Empowering minority groups: small farmers, indigenous groups and people of African descent, in the coffee area in Colombia.

 

In Quechua, an indigenous language,

“Minka” means “in community and for the community”

and  “Lab” stands for laboratory.

MinkaLab was founded in 2014 as a charitable organisation in Cologne, Germany. The socio-cultural project is the fruit of the collaboration between a group of committed Colombians from the Risaralda region and German artists.

 


 Minkalab

Minkalab supports the exchange of traditional and technical knowledge among equals, the development of a stable social network, the strengthening of local skills, innovative projects and cultural diversity in order to tackle issues of local priority.

The lack of autonomy and the lack of access to decent living in the countryside, the loss of biodiversity, the cultural and social isolation in rural areas in Colombia, have encouraged us to create a platform to exchange knowledge. Among other activities, MinkaLab has set up an annual meeting, with free entrance fees, to empower minority groups : small farmers, indigenous groups and Afro-Colombians, in the rural region of Risaralda in Colombia.

 


 ANALYSIS OF SITUATION

 

The rural areas of Colombia are often socially and culturally highly isulated. As a result of many years of armed conflict in Colombia, there is also mistrust between social groups, making social exchange and cooperation difficult. There is almost no regional network. The rural areas have limited and poorly maintained roads. They also lack a stable access to public sources of knowledge, such as the Internet or libraries, which limits their access to education and opportunities for exchange. The direct consequences of this are the loss of cultural knowledge on the one hand and the migration to the cities on the other hand.

The increasingly difficult economic situation is another reason for rural exodus. Since Colombia has entered the free trade agreement with the United States (2012) and the EU (2013), cheap food from abroad is increasingly being imported. As a result, the need for locally produced staple food (by the rural population) dropped significantly. Since the rural population mainly lives of the revenue coming from agricultural production, peasants found the agreements particularly difficult to accept. The US-Colombia free trade agreement caused an average income loss of 16 percent on the already difficult living situation. (Garay S. L.J, Barberi G., F., and Cardona L., I . (2009, Sept). Impact of the US-Colombia FTA on the small farm economy in Colombia )

In addition, in the face of increasing international price pressure, peasants turned to monoculture as it supposedly promises higher yields. As monocultures require more space, investors forced small holders and local residents to leave their land. Among the displaced population, the indigenous and Afro-Colombian people represent a disproportionately large part. According to a report by the indigenous organization ONIC, 64 of 102 indigenous peoples living in Colombia are threatened of extinction.

Through exploitation of the land where indigenous peoples live, the land becomes degraded and polluted and much of its biodiversity is lost. Since indigenous peoples are dependent on the land and its biodiversity, a life on this land is no longer possible for them. The people are forced to move elsewhere, usually without any compensation. This is the situation we have observed in the region of Risaralda in western Colombia. The population of Risaralda lives mainly of agriculture, especially the cultivation of coffee, cassava and plantains, and to a lesser extent, of livestock. The problems faced in Risaralda are similar across different regions, however there is no cooperation among people and each individual is facing these difficulties on their own.

 


 TARGET GROUP

The Target groups of the MinkaLab project are indigenous local groups  (3-5% DANE 2005), small farmers and the Afro-Colombian communities (16-20% of the DANE 2005) in the Risaralda region. To fight the isolation of these groups, we have opened the participation also to people from urban areas and as well to Colombian and international scientists and artists. This shall cause a direct exchange of different knowledge, from local to global knowledge and from traditional ecological techniques to modern technologies.

Thanks to the 2014 Minkalab meeting, we have built close bonds and a network among the residents of the region and the groups of Colombian artists and innovators.

 


 METHODOLOGY

Open platform for innovative output…

Participants have the opportunity to interact in a neutral place to work together on projects and to develop together new and sustainable ideas for the future of the region.

Our annual meeting is the source of multiple projects and activities. With the exchange held during the festival and on a regular basis during the year, we want to help a stable network grow among social groups of the region; based on tolerance and equality of different forms of knowledge that come together in the context of the festival. The perspectives of the different participants will be presented and debated in direct dialogues in order to understand each other’s issues.

The events offer the possibility to share one’s position or ideas, to give impetus to others and develop social skills. Through group discussion, some new or hybrid knowledge forms are generated. In sociology, it can be referred to as “bricolage”: taking concepts coming from different places or cultures and built a new one instead. Bricolage is said to be more suited to local contexts than outside colonial or western concepts because they incorporate parts of local institutions/concepts. The group dynamic developed during the festival through team work and brain storming will allow a participative and innovative output.

The luxurius natural environment of the finca allows to sensitize participants to the preservation of biodiversity. In previous years, we noticed that this environment has had a marked influence on the behavior of participants. This also allows for workshops related to agriculture and nature.

Cooperating with key collaborators…

We expect an increased interest in the work of MinkaLab and cooperation from the Colombian state. We want to deepen cooperation with public institutions such as UMATA  (a local public organization for agriculture technical support) and universities in Colombia. The festival last year has shown that there is a great interest in our work and openness to our project.

The participants of the festival also can contribute to spread the word, communicating on both the content of the workshops and MinkaLab itself in the region and beyond. The School of Graphic Design of the University Autonoma de Pereira, for example, supports the festival and is in charge of the publications to publicize the project idea.

The collective platform, which grows steadily should counter the aforementioned issues (loss of diversity, social insulation, etc). More than an emergency and short-term response, Minkalab seeks to bring long-term and preventive sustainable solutions.

OUTLOOK FOR THE FUTURE: SUSTAINABILITY OF MINKALAB

With MinkaLab we want to strengthen existing structures. We want to build an active network upheld by the people themselves. To enable the sustainability of the project in 2015 and beyond, we will be processing the data obtained in the workshop findings and make the information available online.

The events will be recorded and distributed online so that both participants and enthusiasts have the opportunity to access the material. All publications will be written in Spanish and English. Other more accessible media will also be made available (video, audio, photos, etc).

With the support of the Internet we hope to build a solid network that enables participants to plan and realize future projects and activities themselves in the long-term.

Some of the initiatives born during the meeting on January 2014 and that we are willing to develop in a near future are:

  • Set up a long-term seed bank to preserve potentially extinct endemic crops. The seed laws in Colombia favour multinational corporations. As an example, breeding, exchange, storage, or sale of seed not certified by the state is considered illegal since 2010 (Regulation 970). Unfortunately, some old plants which have adapted and grown successfully for over centuries in the region, have already started to disappear.
  • Identify, preserve and promote Colombia’s intangible patrimony.
  • Do an inventory of the local biodiversity and publish the result. Promote the use of native and medicinal plants for prevention and healing, and also for preserving natural places.
  • To be a great place for the social exchange between different groups, we want to expand the finca’s infrastructure and make it available to the largest number of people, using environmentally friendly materials.