Stephanie’s Environment Field Note

Dry, Open Spaces: A Look at a Unique Town in Santander, Colombia

City: Barichara, Santander

Country: Colombia

Date: March 31, 2013, 7:36 PM

 In Medellin, the climate is always sunny. The city is therefore referred to as the “City of the Eternal Spring”. However, not all of Colombia is as mild and temperate as Medellin. This week, I journey to Santander, where I get to experience different climates.  Part of experiencing those different climates are the different of cultures that have developed in response to their varying environment. I focus particularly on a unique town called Barichara, where the lack of rain makes it one of the driest places in Colombia.

Introduction:

Colombia is made up of many different regions, all which boast different climates and environments. From the tropical forests of the Amazons to the clear beaches of the Caribbean coast, Colombia has an endless number of natural environments. One of the most interesting regions of the country is a region in the east called Santander. There, you can find everything from arid desert to cities replete with rushing rivers and waterfalls!

 

How are people connected to the environment?

In Santander, the climate is generally warm. The landscape is made up of mountains, rivers, caves and waterfalls. Because of its beautiful environmental, Santander attracts many tourists who want to participate in extreme sports like white-water rafting or cave exploration.

Furthermore, because of Santander’s abundant water resources, it is the perfect place for hydroelectric power. Hydroelectric power is a form of renewable energy that uses water to generate electricity. Currently in construction is the Sogamoso Dam on the Sogamoso River. This river is located in the east of Santander. By the end of 2014, the power plant will provide cheap and clean energy to an extensive number of neighborhoods in the region using the power of the river water!

One of the main cities in Santander is a place called San Gil. San Gil is the third biggest city in Santander and is located within minutes from a number of rivers, caves and historic pueblos, or towns. Over 98 percent of the population have access to electricity and 90 percent have access to running water. Due to this high level of development, San Gil is a modern city that relies heavily on tourism and agriculture. People often grow coffee products, tobacco, or make Santanderean sweets that are sold in the city’s main square.

However, not all the neighborhoods in Santander are as well-equipped as San Gil. Indeed, only forty minutes away from San Gil is a pueblo called Barichara. This town has historically struggled with a lack of access to water. Everything in Barichara, from its economy to its culture, reflects its unique environment and dry climate. What makes this environment special or different?

Unlike the fertile and river-dense environment of San Gil, the dry and arid environment of Barichara  impacts almost all facets of everyday life. I noticed just how unique Barichara was when I stepped into a local artisan’s shop.  I spotted a number of bracelets and earrings that looked like they were made out of wood. As I held a pair of earrings in my hands, the artist approached me and explained what I was looking at.

“Those are made out of totumo,” she began. “Totumo is a local native plant that grows in hot and dry climates.” As I held the earrings in my hand, I noticed how hard the material was.

“They sure do have a tough skin,” I wondered aloud. “I thought they were made out of wood!”

The artist laughed and nodded her head. “To live in Barichara,” she began, “you have to have tough skin. Everything from the plants to the goats to the people are all a little rough around the edges. Have you noticed that people don’t really say much more than what’s necessary?”

I contemplated her question and it seemed that she was right! Unlike people in Medellin, those in Barichara do not use a lot of flowery language. In Medellin, it’s not uncommon for a store clerk to refer to you as a “king” or a “queen”. In fact, I’ve gotten used to hearing questions such as “What would you like to order, my queen?” whenever I go out for lunch!

“It’s not that we’re rude,” the artist continued, giggling. “It’s just that we’re very direct. With the heat and lack of water, life here isn’t always easy. The people have adapted to being honest and informal. But the same unique, dry climate has also given us the opportunity to create very distinct forms of art, made of stones, cane, and clay.”

As I looked around the shop, she seemed to be right. The shop was full of artisanal goods I had never seen before, including a collection of beautiful red sculptures made of stone! As the second driest zone in the country, Barichara has a distinct character that makes both its people and its artistry like no other pueblo in Colombia.

What parts of this environment help people to live here?

Barichara is rich in wide, open spaces. Many of its residents take advantage of the countryside to farm and raise animals. The main crops that are cultivated are corn, beans, and cassava.

However, because Barichara is so dry and rain is scarce, agriculture isn’t the most profitable industry. Instead, many residents of Barichara have shifted to trades such as to manufacturing, commerce, and various forms of craftwork that utilize the materials commonly found in town.

 What challenges do people face living in this environment?

The hardest part about living in Barichara is the lack of access to water. Over the past several years, the town has had to ration their use of water. For example, in 2009, the town had access to running water for only four hours of the day! Can you imagine only having access to water from eight to twelve o’clock on a hot, summer day?

The aqueduct that supplies Barichara with water is not big enough for its eight thousand inhabitants. To tackle this problem, the government is trying to connect Barichara to the neighboring town’s water supply. Unfortunately, many inhabitants of the neighboring town have been reluctant to let Barichara have access to their water supply. They fear that there isn’t enough water to share between the two towns. Barichara is therefore still currently struggling to find a solution to the grave water problem that affects the entire community. One of the ways that the town has dealt with the water shortages in the past has been to transport daily tanks of water from the nearby city of San Gil. However, this is only a temporary solution and Barichara continues to seek a permanent one.

How have people been adapting to this environment?

Barichara is a town that is changing from an agricultural economy to a services economy. As a result of booming tourism to the town, residents have been slowly moving away from farming and more towards tourism-based industries. For example, many residents in Barichara have converted their homes into cozy hotels or have opened up restaurants that serve traditional food around the town’s main plaza. Though residents still face many hardships, such as the scarce water supply, the resilient attitude that is characteristic to both the people and the wildlife of Barichara is bound to help them find a solution!

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