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Narratives from the Campoalegre watershed, where opportunity is scarce

A history of income and land inequality has left the rural inhabitants and farmers of Colombia’s Campoalegre river basin short of basic services, sanitation, education and economic opportunity. SEI researchers aim to level the playing field for these residents by connecting them with the decision-makers who set the policies influencing their conditions.

Laura Forni, Tania Santos, Cláudia Coleoni / Published on 21 March 2022

Watch the people of Colombia’s Campoalegre river basin tell their stories. Video: Cúpula Films / SEI.

Coffee production is the heart of the Campoalegre region of Colombia, serving as a primary source of its people’s livelihood. Years of conflict, fueled by extreme income inequality and unequal distribution of arable land, created disadvantaged conditions for Indigenous communities and small coffee farmers. SEI researchers in recent years have worked to illuminate the inequalities among the region’s most marginalized residents to pave the way for better access to safe drinking water and basic needs.

Campoalegre is part of the country’s most important coffee districts, encompassing the departments of Caldas and Risaralda. About 270 000 people reside in this watershed, primarily engaged in coffee farming and related industries. Recent research on the inequalities of these residents found that those in the most remote rural areas suffer the greatest barriers to accessing clean water in their homes and basic needs such as sewage, roads, communication and the internet.

Coffee production in the Campoalegre watershed is the most important agricultural output, making up 24% of the watershed’s area and around 6% of Colombia’s coffee production. In 2019, the Campoalegre watershed produced 15 000 metric tons of coffee, both through traditional and organic production methods, meeting domestic and international demands alike.

With the Latin America Poverty and Environment Narrative, SEI hopes to elevate underrepresented voices by looking at how social justice and gender equality can support environmental sustainability, with the idea that improving equity and connecting residents to regional decision-making can improve the livelihoods of current residents and future generations.

Researchers identified marginalized communities by making the connection between lack of ecosystem services (such as safe drinking water) and their lack of power and influence in the decision-making that controls these factors.  Because of these power dynamics, disadvantaged populations are subject to changing socio-ecological conditions beyond their control, exacerbated by climate change and other ecosystem vulnerabilities that affect their well-being and livelihood.

Together with local social workers, researchers interviewed Indigenous groups and small coffee growers (farmers with property sizes of less than three hectares) to share their narratives as data to inform policies. Key findings of this study indicate that marginalization affects access to basic needs, particularly among the Indigenous Peoples of the Suratena and Altomira reservations of the municipality of Marsella and small coffee growers. They are excluded from public services, such as adequate school infrastructure, home water supply and legal use of land, and are exposed to natural disasters such as landslides.

Hand holding pile of raw white coffee beans

Coffee growing is the principal agricultural crop in Colombia’s Campoalegre watershed, where indigenous residents and farmers suffer a lack of access to basic public services. Screenshot: Cúpula Films / SEI.

Narratives from Indigenous communities

The Campoalegre’s Altomira and Suratena reservations share many similarities, but differ in how they treat land tenure. For the Suratena community, the land is a common, collective property owned by the reservation. For the Altomira community, the land is individual property. The way land is considered influences the way land and water are used for subsistence and productive purposes. A large portion of the land in the reservations is used for coffee production, but also for plantain and cocoa farming. These communities still struggle to guarantee their food security and food sovereignty, especially due to the lack of land ownership and access to resources such as fertilizers and seeds to cultivate.

We do not have our own housing, we share common goods among the whole community. Everything is part of a common good, (such as) the land, which is given to you. Let's say I am going to give you so many hectares, but it is a common good, you cannot sell it, you cannot do business with it.

Edison Zapata, 33, Suratena Reserve

I would like to have my own piece of land, where I could cultivate plantains, knowing that I own this land and everything derived from it. Since I do not owe a piece of land, I know there is a risk that someone will come and claim the land, where I am as 'theirs'. We are not free from this risk. In fact, I think it is unlikely that we can own a land of our own.

Luisa Fernanda Niaza, 28, Altomira Reserve

Despite the production of coffee and other crops, the conditions and quality of life of these families are limited by not having decent secure housing and sufficient spaces for family members, with overcrowded spaces that create vulnerability to sexual abuse. It is common to cook with a wood stove. Septic tanks generate an environmental problem by overflowing their capacity, as is the burning and felling of trees for cooking.

In terms of health, it is normal to suffer from stomach problems because the water is not treated. A few people boil the water, but most people drink it without boiling it.

Edison Zapata, 33, Suratena Reserve

Narratives from small coffee growers

In the Campoalegre watershed, 57% of the families live on 8% of the land. Coffee production, as the main activity, drives a cultural landscape that revolves around coffee growing. This activity socially and economically impacts family life, not only in the way they live and interact culturally, but also in economic fluctuations, making them vulnerable to changes in the climate and the cost of supplies.

Based on the interviews with SEI, most of the stakeholders agree that public policies and poor education access result in a dearth of economic opportunity, resulting in an aging active farming population, demotivation and migration of the young population to the city.

Young people to work are already scarce. Here, Don Alberto, who is 72 years old, works for us, but we do not see young people looking for work. They prefer to be security guards, car drivers or take other jobs that do not have to do with working the land.

Alvaro Idarraga, 58

Small coffee growers lack access to land because farmers divide their land in parcels to their children and the properties are shrinking. The big coffee growers, meanwhile, are buying more land and diversifying the crops to avocado and other products. The cost of land and associated expenses is high, and legal processes complicated, for the average small farmer. If the coffee growers do not own land, they cannot access credit and other financial benefits.

There is a lot of diversity here. There are some with a lot of money. They own large farms, and their income does not come from coffee, it comes from other businesses, commerce, industry, from other different things. But if I look at the small coffee growers, all their basic needs are unsatisfied. … I have a neighbor who does not even have water, he has to go to fetch water from far away. Education for his children is deficient, if not non-existent, because the quality of education is very bad.

Susana Agudelo, 51

Residents also suffer a lack of household sanitation and garbage collection. This not only damages quality of life, but also generates health problems in the population and environmental pollution, based on the interviews. For instance, the Campoalegre River contains high concentrations of arsenic.

One problem is the water that comes from the Campoalegre River. It is untreated. It is quite bad. Untreated water is one of the causes of health problems, it arrives very contaminated with mud. The problem is the lack of sedimentation tanks. ... So you have to boil the water even to mop.

Álvaro Idarraga, 58

Policy implications and next steps

The SEI Initiative on Gender Equality, Social Equity and Poverty (GESEP) examined the power dynamics and decision-making influence of actors affected by Colombia’s Watershed Management and Ordination Plans (POMCA), the main environmental decision-making body in the area. The work showed that current land use policies and water access in the Campoalegre watershed particularly marginalize small-scale coffee farmers and Indigenous people, pushing them further into poverty. The GESEP Initiative will support POMCA’s decision-making process in ways that incorporate the voices of the region’s Indigenous peoples and other disadvantaged groups.

The information gathered in these communities allows us to understand some of the phenomena in the region, such as the migration of young people from the countryside to the cities in search of new opportunities. The lack of economic opportunities and basic services such as education, health, the internet and access roads spurs the city-bound migrations prevalent in this and other territories in Colombia, imperiling the long-term viability of small farms.

The lack of basic services makes it difficult for rural residents to participate in decision-making processes that could improve their current conditions, and therefore their needs are not reflected in the policies and services that affect them. Policies involving participatory processes should consider these difficulties and actively solicit the input of these communities to deploy creative strategies that allow the most vulnerable to be heard by people in power.

The next step of SEI’s work is to advocate for including these communities in the policy-related participatory processes and territorial planning in order to achieve improved access to good quality water, roads, the internet, health and education, improving their living conditions. We hope our work highlights the needs of marginalized communities and the importance of inclusive participation in environment- and water-related policy processes.

Written by

Laura Forni

Water Program Director


Tania Santos

Research Fellow

SEI Latin America

Cláudia Coleoni

Research Associate

SEI Latin America

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