While travelling through Upper Andágueda Indian Reservation in the Municipality of Bagadó in Choco – Colombia, it’s easy to realize that everything is different here. Instead of large paved roads, there are small dirt paths making their way through the mountains and jungle, surrounded by lush vegetation and running through small rivers and streams. Where the river is mighty enough, you walk over weak suspended bridges that sway as men, women, children, horses and mules cross them.
Nothing can be heard. At least not what you usually hear elsewhere. The sound of nature seems amplified; the wind, rain and insects. Sometimes you can hear the voices of other people travelling across the mountain by mule, warning others as they take turns on the narrowest parts of its winding path. It’s a long and difficult journey for any who have not grown up in the area, but when you finally reach the top of the mountain, the landscape of Andágueda is a reward for the senses. While I was walking through the narrow and steep trails, I kept wondering how these people could transport anything, such as the materials and supplies needed to build their homes.
After six hours of walking through the mountains there was Aguasal. The first thing you see in the distance is a large school and a church that seem out of place given the landscape. How did they get all the material here to build those? We take a short break, freshen up and keep trekking. We have yet to reach Bajo Curripipí. After another two hours I can finally make out some of the houses and see the community hard at work. As I get closer, I can hear music and see some activity. It isn’t common for the community to receive visitors, though it quickly becomes apparent that the people accompanying me know everyone in the community very well. They are treated with affection, like family. The Embera Katío community receives me with open arms and offers me a drink.
Everyone gathers in the village centre to listen attentively. The women stay close together with their children. The men also group together. They are the ones who participate, asking questions and getting everything into motion. The women don’t say much but listen attentively. They wear colorful dresses and look happy as they listen to the music in the background.
A group of women return with Christian, an FAO Chief who has been working with the community over the past few months and sharing knowledge on food preparation. They are preparing a lunch for everyone. The men take me to see the Demonstration and Training Centre that they have built with help from FAO technicians, who have been with them over the past ten months and have been helping the community use different farming techniques to produce a variety of food in areas close to the village.
Evelio Pepé is the community’s teacher and also acts as a guide. He proudly shows me the community garden, which they refer to as the Demonstration and Training Centre. Everything is organized and labeled. Unlike other community gardens I’ve seen, this one is not fenced in by wire or mesh, but instead by bamboo. Evelio’s tour begins with the composting area. He explains that the women are responsible for carrying the food waste from the kitchen and it is then used to make fertilizers, with some river sand ash. The community is resourceful and tries to use what is available in its surroundings.
Next he shows me the seed nursery where they have pineapple, guama, avocado and peach seeds. He talks about the varieties of fruits and vegetables that they’ve learned to grow and incorporated into their diets. “This seed nursery allows us to sow seeds from nearby farms, because sometimes with the armed conflict, and the shelling… the idea is to have a variety of crop seeds here, because there were times when the conflict kept us from getting seeds or food and we were not eating,” Evelio says. After a brief silence he shows me the rooftops where they grow onion, basil, cilantro, radish, squash, tomato and a variety of beans. Evelio enthusiastically explains different ways they can be prepared and recommends using many of the ingredients in a stew.
I notice they have dug ditches out around the crops, a method they use to avoid flooding. Evelio explains that many of their crops were being damaged by excessive amounts of water and that an FAO teacher, Erika, taught them this technique to avoid damages to the crops and seeds.
We leave the community garden and Sebastiana is waiting for us. She works as a health aide in the community. She takes me to the other side of the garden where a clean stream of water flows down from the mountain. She explains how now it wasn’t clean before, “everyone would bathe here before, but Omaira explained we shouldn’t do that because it contaminated the water that then flowed down to the houses. The children were getting sick, so the community agreed, the women discussed it and we cleaned everything… picked up and buried the bottles and cans, composted the banana peels that littered the area, got rid of the rest of the trash and now we all bathe on the other side”. She seems happy with the results.
We go back down to the centre, where everyone is gathered. They dance, sing and wait for a group of women to finish up cooking. They are in the middle of a celebration. Above you can see a banner that reads, “Knowledge Share Fair – food within our reach”. I see small tents with thatched roofs, each exhibits different products. I walk around looking at them and some of the men in the community show me what they have on their tables. They look like traditional corn preparations that have been improved by also adding different vegetables – those they’ve recently learned to cultivate.
Finally, we get called to lunch. Everyone lines up for a generous plate of stew, with a heaping side of vegetables, rice and banana – which is always a must. Families gather to eat, happily enjoying the result of their hard work. It’s been a long journey to be able to talk to these people, who are celebrating many achievements today. They have built a community garden and a fish pond, decontaminated their water stream, learned new techniques for growing and preparing fruits and vegetable that they are incorporating in their diets. They have also made new friends, Christian, Erika, Lener, Nicanor, Servando and Cleyir are FAO technicians that came to help this community with funding from the European Commission’s Department for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection.
In Upper Andágueda, the notion of time and distance is different. Everything happens more slowly here, perhaps because everything is so far away. Visiting a relative in another village can mean two or three hours of walking, taking a sick person to a car can take hours, or even days, all while exposed to the perils of living surrounded by armed groups and constant conflict. Now I understand why the sign read, “food within our reach”. It is a simple phrase that sums up a large achievement – one that is celebrated by the communities tucked away in the Bagadó Municipality.