Growing the future of La Guajira, Colombia

Acting early to build resilience in communities on the Colombia-Venezuela border

The La Guajira province on Colombia’s border with Venezuela regularly experiences strong winds, high temperatures and droughts, making it difficult to farm and produce food. ©FAO/Andrés Murillo


Alina Arieta sits in front of her wooden hut, opposite a field of beans. The 50-year-old farmer worries that the soil is too dry and that this harvest will be a bad one.

With 300 other families, Alina and her four kids, live in the village of Montelara, in Colombia’s La Guajira, where they depend on agriculture and livestock for their livelihoods.

Situated 1 000 kilometers north of the country’s capital, Bogota, La Guajira is Colombia’s northernmost province. It is dry and arid with desert landscapes. The region is also particularly prone to drought. Between the arid land and extreme weather events, it is difficult for people to grow crops and rear livestock, and as a result, communities, especially in rural areas, are vulnerable to food insecurity.  

Colombian-born, Alina, moved back to La Guajira after living in Venezuela for 30 years. She recalls her life over there, where she ran a business and lived comfortably until the economic crisis.

“We decided to leave Venezuela because of the reasons that everybody knows, due to the current economic situation … That’s why I am now back in Colombia,” she said.

In recent years, the economic crisis in neighboring Venezuela has pushed more than one million people across the Colombian border, including 165 000 people into La Guajira, the country’s most vulnerable region. The influx of migrants further stretches the already limited resources, weakening food security.

Left: Alina Rieta, a Colombian returnee, is receiving training from FAO’s Early Warning Early Action programme to increase her food production, making her more resilient to the impacts of droughts. Right: The communities also received laying hens as part of the project. @FAO/Justine Texier

In 2018, when early warning forecasts indicated a strong likelihood of drought in La Guajira and an increase in the number of migrants, FAO acted to prevent the situation from deteriorating.

FAO’s Early Warning Early Action (EWEA) team together with the FAO Colombia country office rolled out a programme to support and train farmers in boosting food production. “We’re talking about drought resistant crops and seeds, veterinary services, feed and treatments for livestock, hens for egg production, and all the rehabilitation of wells to set up micro-irrigated community fields for the production of different types of crops,” explains Niccolo Lombardi, EWEA Specialist for FAO.

Alina took part in one of the FAO trainings where she learnt critical farming skills: how to till the soil and plant cassava, beans and fruits, such as melon. “FAO’s support has been a breath of fresh air,” she describes.

Another FAO trainee, Fidelia Pana, is a teacher, a farmer and a community leader in Guayabal, a village facing similar challenges to that of Montelara. ©FAO/Justine Texier

125 kilometers northeast of Montelara, but still in the La Guajira province, the village of Guayabal suffers from similar climatic conditions. It is a community also receiving a large increase in migrants. 61 year-old Fidelia Pana has always lived here and has experienced numerous severe droughts in her lifetime. Now, with tools and seeds from FAO, the community leader has managed to grow a flourishing cabbage field. Local livestock owners are also now able to provide basic veterinary care for their animals thanks to training provided by FAO.

“We didn’t know how to treat them [animals]. The FAO veterinary officer who came here taught us how to treat them and gave us animal feed. Our animals have put on weight. They are in great shape. They eat and drink sufficiently now,” added Fidelia.

Different ethnic groups took part in the training in Guayabal including the Wayúu people, the country’s largest indigenous group, as well as Afro-descendants and Venezuelan migrants. FAO’s early action activities helped to strengthen the social cohesion between these different groups and reduce the tensions that can arise in poorer areas when there is increased competition for jobs, soaring food prices and an influx of migrants. By increasing opportunities and food security, however, FAO has helped to improve the livelihoods of members throughout the community, thereby mitigating the worst effects of the crisis.

It was long road to get there, but for Alina Arieta, the future of La Guajira looks promising:

We have ups and downs, but at least I’m with my family. We managed to achieve something that might be very little for some but for us it’s enough. Thanks to these United Nations agencies, [FAO, in addition to UNICEF and WFP who implemented other activities in the community], which helped us, Colombian people like me and Venezuelan migrants now feel more serene on this part of the border,” she said.

Early action saves lives and livelihoods, eases pressure on strained humanitarian resources and gives communities the opportunity to protect themselves so they can be more resilient to future shocks. Acting early and building resilience can help stop problems before they start and get us closer to the stronger future envisioned in the Sustainable Development Goals.

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1. No poverty, 10. Reduced inequalities, 16. Peace justice and strong institutions