By Natalia Luque Sánchez, ESRAG Latin America Correspondent

Photos used by permission of Corporación Autónoma Regional del Alto Magdalena CAM

Colombia has been suffering from internal armed conflict for more than 60 years between the state, guerrillas, and paramilitaries, aggravated by drug cartels. The fighting has been devastating for the civilian population. An estimated 220,000 people  – at least 177,000 of them non-combatants – have died as a result of the conflict.  Rotarians and Rotaractors are restoring land and livelihoods in Colombia by helping to reconcile former enemies through habitat restoration and beekeeping.

After many setbacks and difficulties, a peace agreement was signed in 2016 between the government and one of the main guerrilla groups. One of the many regions affected by the conflict is in the area surrounding the Siberia Ceibas Regional Natural Park in a state called Huila in Colombia.

Carlos Alberto Muñoz, spokesman for the project from the Neiva Las Ceibas Rotary Club, tells us how the inhabitants of this area suffered from the armed confrontation. Bombings, forced displacement, arbitrary detentions, disappearances, and children being forced by guerrillas to fight in the war were the reality of the rural communities in this area for more than 40 years.

He explains that the region was environmentally wracked by  illegal mining and extensive cattle ranching, causing deforestation, contamination of the waters of the area’s river basins and loss of biodiversity. As a strategy to begin to mitigate the damage in the region, the Siberia Ceibas Regional Natural Park reserve was created in an area of 27,104 hectares. The communities were then trapped in a reserve zone, on unproductive or small plots of land, where they are only able to make limited use of their traditional agricultural practices and can only partially meet their food needs.

The Neiva Las Ceibas Rotary and Rotaract Clubs, wanting to help reforest the degraded areas and find ways to support the economy of the villagers, visited and consulted the local community. In the midst of the incredible beauty of the Park, they found areas with great environmental damage. Non-combatants were coexisting there with former guerrilla fighters who had victimized them.

The Rotarians were moved by the stories of these villagers, who, despite the years of pain and fear, are beginning to rebuild their lives. They are working to forgive and forget the past and want to build a new future. Together with the community the Rotarians and Rotaractors developed an inspiring Global Grant Project called “Reconciliation with life and the environment”.

The Club describes their initial project and its second phase (both in need of funding), as a way of putting into action two of Rotary’s areas of interest, Community Economic Development and Environmental Protection. However after a couple of inspiring and moving chats with Carlos to make this report, I realized that they were modest in describing the scope of their project. They will address at least three more Rotary Areas of Focus:  promoting peace, promoting education, and providing clean wáter.  I’m sure you are wondering how they are going to accomplish all of that in one project?

Joining forces with the Miami Brickell RC Club of District 6990, the Neiva Mayor’s Office, the APISRED Company,  the Corporación Autónoma Regional del Alto Magdalena CAM (the regional environmental authority) and the active participation of the community and former combatants, they will carry out a reforestation project in an area of 20 hectares in the Park’s zone of influence. They will also plant native melliferous species with the potential to attract bees.

This type of reforestation will be vital to recover not only the forest areas lost due to the war, deforestation and illegal mining, but will also help

restoring land and livelihoods in Colombia

protect the watersheds of nine rivers, one of which provides drinking water to the capital of the region (Neiva, Huila).

It will further restore biodiversity through the recovery, reproduction and conservation of bees in ideal environmental conditions essential in the processes of pollen dispersion and therefore in the regeneration and ecological succession of the forest. The reforestation will be carried out by local residents and former combatants, who will receive training and technical support from the Corporation and financial compensation for their work.

In the second phase “Siberia Ceibas, Beehive of Economic Development”, the villagers will create 30 apiaries, with a total of 480 beehives, which will be placed in different parts of the Regional Natural Park. Victims and former combatants will work on the beekeeping project, for which they will receive training on assembling hives and how to correctly harvest and process honey and other derivatives,. They will also get support for the promotion and marketing of the final products.

The Park will benefit from the recovery of the forest and pollinators, and the community will be able to see that a different future is possible through their work. They will be able to find reconciliation mechanisms through teamwork, while generating additional income to support their families.

This inspiring project reminds us that working as a team, we as Rotarians and Rotaractors can generate an immense and lasting impact on communities, transform their realities and learn from the resilience of these people and of Nature in which -despite all the damage we can cause – life can always be reborn again.

If you want to support this incredible project, you can contact the Neiva Las Ceibas Rotary Club, email Club President María del Rosario Romero or Vice President Carlos Alberto Muñoz . For the Rotary Club of Miami Brickell, email Natalia Numa.

If you are in Latin America and you want your environmental project to be published in this publication, do not hesitate to email us.