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Sowing resilience: How Colombia's Indigenous Peoples adapt to climate change

Photo credit: FAO SCALA Colombia

Indigenous People’s ancestral traditional knowledge is deeply rooted in our planet and can serve as a guide to overcoming climate challenges. Representing 6.2 percent of the global population across 90 countries and inhabiting a quarter of the world's land, Indigenous people have developed effective agricultural practices and a deep understanding of their territories and resources. This knowledge has allowed them to adapt to extreme environmental changes over generations, making their expertise invaluable in implementing more sustainable food systems to effectively confront climate change.

In Latin America, indigenous groups account for 35 percent of the region's forest area, mostly in Argentina, Brazil, the Plurinational State of Bolivia, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, and the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Colombia, in particular, has a rich diversity of 102 indigenous peoples, who collectively manage an extensive area of 32.1 million hectares within the country. These communities play a vital role in agriculture, leveraging their traditional knowledge and practices, despite climate change impacts such as rising temperatures and extreme rainfall, affecting highland areas with ecosystem degradation, water scarcity, and floods.

Among the indigenous community are the “Wayúu” people of the Ipasharain, Kaushalain, and Tekia communities in “La Guajira” department, who rely on cultivating the guajiro bean (Vigna unguiculata) as a way to adapt to changing climate patterns. For them, cultivating the guajiro bean serves as more than just a means of survival; it is an integral part of their culture, connecting them to their land, traditions, and resilience in a changing world making it essential for sustaining their way of life.

Guajiro bean cultivation: The Wayúu community's path to adaptation

The guajiro bean, cultivated over generations, has naturally evolved to withstand the hot and dry climate of the 'La Guajira' department, making it inherently adaptive to drought conditions. With climate change leading to more frequent and severe droughts, the beans' resilience becomes increasingly vital, providing a reliable source of sustenance during times of water scarcity.

Throughout generations, Wayúu women's wisdom has guided their families in consuming these legumes and preserving their seeds, even during challenging times like droughts or floods. Traditionally, the cultivation of guajiro beans aligned with the natural cycles of the rainy and drought seasons. However, climate change has introduced variations and intensified these cycles, prompting the Wayúu people to adapt their practices accordingly.

The women of the Epinayu clan, members of the Kaushalain community expressed, "The Wayúu woman with the highest rank in the house selects the seeds and keeps the largest ones in glass jars for the next sowing. She always has seeds throughout the year, and even if it doesn't rain, the seeds are there, waiting for the rain to be sowed”. 

The guajiro bean's unique growth cycle is another key aspect of its adaptation significance. The Wayúu people follow a well-defined planting schedule, yielding their first harvest within three months and then being able to harvest beans every month for up to eight months. This resilience allows them to maintain a steady food supply despite unpredictable weather patterns. The entire community actively participates in this process, with family and neighbors coming together to plant and grow the beans.

To further enhance their agricultural resilience, Wayúu communities have embraced new practices, such as using water reservoirs (jagüey) to support guajiro bean cultivation. The women’s leader of the Epinayu clan, members of the Kaushalain community expressed, "We had to wait for the rainy season to sow, it was very difficult without a ‘jagüey’. In the time of our grandparents, we waited for the rainy season, but now that we have water in wells, there's no need to wait for rain”. This change in their water harvesting methods has allowed them to be more flexible in their planting schedule.

In recent years, Wayúu communities have also adopted vegetable gardens, known as "Apain," alongside their traditional practices. These gardens not only strengthen their adaptive capacities but also preserve their culture and traditional products. The unique aspects of Apain, which appear in their dreams, offer guidance and inspiration for cultivating guajiro beans, maize, pumpkin, and other easily storable foods, helping them decide where and when to plant.

Beyond its agriculture importance, the guajiro bean holds cultural significance as well. Wayúu people rely on their dreams and premonitions to prepare treatments with medicinal plants, including the guajiro bean, to safeguard the health of their loved ones. These dream-revealed diets serve as a guide during critical times, ensuring the community's well-being.

A steady harvest of beans from their garden allows them to improve the quality of life in their community by exchanging or selling surplus produce, enabling them to obtain other essential commodities. In times of economic crises, when employment opportunities are scarce, the guajiro bean becomes a lifeline, securing the community's sustenance.

Furthermore, sowing guajiro beans holds deep social significance for the Wayúu people. Through "Paiwashi," their traditional community gatherings to sow, members cook delightful dishes like "Shapulana" and "Apoijushii"- bean soups enriched with wild cucumber, pumpkin, corn, and goat fat. These cherished recipes not only nourish their bodies but also strengthen their social fabric, fostering unity and food security in the face of climate change challenges.


SCALA programme: Incorporating traditional knowledge in the effort to strengthen climate resilience

The cultivation of guajiro beans by the Wayúu people is one of 15 traditional practices across various regions of Colombia that is being documented in the initiative “Traditional Territorial Practices and Techniques” for adaptation. This effort, which is part of the FAO-UNDP SCALA programme in Colombia, aims to document and systematize important traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples and other groups for climate change adaptation in agriculture, while also strengthening community adaptation processes.

The initiative embraces Colombia's cultural diversity to foster a network of adaptive practices and dialogues within the territories including the diverse areas of interaction of communities within their respective macro-regions: Caribbean, Pacific, Andes, Orinoquia, and Amazonia. It also encourages other communities to learn from and share their knowledge.

To achieve these goals, SCALA makes use of a participatory methodology known as "Adaptation Dialogues". This approach presents opportunities to rethink and rediscover ways to respond to climate change, recognizing the value of traditional practices and techniques as strategies for filling knowledge gaps in the agricultural sector. SCALA supports the integration of traditional knowledge originating from multiple territories into national action (such as nationally determined contributions and National Adaptation Plans) and strengthens the connections between policy frameworks and local communities, paving the way for the implementation of climate adaptation strategies that incorporate traditional knowledge. 

By systematizing practices across diverse macro-regions of Colombia, SCALA aims to generate strategies and dissemination tools that will facilitate effective knowledge sharing in the future. Through this approach, communities will be empowered with valuable knowledge and successful practices, making them better equipped to respond and recover from climate-related challenges and fostering a culture of resilience throughout the nation.


Learn more about SCALA Colombia’s activities here.