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close this bookCERES No. 122 (FAO Ceres, 1988, 50 p.)
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Colombia's Green College for the environment

Colombia is a country endowed with rich natural resources, but each year half a million hectares of its forests are destroyed, and its majestic Magdalena River is now so polluted and blocked by sediment that it has reached an all but irreversible state of degradation. Colombia, however, is the country where 40 Concejos verdes, town councils with the job of defending and managing the environment, were set up by Margarita Marino de Botero. Since July 1987, it has also been the site of a trail-blazing experiment, the continent's first school of ecology, set up by Margarita the Green in the seventeenth-century convent of San Francisco in the pretty colonial town of Villa de Leyva.

For its motto, the Green College in Villa de Leyva has taken Goethe's words: "All theory is grey but the tree of life is green and always in flower." Its aim is to bring people from different fields of study and from different social and political groups under its roof. Together they seek new methods of development and environmental defence in Colombia, Latin America, and the Third World. Studies of everyday life, of social and technical change, and of the problems these have caused will provide the basis for an advanced training course to take place each year in July and August. Run by a team of academics from Colombia and abroad, the course will teach community leaders, workers, farmers, and civil servants about social and environmental problems.

The aim of the college is "to create a permanent service offering information and seminars on handling natural resources, conservation, overall management, planning, carrying out and evaluating projects, regional development, use of appropriate technology, and communication techniques." It also considers itself to be a supportive structure for popular organizations and local associations in poor suburbs and small townships, and an instrument for encouraging communal action for environmental protection.

The college will remain outside the normal education programme, working as an open school, and a high level parallel establishment. It has the backing of the European Community, Colombia's Friedrich Ebert Foundation, Canada's Development Agency, the International Union for Nature Conservation, the Italian Government, Spain's Santillana Foundation, the Independent World Commission on Humanitarian Issues, and, in Colombia itself, the Caja de Credito Agrario (agrarian credit fund), the National Apprenticeship Service SENA, and the Central Mortgage Bank.

Courses offered at the Green College in Villa de Leyva include citizens' rights and the environment, the relationship between technological change, industry, and the environment, social movements and environmental responsibility, and the concept of habitable space. Working with the Centro de Investigaciones pro defensa de los Intereses Pos (PROBUBLICOS, the centres for research on defending public interests), the college has drawn up a plan for putting Colombia's environment legislation into practice, and founded an office offering legal aid to concejos verdes as they fight to protect community interests.

With Colombia's National Apprenticeship Service, the college is looking into a project offering training on local environmental problems and their solutions, and also the founding of an ecological centre to study appropriate technology and experiments in biological agriculture. With the Caja de Crto Agrario, the college is beginning to study an environment training project aimed at the nation's users of agricultural credits, and at public officials in the agricultural sector; the course will fill them in on environmental defence legislation and the extension of credit lines and technical assistance, taking ecological concerns into consideration.

Goethe, the teachers, and Margarita agree that the debates and lessons should not remain on a purely theoretical plane, and that they should not be limited to a high-level minority. They believe, on the contrary, that the college's activities should be closely connected with social practice, participation, and concrete problems, and therefore should play an active role in the cultural and democratic development of the community. Margarita Marino de Botero, creator of the Green campaign and the concejos verdes used by the Government to encourage democratic community organization, is now, with her college in Villa de Leyva, trying to provide a scientific aid which, through close contact between theory and social practice, will allow consciousness of the environment to be introduced into Colombia, by permanently studying economic, technical, and social problems which arise with development and the transformation of the rural environment, and the relationship between man and nature. Comparisons between Colombian ideas and experiments and those of the rest of Latin America and other areas will mean that the unique Villa de Leyva experience may encourage the formation of similar establishments in other countries, giving a boost to development which takes standards of living into account.

The list of guests and members of the International Committee of the newly formed college includes such contributors to Ceres as Ignacy Sachs, Johan Galtung, and Andras Biro, political and literary personalities such as Italy's Susanna Agnelli, West Germany's Rudolf Bahro, and Mexico's Ivan Illich, Pablo Gonzalez Casanova, and Rodolfo Stavenhagen, communications experts such as Armand Mattelard, famous architects such as Paolo Soleri, economists such as Spain's Ramon Tamames, Chile's Osvaldo Sunkel, and Brazil's Darcy Ribeiro, and ecologists such as Argentina's Jorge Hardoy. This impressive list, which includes figures from 43 countries, plus the many Colombian professors and collaborators involved, show the importance of this first, innovatory Latin American experiment in creating an awareness of the need for preservation of the natural and cultural environment.

Up to now, ecological awareness in Latin America has not been widespread, and in some countries it has been based purely on European political experience, rather than on thorough knowledge of conditions brought to the continent by development. Balance of payments, and to a lesser extent job creation, benefit from both the policy of substituting imports and from out and out development by means of foreign investment, of the type which prompted the military regime in Brazil in the 1970s to take out full-page advertisements in North American and European papers saying "Take your contamination away from us." Similarly, both policies pay no heed to the natural and human costs of growth of any type. The stir caused by Green Margarita's Green College in Villa de Leyva is encouraging therefore. Its policies are deep, cultural, and carefully thought out, and make a re-evaluation of programmes and laws on land use necessary. The venture is of particular significance because it reaches out to all those people, regardless of nationality, who see that not pitting nature against society is essential, because without nature society will become an impossibility.

Guillermo Almeyra