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Empowering rural youth in the Chocó by learning the methods of science in the context of sustainable, productive development of biodiversity

Building the foundation for a sustainable, vibrant, agriculture based economy in a biodiverse hotspot threatened by destructive forces

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Lead Applicant Organization Name

BIOINNOVA, el Centro Nacional de Ciencia, Tecnología e Innovación para el Desarrollo Sostenible de la Biodiversidad

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Researcher Institution

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

• FUNBICHOCÓ, Fundación para el Bienestar y Desarrollo del Chocó: Small NGO • Mujeres Campesinas de Yuto: Farmer Co-op • Bancos Comunitarios (24): Investment-based Organizations • Leonardo Duque: Professor, Bahá’í Institute of Higher Education BIHE , member of the Agriculture Working Group of the Association of Bahá’í Studies, ABS

Website of Legally Registered Entity

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 10+ years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?


Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?


Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?


What country is your selected Place located in?


Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

We have lived in this region of Colombia for decades. We have been in direct contact with these farmers and their families personally and professionally as youth volunteers, tutors, teachers, researchers, counselors and friends, working, as with a sincere motivation to improve individual and community wellbeing. We have served as intermediaries between funding agencies and local populations in need of services when the former accepted our proposals. We have celebrated small victories while watching with frustration a general decline whether caused by overpowering external forces, the inability of individuals and communities to modify self-destructive habits, or our own personal shortcomings. Some of the sweetest victories have come from small projects funded with our own resources. Some of us, out of fear for the safety of our families, took refuge in another country for a period of time, struggling to learn new ways while also serving as good “ambassadors”, and returning when conditions allowed.

Through a diversity of activities and projects, directly or indirectly related to food systems, we build knowledge by learning, applying, creating, and sharing. This knowledge, both universal and particular to the Chocó, becomes our principle instrument for progress. Solutions to the problems of production and distribution of wealth must begin with the farmer because of the centrality of the role they play. Recently we cooperated with a professor of plant sciences at the University of California Davis and her graduate student in organizing workshops with farmers and undergraduate students on diagnosing and mitigating post-harvest losses. At least nine of the approximately 30 green industry initiatives accompanied by BIOINNOVA directly involve food systems.

 Chocó is our home and we want to live in peace and prosperity and to shed our light on the rest of the world.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

From your window seat on the flight to Quibdó you see a stark transition as you cross the Western Range of the Andes into the dense vegetation of the rain forest. It looks primeval in stark contrast to the humanly intervened eastern slopes. Thanks to the interaction of the Western Range the Andes with the water laden air currents generated by the Intertropical Convergence Zone it rains more in the Chocó than any other place on earth. This abundant and constant rainfall, combined with a temperature almost always between 25 and 31 C, a respectable irradiance and varied topography makes the Chocó an area extremely dense in biological diversity, greater than the Amazon for kilometer squared.

About 85% of the population of the Chocó descend from slaves brought from Africa starting at the end of the 17th century. They speak Spanish although still with a scattering of words of African origin. Another 12% of the population belongs to one of two indigenous groups: the Embera and the Wounaan, each with its own language, many still living on their reservations. The remaining 3% are mestizo, or white as they are called, and engage largely in business and commerce.

In the 1980s two thirds of the population of Chocó still derived its living, directly or indirectly, from alluvial gold and platinum mining as it had for nearly three hundred years. Today that number has declined enormously. Mining continues but the methods have changed, now requiring heavy machinery and large investment. Men and women aspire to hold government positions. Yet the unemployment in Quibdó is the highest in Colombia.

The men from the Chocó have a long tradition of polygyny, a legacy of a time when in order to survive they dedicated part of each year to different activities, each in a different location. It was convenient to have a home and a wife in each location. Although for the majority this situation no longer prevails, the tradition continues.

The musaceae dominate the agriculture in the Chocó followed by rice, corn, cassava, Colocasia spp, and a variety of tropical fruits. The food of the Chocó is rich and varied. My favorite is pacó soup (Cespedesia spathulata). Fish and musaceae dominate the cuisine. We like to fry our food because it saves time. We eat salty food which impacts negatively our health, particularly of men who also have a predisposition to cardiovascular diseases.

The flight of Blacks from the goldmining region during slavery and again with the liberation of the slaves led to a rich agricultural tradition and a period of close collaboration with the indigenous groups, including intermarriage.

The Chocó has a high fertility rate and a high emigration rate with a net slow growth. The rural population continued to grow until the mid 1990’s when waves of forced displacement devastated the rural population and continue to devastate it today.

Although before most of the youth aspired to study and get a good job, now those for whom these doors have closed aspire to join a gang that will protect them. The older ones aspire to become the leader of the gang which they believe will give them status, power, wealth but all too frequently brings jail or death.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)


What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?


Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

By far the greatest challenge our food system faces is individualism and selfishness. The model imposed from outside feeds this challenge, and a generous environment has allowed us to delay facing it. It will continue to challenge us through 2050 although the mask it wears may change.

At least three interrelated factors weigh heavily on the imagination and the physical reality of food systems in the Chocó. They are not unique to the Chocó, but its history and present reality make it particularly susceptible: 1. The gross distorting pressure applied to farming and the entire region by the cocaine industry, 2. The inhumanly barbarous pressure applied to farmers in the Chocó to abandon land they have worked for many generations by armed groups competing with each other for power and riches, and 3. The forced application of unsustainable agro-forestry-industrial models. Together they work to endanger the survival of traditional farming knowledge and the agricultural vocation of the people of the Chocó.

Historical, physical, psychological, social, cultural and ethnic barriers exist that conspire to isolate the Chocó from the rest of Colombia. Only two roads, both incompletely paved and subject to frequent landslides, connect the interior of the country with the gold and platinum mining area; no road in the Chocó reaches all the way to the Pacific Coast. Despite valiant efforts in the past, the Chocó has practically no industry, depending economically entirely on the extraction of natural resources and state investment and employment. Agricultural activity employs practically no artificial fertilizer and little pesticide or herbicide. Much of the agricultural activity takes place on dikes built up by the rivers and subject to erosion when cleared for planting. Farming employs little technology and is generally carried out at the family level. Women play a significant role in agricultural production particularly near home. This goes largely unrecognized.

Beginning in the 1980’s international and national agencies have financed and carried out a series of programs for agricultural development in the Chocó. These have come and gone without leaving any significant change. Several have managed to temporarily increase production of promising crops followed by price collapse in an over-saturated, closed market. The failure to document learning from these projects is particularly frustrating.

The role of government at all levels and its ability to maintain social order are among the greatest uncertainties for the realization of our envisioned food system for 2050. In the past the government has been less than helpful in promoting positive change.

 Looking toward the middle of the century the pressure of immigration to the Chocó from regions in the interior of Colombia unable to produce sufficient food to support its people due to climate change is a likely and significant challenge.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Unless and until the centrality of social and cultural issues is recognized and addressed efforts based solely on technology will continue to fail to generate the desired lasting progress. Nor will solutions imposed from the outside succeed. Our vision will address the challenges of generating a healthy sustainable, dynamic food system for the Chocó through decisions made and actions carried out by the people of the Chocó themselves. Human resources originating from outside of the Chocó will collaborate with addressing the challenge to the degree that they recognize themselves as members of the community and act in accordance with its collective decision making process.

People do not generally change because you tell them to; they need self-motivation whether from reward or punishment. People paid to change frequently return to their previous behavior when payment runs out. However, a few people in any group will generally try something new out of curiosity, suspicion that it might work, or belief. Their examples, often in something as simple as erosion control, serve as the seeds for change. This all implies the application of a functional system of cyclic planning, execution, observation, and evaluation.

Little can be done at the local level about the cocaine business, forced internal displacement or the implementation of destructive agro-industrial models. At best we can demonstrate viable alternatives. Even that under the current circumstance can be dangerous.

The extremely low level of agro-chemical usage and the lack of agro-industries is a challenge that we might consider an advantage. At least there is no entrenched self-interest in a given technique or product to reject and no infrastructure to abandon. We have a relatively clean slate to write upon and on which even small positive changes brought about by sound agro-ecological practices draw the attention of the farmer. Synthetic chemicals which might easily have produced similar small improvements do not appear.

As mentioned elsewhere, we have historically worked mostly with women without ever excluding men. Several of the community banks have chosen to accept only women members but by their own choice and not at any instigation on our behalf as friends, trainers and counselors. This strategy has served us well as many people, both men and women, have noticed the transformation of their neighbors and friends into true leaders. We intend to continue using this approach in the coming years as we work to reach our food system vision with gender equity.

The general approach we employ in our work is called participatory, action, research (PAR) in academic literature. We believe we have tempered it with an outlook that encourages individual values such as trust, empathy and generosity, all carried out in an environment of social justice. We have chosen to work with PAR because we believe that it reflects the way communities work at their best and because it give positive results.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

Agriculture will continue to form the firm base of the economy of the Chocó.

Unlike the present, this agriculture will satisfy the needs of the people of the Chocó, and it will export production, especially of high valued products, that exceeds the regional need to the interior of the country and internationally, providing the means for the purchase of goods and services not produced regionally.

The formal system of education will provide a strong foundation in science, drawing extensively on local examples of local problems, past and present. Youth will have ample opportunities for practical learning by accompanying local enterprises in short apprenticeships. Those newly employed will receive training in new and promising applications according to the needs of their businesses and their personal aspirations.

Community leaders will direct attention to enterprises that transform local agricultural goods into products with added value. Events of all sorts will provide opportunities for informal education. National and international events, especially of culture and science, will provide opportunities for youth to learn about the outside world. Farming populations will form Village Exchanges to fulfill collective needs and foster sustainable growth.

Even more important than the physical, administrative and economic changes, the development of a collective identity and self-confidence will have far-reaching consequences. To mention just a few: 1. the ability to elect representatives who will best carry out the interests of the community, 2. the capacity to interact with large economic interests on a level playing field, 3. the wisdom to deal with problems at an appropriate level as they arise, and 4. the ability to make long term plans to solve difficult and expensive problems and carry them out with satisfaction.

Strong and reliable local organs of governance foster the appearance of such organs at higher levels. We learn from mistakes and move ahead.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

The vision describe here is more that of a pathway than that of a final destination. As the models for climate change teach us, it is difficult to get a clear image of the physical state of the world in ten year, much less in thirty, even when we know the values of the inputs. The difficulty rises exponentially when we include social variables and their interactions. While the end cannot be seen with absolute clarity, there are certain ground rules that when generally accepted and applied, increase the probability of reaching a happy ending, even when we do not know all the details.

Without denying that agriculture forms the firm bases our society and as such deserves special attention, food systems exist in a rich mesh of human activities and, as such, cannot be fruitfully treated in complete isolation. Our vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for the Chocó comes richly intertwined with other human activities such as art, music, tourism, manufacturing, banking, and the desire to know and to dream. The following example comes from an area of the Chocó where nature tourism has taken root. It is all right for “tourists” (birders, development workers, nature enthusiasts, ecologists, retired capitalists, and privileged youth) to come the Chocó thinking that they are going to see a quaint version of the under-developed past when in reality what they witness is a foretaste of the future. The initial and even the final mindset of the visitor matters much less than the fact that those who guide them, who give them a glimpse of a different life style, are confident, educated men and women who have taken responsibility for themselves and their communities; who are effectively building a new world.

The puzzle is complex: complex in the sense that it has hundreds of thousands of moving pieces. An important part of its beauty lies in its apparent simplicity underpinned by an almost unimaginable complexity. Take for example the nature tourism that has taken root on the coast of Nuquí and, to a lesser extent, Bahá’í Solano (two municipalities of the Chocó). The tourists eat food grown locally and caught from the sea. They may purchase locally made handicrafts, take outings to visit the mangrove swamps, see the birds and  the lizards in their natural setting, enjoy the waterfalls and learn some local history. The pilot of the boat that takes you from the airport to the beach may be a university graduate with an honor’s thesis on alternative crops; the administrator of the cabins you stay in could be an entrepreneur developing a candy business based on locally produced cane syrup, ginger and coconut. Your cook could be a musical artist with a rich repertoire based on local legend, the women who changes your sheets a biotechnologist trained by the National Work Training Service. Tourism is a business fraught with perils but which offers moments of opportunity for education.

We note the gentle but firm disapproval of the guide when a visitor picks a coral from a submerged rock as a souvenir. We see him retrieve a liquor bottle left by an earlier visitor and carry it for the rest of the outing until he reaches home. This is not a society that we feel sorry for such that we leave a tip to assuage our guilt for our wealth but rather out of respect.

The future of the Chocó depends on the sustainable development of its biodiversity. Take for example the achiote tree (Bixa orellana) as an example. It produces   a widely used “organic” orange-red food coloring known as annatto, a name found on the ingredients list of many products on the supermarket shelves around the world. It is a promising crop for the Chocó presently experiencing over production. What does it take to turn this from its current status as a cottage industry into a profitable and growing industry for the Chocó? It will take scaling up from its present status to a small industrial extraction plant, a broad and profound market study, environmental impact studies, a leap of faith by a group of interested entrepreneurs that might include farmers, transporters, processors, administrators and marketers, in addition to a host of agency licenses and permissions.

In the near future the Chocó needs fifty such prospective crops of which thirty might merit detailed studies; twenty generate business initiatives; and of which 18 survive their first year. The first step is relatively easy to achieve; each of the successive steps is increasingly difficult.

The goal is to listen to every voice and to consider every proposition. It makes people feel respected and valued even when the final decision does not favor their ideas. Decisions concerning significant growth in production, processing and marketing should err on the side of caution. Exclusive focus on maximizing profit makes it difficult to delay taking such actions, but when all agree on prioritizing the maximization of well-being it makes it easier to exercise caution, to delay what might make a big profit, knowing that others will also not cut corners. When a higher profit margin depends on marketing ecologically and socially gentler procedures this reduces the possibility that a few individuals will take actions that prejudices the collective interest.

The future agricultural based society of the Chocó will strengthen itself in its ability for self-subsistence. This means that farmers will continue to grow a variety of musaceaes, which will satisfy regional demand, a large number of tropical fruits, and corn, rice and cassava.

In 2013, after working with micro-credit for nearly six years, FUNBICHOCÓ introduced a new modality called “community banks”, what is known in the academic literature as “rotating savings and credit associations” (ROSCA) with an added component of values education and community building. As with all of FUNBICHOCÓ’s community building projects, a large majority of the bank members are women. The number of these “banks” has increased significantly (the recommended maximum number of members for each bank is 20) with several banks now managing capitals well over 120 million Colombian pesos (about $36,000 US dollars). Although only about half of the activities of the bank members are directly related to food systems, we believe that the community banks have solved the problem of access to credit for small food system businesses. This contradicts two widely held myths concerning the people of the Chocó: 1. that they are not capable of saving, and 2. that they are not capable of working together.

Having collectivized saving and credit through community banks, farmers will logically look to other activities which offer efficiencies through collective action and advantage of scale. Logic will lead them to two promising area in need of urgent attention: 1. the purchase of supplies (including seeds) and equipment, and 2. the storage, processing and marketing of produce. The formation of these collective services, which we might call community exchanges, in individual rural villages, will lead to the formation of an association of exchanges at a region level.

Other areas open to an association of exchanges might include, in no particular order: publicity; insurance, including crop failure insurance; promoting favorable legislation; and the financing and building of public infrastructure. Community exchanges and their association will count on having bye-laws, elected boards, employees, and full legal recognition under Colombia law.

Education and the generation of knowledge form the motor for social and economic progress. This education and fostering a curiosity about the world start from the earliest ages within the family at home. Primary school, in addition to teaching social skills for living together and the basic tools for learning, further encourages exploring, understanding and applying knowledge to the world around. After school hours communities will encourage 11 to 14 year-olds to form clubs that will strengthen academic performance, help shape the formation of strong personalities, and explore the area of community service with the accompaniment of older youth. At the secondary school level the Tutorial Learning System, developed by the Foundation for the Application and Teaching of Sciences over a period of twenty years working the northern part of the department of Cauca in Colombia, has proven itself most effective in the Chocó in integrating knowledge and service across disciplines and is available to those communities that choose to use it. Music, art, dance, poetry, literature, and sports will form an integral part of education at all levels. An local advisory committee with a membership reflecting the diversity of the community will assist the schools in their community.

The state government must provide free and universal access to the internet. In addition to the educational opportunities available through a disciplined use of the internet, it provides an abundance of information useful to farmers, from market prices in different areas, to weather projections, to fluid contact with interested buyers and sellers.

The role of research institutes will continue at least as long as long as the community deems them useful. They form an important link between the community and the outside academic world. At least in the case of the Chocó, BIOINNOVA offers the best option as intermediary between external academic and financing institutions and incipient local biodiversity businesses, especially in executing the urgently needed studies of promising crops including ecological, legal, biochemical, technical and economic investigations.

A community that satisfies its own needs has the potential to transform and improve all aspects of life. It will learn to effectively deal with threats both from inside and outside of the community.

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