By Tracy L. Barnett
Nov. 6, 2010
MEDELLIN, Colombia – I arrived just after dawn after a nine-hour bus ride from Cali, but a fresh breeze from the mountains awakened my excitement at being here in this legendary city at last. Known as the City of Eternal Spring, its descent into war and drug-related violence earned it the sadly twisted moniker “City of Eternal Violence.”
Much has been written of Medellin’s unfortunate role as the headquarters of Pablo Escobar, the most ruthless of Colombia’s drug kingpins, and the references continue long after elite forces stormed his palatial home and shot him dead in 1993. Like Cali, a bloodbath of homicides and car-bombings held this city in its thrall for years.
Walking its peaceful, shady streets today, the nightmare of the ‘90s is just a faded memory, but its legacy lingers on – in the 4.5 million displaced by wars and narcotrafficking that live in shantytowns on the outskirts of cities like Medellin. The core of this city is a paragon of planning, with a Metro system that’s the envy of Latin America and an inclusive approach to development that seeks to break down the barriers between rich and poor with ample public spaces. The wealth accumulated here is evident in the gleaming skyscrapers standing proud against the blue mountains that encircle the Valle de Aburrá, most of which have developed in the past decade.
Still, as my first day in this city made vividly clear, those barriers are far from breaking, with thousands in the colonias outside the city living without jobs, public services, education and hope.
Residents of Medellín and the mountainous department of Antioquía, who call themselves “paisas,” are known for their determination, their creativity and their forward-looking approach to life, described by the term “hecho p’adelante,” moving forward.
Those characteristics don’t just apply to the well-off, as I was to see. I found my hotel in the city center, took a shower and sat down with a cup of coffee and the newspaper, and was intrigued by the lead photo in El Colombiano: a group of youths dressed as Gandhi were making their way around the city, passing out little cards written with messages of peace.
On my way to the supermarket, I ran into one of them, a young man whose face still bore the wrinkled makeup from his morning’s event, and who invited me to the group’s next action in the Parque de las Luces (Park of Lights).
“We’re protesting the militarization of our country,” said one of the youths, referring to the obligatory military service for those without economic means, and the millions currently being spent on what former President Uribe called “democratic security,” placing military forces throughout the countryside. Those forces have been credited with quelling the violence, but have also been charged with countless human rights violations. The main concern expressed by the young men was the lack of economic alternatives that compel young people to choose a path of violence: either join the military, or take up a life of crime.
As we chatted, the noise of drums in the distance was growing louder, and soon we saw why. A demonstration was headed our way, and this was like no demonstration I’ve ever seen. Had it not been for the multicolored signs of protest, I’d have thought I was in the middle of a moving carnival. Children on stilts, their faces brilliantly painted, towered above clowns in rainbow-colored wigs and colorful tophats.
A storm was rolling in so I only got to read a few signs before the clouds opened upon us, dispersing the crowds. The main purpose of this group, from what I was able to discern, was to raise awareness about the desperate conditions among the city’s poor, the increase in cost of services like water and electricity, and an assortment of other issues.
I was struck by the colorfulness and the lively, almost joyful approach to their protest, and I mentioned it to one of the Gandhis, a young man who makes his living by juggling, walking on stilts and occasionally performing in public theater events –like the one he was participating in, which, it turns out, was sponsored by the Mahatma Gandhi Foundation.
“We learned awhile back that people pay more attention to us if we approach them in a fun way, instead of being all angry,” he explained. “So we’ve had to be more creative.”
My main contact in Medellín, a mysterious leader in the environmental movement, café owner, attorney and permaculturist known to me only as Pato, is in Peru for the duration of my stay, but he’s put me in touch with a couple of his young colleagues, and I duly follow his leads.
The first one takes me out to the countryside for a blessed respite from the city at the newly founded Centro de Artes Ecologicas. I’d been asked to collaborate on a book about permaculture projects throughout the world, and I was excited to see what these creative paisas had come up with. I’m not sure what I expected – ecological houses, fragrant gardens and a busy staff, perhaps – but it’s not what I got.
There to meet me at the bus stop on the gravel road in the one-bar town of Sajonia, Rio Negro, some 40 minutes from Medellin was David Rojas, a volunteer who was holding down the fort in Pato’s absence. Someday we plan to build buildings, but for now we just have the carro-casa, he was telling me.
Sure enough, the Cento de Artes Ecologicas is currently based in a broken-down RV, donated by a German who used it to travel through Latin America. It seemed I’d be camping. “I hope you’re not disappointed,” David said.
I quickly recovered from my initial disillusionment and began to listen and look at what was around me. David was a soft-spoken, tousle-headed young man who seemed to weigh the value of each word against that of quietude. I soon found a wellspring of wisdom in that quietude and in the conversations we shared in this beautiful corner of paradise.
“Most people are so busy they don’t really take the time to even listen to themselves, much less to others or to the nature that surrounds us,” he told me. “I come here to do just that.”
He took me on a tour of the site, filled with insights about the innovative permaculture practices the group is employing as they develop the property into a training center for ecological design. The hectare of land that the group has chosen is enormously diverse, with habitats ranging from wetlands to hardwoods to pine forest to pasture, and it slopes upward to a spectacular view of the hills all around.
He gave me a demonstration of the eco-bricks technique being used throughout Latin America, in which plastic bottles are packed tight with trash and used as bricks to build water storage tanks, benches, roads and even houses.
As darkness fell, we built a fire and cooked a simple dinner of pasta and onions, tomatoes and cheese, served with aguapanela, a delicious drink typical in the region made of hot water and panela, an unrefined chunk of condensed sugar cane syrup.
The next day we traveled together to the nearby mountain town of Ceja, where I met his friend and colleague Andrés Correa, another energetic and charismatic young leader. The two of them are working on an ecological design project for an ecoresort in Cocorna, Tierra del Agua, www.tierradeagua.org, and they took me on a tour of a new agroforestry project established by the YMCA where they conduct workshops with local youth.
My other Pato contact was Laura Montoya, an elusive sprite of a woman who only sporadically answered e-mail and telephone. Laura had inherited the leadership of eReciclaje, an urban permaculture group established by her partner, Felipe Rrague, upon his departure to study in the States.
I finally caught up with her at a presentation at a local university, and she was worth the wait.
Laura Montoya of the peacock-feather earring, the disarming smile and the passionate rapid-fire defense of the Pachamama, is a one-woman Earth revolution in action. Over coffee, she finally decided that I was worth her time, and she invited me to her home and the new headquarters of eReciclaje in the marginal barrio of Belen, up in the hills on the outskirts of the city.
The trip itself was almost as memorable as the actual visit. Starting from the classic Hotel Nutibarra, whose elegant neoclassic lines are meant for others with a far greater budget than mine, I climbed into a reconditioned school bus destined for the outskirts. After nearly half an hour of traffic through the modern world of esthetic salons and shopping malls and residential neighborhoods we began to climb up and up into another world, one in which houses begin with brick and end with sheet metal and black plastic, where women still carry water in jugs and corn in tubs on their heads, where you or your neighbor may or may not have electricity or running water.
It was here that eReciclaje located its second project, the first one, an urban permaculture center in the rougher Barrio Triste neighborhood having been undone by a robbery.
Here, according to Laura, Felipe started over again, building terraces and irrigation ditches and working the land. Here is the regional headquarters for Clean Up The World, an international group working to organize mass cleanup projects, and here the plastic detritus of the neighborhood becomes eco-bricks of the sort David had demonstrated to me earlier.
But first, I had to find it. The neighborhood was a network of streets without names, and a misunderstanding led me to get off the bus in the wrong place. Finally, there she was, smiling, brilliant in her green hindu pants, big white sunglasses and peacock feather. We embraced, long-lost friends who had only met, and she led me up the hill to her “finca” next to the brick factory, where trucks rumbled up and down all day long, carrying away red bits of mountain in their cavernous beds.
Ironic, and somewhat poetic, that their little eco-brick workshop is right next to a brick factory of quite a different sort.
I thought of what David told me the other night in Sajonia as he tended his little fire. The Center for Ecological Arts is similarly situated in a truck-traffic zone near the cantera (quarry) and trucks rumble past all day long. Here, too, one can look out from this little mountain paradise and see the mountain across the valley being slowly eaten away.
“Some might see this as a negative thing, and sure, it’s sad to see the way they are altering the mountain – I wish they wouldn’t do it,” David had said, thoughtfully. “But this is exactly the mentality we are working to change – so it’s better that we are here, rather than isolating ourselves from it.”
Laura, it turned out, is not so different from me at 25, in love with an activist completely dedicated to his work, taking on the mantel of his cause as her own. Only hers had left the whole operation in her young hands. Suddenly I understood her reluctance to meet with me. She had been simply overwhelmed.
Still, her words flowed crisp and clear like the mountain stream outside the window. “Everything has a message if we listen,” she told me.