As Peace Corps Volunteers, the development that we strive to do is community-based. It’s all about working with the community to identify their priorities, identify their assets, and use the assets to work on their priorities. This totally isn’t a Peace Corps term, but it’s essentially about using different analysis tools to answer the 5 W questions.
Who are the key figures in the community? What do the people do – what do they do for work and what do they do for recreation? What resources are available to its people? What assets does the community have? When do people work? When are festivals/holidays/vacations? Where do people spend their time? More specifically, where do men, women, and children spend their time (because often in our communities, the answers are very different for each group)?
Photoshopping terrible graphics is one of my stress-relievers
And the why…well, the why is something we are always asking ourselves. You know the iceberg analogy? If you are a PCV or RPCV, you probably cringed just reading those two words, iceberg analogy; it’s crammed down our throats during our Pre-Service Training. For good reason – it’s a good thing to consider when working with a community. Basically, the culture that we see manifest in a community is just the tip of the iceberg – the 10% of the ice mass poking above water. The other 90% of the iceberg is hidden underneath the water and create the foundation of that community. These are its values and beliefs.
Google maps screenshot
One of members in my cohort, Sam did this work in his community, San Juan Nepomuceno, Bolivar, and found that it has an agriculturally-based economy. The problem: the way that its people are farming the lands is not sustainable, and if they continue in this way, they will not be able to support themselves on their earnings from farming for much longer. However, there are assets that they can leverage to avoid this problem from playing out:
- Geography. San Juan Nepo is located just a couple of hours south of Cartagena, in a valley in the Mountains of Maria (los Montes de María).
- Just outside of town is an ecological reserve which is home to an endangered monkey species.Left: a stream running through the nature reserve in San Juan Nepomuceno, Bolivar
Right: A poison dart frog found in the nature reserve
- 15 minutes further south is a town called San Jacinto, which is famous for the beautiful hand-woven hammocks and hand-crocheted bags (mochilas) that they produce.
- Sam has previously worked at a mountain bike shop in Costa Rica – an asset which led him to realize the potential of his site for ecotourism.
Once all of these assets had been identified, Sam began to work with local community members – the rangers at the nature reserve, hotel owners, farmers, restaurateurs – and Michelle, a volunteer in San Jacinto, to design an ecotourism package that could be marketed to the growing number of tourists in Cartagena. It would offer a great off-the-beaten-path trip for the backpackers looking for a different experience.
Sam had been testing out the tour with other volunteers: one day of hiking through the nature reserve followed by a visit to San Jacinto and getting a hand at weaving, and one day of mountain biking followed by a historical tour of San Juan. A price was set (too low, in my opinion) for the package – the tours, plus hotel costs, plus 3 meals and a cocktail, plus additional funds to be donated to the nature reserve and the Victim’s Fund (the area was directly impacted by the armed conflict in Colombia [check out this 2-minute podcast for a personal story from one of PC Colombia’s very own staff members]).
Of course, as with any development project, Sam has encountered some obstacles. A large one: convincing people like farmers and restaurateurs that growth in tourism in the area will positively impact them. Certainly there’s a fear that all money spent is going to the hotel, and will not be spread across the town. And certainly, it’s hard to know/evaluate in advance the impact it will have on the full town. The problem with this is that by just doing the tour with the hotel doesn’t help change the way farm lands are being used and abused and depleted. Without additional buy-in, there’s no one to actually run and organize and give the tours.
So, for now, Sam is continuing to work with the partners that meet with him. He is giving practice tours to fellow volunteers (which is where my pics are from). It’s hard to say now if that area will see a growth in tourism as a result of this project. I joked with Sam that he should just stay in San Juan Nepo after his Peace Corps service has ended and open this tourism company and give the tours himself. Only time will tell!