Friday, January 11, 2013

Uncovering Island Food and Water Secrets: The Beginning

Update from F2F Volunteers in Colombia!  Note: "We wrote this post about a week ago, but have not had internet access until today. We will be sharing more updates and photos soon!"

View from plane ride to Old Providence
Greetings from Old Providence Island, Colombia. We finally arrived yesterday morning after four flights and nearly 24 hours of travel time. The most eventful plane ride was certainly the final flight from San Andres Island to Old Providence (or Providencia). We didn’t anticipate that the airport would close down during our middle-of-the-night layover on San Andres Island, and, after a few fitful hours of sleep on the pavement outside the front gate, the security guards finally opened the airport at 6am. We were the first two people to check in for our 25-minute flight on a small prop plane over the textured turquoise waters of the southwest Caribbean Sea. We quickly realized the long journey was well worth it when we arrived to this vibrant jewel of an island.

Matt investigating Robertson's underground
rainwater cistern
Inspired by the beauty of the island and the warmth of the people here, we got straight to work. We were struck by the sheer prevalence of rainwater harvesting. Just about every home and hotel collects rainwater to some degree. One of the most impressive systems was at the very inn where we are staying. The owner, Robertson, proudly gave us a tour of his water system, showing us his hand-built cisterns that sit under two of the four buildings that comprise his inn.  Every building is lined with gutters and piped to one of the two cisterns that hold 9,724 gallons of water combined.  He says that the cisterns last about two or three days when the hotel is full (~15 guests), and when he runs out, he can count on his well water to meet the rest of their needs until the cisterns fill up again.  However, on Old Providence, it rains most days. Intense bursts of rain slowly replenish the cisterns on a regular basis. The water from the cisterns is used for everything—cooking, bathing, and even drinking (after it’s boiled). When we told Robertson that it is practically illegal in the U.S. to use rainwater for any purpose inside a home, even flushing the toilet, he laughed.

Femke learning about pumpkin cultivation from Moc,
one of the more successful farmers on Old Providence
We plan to stay on Old Providence for four days while we conduct further research on rainwater harvesting practices and sustainable vegetable cultivation. Then, we will return to San Andres Island—a much larger and more populated neighbor to Old Providence—to carry out the bulk of our Farmer to Farmer assignment. We hope our time on Old Providence will give us a sense of specific practices that are successful in this island community that has not experienced the same levels of environmental and cultural degradation that San Andres has faced. Old Providence is relatively untouched by large-scale development and the native Raizal people are the primary population. In comparison, on San Andres the Raizal are an ethnic minority in their own island due to massive immigration by mainland Colombians.

View from El Pico, the top of Old Providence Island.
The majority of this land was used for farming until about
20 years ago when a cultural shift and an orange blight
caused many young people to choose work on cruise ships
rather than tending to family farms. Consequently, the
island now imports the majority of its food.
Once we arrive on San Andres, our main goals will be to promote sustainable small-scale agriculture and rainwater harvesting at Posadas Nativas—small inns managed by the native Raizal people.  We will work with local youth and other community members to help create a demonstration edible garden and conduct a workshop to discuss some of the best agricultural practices we have learned from farmers on Providence and San Andres. We will also host another workshop discussing best practices for rainwater harvesting that we have observed at businesses on both islands as well as from our own experience in community-based water management and water resource science.  Both of our workshops will focus primarily on practices that stem from native knowledge of resource management, supported by our own expertise in efficient and user-friendly design. Ultimately, we hope to bring greater awareness of resource management to the island by encouraging sustainable food and water systems at the posadas. Additionally, we are aiming to provide the owners of the posadas with the skills required to reduce their dependence on expensive imported food and water by harvesting their own. We are excited for the weeks to come and look forward to posting more on this blog as our project unfolds.


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