Facing the FARC (1)

With the Colombian government in lengthy talks with the FARC guerrilla group, among the horrors inflicted by the decades of fighting there have also been some examples of inspirational leadership to protect the environment. This is the first of three mini-profiles.

María Concepción ‘Conchita’ Matabanchoy Palacios, 54, was the eldest of ten children from a peasant family in the department of Nariño in the south of Colombia. Like many peasant families in Colombia, ‘Conchita’s had to make their livelihood from clearing the forest for timber and charcoal. When she was eighteen ‘Conchita’ married Edmundo Castro, today having six children and seven grandchildren.

In 1986 ‘Conchita’ formed a credit fund with other peasant women from the area: the objective was to provide financial support to families for the establishment of small productive projects that could improve the families’ livelihoods. This initiative had a very positive and quick response among the local community, and quickly more families began to participate.

In 1992 ‘Conchita’ founded along other peasant families the Nature Reserves Network of La Cocha: this was the first time in Colombia that a group of peasants that used to plunder the forest decided instead to conserve the forest. This initiative was the first step towards creating, years later, the Colombian Network of Civil Society Nature Reserves (RESNATUR), an organization in charge of coordinating the conservation efforts of key ecosystems by private stakeholders.

Six years later the Colombian armed conflict affected ‘Conchita’s organization as one of the leaders, Eusberto Jojoa, was murdered by illegal armed groups in his reserve. As a result, many of the leaders of the organization, including ‘Conchita’, decided to leave the area due to security concerns. Instead she spent one year travelling around Colombia sharing her experiences which helped her to realize of the need to expand the proposal of peasant families conserving forest to the national level.

In 2000, ‘Conchita’s organization faced a new challenge: the Guamués infrastructure project to build a dam to bring water and electricity to mayor cities and municipalities in the area. The dam would have had a major ecological impact on one of Colombia’s most important biospheres and members of ‘Conchita’s’ organisation formed a citizen oversight group to fight the plan: in 2002, the project’s environmental license was denied by the Colombian Ministry of Environment.

‘Conchita’s’ work has been recognized in Colombia and internationally; she been invited to different countries to share her experience, including in 1998 when Manfred Maxneef, who received the 1983 Right Livelihood Award for his work and writing on ‘Barefoot Economics’, invited ‘Conchita’ to Chile as the main speaker at a workshop on Human Scale Development.

Today, Conchita still works as a Food Security and Biodiversity Conservation Advisor with the Peasant Development Association; she has also led to the adoption of the Human Scale Development concept by hundreds of peasant families associated with her organization. This initiative aims to build a life where peasants of all ages achieve a transformation that allows them to have a better appreciation of themselves, others and the environment: ‘Conchita’ has been an inspiration along this transformation.      Jasper Humphreys, The Marjan Centre

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