Experiencing María la Baja: Empowerment and Local Associations as Engines of Development in Colombia’s Montes de María

A couple of weeks after my internship with Ayuda en Acción (AeA) began, I traveled with the AeA team to the community of María la Baja in Montes de María. The purpose of the visit was to evaluate the performance of the local NGO "Corporación de Desarrollo Solidario" (CDS) in pushing forward the objectives outlined in their Triennial Intervention Plan (PIT).


Despite having analyzed María la Baja’s PIT the previous week, it was shocking to feel that I knew nothing about the place, about the processes that were taking place. Yes, I had read about the region’s needs. Yes, I knew what projects were being implemented. Yes, I was briefed on CDS’s accomplishments in previous years. However, when I arrived to María la Baja, I felt that I had missed something huge: the essence of María la Baja and its people. The paramount difference between reading a document and actually experiencing that specific reality was astounding. 


Experiencing what “empowerment”, “advocacy” and “associativity” actually look like simply blew me away. As one of the regions of Colombia that were more severely struck by armed conflict, María la Baja endured decades of displacement, disappearances, mass murders, paramilitarism, poverty and complete state abandonment. Despite of, or maybe in response to, this devastating past, advocacy and local associations have become the core of all the processes that take place in the community. It was as if years of devastation led them to believe that it was up to them, and up to them alone, to make things better. Peasant leaders, youth, teachers, and women associations entirely empowered of their processes: working together, brainstorming, drafting plans to be passed to municipal authorities.


In addition to the tenacity and determination of the people of María la Baja, CDS has, without a doubt, had a central role in helping community members see themselves as the holders of rights and agents of their development. CDS is a truly base organization that has worked for decades in the region having horizontality, empowerment, work with youth and local associations as its pillars. To give a sense of the air that is breathed in the community, during my days in María la Baja many men and women came up to me, introduced themselves and asked me who I was and why I was there. It was interesting because it wasn’t the unfortunate, but common, vertical relationship between aid agencies and communities. It was a one to one conversation. They had questions, they had priorities, they envisioned themselves in certain ways and were working persistently to materialize these projections.  


Riding at the back seat of a motorcycle in a dusty road, at 95°F, surrounded by mosquitoes, and not knowing what we would have as our next meal, I felt complete, fulfilled, inspired. It was such a blessing to be able to experience a facet of my country that I had never experienced, to listen to these people’s stories, to learn about how they live and the obstacles they face. I left Montes de María with so many new questions and so many new ideas. Eager to return to Colombia’s burning suns and contribute to improving the wellbeing of communities such as María la Baja.