Following the peace agreement signed between the FARC guerrilla group and the government, Colombians are re-appropriating their country’s natural assets. In the North-Western department of Chocó, one of the lushest, poorest and most politically unstable in the country, bioeconomy is a way to support the peace and simultaneously fight the towering rate of unemployment. Photographs by Gaia Squarci.
Set in the back of a grocery store in the Fontibon neighborhood of Bogota, a tourism agency of a new type is emerging, initiated by ex-paramilitary members. Touristic tours guided by fighters of the long-lasting conflict sound opportunistic – it was even recently the object of dire satire in the Colombian version of The Onion under the title, “FARC have been asked to leave an active front so that gringos can come and see it”.
But Tureco, which stands for Turismo Reconciliación Colombia, avoids sensationalism and rather bet on integrated tourism. “We carried guns at a time to defend an ideal, but today we believe that we can do something else to define our future, in the form of an artisanal company”, Jordan Ordonez explains. An ex-member of AUC (United Self-Defenders of Colombia) – a Colombian paramilitary and drug trafficking group that laid down the weapons in 2006 -, Ordonez was working for the Agencia Colombiana para la Reintegración when he joined the team last year. “Our goal is to target places that were the most harmed by the conflict and to use tourism as a way of offering opportunities to the locals people”, he explains.
The first person to talk about integrated tourism, or community tourism, in Colombia was Josefina Klinger. A charismatic Afrocolombian woman talking with the same swag that she walks with, she founded a tourism complex in the heart of Utria National Park, on the Pacific coast of Choco, in 2008. The person who introduced us remarked that Klinger had brought to life consequent community projects at the worse time of the conflict and she was not the type to be bothered. And indeed, she set up the hotel after a story of sequestration by the guerrillas that had stigmatised the place .
The site, located in the middle of the cocaine trail provided a strategic place for armed groups, who have been active in the region since the 1990’s. While the conflict reached Choco relatively late, the department reaps the highest number of displaced people in the country. Even after the peace agreement with the FARC was signed last November, displacements have continued at a high rate – since the beginning of 2017 only, they amount to 3,000, according to the UN, which is 50% more than in Norte Santander, the second department in number of IDPs, in the whole 2016.
“I decided to draw a line between the bullets”, she comments. In the early 1990’s, Klinger grew fed up with promotors making money while declining social responsibility at a local level. And this, in a context where minorities, who account for the majority of Choco’s population, have seen their rights trampled on for decades. Massive protests last May attested of the anger of the Afrocolombian community. In the streets as well as on their social media account, one could read, “we stood up to denounce structural racism and claim basic subsistence : water, health, work and dignity”.
One of the country’s richest regions in terms of biodiversity and culture, Choco also has the highest unemployment rate in the country, and a poverty of 62,8% according to Colombia Reports. These are the later statistics that Klinger aimed at changing. “The war is not only about armed groups and narco-trafficking. The reality of war in Choco is that it has altered our traditional way to relate to each other. Our culture of exchange has vanished with the raise of politics, drugs and capitalism”, she deplores, “while we can monetize the common good for the community.”
Building on human talent and a regional tradition of exchange, she helped locals develop small-scale businesses in various fields, ranging from transportation to hand-crafts and gastronomy. She set up a system of shared childcare, arranging for women with free time to look after their neighbour’s children while they’re at work. In the coastal village of Termales, she has also supported women to create a restaurant that has now the reputation of being one of the tastiest on the coast of Utria. “Politicians need to realize the importance of the territory and its culture. If not, the peace will create new kinds of displaced and refugees”, she warns.
Kids of various heights surf on blistered boards, stretching in joyful manners and taking turns on the waves under the benevolent look of Nestor Tello Arboleda. Tello discovered surfing when he was 28 and made it a way of life. He and his brother started to hit the waves on wooden pieces of his bed frame and continued on hand carved boards made of their native jungle trees, until they met an Australian tourist who gifted them fifty proper boards to start a school for the kids of the community. Rules of the club are strict, based on social bounding and respect of the nature. With this, Tello wants to give kids “a reason to stay here and care for their territory” in a moment when young generations are fleeing to urban areas. Rare indeed are fresh graduates whose pride for their place turns into concrete and local initiatives, even though the municipal school proposes a program of eco-tourism and biodiversity.
Beyond the social urgency of creating opportunities, conservation is also at stake in a context where the civil conflict kept out the forces of industrial-scale environmental destruction. Criss-crossed with rivers, Choco’s dense rain forests host a variety of plants and fruits that have been used for centuries for subsistence and medical purposes by indigenous and afro communities. Drawing from this knowledge, locals are starting to put nature at the centre of responsible business plans, sustainable for both the society and the environment. “We failed to learn how to live with biodiversity, which indigenous did for thousands of years”, explains Brigitte Baptiste, the director of the Humboldt Institute, one of Colombia’s main research institute for biological resources.
As a response, an Embera community settled on the quiet bank of the Chori River, in Puerto Jagua, has converted a part of their wooden hamlet into a tourist ethno-village. The project, led by architect Juan Pablo Dorado, was conceived as an experience where ancestral knowledge and current techniques forge together. Such combination doesn’t come without pitfalls, traditional healers are very secretive and hold on to their medicine recipes while the community architect almost cancelled the project when Dorado contested Embera’s construction precepts. He doubted the angle of the roof, opposed the use of palm, and the community protested in outrage. In the end, the roof was elevated 3 meters to reach 7 meters, five types of palms were used, and the huts were recognized “Best Architectural piece in Colombia” in 2015 in an american contest.
“Politically, our informal education is not recognized, which is a shame because this ancestral knowledge could serve Western society”, the legal representative of the community, Julio Cesar Sanapi Sauza, explains. Despite a few elders who are “very radical”, as Sauza puts it, the community share their mythology and know-how with occasional visitors and invest the incomes into improvements for the community, such as the construction of a school. Women also invite guests to help with the cooking if they want to bring a taste of jungle back home.
In a few square meter lab in Quibdo, Choco’s capital city, Mabel Torres prepares another kind of ancestral mixture. Dressed with a white smock and singing out loud “La Bikina” – the famous Mexican song from the 60’s -, the bio-chemist follows hand-written instructions gathered on a school notebook to concoct a lotion of pipilongo (piper tuberculatum) that soothes skin problems and that she plans to include in her bio-cosmetic line, Selvaceutica. “I combine scientific knowledge with grandmother’s recipes”, she explains, digging in the shelves for a pan – on one side, ordinary kitchen utensils, pale blue strainer, yellow basin, rounded knife, wooden spoon and plastic containers of all size; on the other side, a variety of vials, flasks, bottles and tins filled with alcohol, oils and dry herbs. “Given Choco’s natural richness, bio-economy could be a model for the department”, she enthusiastically suggests. Before starting her cosmetic line, she was the director of BioInnova, an entity giving technical supports to local entrepreneurs wanting their activities centered around nature . “People just need to understand that a useful forest is well and alive .”
Laurence Cornet is a journalist and an independent photography curator. She splits her life between New York and Paris.
Laurence Cornet and Gaia Squarci were 2016 Adelante Latin America Reporting Fellows with the International Women’s Media Foundation – https://www.iwmf.org/programs/adelante/about-adelante/
Photographs by Gaia Squarci