Story Map | Youth Reconnect to Place and Biocultural Heritage in Colombia

by Jennifer McRuer

Volume 6, Issue 2 | Editorial | Table of Contents | Subscribe | Buy | Donate

Using cameras, we stroll, bike, swim, and dive to capture connections with ancestral places of land and sea. Photo: Heides Molina, 2015

We are all stories… of connection, separation, dependence, interdependence, shaped by places, people, memories, perceptions, and dreams. How we connect with the places we call “home” is the essence of this photo essay — particularly, how biological and cultural relationships contribute to our well-being, and how our relationships inform common visions for a sustainable future.

Our relationships with place have never been more in need of explicit attention and expression. Climate change. Deforestation. Overfishing. Coral bleaching. Pollution. Growing inequities. Despite their origin, such issues touch all corners of the earth, all depths of the oceans, all strata of the sky, and all dimensions of the human and non-human experience and spirit. We are living in a time of dire human-driven change, causing pervasive threats to biological and cultural diversity. But there is hope. By reconnecting with place, we can forge new directions toward regeneration.

A protected area surrounding Isla Grande aims to conserve marine habitats, natural resources, and cultural values. However, a disharmony between nature and culture persists through rapid tourism development, water pollution, dwindling fish stocks, mangrove deforestation, coral erosion, changing traditional practices, industrial resource use, and economic disparity. The Isla Grande community is committed to conserving ancestral territories and strengthening biocultural connections. Map: Luisa Ramirez, 2016. Modified and reproduced with map author’s permission.

This photo essay describes the efforts of Colombian youth to share their stories of biocultural heritage, well-being, and sustainability, expressing what it means to call a place “home.” Home, for the six Afro-Colombian youth telling this narrative, is Isla Grande — a small island in the Caribbean Sea of Colombia. Over generations, the Isla Grande community has continuously shaped, and been shaped by, relations with the surrounding coral reef, mangrove lagoons, and dry forest landscapes. The community’s knowledge, innovations, and practices are thus entangled with territory, biological diversity, cultural and spiritual values — that is, people’s “collective biocultural heritage.”

Existing alongside one of the country’s largest marine national parks and protected areas, the Isla Grande community seeks to balance the rights of nature with those of their local culture. The balance has long been askew on account of government marginalization, national environmental policies that discourage co-governance with local communities, and diverse interests that value particular worldviews over others. This has led to a lasting neglect of the territorial rights of the region’s original Indigenous inhabitants, as well as those of other communities that subsequently established themselves in the area, such as mestizo (mixed race) peasant communities and Afro-Colombian descendents. In defense of their relationships with ancestral territory places, the Isla Grande community has recently mobilized sustainable development efforts to redirect its future. Youth perceptions and experiences are valued contributions to this process.

We walk and bike to map the places most significant to everyday lives in terms of ecosystems, biodiversity, culture, sustainable development, and innovation. Photo: Manuel Maldonado, 2015

Seeking to re-imagine and re-articulate their collective biocultural heritage so as to uphold their relationships with place and one another, island youth share their stories through youth-led photography and mapping, combined with cyclical processes of reflection and action. A co-researcher team of six Island youth, a Spanish research translator, and a Canadian doctoral researcher began a project in 2015 to contribute youth perspectives on biocultural heritage, well-being, and sustainability. The group calls itself “Nuevas Voces” (New Voices).

The resultant images, maps, and voices speak to their place-interdependence. Their collaborative story has been woven into a “story map” using an online, open-source platform designed by the Environmental Sciences Research Institute (ESRI). The story map interweaves multimedia and textual elements to tell the youth’s story of place. It importantly highlights the ways in which the community’s language, material culture, knowledge and innovations, subsistence, social and economic relations, beliefs, and values are intimately connected with the biodiversity of its territory. At a time when we need to recognize and strengthen place relationships to innovate, adapt, and build resilience in the face of global change, this platform mobilizes youth’s perspectives and allows them to describe their concerns and, more importantly, their hopes for the future.

An online story map shares perspectives of home. It elaborates on the content described in this photo essay and is intended for community members, policy-makers, and a broader audience interested in shared learning for resilience and resistance. Photo: Jennifer McRuer, 2016
Ocean connections, Isla Grande. “To me, [biocultural heritage] has to do with everything in the community and how we depend on the environment. Our heritage is the fishermen and all the people that live because of tourism, and traditions like the champeta [a local dance], and Paito [an elder who plays traditional African music] … All of this is part of a concept that many people live but maybe don’t understand the word” (Dani). Photo: Katya Torres, 2015
“Ecocamping Bosque Encantado” (Enchanted Forest Ecocamping). A tourism initiative in Isla Grande blends tradition and innovation to conserve biocultural integrity, extend the Island’s hospitality, and promote collaboration toward a sustainable future. “For us, sustainability means production — through our customs; capacity — to maintain our environment and community in good shape; culture — the methods of our ancestors that we continue today like artisan fishing and handcrafts; and coordination — to [use resources] always at the same level, or better” (Sebastian). Photo: Ezequiel Torres, 2015
Left: The Laguna Encantada (Enchanted Lagoon) in Isla Grande is a special place for biodiversity, and one that leaves lasting impressions among Islanders and tourists alike. For youth co-researchers, it represents buen vivir (well-being), or the rights, interests, decisions, and actions that shape healthy place relationships: “Of course [there are rights] for the ecosystems and the lack of these rights happens when we don’t respect the ecosystems’ buen vivir” (Ezequiel). Photo: Heides Molina, 2015. Right: Dry forest and agricultural landscapes line the Island’s walking paths. Youth discuss the importance of natural resources and livelihood practices and share their knowledge of common plants and animals in ancestral territory places. Place-based knowledge is attributed to elders’ teachings and their own personal life experience. Photo: Dani Silgado, 2015
An artisan shop on the Island sells both traditional and innovative merchandise, promoting biocultural conservation and sustainability: “Some of the materials that people use in handcrafts are [made from] our natural resources and some of them are also made using recycled items like plastic bags. This practice helps both the economic side and the environmental side because there is no need to buy, and there will no longer be garbage on the ground” (Jeison). Photo: Heides Molina, 2015
Young people carry fresh water — a valued resource on the Island as it lacks natural sources. Youth discuss changing environments that require innovation based on local knowledge. For example, they describe increasing solar panel use instead of generators, as well as traditional water sequestration techniques enhanced with cisterns and boat transport from the mainland. Photo: Ezequiel Torres, 2015
A youth co-researcher considers the need for livelihood diversification and mangrove nurseries: “I think something that reflects well-being very much is the ocean. We know here on the Island we don’t have a place, like an enterprise for the community, apart from the ocean. But not all of us are fishermen so we need micro-enterprises” (Jeison). Youth envision ecotourism, fish farming, and mangrove plant nurseries. Photo: Juan Vega, 2015
A child gazes at the ocean. Youth participation in shaping future directions is valued in Isla Grande, as leadership is performed by the whole community: “The most important thing to know about our politics on the Island is that although we are governed by the mayor of Cartagena, we have a Communitarian Council and we are titled as an ethnic community. We have a leader who is the president of the Communitarian Council but being a Council means all the community participates and takes decisions about our future” (Jeison). Photo: Manuel Maldonado, 2015
Tourists flock to the Island’s beaches in increasing numbers every year, but the industry is a double-edged sword. Youth express the need for responsible community governance to promote economic security, buen vivir, and sustainability: “If only we could face [economic] challenges as a united community while preserving the Island. It is just a case of having different alternatives … This is the whole controversy: we need money, but we also need a way to conserve our territories … the economic [aspect] is not above the [buen vivir of] the community” (Jeison). Photo: Manuel Maldonado, 2015
“Races don’t exist. The only race is human.” Biocultural heritage on the Island is celebrated through annual cultural events so as to “not forget where we come from” (Dani). Photo: Dani Silgado, 2015

View the extended photo gallery:


Jennifer McRuer holds an MSc in Conservation and Rural Development from the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology, University of Kent, UK, and a PhD in Educational Foundations from the University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon. Motivated by community-based conservation, she is interested in the intersections among biocultural diversity, new materialism, environmental humanities, and sustainability education.


Further Reading

Convention on Biological Diversity. (2014). Linking Biological and Cultural Diversity: UNESCO-SCBD Programme. Retrieved from https://www.cbd.int/lbcd/step1

Davidson-Hunt, I. J., Turner, K. L., Mead, A., Cabrera-Lopez, J., Bolton, R., Idrobo, J., … Robson, P. (2012). Biocultural design: A new conceptual framework for sustainable development in rural indigenous and local communities. Surveys and Perspectives Integrating Environment and Society, 5(2), 33–45.

Escobar, A. (1998). Whose knowledge, whose nature? Biodiversity, conservation, and the political ecology of social movements. Journal of Political Ecology, 5, 53–82.

Ingold, T. (2008). Bindings against boundaries: Entanglements of life in an open world. Environment and Planning A, 40, 1796–1810.

McRuer, J. (2017). A Story of the Places We Call Home: Buen Vivir, Sustainability, and Biocultural Heritage in Isla Grande, Colombia. Retrieved from http://arcg.is/2bITUzX


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