The case of Altavista in Medellin, Colombia

Bottom-up sustainability: the case of Altavista in Medellin, Colombia

by Simón Ruiz-Martínez
|January 12, 2022

Marisol (in a hat), project manager at the Altavista Community Garden in Medellin. The children talked about the garden and described how their lives have changed since the start of the project.

Sustainability is a practical issue. That means it has to be a part of our daily lives. Governments often try to meet this need, but face three main obstacles: 1) the legitimacy of their actions; 2) lack of presence in the area (through agents, schools, hospitals and other social services); and 3) other externalities such as budget, meteorological conditions, etc. All three issues are particularly important for sustainable practices. However, the latter is usually overlooked when discussing different sustainability options.

There are a number of aspects that can increase the complexity of applying sustainable practices in an area: geographical complexity, demographic density, technical and technological problems, environmental hazards, and so on. But these aspects are challenging only from the top down – applying the same approach in many areas is almost impossible because there are so many variables that can hinder implementation and adoption. Instead, we can look at the possibilities that come from accepting a bottom-up perspective that changes perspective not to provide something but to interact with it. The bottom-up perspective should not deviate from the skills that the community already has or the practices that are already in place.

people working in the garden

Volunteer students working in the community garden. The garden is made up of a variety of vegetables and herbs.

A practical case can help with clarification. Medellin, Colombia is a complex city – a unique blend of violence, social inequality, a sense of community, empathy for the less fortunate, and so on. The city is the melting pot of non-traditional approaches to governance. Its geographical complexity further increases this crucible; Medellin is 30% urban and 70% rural. If the central administration were to focus solely on urban development (which is often the case), 70% of the area would not have a really good policy. This is certainly the case with Altavista, one of the most forgotten areas of Medellin. How would a bottom-up approach affect Altavista?

Since 2018, researchers at Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana have been working with the Castleberry Peace Institute at the University of North Texas to gather information about the existing capabilities of the Altavista community. Sustainability remains one of our main concerns. We tried to promote projects that the Altavista community was already thinking about, but at first we weren’t sure how to develop them and we had to raise funds. One of the projects we founded was a community garden that is a perfect example of a bottom-up approach.

This garden is located in the back of a school and is cared for by members of the community as well as children attending school. By caring for the garden, the Altavista community can gain food safety, proper nutrition for children, and knowledge of sustainable harvesting practices. They acquire the skill to repeat the process in their own home and to promote and pass on ancient cultural practices, i.e. vida campesina. There are even alternatives to health care, as the garden is full of herbs used for decades. Moreover, the garden gives some excess, which is sometimes replaced with compost or other materials.

True, the Altavista community will not be completely transformed by such a small project as a community garden, but it is at least the first step toward a community governance that recognizes practices that help it become sustainable.

group of people standing in the garden

James Meernik, director of the Castleberry Peace Institute at the University of North Texas, reaps some leading salads.

Simón Ruiz-Martínez is a Fellow in the 2021 CMM Learning Exchange and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in political and legal studies at the Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana. In addition to the Youth, Peace, and Security program of Columbia University’s Advanced Consortium for Cooperation, Conflict, and Complexity, Simón works to understand how the everyday deeds and actions of people in the community shape and define security.


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