Narratives from the Campoalegre watershed, where opportunity is scarce

Coffee production is the lifeblood of Colombia’s Campoalegre region, providing a primary source of income for the region’s inhabitants. Years of conflict, exacerbated by extreme income inequality and unequal distribution of arable land, harmed Indigenous communities and small coffee farmers. SEI researchers have worked in recent years to shed light on the region’s most marginalised residents in order to pave the way for improved access to safe drinking water and basic needs.

Campoalegre is located in one of the country’s most productive coffee regions, which includes the departments of Caldas and Risaralda. This watershed is home to approximately 270 000 people, the majority of whom work in coffee farming and related industries. Recent research on these residents’ inequalities discovered that those living in the most remote rural areas face the greatest barriers to accessing clean water in their homes and basic necessities like sewage, roads, communication, and the internet.

Coffee production is the most important agricultural output in the Campoalegre watershed, accounting for 24% of the watershed’s area and approximately 6% of Colombia’s coffee production. In 2019, the Campoalegre watershed produced 15 000 tonnes of coffee using both conventional and organic methods, satisfying both domestic and international demand.

SEI hopes to elevate underrepresented voices through the Latin America Poverty and Environment Narrative (PEN) by examining how social justice and gender equality can support environmental sustainability, with the idea that increasing equity and connecting residents to regional decision-making can improve current residents’ and future generations’ livelihoods.

The researchers identified marginalised communities by establishing a link between their lack of access to ecosystem services (such as safe drinking water) and their lack of power and influence over the decision-making processes that govern these factors. As a result of these power dynamics, disadvantaged populations are subject to changing socio-ecological conditions that are out of their control, which are exacerbated by climate change and other ecosystem vulnerabilities that affect their well-being and livelihood.

Researchers interviewed Indigenous groups and small coffee growers (farmers with less than 3 hectares of land) in collaboration with local social workers to gather narratives to inform policy. The study’s key findings indicate that marginalisation has a detrimental effect on access to basic needs, particularly for Indigenous peoples living on the Suratena and Altomira reservations in the municipality of Marsella, as well as small coffee growers. They are denied access to public services such as adequate school infrastructure, safe drinking water, and legal land use, and are at risk of natural disasters such as landslides.

Indigenous communities’ narratives
Altomira and Suratena reservations in Campoalegre share many similarities but differ in their approach to land tenure. The land is communally owned by the Suratena community. The land is private property for the Altomira community. The way land is perceived has an effect on how land and water are used for subsistence and production. The reservations use a large portion of their land for coffee production, but also for plantain and cocoa farming. These communities continue to struggle to ensure food security and sovereignty, owing in part to a lack of land ownership and access to resources such as fertilisers and cultivating seeds.

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