State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Bottom-Up Sustainability: The Case of Altavista in Medellin, Colombia

woman and children in a garden
Marisol (in the hat), the project leader for a community garden in Altavista, Medellin. The children were talking about the garden and describing how their lives have changed since the project started.

Sustainability is a practical matter. That means that it should be a part of what we do in our everyday lives. Often, governments try to satisfy this need, but they face three main obstacles: 1) the legitimacy of their actions; 2) a lack of presence in the territory (through agents, schools, hospitals, and other social services); and 3) other externalities such as budget, meteorological circumstances, and so on. All three issues are particularly important with respect to sustainable practices. However, the second is usually overlooked while discussing different sustainability options.

There are several aspects that might increase the complexity of applying sustainable practices in a territory: geographical complexity, demographic density, technical and technological issues, environmental hazards, and so on. But these aspects are challenging only from a top-down perspective — applying the same approach to a manifold of territories is a nearly impossible task, because there are just so many variables that might impede roll out and adoption. Instead, one might investigate the possibilities that emerge from adopting a bottom-up perspective, which changes the perspective to not the provision of something, but the interaction that emerges from it. Any bottom-up perspective should not depart from the capabilities that the community already has, or the practices that they already engage in.

people working in a garden
Student volunteers working in the community garden. The garden is composed of many types of vegetables and medicinal herbs.

A practical case might help to clarify. Medellin, Colombia is a complex city — a unique mix of violence, social inequality, sense of community, empathy towards the less fortunate, and so on. The city is a melting pot for non-conventional approaches to governance. Its geographical complexity further adds to this melting pot; Medellin is composed of 30% urban area and 70% rural area. If the central administration focused solely on urban development (which is oftentimes the case), 70% of the territory would end up with policies not really suited for them. This is certainly the case for Altavista, one of the commonly forgotten territories of Medellin. How would a bottom-up approach impact Altavista?

Since 2018, researchers at Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana, in collaboration with colleagues at the Castleberry Peace Institute at the University of North Texas, have been working to gather information about the existing capabilities of the Altavista community. Sustainability remains one of our main concerns. We have tried to facilitate projects that the Altavista community has already thought of, but at first, we were not exactly sure how to develop them and we needed to fundraise. One of the projects we founded was a community garden that perfectly exemplifies the bottom-up approach.

This garden is located at the back of a school and is taken care of by members of the community, as well as the children who attend the school. While taking care of the garden, the Altavista community gains food security, adequate nourishment for the children, and knowledge of sustainable harvesting practices. They gain the skills to replicate the process in their own homes and promote and the continuation of ancient cultural practices i.e., vida campesina. There are even alternatives to healthcare, as the garden is filled as well with medicinal herbs that have been used for decades. Moreover, the garden provides some small surplus that is sometimes exchanged for compost or other materials.

Admittedly, the Altavista community will not be completely transformed by such a small project as a community garden, but it is at least a first step towards a communitarian governance that acknowledges the practices that would help them become sustainable.

group of people standing in a garden
James Meernik, director of the Castleberry Peace Institute at University of North Texas, with some of the leaders harvesting lettuce.

Simón Ruiz-Martínez is a 2021 CMM Learning Exchange Fellow and currently a Ph.D. candidate in Political and Juridical Studies at Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana. Alongside the Youth, Peace and Security program at Columbia University’s Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict and Complexity, Simón has been working to understand how everyday deeds and actions of people in a community shape and determine the concept of security.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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