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Powerful women face the climate crisis head on in Colombia

View original on UNDP Medium in English and UNDP Colombia in Spanish

In the lyrical Colombian village of Pasifueres music is in the air. Girls and boys compose songs from a young age. The lyrics show a passion for their region, La Mojana, and for their village that they’ve seen grow over the years.

One such singer is Jennys Jiménez, a passionate climate activist and community organizer whose songs about climate change are now being sung across her beloved La Mojana.

“Since I can remember, I’ve been singing. And yes, it’s cool that people are starting to recognize one of these songs because of the lyrics and verses, but my objective is that they get to know the Mojana region, and its efforts to adapt to climate change and build community resilience,” says Jennys.

Pasifueres is a small community of less than 1000 inhabitants. In 2010, the village flooded. Part of the problem was that the wetlands – which should have acted like a giant natural sponge during floods – were decimated. Agricultural production had left them bone dry and the waters were polluted. Without this natural buffer, lives and livelihoods were put at risk.

Jennys decided to do something about it. She became one of 115 rural climate change adaptation promoters through a local association of farmers, producers, rangers, aqua-culturalists and ecologists (known locally as ASOPASFU).

With support from the Reducing risk and vulnerability to climate change in the region of La Depresión Momposina in Colombia project, Jennys and her organization began the ecological restoration of 900 hectares of wetlands in the communities of Chinchorro, Cecilia y Mata de Caña. The project was implemented by the Colombian Ministry of Environment and Territorial Development and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) with the funding from the Adaptation Fund.

Nurseries were a fundamental tool in the restoration of the wetlands, with entire families participating in their care and maintenance.

It was truly a grassroots effort. The community organized itself to recover its wetlands. In less than a year, the ASOPASFU association had experts in horticulture, gathering native seeds, and the planting and maintenance of species they would use to restore ecological balance to the area.

What they built was nothing short of a rebirth of Eden. Working together as a community, they planted 5200 fruit and timber trees, a nature-based solution to respond to the impacts of the climate crisis.

The effects of climate change on La Mojana are severe. The income of its inhabitants is affected by the loss of crops as well as by large-scale changes to their ecosystems, which translate into increased flood risks and prolonged periods of drought that are putting the lives and livelihoods of smallholder farmers at risk. These pressures induced by climate change are weakening the already threatened water sources in the region, according to information from the Government of Colombia, affecting both the supply and quality of water that communities need to drink and water crops.

Women with the power of knowledge

Juana Madariaga is one of the restoration experts trained by the project. Along with her counterparts, she led the rehabilitation of the canals of Pasifueres, a huge challenge for the community. 

Juana Madariaga is one of the restoration experts hired through the project. Along with her counterparts, she led the rehabilitation of the canals of Pasifueres, a huge challenge for the community.

During the past decades, livestock activity and different state interventions to build local dams transformed the use and management of La Mojana’s canal systems – the Pasifueres canal was one of them.

The giant web of channels, rivers and canals that naturally irrigated La Mojana – and regulated the arrival and retreat of water – were blocked off, affecting the health of the wetlands, as well as the people who live here.

“We learned about everything. We received a lot of training and finally we were able to move this project forward. With this knowledge, we built the nurseries, the ecosystem restoration and the orchards. Now we are supporting other communities in doing the same thing,” says Juana Madariaga.

Since 2015, the people of Pasifueres, led by the women in their community, have seen big changes. Their 9.5-km canal is now alive and connected to two nearby swamps, permitting improved interchange and oxygenation of the water.

“Our wetlands restoration project isn’t just important for us. It also invites all levels of social organizations and the rural community to fight against the loss of forests that we suffer from in our country, as much from natural causes as for our own actions,” says Juana Madariaga.

Guardians of La Mojana

Women were a guiding force in the implementation of the project. In all, 3901 women from 44 communities in the area participated in the implementation of the project, which restored 900 hectares of wetlands and recovered 40.3 kilometers of canals, benefitting a total of 15,928 people.

At first, very few women took part in the meetings, but the consistency of the team and the conviction of the women changed the tides and generated lasting results.

“Here we work shoulder to shoulder, women and men. We have little land, but we learned to use it in a manner that gives us food in the winter and in the dry season, and fresh air with the trees we have planted,” says Jennifer, one of the many women leaders from Pasifueres.

In Pasifueres women seem to be affected disproportionately by climate change and its impacts on the intensification of poverty and vulnerability.

Even though they play a decisive role in agriculture labor and food security across the globe – and they have key knowledge regarding the sustainable use of soils, water, seeds and traditional medicine – women have less access than men to loans, training and land.

“The only thing one hopes for is that there be equality, that they recognize us as important thinkers within the society… we are women of the countryside and for that reason we are worthwhile,” says Jauna, another area leader.

Women with the power of organization

Now the women of Pasifueres face an even bigger challenge. Through a Green Climate Fund (GCF)-financed project on Scaling up Climate Resilient Water Management Practices for Vulnerable Communities in La Mojana, they will support women’s organizations in 11 other municipalities making use of locally produced information of local water resources (availability and quality) and innovative techniques for productive and household water management such as irrigation techniques, water collection, use of resilient native seeds. Local women will also serve as providers of these seeds making use of germination techniques developed through the AF program ensuring local economies and detonating new livelihood opportunities.

In all, the far-reaching project aims to benefit more than 400,000 people with improvement water management, early warning systems and climate resilient livelihoods. It puts sustainable ecosystem management at the leading edge of disaster risk reduction by promoting healthier watersheds, protecting communities from floods and supporting poor rural populations to overcome water scarcity during the prolonged dry seasons. This ecosystem-based approach will also work towards achieving Colombia's Nationally Determined Contributions to the Paris Agreement and Sustainable Development Goals for climate action.

“Here we all work, but most of all the women. Women have led the process and we have helped. Our lives have all changed with the recuperation of the canals and the energy that we now have in our community,” says Manuel Francisco Jiménez.

The women of La Mojana have always dreamed big and forced us to make these dreams a reality, even climate change isn’t too big for us, because moving forward, we will be the women of La Mojana.”

This is how Jennys’ song about the brave women on the frontlines of climate change ends.  As you walk through the village, you will hear girls and boys humming its tune. It is heard in houses and along the canals of a land brought back to life by women in charge of their own destiny.

Footnotes: Photos UNDP Colombia: Mauricio Enríquez, Nadia Rey Cobos, Angely Castaño. Translation Greg Benchwick.

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