On Ricardo Mena’s first humanitarian mission with the United Nations in April 1994, the only way to fly over southwestern Colombia’s Valle del Cauca was by police helicopter. Mena had been assigned to track indigenous Nasa displaced by the Páez River earthquake, but an eager police officer kept leaning over to photograph the poppy fields below.
After centuries of colonial exploitation the Nasa, who live in the foothills of the Andes, were enmeshed in a 50-year battle between the national government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), who value their land as a highly strategic drug-trafficking corridor.
But the devastation Mena saw from the helicopter had little to do with the drug trade. Days before, the earthquake had sent mudslides careening down the sides of the Cauca’s mountainous terrain into the Páez River below. “It was as if a tiger had scratched the earth,” said Mena. “It was right at the end of the rainy season that the earthquake happened, and it took away all the vegetation that covered the mountains.”
The mulch of mud, trees and water engulfed 15 Nasa settlements in the river basin and killed some 1,100 Nasa people unable to evacuate to higher ground.
While areas like Valle del Cauca, located on the Pacific rim of fire, remain vulnerable to natural hazards, humanitarian disasters such as that which befell the Nasa in 1994 are preventable.
On April 18 2007, Colombia’s highest volcano Nevado del Huila erupted, melting part of the glacier that usually caps it. Avalanches swept away roads, bridges, crops and animals, and once again hurled mudflows into the Páez and Simbola Rivers below. Like in 1994, the ongoing war meant that Nasa land was still replete with communications and security challenges; this time, however, there was no loss of life.
What had changed in the 13 years between the Páez River Earthquake and the Nevado del Huila Volcano eruption to enable the Nasa to endure such natural hazards? And how could lessons learned here help other remote or politically sensitive areas to become more resilient?
To consider such questions, Mena, now head of the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) regional office for Latin America and the Caribbean, and Simon Rogers of Japanese NGO Peace Boat’s Disaster Volunteer Center hosted a delegation of seven promoters of the UNISDR Making Cities Resilient Campaign as Peace Boat sailed between Valparaiso, Chile and Callao, Peru.
The campaign, launched by the UN in 2010, aims to engage individual municipalities in disaster risk reduction. Originally spread through city mayors who could sign up to become Campaign Champions, Mena’s Latin American office selected additional volunteer campaign promoters who were already carrying out exemplary Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) work in their respective fields.
Among the promoters who participated in Peace Boat’s onboard program were Ana Lucy Bengochea Martinez, a specialist in mapping vulnerable communities from Honduras, economist Javier González Müller from Uruguay, Nadeisdha Cisneros, an architect and town planner from Nicaragua, university professor Lorena Vargas from Costa Rica, Sidnei Fernandes, a director of Brazil’s Civil Defense in the Campinas region, and Chilean environmental engineer Susana Irene Fuentez Riquelme.
DRR is now recognized as an integral part of the sustainable development agenda, however according to Colombian promoter Henry Peralta, it is also inextricably linked with conflict resolution. “Peace is not possible just by ending the war with one of the [agents] of the conflict; peace starts with social justice and with the development of opportunities,” he said through an interpreter. “The government creates different risks in the territory. For that reason, peace is a tool that lets us strengthen resilience.”
During a discussion session on Peace Boat, Peralta – a civil engineer turned educator – shared his achievements as Colombia’s campaign promoter: he had built alliances with local and national governments, signed agreements with three municipality associations and 25 municipalities, and secured campaign sponsorship from companies such as Ecopetrol. Much of Peralta’s success has stemmed from lessons learned from his with indigenous communities in southwestern Colombia.
When the Universidad del Valle’s Seismological Observatory of the Southwest detected activity at the Nevado del Huila Volcano in February 2007, Peralta and his colleagues were commissioned to install an early warning system for eruptions and develop an emergency evacuation plan for affected communities. However, Valle de Cauca’s status as a conflict zone and a lack of past government interventions made implementation complex. “The first challenge was to get access to the affected areas, because there wasn’t any communication or any way to contact the Nasa,” Peralta said.
From the start, the observatory’s approach was to build respectful horizontal relationships with the Nasa. Instead of external security firms, for example, Peralta’s group retained indigenous escorts through the mountainous terrain. “The armed groups knew what we were going to do there,” he said. “At the same time there was a disaster situation, so the pressure was decreased.”
But early in the consultative process, Peralta saw that the Nasa could contribute far more than ancillary services.
He began by exploring collective memories of the 1994 Páez River Earthquake. Survivors in different villages told Peralta that they had similar dreams before the earthquake. Nasa ancestors had also advised against building houses in lowland areas of the river basin – advice locals said had been forgotten or ignored.
When the Nevado del Huila Volcano became active in February, some Nasa felt vibrations in their shoulders or legs; others noticed fish dying or changes in the color of river water.
In order to incorporate the Nasa’s intimate knowledge of their land with data from the new observatory, Peralta devised a strategy for disaster risk reduction. His strategy fit into the acronym ROSA, which stood for Recuerdo (memory), Observacion (observation), Sueño (dream) and Algoritmo (algorithms).
Under Peralta’s system, Recuerdo referred to data collected from past seismological activity, but also incorporated collective memory and ancestral knowledge; Sueño gave value to nocturnal and medicinally induced dreams; Observacion meant being attentive to signs in the body and in nature as well as to scientific instrumentation, which Peralta referred to as technological prosthesis. “While indigenous [people] read and feel with the body, scientists wear prosthesis to feel. All the knowledge was shared on the table: their knowledge and our knowledge,” he said.
Every aspect of the evacuation strategy was implemented in tandem with the community: if GPS identified a potentially safe evacuation area, for example, it would be corroborated with traditional Nasa views of the land, and then fortified by protective rituals.
According to Peralta – who formalized his work with indigenous communities in a 2014 paper – application of the plan saved around 5,000 lives in the Valle de Cauca when the Nevado del Huila Volcano erupted in April 1997. In November 2008, some 12,000 people were evacuated when the volcano erupted once again. Extensive instrumentation and effective preparation by the Nasa had again averted large-scale deaths.
Reflecting on the Peace Boat/UNISDR collaborative program, Peralta said that sharing experiences with the other promoters onboard was an important first step in building development processes. “It is not just about reducing risk and it is not just about natural disasters, its also about investment in the social, political, and economic issues and the life quality of the population,” he said.
Peralta’s work in Valle de Cauca – a territory marked by mistrust between indigenous populations, armed groups and the government – demonstrates the success that can be achieved through local ownership of disaster risk reduction strategies, and attests to the value of traditional knowledge of populations with centuries of experience in disaster risk reduction.
According to Peace Boat staff member Suzuki Takayuki, who has worked in Ishinomaki and other areas devastated by the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of 2011, such lessons are also relevant to Japan.
Over one hundred engraved boulders, which date as far back as the Edo period (1600-1867), mark the highpoints of past tsunamis in coastal areas of Japan and caution against building houses in vulnerable locations. However, many of these warnings from the past lay mossy and forgotten in scrubland, or have simply been ignored.
“In Ishinomaki, those stones had been washed away by the tsunami; it was so large that even some of the houses built behind the stones were devastated,” Suzuki said through an interpreter. “But in Miyako, I went up to the hills and there was a stone, and that was the exact line behind which houses and people were saved.”
Suzuki, who led an onboard disaster response training program for 34 passengers, said that he hoped reminding people of what had happened in the earthquake would help avert future disasters in the way engraved ancestral stones were supposed to. “The people who put up those stones were focused on reducing the risk of disaster but at some point the focus shifted to trying to ‘win’ against nature by building stronger foundations for houses and things like that. But then the disaster happened, and we saw that maybe that doesn’t work. I want to focus on reducing risk again, because you can’t win against nature.”
Mena and several of the Making Cities Resilient promoters will attend the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR) in Sendai, Japan this March, sharing their experiences of reducing risk and building resilience. Read more about the conference here.