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Meet the water keepers of Colombia

Marta Rincon (left) and Edilma Chia are engaged in leadership and advocacy in preserving the moorlands in Colombia.

July 29, 2020

By Jeannethe Lara

Four years ago, community members in the small town of Tasco, Colombia occupied the road to the iron mine pit for a year. They were blocking trucks from moving iron from the mine to the plant. Edilma Chia, a mother of four grown children, says they were looking for reparations for personal and environmental damages and the end of mining activities. Iron exploitation pollutes the small water reservoirs nearby and weakens the soil causing the water to filter through, and not accumulate to feed the streams, creeks, lakes and rivers. Lack of water also destroys surrounding vegetation. Edilma’s work also contributed to water access to the communal aqueduct built by piping the water from a small river for distribution to the 325 members. The community does most of the aqueduct work and administration. The plumber who takes care of the pipe system is the only person paid for this work.

As members of local women’s groups supported by PWRDF partner ILSA (Institutio Latinoamericano para una Sociedad y un derecho Alternativos), Edilma is one of many women learning how to participate in municipal public affairs and policy development. Women want to have a say in the socioeconomic and environmental agendas of their local governments in Tasco, Pisba and Gameza.

It’s crucial in Colombia. The country is home to half of the world’s moorlands, which provide 70% of its potable water and feeds the subsidiary rivers that sustain the Amazon and Orinoco rivers as they meet the Atlantic Ocean.

Local and foreign multinationals are pressing communities to leave the land they have protected for generations in the Paramos region, where they live and farm, in their quest for minerals such as iron and coal. ILSA, a rights focused organization created in 1978, is helping women become stronger leaders, to protect the environment and to develop income alternatives. By supporting this work, PWRDF contributes to improving the lives of 75 rural women and 1,375 community members including families.

Group members recently organized and promoted community discussions with electoral candidates for the Municipal Council, something that has never been done before. Community members in various towns listened to the candidates’ platforms and to the proposals that women brought to the table. One of their principle requests was that elected candidates develop a public budget with a gender perspective. The Municipal Council is expected to present a budget report within six months and follow up with further discussions on gender. A “Good Will Agreement” containing two of the main commitments made was sealed with the prospective candidates’ handprints.

Elizabeth Vargas is the head of her family and a rural leader. She works at a butchery and lives with her sons, a teenager and a six-year-old boy. At home, she raises rabbits, chickens and hens, and farms on communal land. She is also active in advocating for gender empowerment and the environment. Last year Elizabeth ran in the Municipal Council elections. Although she was not elected, she is passing along her experience with this process to other peasant women, for the future 

Karen Maldonado, 25, is from Pisba municipality. She started her own coffee production business in December 2019 on one hectare of land that her mother gave her. As a future leader, her goal is to learn leadership skills and to produce enough coffee to support herself and her toddler daughter. After training with ILSA, she became a key figure in the creation of the Allianza of Pisba entrepreneur and agroecologist women, ASOPISBA. She is also a water protector and therefore a protector of life in the Paramos. 

Marta Rincon has tried many ways to generate income: cheese making, poultry raising and is currently producing yogurt, hoping that this will become a source of steady income for her family. While working and raising her three children, she dedicates whatever time she has left to supporting the campaign to protect the Paramos, despite a 45-minute walk to attend meetings where she always brings one of her children. 

Edilma, Elizabeth, Karen and Marta are just some of the 75 women who are working together to defend and promote the protection of the Paramos, key water reservoirs and the most important ecosystem in the high mountains.​

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