“Yo Prefiero el Agua” | WWF
“Yo Prefiero el Agua”

Posted on 23 April 2018

It’s dusk when we rumble down the dirt road on the way back to Doña Blanca’s house.
By Emelin Gasparrini, WWF Forest and Climate

It’s dusk when we rumble down the dirt road on the way back to Doña Blanca’s house. A granadilla grower, Doña Blanca Criollo spent her afternoon showing us around her single hectare of land in Colombia’s southwestern Sibundoy Valley, returning home while we visited neighboring properties. Bounding out of her house, she beckons us inside with the promise of coffee and fresh cancharinas, small bites of fried dough studded with green onions.

We take off our muddy shoes and she leads us through the house to the kitchen in the back, a big open room with red brick walls that she and her husband had recently finished expanding. It is a warm and open space, especially as the evening air begins to chill outside. What she is most excited to show us is not the new size of the room, however, but the ordinary chrome sink installed in the counter. For the first time, Doña Blanca can pipe clean water from the spring on her land directly into her home.

The sink represents years of effort to restore the natural spring Doña Blanca and her family rely on by reforesting this hillside. Though the valley has been cultivated by its inhabitants for centuries, decades of intensifying small-scale dairy farming has deforested much of the area, undermining and polluting the natural water system. Some family plots on this hillside have been so stripped of natural resources they may take just as long to recover. 

So when Doña Blanca decided that she was tired of having to spend hours of her day treating their spring water to make it safe for her family, she set changes into motion that would impact the very landscape around her. She found a committed partner in WWF.

Doña Blanca was introduced to WWF in 2010, through the organization’s efforts to help small-scale producers use more environmentally friendly ways of keeping cows and shift to more sustainable land uses in response to climate change. WWF works with these small-scale producers in the region encompassing the Sibundoy Valley through capacity building and micro-level territorial planning – even down to the farm level. Like Doña Blanca, WWF understands the region is a special place, home to animals and habitats that can only be found on the slopes and valleys that fall from the Andes to the Amazon. 

Building off of WWF’s work, the municipal government started a program to support reforestation. Doña Blanca sold her cows and used the funds to plant granadilla, a member of the passion flower family, freeing up half of her land for trees from the municipal program without any sacrifice from her livelihood. By the second half of 2011, saplings are growing on her upper plot. 

In the years that followed, WWF supported Doña Blanca and several of her neighbors in the microbasin with capacity building programs. Part of this work was a collaboration between WWF and the regional environmental authority CORPOAMAZONIA to pilot a payment for ecosystem services program, but the process has also included trainings on environmentally friendly approaches to pest control and soil recovery to support natural regeneration. 

All this work has paid off. Earlier, some of us had carefully climbed through the barbed wire fence around Doña Blanca’s forest plot to see her spring first-hand. 

It’s a serene – if muddy – place. The quiet bubble of the water and wind in the leaves above our heads calms the slight kick of adrenaline that comes from successfully avoiding the fence’s metal spines or a slip up the damp slope. Without disturbing the natural mouth of the spring, she has installed a screen of netting to keep leaves and flowers out of the water, a series of pipes that lead down to her house, and even a small covered tank. Not all of the water is diverted to her sink, either. The water that doesn’t flow into the pipes to her sink follows its natural course towards the valley floor, cutting a narrow trench in the hillside. In this way, the spring still provides water for the homes and streams below.

But not all of Doña Blanca’s neighbors are convinced. Dairy farming is central to their livelihoods and their identity, and many have dedicated their entire lives – and their family’s lands – to the industry. Of the 22 families living in this microbasin, 10 still refuse to participate in any of the sustainable land use programs. 

On the way back to the truck, we walk past a plot where the soil has been so depleted it can barely support grass and is pock-marked with springs run dry when the trees were removed to make way for cattle. It’s a stark contrast to the vibrant tranquility of Doña Blanca’s small forest, and a reminder of the central role forests play in a landscape’s ecosystem.

As we sit in the grass next to her forest plot that overcast afternoon, Doña Blanca acknowledges that the process has not always been an easy one, and that there is still more to be done to convince these last hold-outs to change their methods. But, she says emphatically, “I prefer to have water.”
Doña Blanca Criollo, standing next to her reforested land.
© Stefany Olaya / WWF-Colombia