By Solen Lees*

Wilson Ladino and Luz Marina Potes

Today’s meeting is in a restaurant La Gallina Turuleka with a beautiful view of the valley in which lies nestled the municipality of Roldanillo. I have travelled here with Ana Elvia Arana and two of the volunteers, Clara Rust and Adrian Chapleau (see Episode 1!). We set off from the bus station in Cali at 6am and get to the Gallina a couple of hours later, just as members of the community and local authorities start to arrive.

As the people gathered here to meet us introduce themselves and explain what their committee is all about, Clara is filming and I am interpreting as best I can. I’m not sure that everything I say makes sense. I also keep realising that there is a lot more to Tropico’s work than I thought before I came.

If this is demanding for me, it is even more so for Clara, who is only just learning Spanish and has the additional challenge of making sense of it all as she is shooting the video designed to showcase Tropico’s work.

So please bear with me and I will try to explain!

Laura Daniela Morales from the agricultural and environment secretariat of Roldanillo

A multitude of stakeholders from different organisations including Fundacion Tropico, have all joined together to create and maintain a protected area. They carry out different projects with the aim of protecting the environment of the area, while ensuring the people who live here sustain a livelihood.

The three municipalities of Roldanillo, La Unión y Toro are all located in an area of tropical dry forest in the Valle del Cauca to the north of Cali. Fundación Trópico was the driving force behind a process that got this area officially declared a protected area, meaning that no mining or other resource extraction activities that could damage this vulnerable environment are now permitted. This process and awareness-raising about the status of the area is set out in a strategy which Tropico was instrumental in drawing up. It protects 10,840 hectares of dry ecosystem, considered the most vulnerable in the country. This project belongs to a wider strategy that aims to guarantee biodiversity in the Department (State) as well as offer ecosystem services such as the provision of water for its 4 million plus inhabitants and for the fishing and agriculture sector.

The people round the table talk about the projects they are doing or would like to do. A major desire is to exploit the growing numbers of foreign visitors to Colombia by setting up eco-tourism projects. Another idea is to save indigenous seeds of plants that are in danger of extinction and replant them in the forest.

Don Wilson Ladino is the main proponent of this idea. He has been collecting seeds for many years and his vision is to establish a nursery where the plants can grow big enough to be replanted where they belong, thus restoring the natural biodiversity of the zone. He talks passionately about this project; several other people from the community are willing to help him. The stumbling block? It’s the same story over again: money – for the basic equipment needed.

Trópico fundraises for individual projects like this but there is a limit to what it can do. SDIA is looking for ways to support Trópico by identifying funding sources we can jointly apply to.

After a delicious meal courtesy La Gallina Turuleka, we are invited to visit Wilson and Luz Marina’s smallholding just next door. This is eye-opening! We discover a small paradise full of wonderful plants: avocado, lemon, banana and other fruit trees, manioc, sugar cane, herbs, vegetables and flowers; as well as butterflies, birds, chickens and the biggest cockerel I have ever seen. It is all produced organically in a way which people here call agro-ecología.

Astonishingly, Wilson also seems to have the makings of a small archaeological museum here. We admire the large stone bowl-like objects at the side of his house, and he tells us that they are ancient indigenous recipients he found buried in the earth when he was helping dig the holes for electricity posts. He then begins to-ing and fro-ing from his house with various other artefacts – tools and figurines – that he says are of indigenous origin from pre-Colombian times. We watch open-mouthed as he produces more and more treasures from what looks like an old fertiliser bag…

Soon it is time to travel back to Cali. Feeling immensely privileged to have met so many committed, interesting and passionate people, we make our way back to Roldanillo’s bus station. It is certainly a fascinating process to be learning more and more about this amazing and complex project and the diversity of the ways it is serving communities and protecting the environment.

*Solen is a member of the SDIA staff who is currently visiting Colombia to catch up with our member projects there, and particularly to Fundación Trópico with its volunteer and other programmes. This is episode one of a short series of field diaries – so watch this space!