(IAP ’17) Juan Constain Ramos, G
Juan Constain Ramos (G, Urban Studies and Planning)
Juan will be traveling to the Colombian Pacific Region over IAP, where he will be working with grassroots social innovators in accelerating their economic democracy initiatives. He will be supporting an ongoing collaboration between the MIT Community Innovators Lab and Corporación Manos Visibles, a local nonprofit that has been working in capacity building and leadership development in the region over the past five years. As part of a team, Juan will be working with initiatives in the eco and community tourism, entrepreneurship, digital fabrication, cooperative businesses, and community media sectors. The goal of the project will be to document economic democracy models and alternatives and identify emerging opportunities for inclusive regional development in the context of post-conflict.
Check back for his updates!
Week 3. Breaking stereotypes.
Visiting different grassroots initiatives across the Pacific Region has changed how I understand regional development dynamics and what we can do to support innovative responses from the margins while learning a lot about resiliency, self-determination and identity.
Most of my training as an urban planner so far were focused on understanding complex urban issues: transportation, housing, administrative and political decentralization, urban infrastructure, climate change adaptation, amongst others. However, it is only through a practitioner’s perspective where you can really understand what are the consequences of an extractive and exclusive development model such as the one that the Pacific Region has endured for years.
This trip was a reminder of the dangers of focusing on intellectual and professional training through academia without connecting to the sources of real knowledge and discomfort. Communities at the margins are not just legitimate voices to talk about development; they hold tremendous amounts of knowledge about systemic failures. Some of the grassroots initiatives we visited have developed innovative responses to structural racism and are now building local power that is spreading through the region. We must find a way to collaborate with initiatives at that scale and in a mutually-learning engagement, find alternative solutions to complex challenges.
The past weeks have also been influential on my personal views of practicing in Colombia. For years, I had been wary of practicing in regions of Colombia such as the Pacific given the high levels of corruption and mismanagement of public resources that were well documented and publicized. After visiting over eight initiatives in three cities, I now understand the value of working to change that from a grassroots scale. The new generation of Afrocolombian leaders, including some we personally met, is working to overcome stereotypes and understand the value of cross-sector collaboration.
I think there are multiple opportunities for further engagement within MIT and DUSP for continuing our relationship with the grassroots initiatives. First, there is a learning opportunity given that many of the approaches to cooperative development, identity and self-determination and resiliency are critical for navigating the current social and political challenges in the US. Second, through CoLab we will continue to identify emerging opportunities for scaling innovative projects, ventures and programs that are critical for building the social infrastructures needed for a post-conflict scenario. During our visit, it became clear that technology and youth empowerment are two sectors that will be key in the next year and beyond.
Week 2. The youth of Quibdó
After visiting Utría and Nuquí, and learning more about the work of Mano Cambiada, a community tourism initiative, we headed to Quibdó, the largest city in the northern Pacific, and capital of Chocó. As with the initial leg of our trip, we had to scale down our transportation mode to the smallest aircraft, which is an indicator of how secluded Utría and Nuquí are. Understanding how the lack of infrastructure for connectivity impacted community organizations’ work was a critical moment during this trip.
For community and eco-tourism purposes, being secluded and far away from roads that connect the region to the rest of the country has been beneficial. According to local organizations, this has been critical in striking a balance between sustainable tourism practices and massive tourism.
While we made our descent towards El Caraño airport, I saw a series of high rise apartment buildings on a rural area next to the runway. Later, while meeting with community organizations I learned that the area is called “Ciudadela Mía” and is part of a government-sponsored free housing project that planned to deliver 100,000 units between 2010 and 2014. Community organizations are very critical about the success of this project given that they were not actively involved in the planning, design and implementation of the massive complex. There is no public transit in the area and residents complain about the rise of gangs and criminal bands in the area. For some, it’s considered a modern ghetto.
Looking at the housing projects and the local infrastructure in Quibdó, I realized why working with grassroots organizations is a critical piece of the development planning process. Most of the decisions regarding housing, infrastructure, productive projects, are made without any regard of local concerns and without leveraging existing capacities. Many of the strategic decisions about Quibdó are still made in Bogotá, the national capital.
To understand more about local and regional assets, networks and resources, we met with a series of initiatives that are advancing economic democracy from different sectors. These visits included a workshop with “Robótica Educativa” a youth robotics training program with a strong leadership development component. Working with youth in Quibdó is critical for generational shifts and given the rise of urban violence and conflict, it has become a priority for many grassroots organizations.
Another initiative we visited was “Chocquibfilms”, an audiovisual training program supported by ChocQuibTown. We learned about the set of capacities that young aspiring filmmakers, editors, actors and actresses have and how they are actively changing narratives about the region.
We were surprised by the level of sophistication that youth organizations have around political and economic issues. One of the organizations we visited, “Jóvenes Creadores del Chocó”, has led a youth empowerment program focused on peace building and reconciliation. They combine their work with cultural entrepreneurship and have built strong capacities in social networking, as their social media accounts are fundamental for movement building.
Working with grassroots initiatives in Quibdó is an extremely valuable opportunity to learn about innovation. The capacities that are currently being built amongst youth in the city is an important prospect for long-term change. The work our partner organization, Manos Visibles, and the community organizations that are doing this, is critical for identifying emerging opportunities for collaboration.
This video, shot by the team behind the Youth Robotics Training program gives us a very good view of Quibdó.
Week 1. “Utría, la bella”
January 17, 2017.
On Jan 13, myself, three other MCP Students (Carey Dunfey – MCP2, David Tisel and Tatianna Echevarria MCP1) and a local consultant for MIT CoLab traveled to Nuquí, in the northern Pacific Coast of Colombia. I had previously been working for CoLab as a Local Consultant for the Inclusive Regional Development Program since 2013. During this period, we designed and implemented a series of capacity building workshops with Afrocolombians and indigenous leaders which then evolved into the EIC Lab, an accelerator program for grassroots social enterprises that advanced economic democracy in the region.
Before this trip I had visited the region multiple times, mostly for workshops with leaders and grassroots organization as part of my work with CoLab. This time, our trip had an additional purpose. We were planning to visit a series of initiatives in the communities where they work and document the networks, assets and resources that can be leveraged collectively across the group.
I was initially concerned about travel arrangements and logistics. Traveling to Nuquí required a layover in Quibdó, the largest city in the north Pacific region – which is considered to be amongst the rainiest places on earth. A quick overview of our itinerary, and the modes of transportation we used, is useful to understand the complexity of this territory. We used a medium sized plane (30 passenger approximately) to fly from Bogotá to Quibdó. What had to be a short layover turned into a 3 hour delay in an airport with few amenities or shops. For this second leg of the trip to Nuquí, the size of the aircraft reduced significantly, in what seemed to be an analogy to how shrinking infrastructure is in this region.
Once in Nuquí, we took a boat to head north towards Utría. After one hour of breathtaking views, we arrived to the Ensenada, an inlet famous for becoming the ideal place for humpback whales to give birth every year around August. There is no road connection and the closest town is 1 hour away in a speed boat. Utría means beautiful in the native indigenous language. These pictures can tell the whole story.
I had heard many things about Utría and how beautiful it was. We stayed at the Centro de Visitantes, a set of cabins and lodges managed by Mano Cambiada, a community tourism company that has been part of CoLab´s accelerator program since 2016. At the core of their business model is a sustainable, values-based tourism that has high standards and has focused on dignifying labor in this sector. They are committed to generating shared wealth in a complex environment. As operators of tourism services within the Utria National Park, they provide quality lodging and amazing food to their guests.
We engaged with Mano Cambiada’s staff in a reflective workshop on their assets, challenges, resources and learnings. We heard from their on-site administrator – Luis Palacios Klinger, or Lucho – their kitchen staff Maria Eugenia and Magdalena and a team member from National Parks, Evelio. Not only are they wonderful people, but they are extremely committed to preserving the natural beauty of Utría and generating wealth in the communities by running a values-based eco and community tourism company. As Josefina Klinger, founder of Mano Cambiada said: Utría is unique. Only those who are ready for Utría come here….