ISDR Informs The Americas

Strategic planning for integrated risk reduction in the Municipality of Páez, Cauca, Colombia, in the context of sustainable local development and in response to the reactivation of the Nevado del Huila volcano: A perspective of the Nasa indigenous people

“From the viewpoint of the Nasa people, nothing is inert as Western science tells us. In the Nasa world, everything has life and the Nevado del Huila volcano is like a large house of the spirits, or of other very important and essential beings, such as water and fire, whose function is to regulate the harmony and balance between man and nature. ”

“The phenomenon of the Nevado volcano is in and of itself natural. Its way of life is to accompany the beings who surround it. Thus, it is not necessary to be alarmed or panic because of what is happening now. The purpose of these occurrences is for us to create and practice a culture of prevention, not to think that it is the end of the world. Regarding this hazard, let us think that the spirits of nature and men are bearing the fruit of life for the Nasa world. In this sense, it is important to take a look at our ancestors’ footprints and ask ourselves how they survived, what memories of theirs are still alive in our environment, what were their prevention measures, and how the community relates to them. These are necessary questions for the vulnerable peoples who inhabit this territory to reflect on, analyze, and consider.” (Taken from EL Sxûu Yu’ [Refreshing our memory, in local language] –for prevention in the territory of the Nasa indigenous people).

The Municipality of Páez is located in the northeastern part of the Department of Cauca, in the foothills of the Central Mountain Range, and borders the Departments of Huila and Tolima. Its area is approximately 185,204.4 hectares. Its political/administrative division is made up of the municipal capital, Belalcazar, the districts of Riochiquito and Itaibe, and 15 indigenous communities known as resguardos. Páez is part of the territory known as Tierradentro (land within). Its municipal capital, Belalcazar, is located at 2°40’ latitude north and 75°59’ longitude west of Greenwich. The population of the municipality is 40,643 inhabitants, of which 5,517 live in Belalcazar. The remaining 35,126 residents make up the municipality’s rural population, of which 30,923 are indigenous and 4,203 are mestizo or Afro-Colombian.

The economy of the Nasa people in Páez is self-subsisting, and they use shared, collective and family production systems. The relationships of exchange, reciprocity, and giving help guarantee the availability of products in short supply, especially in times of hunger or famine. Traditional production systems in Páez revolve around corn crops, but other systems have been adapted according to the needs of the community, such as the use of cash crops like beans, sugar cane, coffee, livestock and others. These management systems —in addition to construction needs, the use of firewood, home-made production, the use of plants for traditional medicine, and spiritual aspects of territorial management such as sacred sites— determine both the vegetation areas established by humans and those that exist naturally. The topographical limitations of Tierradentro have always been a determining factor of the way of life of its population. Survival has never depended on conventional economic development, but on networks of socio-cultural relationships. The deep roots with their land and their identity have been a means for defending the right to their territory and for discovering the key strategies for cultural and material survival. Their territory is the geographic space where their culture – the social, economic and political organization – is shaped.

In the political and institutional contexts, the Cabildo, or community council, is the political institution that governs each of the 15 reservationsthat make up the municipality of Páez. The staff used by the governor is not only a symbol of power; it also possesses the spirit of the community and it transmits the ability to govern to the person who carries it. All members of the indigenous community must fulfill a number of duties for the Cabildo, including participation in community tasks. Some of them must also take on the responsibility of becoming part of the Cabildo itself. The territory also accommodates the Asocación de Cabildos NASA ÇXHAÇXHA, an association made up of traditional authorities organized in 15 indigenous reservations, which are recognized by the Constitution as territorial entities.

In terms of the environment, the Municipality of Páez makes up part of Tierradentro, which is one of the most mountainous and fragile ecosystems in southwestern Colombia. It has diverse climates and microclimates, from moderate to the cold highlands. It also has strong winds determined by the orography of the area. The annual precipitation in Páez is 1,525 mm per year.

One of the risk scenarios (in terms of hazards and vulnerabilities) in the Tierradentro region is the reactivation of the Nevado del Huila volcano, due to the gases and volcanic ash it spews. Since it became active on February 18, 2007, there have been mudslides (February 19, 2007) as a result of the snowcaps melting, and an avalanche (April 18, 2007) due to a second, larger snow melt. These events have prompted the evacuation of the Nasa indigenous people and a retreat to higher and more distant areas. These actions were taken by themselves and in an organized manner, in response to the volcanic emergency at hand.

The current risk scenario in the territory is not only related to this volcanic hazard but also to existing vulnerability factors, such as: i) Physical: The location of housing, vital infrastructure and productive lands in low-lying areas with greater exposure to avalanches and mud and rock slides, due to changes in settlement patterns because of the lack or scarcity of adequate lands being made available by the State to indigenous communities. The acculturation of the production systems, and the lack of understanding by the Nasa community of the relationship between space, territory and time. Changes in the relational link between the family unit and the Nasa territorial context, which increases the population at risk and also generates more risk scenarios. ii) Economic: Direct impact on some plots, since the river valley is the area of greatest production. Disruption of communication routes, preventing prompt attention to agricultural lands in several reservations iii) Institutional: There are flawed interpretations and a lack of knowledge regarding the magnitude and dimensions of the volcanic process on the part of the State and the Nasa community, which leads to a disconnect between the local actors when it comes to taking action in the face of the volcanic phenomenon. There is also little appreciation for simple resilience measures. These have been developed with the community but are not taken into account by the government institutions (due to slowness, lack of knowledge, and discrimination). iv) Political: Difficulties with the national regulatory framework and failure to update statutes with respect to the indigenous reservations, which are defined by the Constitution as territorial entities but are not taken into consideration at the different decision-making levels, such as the Local Committee for Disaster Prevention and Response (CLOPAD), the Regional Committee for Disaster Prevention and Response (CREPAD), and the National Bureau for Disaster Preparedness and Response (DPAD). Furthermore, there is the influence of armed groups in the area and the permeability of the State political system that disconnects authority from the exercise of territorial control. v) Environmental: Air pollution, the burning of crops and vegetation due to gases and ashes, which has also polluted drinking water sources. Also, the obstruction of sewage and drainage systems in the indigenous reservationsof Páez, as well as the areas where they have been relocated (shelters). Finally, the fragility of strategic ecosystems, such as the Nevado del Huila National Park, the high plains (páramos), and primary forests. vi) Social: The impact on communication networks (roads and bridges) has disrupted the social and cultural interaction of the communities located near the Nevado del Huila volcano. The erroneous vision and inoperative decisions made by the local institutions in charge have made it evident that there is discrimination against some segments of the population. This creates social resentment and further widens the gap between the different social actors who live in a multi-ethnic municipality like Páez.

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Photo: © Henry Peralta

The group of local actors involved in this process is made up of the Nasa Territory and Nature Team, supported by SIGNASA (both from the Nasa Çxhâçxha Community Council Association), relevant community groups from each of the 15 resguardos, and the Cauca Regional Indigenous Council (CRIC). This strategic planning process has also been supported on different occasions and in different ways by 110 students in various fields (geography, topographical engineering and pre-hospital care) at the Universidad del Valle, under the supervision of Professor Andres A. Velásquez, as well as by the OSSO Corporation, the Colombian Mining and Geology Institute (INGEOMINAS), the Popayán Volcanological Observatory, the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), the Disaster Preparedness and Response Bureau (DPAD), the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR), the Local Development Support Program (DELNET), the International Training Center of the ILO (ILO/ITC), UNOSAT, and the Matanzas Environmental Research Center, of the Cuban Ministry of Science and Technology, in cooperation with the Colombian Institute for the Development of Science and Technology (COLCIENCIAS), among others.

This strategic planning exercise for risk reduction in the territory has: i) Protected the lives of more than 5,000 people living in low-lying areas along the Páez and Simbola river in the aftermath of the avalanche that took place on April 18, 2007, and improved community organization through the creation of a new early warning system with a pilot program in the resguardo of Huila, to then be rolled out to the remaining 14 resguardos. ii) Generated new knowledge about the territory, based on the reading of physical and spiritual signals. Perceptive and cognitive maps of each of the 15 reservationshave been developed at a scale of 1:5000 to identify hazards, vulnerabilities, and reduction measures (such as identifying evacuation routes to safer ground in case of avalanches). iii) Created spaces for dialogue and consensus, in order to make decisions regarding volcanic risk management through seminars and workshops to be used as input for developing the territorial prevention plan (in progress) of the Nasa Çxhãçxha’s Association of Indigenous Cabildos, as well as life plans for the 15 reservationsin the Municipality of Páez. iv) Built local capacity to support government institutions in monitoring volcanic activity with the technology available to the Nasa community, through an inter-agency pilot program to be implemented simultaneously in Páez (Colombia), the Telica River basin communities in Nicaragua, and the Municipality of Varadero in Cuba. This program is based on UNOSAT’s extensive experience in the use of satellite technology, on the DELNET (ILO/ITC) program’s expertise in sustainable local development, and on the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR). Additionally, proposals were submitted for economic and productive recovery of Páez after the current volcanic crisis, through DELNET, the ILO Crisis Recovery and Reconstruction Program, and the ILO Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, among others. v) Consolidated processes of information, education and communication at all levels and for all age groups in the Nasa community, for them to better understand the reactivation of the Nevado del Huila volcano and strategies for action by adapting the Riskland board game in the Nasa Yuwe language. vi.) permitted recovery of the individual and collective historical memory of the communities about their territory, by using educational exercises for the pre-school, primary, secondary, and university levels, in cooperation with the Autonomous Indigenous University (UAIN). vi) Introduced organic agriculture and agro-biodiversity to ensure food security through the management and recovery of wild species/varieties (native seeds, especially tubers and roots that are resistant to volcanic ash), grown at the Tull (wild orchard or garden), using micro-organisms.

This strategic planning has created a new territorial dynamic as a cross-cutting issue in all planning processes, because it integrates domestic local development, strategic planning as a process and a tool, risk reduction from an integrated development perspective and its related fields (economic, political-administrative, environmental, and socio-cultural), participation of the community and local stakeholders, and the strengthening of territorial authorities, among others.

The lessons generated thus far in this process can be categorized as follows: i) Feasibility, applicability, and replication. Since it was conceived as part of a participatory exercise, the process is feasible, applicable to, and concrete for a territorial reality that urgently needs coordinated action to reduce risks in the short, medium, and long terms. ii) Participation and consensus of the local actors by using the community’s organizational potential for collective decision-making regarding their territory. Conceived and developed with the people and for the people, these exercises become a basic input for strengthening the development and application of the territorial prevention plan, which the community, on its own, had begun drafting a few months ago. iii) Strengthening of other community-based processes as a result of a participatory and coordinated integrated strategic planning exercise. From a methodological point of view, the process strengthens the organizational capacity within the indigenous communities, so that they are able to address the priority issues that the community faces today, such as basin management, as well as life plans, which favors the inclusion of risk reduction as a key element for development planning. iv) Identification and use of internal resources. This will create a sense of ownership regarding the processes carried out over time, which will contribute to developing a new perception and a better understanding of the territory among the population. v) Ongoing capacity building (such as early warning committees) due to the inclusion of the indigenous community as a dynamic and active actor involved in observation and monitoring activities in their territory. vi) Appreciation and recovery of the individual and collective historical memory about the ancestral knowledge of their territory, which generates stronger roots and ownership of it, as well as a better understanding of natural and spiritual signals that give timely notice to take action, by recovering the traditional knowledge related to understanding nature. vii) Exercises developed in a coordinated and participatory fashion, based on sustainable local development and the Nasa philosophy that takes into consideration the interrelationship between all economic, social, political and environmental factors present in the territory, for more adequate decision-making about risk reduction. viii) Inclusion of risk reduction in educational processes within the resguardo, as a fundamental issue for the survival and resistance of the Nasa people. ix.) Promotion of social inclusion and equal opportunities for men, women, youth and the elderly among indigenous peoples in each of the resguardos.

Strategic planning exercises bring the community together, so that they can also do an exercise of everyday prevention, in which each person has a defined role to play to contribute to the process, based on consensus and conflict resolution, and with the participation of the whole community to reconstruct the past, define the present, and plan the future. It is considered that communities are capable of shaping their own fate.

This strategic planning exercise fulfills four of the five priorities identified in the Hyogo Action Framework: 1) Identify, assess, and monitor disaster risk and enhance early warning; 2) Use knowledge, innovation and education to build a culture of safety and resilience at all levels; 3) Reduce the underlying risk factors; and, 4) Strengthen disaster preparedness for effective response at all levels.

This process of risk reduction has been developed and led by the Nasa Territory and Nature Team, of the NASA ÇXHAÇXHA Association of Cabildos, in the Municipality of Páez, Cauca, Colombia, which has been recognized by the Andean Committee for Disaster Response and Prevention (CAPRADE), the Andean Community’s Project to Support Disaster Prevention (PREDECAN), the European Commission, the National Disaster Preparedness and Response System (SNPAD), and the Colombian Federation of Municipalities as one of Colombia’s four winning experiences in the Andean regional competition titled “Development Practices and Policies for Confronting Disaster Risk: Identifying Significant Experiences in the Andean Subregion,” for its contribution to the overall learning of local risk management.

For further information, contact:
Henry A. Peralta:
Specialist in sustainable local development and disaster risk reduction (Delnet—ILO/ITC)
Research assistant, OSSO AA Corporation. 25928.
Telephone number: (57-2) 339 32 23 Ext. 112
Fax number: (57-2) 682 76 62 Ext. 110
Mobile: (57) 317 640 92 27
Nasa Territory and Nature Team, part of the NASA ÇXHAÇXHA Association of Cabildos
Municipality of Páez – Department of Cauca, Colombia. (57-2) 825 2415