By Thomas Macintyre and Martha Chaves

The Colombian case study of the T-Learning project is based on expansive learning interactions across bioregional contexts. The focus is on how civil-society based networks are promoting processes which address nexus challenges of water-food-energy-social justice. Specifically, we are following emerging bioregional networks promoted by the Council of Sustainable Settlements in the Americas (CASA) and the Colombian Convergence of Permaculture (CCP). These networks are self-organized and self-financed, and because of their focus on social change, as well as reflexive learning, provide a useful platform from which to explore types of learning which can better address the above nexus concerns in the Colombian context.

Context of post-conflict reconstruction and a bioregional approach

As demonstrated through early stages of fieldwork, the overall context of this case study are the processes of peace and post-conflict reconstruction in Colombia, which are strongly related to the nexus of social and environmental justice. On October 1, 2016, the country will hold a plebiscite on whether to approve the signed peace accord, with for example the CASA network uniting around and promoting the vote for “SI” (YES). Should the overall vote be a YES, then 50 years of internal war will officially come to an end, and Colombia will begin the processes of post-conflict reconstruction.

Beyond this overall social justice nexus, an important geographical context has come up through active participatory research carried out this year in the network gatherings above CASA (30 June – 7 July) and the CCP (13-17 July). Considering the relatively large size of Colombia, and its high biocultural diversity, there is an increasing recognition that to be more effective in promoting social change, one needs to work at multiple levels. A focus is therefore being placed on bioregional networks alongside the national networks of CASA and CCP, and the work of individual initiatives. Bioregionalism is a concept that goes beyond political boundaries, taking into account political, cultural and ecological systems, stressing local knowledge and solutions in a more integrated fashion. The focus on bioregional networks is an experiment put forward by CASA and CCP, with the contention that through promoting bioregional networks, action-based change will be more effective. Through participatory methodologies during the above mentioned network gatherings the following bioregions are being formed:

1. Bioregión Caribe (Caribbean bioregion), comprising the Northern Coast of Colombia.
2. Bioregión los Montañeros (“Mountain people”, as the people coming from the mountain regions of the north of Colombia were called long ago), comprising the departments of Antióquia and Santander.
3. Bioregión Macizo acogedor (“Cozy Massif” this is a geographical mountain node in the south where the andes divide in the three mountain chains that cross Colombia), comprising the regions surrounding the massif Nariño, Cauca, Huila and Putumayo.
4. Bioregión Muisca-Bakatá (Muisca is the name of the indigenous original people from the center of Colombia and Bakatá is the indigenous name of Bogotá), comprising the departments of (Cundinamarca, Boyacá, Tolima)
5. Bioregión Quimbaya: (Quimbaya is the name of the indigenous original people of the coffee region of Colombia), comprises the departments of Caldas, Quindío and Risaralda.

Preliminary information on the nexus issues

The nexus issue in the Colombian case is social and environmental justice centered on post-conflict peace construction. In regards to this, a fundamental issue addressed by CASA and CCP is the need for new pedagogies based on epistemologies of the south for the construction of territorial peace addressing issues of (re)territorialization, ontological justice, the rebuilding of social fabric and territorial defense from mega projects such mining, infrastructure and hydroelectrical dams. This involves creating spaces for learning – intercultural and often practice based – which can aid in rebuilding social and environmental relations, as well as promoting social movements to resist the above neoliberal projects.

Important in this respect is the recognition that the multitude of complex and interwoven socio-ecological challenges which Colombia face will not be resolved simply through the signing of peace. Intricately related to the issue of social justice are nexus issues of food and water sovereignty in the context of climate change, as well as rural hegemonic development. Examples in the network is the environmental degradation of biodiversity loss brought about by monoculture of non-native food crops, and the dangers of GMOs, especially in regards to the issues of native seed sovereignty. This is related to the adverse effects of climate change manifested in drought and flooding, where there is increasing recognition that native varieties of plants, and traditional/communal practices provide innovative strategies for combating environmental impacts. There are, however, socio-political aspects which act as structural barriers to realizing these ideas and practices. Public policies, for example, limit seed sovereignty through regulating the use of seeds (farmers may not reuse seeds but must buy them from accredited organisations (read: Monsanto)).

Insight into the T-learning challenges gained so far

Through exploratory semi-structured interviews during CASA and CCP gatherings, it is apparent that participants experience these intercultural events as transformative in terms of challenging value and belief systems, as well as spaces for building alliances. The extent to which these transformations affect structural barriers, however, is very unclear. What are the greater impacts of these networks in terms of addressing hegemonies of power? One insight is that a means to explore the ‘transgressive’ nature of these transformations in the network is to follow concrete ‘projects’ at the bioregional level (along with national events), emphasising that addressing and challenging structural barriers is a long-term process, which must be based on action, not discourse.

As a research process it is therefore important to include methodologies such as action research which not only follow the networks, but also promotes change and improvements so as to better understand how the network as a social movement works in practice. This methodology, however, can be challenging as it is time consuming and demands a lot from the researcher as it means continually balancing between the researcher-subject divide.

An insight is also that unlike political boundaries, bioregions are not predetermined but socially constructed, and therefore allow for participatory mapping by co-researchers and subjects, where the emphasis on the co-production of knowledge is important. However, bioregions are dynamic, they can change and evolve, making the case more complex, and demanding a more flexible and adaptive approach.

Fundación Mentes en Transición

September 2016