A renewable boost to the Internet cafe

Development projects come and go. They are replaced, neglected, restored, discarded, rejuvenated, and/or dismissed. The ruins of past development projects littered the community of La Plata in Bahía Málaga: the remnants of a concrete pedestal that had been used to elevate a rainwater collection barrel, a run-down and un-utilized school latrine, and a solar panel that had been abandoned after another project left the satellite phone it powered irrelevant.

The new project was an Internet kiosk built by Compartel – an initiative of Colombia’s Ministerio de Tecnologías de la Información y las Comunicaciones (MinTIC). While I was able to benefit from access to the kiosk all summer, it was officially inaugurated just this month to “give 110 families access to Internet without having to travel to the urban center of the municipality.”

Without a doubt this project will have a lasting and significant impact on the community, providing them with daily Internet access and phone service, overcoming the nearly non-existent cell phone signal (I had to stand on the dock in order to make/receive phone calls).

The kiosk does have a few limitations, however.

Compartel "Vive Digital" Internet Kiosk

Solar Pannel Installed on the Internet Kiosk in La Plata-Bahía Málaga

First, the available bandwidth can barely handle one computer playing a YouTube video, let alone five Ubuntu computers with children playing flash-based Internet games. For basic applications like checking email or using Facebook the kiosk worked just fine, but as soon as more than one computer began to use data-heavy websites the whole system became unusably slow.

Second, while the kiosk uses WiFi instead of Ethernet cables to communicate with the Internet, the password was strictly controlled so that they can charge for access and recoup some of the costs of operating and administering the kiosk. This was a bigger problem for me than for your average user, but it basically meant that I could not connect other computers, tablets, or smartphones to the Internet, forcing me to use the limited capabilities of the five Ubuntu computers and only the programs that came pre-installed (install rights had been restricted). Luckily, (for me, but not the bandwidth usage) Ubuntu lets you uncover the WiFi password in network settings and I was able to connect the Internet with my computer and other devices (shhh, don’t tell Compartel).

Finally, the kiosk depends on electricity generated by the community’s gasoline-powered generator, which only runs from 6-10pm every day (the official hours of operation posted outside the kiosk were 3-9pm). For me, this meant that I could only use the Internet during peak bandwidth-usage time or steal an hour here or there when the kiosk was running on battery power. Luckily, a few weeks into my field placement, a worker from Compartel came to decommission the solar-powered satellite phone. He took only the microwave transmitter, leaving the solar panel, cables, power inverter, and battery (everything we needed to jerry-rig a solar system for the Internet kiosk). After some amateur electrical engineering, and some acrobatic rooftop maneuvers by Santiago (the administrator of the digital Kiosk and my supervisor for my field placement), we managed to install the panel on the roof of the kiosk. But after attaching the panel to the system we got…nothing.

The power inverter that came with the system only put out 100 watts, enough to power a lightbulb or charge a basic Nokia phone, but not enough to power the satellite dish and wireless router. Santiago did a little searching and came up with another power inverter (this one put out 300 watts) and voilà: six more hours of Internet a day. The solar panel could not charge all five Ubuntu computers, but with direct sunlight during the morning hours it was more than enough to power the Internet. The extra six hours of Internet time allowed me to use the full bandwidth during off-peak hours and complete a new website for Ecomanglar (the main deliverable of my summer field placement).


No queremos turismo de sol y playa

Tourism is a tricky business, especially in developing communities like La Plata. On one hand, more visitors means more job opportunities and less dependence on NGO or government funds for infrastructure and other improvements. Tourism can be a sustainable alternative to the traditional extractive industries of Bahía Málaga (fishing, logging, hunting, etc.). On the other hand, traditional tourism (think sandals, beach, sun and parties) can be destructive, negatively affecting the environment, society and culture of this institutionally fragile community.

Santiago, the leader of Ecomanglar has a constant reminder of this trade-off in Juanchaco, the community through which you must pass to get to either La Plata or the tourist Mecca of Ladrilleros. The beach is littered with trash and the community center is mostly taken up by nightclubs and hotels. Traditional ways of life have been compromised by a tourism-based economy and the environment has suffered from overuse.

In a conversation about marketing strategy, specifically attracting tourists from Ladrilleros and Juanchaco to Bahía Málaga, Santiago made clear that he has no interest in entertaining the kind of tourists that frequent these communities, clarifying that “no queremos turismo de sol y playa en La Plata (we don’t want the kind of tourism that is focused on beach and sun in La Plata).” In short, responsible ethno and eco tourism is Santiago’s goal.

Ecomanglar’s mission reflects this goal: “we seek to contribute to the wellbeing of the inhabitants of La Plata-Bahía Málaga through the conservation of biological and cultural diversity.” They seek to accomplish this social mission by offering tourists the opportunity to experience the traditional activities of Bahía Málaga focusing in eco and ethno tourism.

This mission is not far from becoming a reality. Ecomanglar has completed construction on a cabin (with capacity for 21 tourists), a restaurant, and within the last year the government of Colombia constructed an Internet kiosk (without which my presence here would have been much less useful). Ecomanglar now faces two main challenges: attracting tourists and earning profit.

This year Ecomanglar has the goal of hosting 100 tourists, but until recently it has limited its marketing efforts, thinking rightly that they should concentrate on improving basic infrastructure and human capital. One of the main barriers to attracting tourists is La Plata’s relative remoteness. While La Plata is not all that rural as the crow flys (it is only about 10 kilometers if you draw a straight line from Buenaventura), one must make the trip from Buenaventura by boat. This trip can take more than two hours. Much of my work has focused on expanding marketing efforts (working with the government tourism office, and creating a fancy new website and various other marketing materials).

Their other main challenge is also related to transportation. Gasoline is by far Ecomanglar’s largest cost. The trip to and from Juanchaco and transportation to the various attractions inside the bay cut into Ecomanglar’s profits and make it hard to compete with large tourism operators. Yoon, my colleague from Columbia, has worked hard to analyze the potential profits for each tourism product offered by Ecomanglar. In order to design tourist products that are both competitive and generate profit, she found, Ecomanglar should work to attract larger groups and find ways to reduce transportation costs.

So, the question is: how do you attract large groups of tourists and cut costs all while making sure that the people who visit do not have a destructive impact on the local culture and environment (maybe I should have done an MBA instead of a MPA in development practice)? And, more to the point, how do you ensure that the expansion of tourism contributes to the wellbeing and development of the community as a whole (more on this in my next post)?

No nos consideramos pobres

Hoover came to Bahía Málaga as a community organizer from Buenaventura to help organize the effort to gain title to the land on which the people of La Plata, Mangaña, Sierpe, and Miramar had lived for decades under the collective property rights granted to them by Ley 70. He fell in love with the people of the bay and decided to stay and now serves as the legal representative of the Consejo Comunitario de Bahía Málaga. Wearing his distinctive rasta-colored beanie, people would recognize and call out to him from hundreds of yards away. It was clear that he was a respected leader in the community.

In the first week of our stay in La Plata, Hoover was our main point of contact with the community. One night about a week into our stay, Rosángela – a fellow student from UniAndes – and I were up late taking to him. Rosangela, who was not one to mince words, asked pointedly about poverty in the four veredas (towns) of the bay. “No nos consideramos pobres (We don’t consider ourselves poor),” he responded poignantly.

In many ways life in the bay is rich. The people are happy and friendly. Malnutrition is nonexistent due to the ready supply of fish, piangua (a species of mollusk), and fruit (mostly plantain). The conflict between guerrillas and the government barely touched this region, largely because the bay is surrounded by military bases. Life here ebbs an flows with the rise and fall of tide. There is no 9-5 schedule, but the people are often up before dawn to do one of the four main economic activities (all four of which are extractive/not sustainable): fish, gather piangua, cut wood, and hunt forest animals. The organization I’m working for this summer is fostering ecotourism as an alternative to these traditional extractive industries, to preserve the distinct culture of the bay and to conserve the environment (more on this point later).

Below the surface, however, there are numerous weakness that reduce the quality of life in the bay and result in negative development indicators. Chief among these debilities is difficulty in transportation, which has cascading effects on all other aspects of development. The high cost of petroleum (propellors use a lot of gas) limits mobility between veredas and reduces access to markets outside the bay (primarily in Buenaventura).

Health is another concern. The four communities share one promotora (the Colombian equivalent of a community health worker) posted in La Plata who rarely makes the costly trips to visit the other three veredas. The nearest community health center is in Juanchaco – a nearly 45 minute boat ride away – and due to a lack of capacity, maintenance and supplies it is scarcely better than no health center at all. In an emergency, members of the community rely on the good graces of the naval base – a 30 minute boat ride away – but the relationship with the naval base has been strained lately due to a tightening of budgets that has limited the capacity of the base and the lack of a legal mandate for the naval base to attend all but the most severe medical emergencies.

While every vereda in Bahía Málaga has a school, education is another factor that has severely limited development in the bay. In most cases, there is only one teacher per school (only La Plata has two teachers) who must teach all grade levels at once. If students wish to finish secondary school they must take classes in La Plata, and if they wish to finish high school they must move to Buenaventura. Classes are only in session for four days a week (Mondays and Fridays are half days) and are frequently canceled due to inclement weather or other factors that inhibit the teachers’ ability to make the trip from Buenaventura every week.

Finally, most veredas in the bay lack basic sanitation. The only house in La Plata with a septic system is the tourist’s cabin. The negative impacts of a lack of sanitary systems are mitigated in the communities that lie at the water’s edge because twice a month the marea alta (high tide) inundates the ground underneath the stilted houses, washing away most of the disease-bearing refuse. Communities built on higher ground, like La Sierpe and Miramar, are less vulnerable to weather-related disasters, but are at greater risk sanitation-related problems. Miramar, the newest and most organized community, has attempted to solve this problem by installing latrines in every house. All three veredas have raised rainwater collection tanks, but because they depend on rain for drinking water they are vulnerable to drought.

Health challenges in Bahía Málaga

Before leaving for Colombia, I reassured my family with the fact that there is a naval base within sight (about a 30 minute boat ride) from the community where I would be staying. And if anything were to happen to me I would be a phone call and an airlift away from the best health care the Colombian navy could offer.

Today, I got a first-hand reality check on how naive I had been and how truly difficult healthcare is in the four communities of the Community Council of Bahía Málaga:

After lunch, a boat arrived at full speed. My first thought was that my fellow students were retuning from a trip to scout out a land-based route to the Sierpe waterfall, which is only accessible by boat during high tide (marea alta). When the whole community came running out of their homes, it became clear that something was wrong.

Men, women, children, and even dogs crowded the dock to find out what had happened. A man had been hit by the branch of a tree as it fell, splitting his head open. The boat he had arrived in was old and the motor didn’t have enough fuel to make it to the naval base.

Fifteen minutes and quite a bit of drama passed before the group decided not to transfer the wounded man to another boat. Instead, they filled the engine of the existing boat with gas and sped as fast as the crippled craft could take them toward the naval base. My mind returned to a lesson that my Global Health Systems Professor, Dr. Singh, had taught about how time was a critical consideration in the creation of responsive emergency health systems. There are no community health posts in the Community Council of Bahía Málaga and La Plata, the community in which I reside, is the only community with a “promotora de salud” – Colombia’s version of a Community Health Worker. And the disorder at the dock made it clear that there was no emergency response protocol.

As the boat sped away and I felt a sense of relief. Maybe they could make it to the naval base in time to save that poor man’s life. My heart sunk when, fifteen minutes later, the boat returned with one person bailing out water. The pin that holds the propellor on had broken. The community again gathered around the doc and a man from the community who had already the mad the sprint down the beach with a motor once before – during the cacophony of the boat’s first arrival – made the trip a second time, mounting the motor on a newer boat. Fifteen more minutes passed before they were off again, en route to the naval base in the hopes that they weren’t too late to save the man’s life.

Update: the man made it to the base, was attended, and is in stable condition.

Arriving at La Plata

The landing gear extended as the small propellor airplane prepared to descend into Buenaventura. Looking out the window, I was struck by the drastic change of scenery. The andean highlands of Bogota, characterized by vast urban areas and extensive agriculture in the valleys between steep mountains, was replaced by a dense tropical paradise that looked more like a diorama than a real city. From above, I could barely pick out the brown houses within the thick layer of green.

Even before the air-tight seal of the airplane cabin was cracked open, I could feel the heat penetrating the windows. Colombians divide their territory into two categories: the andean highlands are known as tierra caliente and the tropical lowlands are known as tierra fria.

The hour-long boat-ride from Buenaventura took us through the choppy water of the Pacific, around a jagged coastline that reminded me of Thailand, and into the flat, calm waters of Bahía Málaga. Getting up to speed, our boat jolted to a stop. We had hit the bajos – an enormous area of the bay that is just barely covered with water during low tide. After calling for a rescue boat, we waited nearly thirty minutes for the tide to rise enough to inch our way through deeper channels of the bajos.

Arriving to the community of La Plata, the first thing you notice is a sky blue fiberglass dock that is moored in place with fluorescent orange polls. Wooden houses dot a 300 yard stretch of beach on the island. Walking down the dock, you must pass by the restaurant. Hungry from an early morning and a long day of travel, our group (two Columbia students, and six UniAndes students) were treated to a generous helping of piangua ceviche – a mollusk that grows in abundance among the mangrove forests of Bahía Málaga. The cabin, in which I would be spending the large part of the next two months, is about thirty paces from the restaurant. A quick glance around the cabin revealed enough room for approximately twenty visitors, two toilets with a working septic system, a sink, four showers (two per gender) with rain-water fed showers, and mosquito netting covering each bed.

After a few days it became clear that the promising shower system was rarely functional, but each shower also comes equipped with a drum filled with rain water and plastic bucket that work nearly as well and use quite a bit less water. Bahía Málaga is one of the wettest places on Earth and therefore does not require a complex water system to provide fresh water. Rooftops and barrels throughout the town are modified to collect as much rainwater as possible.

The two Colombias

It was already dark by the time I arrived in Bogota. I was extremely grateful that Monica, the sister of a friend of a friend in Boulder, had agreed to wait for me at the airport. The flight had arrived 15 minutes before the scheduled 9:35pm arrival time, but because of walkway malfunction, it wasn’t until well after 10:00pm that I was able to get my bag and find Monica waiting patiently in the airport lobby. Luckilly my letter from the Universidad de los Andes (UniAndes) – one of the most prestigious and expensive universities in Colombia – made my passage through immigration and customs easy, otherwise I might not have made it out of the airport by midnight.

I apologized for the delay and told Monica about the broken-down walkway. “Bienvenido a mi país desordenado (Welcome to my disorganized country),” she said as she explained that the airport was brand new, but that things rarely run smoothly in Colombia.

This fundamental contradiction between development and inequality, discord and prosperity is a theme that came up again and again throughout my first few days in Colombia. Everywhere you look there are two Colombias, the one for the rich and the one for the poor.

This stark divide is visible across the city: in the heavy security that separates the city from UniAndes (which Monica described as another world “otro mundo”), in the squatter neighborhood that stands like a disorganized pile of rubble against the backdrop of a billion-dollar residential development, and most dramatically in the north (rich)/ south (poor) divide that splits Bogota in half.

Monica, while dropping me off at my hostel in La Candelaria, told that she rarely ever goes to the center of the city, and while she didn’t say it explicitly she implied that the area to the south of the center was not an area she would consider visiting.

Later, on top of Monserrate, after hearing of the north/south divide from our tour guide, Andres, my fellow classmate and traveller, Olivia Snarski, waxed philosophical: “That’s so interesting, I want to wright a novel about a tragic love story between the north and south,” she said evoking images of in my mind of Romeo and Juliet and he West Side Story – classic tales if star-crossed lovers.

The socio-economic stratification in Colombia not just informal, it is also institutionalized in the country’s progressive tax code. People receive a tax ranking on a scale of one to six, one being the poor (like those living in the squatter settlements I described above) and six being the ultra rich (those who can afford to send their children to UniAndes without a scholarship). This score is based in part on ones income and in part on the neighborhood in which you live. Andres said that even if his ecotourism business were to take off and he started making fistfuls of money, he would still be considered a level two because he is a rent-payer living in Candelaria. Both Monica and Andres used this scale to describe the neighborhoods we passed as we traversed the city on our respective tours.

It has only been a week since I landed in Bogota. First impressions abound. Ask me again in two months whether these impressions stand up to the test of time.

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Here goes something

Driving to the airport this morning, a massive cloud burst drenched the road about 15 miles around Boulder. Torrents of water gushed over the highway making driving difficult. After a week of sunny weather while visiting family in Colorado, I could only imagine that this was Mother Nature’s way of giving me a reality check on what to expect for the rest of my summer working and traveling in Colombia.

Having my mom with me on the morning drive to the airport has become somewhat of an unofficial tradition. The last time we made the trip together I was on my way to the concrete jungle of New York City to begin my first semester at Columbia’s School of International Public Affairs (SIPA). This time I’m off to another sort of jungle – the mangrove forest that surrounds Bahía Málaga, Colombia.

As we drove through the downpour I could tell that my mom, a world traveler and adventure seeker in her own right, was trying not to be too nervous for me. “Well, it’s not like we haven’t prepared you for this sort of thing,” she said more to calm herself than to reassure me.

Since as long as I can remember my mom, a retired school teacher, would take her summers off to travel with me. Unlike many tourists who go to Central America to stay in gated resorts, we would stay in the eight-dollar-per-night hostels and travel by local bus, seeking authentic foreign experiences off the “gringo trail.”

“Mom,” I replied, “I think you’ve actually pre-disposed me to this sort of thing.”

(Don’t worry dad, our backpacking trips in the Colorado wilderness and on the Appalachian Trail are also to blame.)

I’d be lying, however, if I failed to admit that I am also a bit nervous. My summer field placement (aka internship) will begin with a week-long orientation at the University of the Andes. My visit will then take a swift and decisive turn off the gringo trail. From Bogota, I will fly to Cali (home of the once-notorious Cali Cartel), take a bus to Buenaventura (Colombia’s most important port city and also one of its most dangerous), hop two boats to Bahía Málaga (a secluded bay that is visited by more humpback whales than tourists). My final destination is close to a Colombian naval base that features relics of the increasingly high-tech illegal drug trade. Progressively more complex boats and submarines, built by drug lords to smuggle cocaine, are displayed like rotting carcasses – a testament to Colombia’s decades-long internal conflict.

Hidden along the banks of the various tributaries that funnel into the bay are numerous afro-Colombian communities. Bahía Málaga is one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet due to the high number of endemic species, but the people who live there are also among the poorest – with poor infrastructure, low numeracy and literacy, and high maternal mortality.

These afro-Colombian communities primarily subsist through agricultural and extractive activities (mining, logging and fishing), but the pristine natural environment that surrounds them provides enormous potential for ecotourism – not to mention that Bahía Málaga is the number one calving ground for humpback whales in the world. The goal of my field placement is to identify and develop opportunities to grow the ecotourism industry as a source of income for local communities.

I can’t begin to describe how I feel about the opportunities, challenges, and uncertainties that undoubtedly await me…nervous is an understatement, but with the help of my colleagues (Yoon – a fellow SIPA student – and Rosangela – a Colombian student) I’m confidant that we can make a valuable contribution to the sustainable development of Bahía Málaga.

It’s times like these that I’m reminded of the final Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, and Calvin’s last words: “It’s a magical world, Hobbes ol’ buddy…lets go exploring.”

Calvin and Hobbes