at FEM have calculated that there only exist 0.06 trees per inhabitant in Cartagena, as compared to 10-15 in major cities like Paris and Madrid.
So, they want to plant trees – but which trees, where and how? This is where great project design can really make a difference. In their experience, planting trees just in random street corners unfortunately invited a lot of vandalism. But at the same time, senior citizens in retirement residences have a lack of active retirement options; caring for the tree seedlings in the gardens and neighborhood of the residences gives them a low-key purpose and a productive way to occupy their time.
The planting of the trees will be done through a micro-gardening business that FEM helped to develop among urban Zenú indigenous people. These are the same people that sell artisan handicrafts in the streets, an informal and often precarious work. Yet, they have grown up in a culture rich in knowledge about agriculture and plants, and employing them for this task gives them a more secure and reliable source of income while involving them in an organization that creates social innovation.
Finally, all of the trees will be native fruit trees. Did you know that Colombia is one of the countries with the highest number of native fruit varieties? I tried almost daily new juices of fruit that I’d previously never heard of, and this works to the advantage of the Fruit Forest Project. Planting fruit trees is a small step into the direction of a city’s food sovereignty (similar to other strategies around the world), and particularly in the tropical climate a sure bet to be a source of refreshment of many residents in the future.
The project is still in the starting phases and looking for funding sources, but in my eyes it’s already a winner – such a cool way to bridge age as well as socio-economic divides while responding to climate change! Check out their website (in Spanish) for more infos!