This profile was prepared when Sergio Arango was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2008.
The New Idea
International development experts have long argued that environmental conservation must be coupled with economic development in order to achieve sustainable growth in the world’s most fragile ecosystems, which are often marked by extreme human poverty. The challenge lies in transforming the way that the communities living in these areas view their surroundings: The prospect of immediate financial return by clearing an acre of forest wood for sale is far more compelling than the protests of environmental activists in faraway cities. Through Fundación Espavé, Sergio has successfully forged this link between environmental conservation and economic growth by identifying economic opportunities that are inherently contingent upon sustainable resource management. Sergio works with local Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities to identify latent business opportunities in products like fruits, seeds, seasonings, and natural dyes that can be collected or cultivated without disrupting the forest’s ecological balance. In pinpointing these opportunities, Sergio relies on the communities’ traditional practices, which are being threatened by extractive industries, and on new opportunities offered by global technology development. Once a portfolio of viable products has been identified, Fundación Espavé constructs the necessary value-chain relationships to bring these products to the most demanding markets in Colombia and abroad, including supermarket chains. As these Colombian Pacific coast communities develop their new businesses with Fundación Espavé’s support, their view of the forest is gradually transformed. Rather than merely looking for economic opportunity in logging or unsustainable extractive activities—both of which destroy the forest ecosystem—they begin to understand the economic value of the forest as it is, with minimal man-made alteration and therefore maximal environmental sustainability. To continue the types of businesses that they have started with Fundación Espavé’s help, the communities must carefully manage and conserve the forests’ resources. Sergio also reshapes these communities’ relationship with the external market economy, promoting new forms of business organization to increase bargaining power, and negotiating fair prices for small producers, all of which gives rural inhabitants a more active role in the economy. When describing his vision for replicating his work, Sergio stresses that different social and environmental contexts must be approached on a case-by-case basis, given the unique circumstances of each community and its surroundings. He intends for Fundación Espavé to collaborate with local citizen organizations (COs) elsewhere in Colombia and in other countries, taking advantage of other organizations’ intimate knowledge of local conditions while sharing Espavé’s experiences to greatly reduce the learning curve in each new development initiative. Sergio himself is now exploring replicating his work in the forests of southeastern Colombia and in similar regions of nearby countries like Ecuador.