The hanging gardens of Colombia

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© UNDP Colombia

To insulate vulnerable communities from floods and restore wetlands, Colombia promotes the use of recycled materials, suspended gardens and climate-smart agriculture.

“I have guavas, lemons, oranges, tangerines, coconuts, passion fruits, chilies, eggplants, yuccas, yams and rice,” says Doña Zoila Guerra, grey-streaked hair framing her sunburnt face. “Every year in December I sell yuccas, which are thin now, but will be good by Christmas.” She speaks proudly as she surveys the cilantro planted in the garden behind her house in the Cuenca Community in San Marcos, Sucre.

In 2010, Colombia was hit by widespread flooding. The flood waters wiped out farms, and flows of contaminants from illegal mines damaged crops, poisoned fish and killed mangroves and trees, making it hard for families to put healthy food on the table.

Since then, smallholder farmers like Zoila are increasingly looking to smart technologies to help them in feeding their families safe, nutritious food. They are building the kind of out-of-the-box solutions needed to adapt to a rapidly changing climate that is putting millions of people at risk worldwide.

The concept is simple. If flood waters come your way, move your garden to safer ground. And for the long term, work with climate-resilient crops that can withstand high levels of mercury and thrive in flood conditions; protect the environment by moving toward pesticide-free agricultural production; and educate yourself and your neighbours on new ways of farming.

To make good on commitments to reach the Nationally Determined Contributions outlined in the Paris Agreement on climate change, and to achieve the goals from the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, Colombia’s Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development is working with UNDP to reduce risk and vulnerability to climate change in the region of La Depresión Momposina.

The project aims to protect communities and ecosystems from the floods and droughts associated with climate change and climate volatility. It has made significant steps in promoting the use of native seeds, recycling technologies and other ecosystem protections.

Suspended gardens

With regular floods, longer dry seasons and rising temperatures disrupting traditional agricultural practices, a simple yet innovative idea is to make vegetable gardens mobile. Herbs and seedlings are planted in mugs, flowerpots or plastic bottles. Tree trunks (called riatas) are also handy for planting smaller vegetables. “If the flood comes, we move the chocoritos (little planters) elsewhere, re-using plastic bottles,” explains Mari Cruz Ribera, one of the 115 people who completed training in the technique.

To date, the project has supported the creation of more than 1,900 such systems. Residents measure water levels in the nearby wetlands and swamps. When the waters start to rise, they know it’s time to elevate their gardens. When the water starts to drop, they filter and save it for irrigation.

“We raise the areas under cultivation so that they are not flooded,” Ribera explains. “Alternatively, we make circular gardens by digging ring-like ditches. The arable part is in the centre, elevated and protected from the water. In this way, the soil conserves humidity during the dry season.”

The strategy developed with local communities in the municipalities of Ayapel, San Marcos and San Benito Abad also included other agro-ecological practices to build resilience to climate change in this wetlands region.

Ribera points out her neighbour´s rice fields, part of the 800 hectares planted through the project. “Rice from native seeds is the only one that filters mercury, leaving it in the shell of the grain,” she says.

To prevent further contamination of the soil, Ribera and her neighbours use natural insecticides such as Gliricidia tree, garlic and ash, eliminating the need for harmful chemicals.

This is not high technology. It is rather an ingenious use of simple materials and easy-to-deploy ideas. Everything is handmade, including the irrigation systems, which are made by creating a slow drip system in a bottle cap to keep tree roots wet during the dry season.

“The families had space available to plant around their homes, but would still buy vegetables at the store,” Ribera says. “In the past, we would sow maticas (family gardens), but they wouldn’t do well and would die from pollution or because we didn’t know how to care for them properly. Today, we know how to plant gardens, how to avoid floods, and how to take advantage of our land to grow vegetables ourselves.”

The Government of Colombia is now working with UNDP to spread the use of the homegrown innovations from the Momposina wetlands through a new US$117 million initiative focusing on water management in vulnerable communities in La Mojana. The project puts sustainable ecosystem management at the centre of disaster risk reduction by promoting healthier watersheds, protecting communities from floods and supporting poor rural populations to overcome water scarcity during prolonged dry seasons.

With a rise in environmentally sound technologies, climate-smart agriculture and human-centred design, a paradigm shift is taking shape. Working together, governments, communities and other partners are developing high and low-tech solutions to address the very real risks that climate change, severe weather and other hazards bring.

The “Reducing risk and vulnerability to climate change in the region of La Depresión Momposina in Colombia” project is financed by the Adaptation Fund. The “Climate Resilient Water Management Practices for Vulnerable Communities in La Mojana, Colombia” is financed through the Green Climate Fund.

See the full photo-story on Medium

Story by UNDP Colombia with Greg Benchwick