Sergio Arango

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow Since 2008
This description of Sergio Arango's work was prepared when Sergio Arango was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2008 .


Sergio Arango and his organization, Fundación Espavé, are developing community enterprise initiatives in Colombia’s Pacific coast region that identify latent business opportunities in these communities’ traditional use of forest resources. As a result, Espavé is achieving economic development and environmental conservation in one of the economically poorest and most environmentally rich but fragile regions of the country.

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.

The Problem

The roughly three million Afro-Colombian and half million indigenous people living in the Pacific coast region of Colombia have experienced a profound shift in social and economic patterns since the advent of logging and other extractive activities in their forests in recent decades. Traditionally, these communities have relied on the forest for their housing, food, and health needs—because they used the forests’ resources only for their own consumption, their subsistence activities were inherently sustainable. To these communities, the forest had both cultural and economic value insofar as it provided for their basic needs. The arrival of extractive industries to the Pacific forest has brought local communities into closer contact with the external economy, replacing their previous subsistence lifestyle with an ever-expanding demand for processed and manufactured goods. These communities must earn cash to participate in the economy, and the easiest and quickest way to do so is to exploit the forests’ wood, fish, and game on a massive scale. As these resources have gradually become exhausted, some have even turned to razing the forest to plant palm, banana, and coca crops, thereby destroying forest vegetation but ensuring a profitable economic return. This change in economic conditions has led local communities to value the forest differently than they did before. Rather than understanding the intrinsic value of the forests’ resources in their intact ecological context, families look at a parcel of forest to judge how many logs or hectares of cultivated crops it can produce. The resulting environmental degradation further depletes forest resources, thus creating a vicious cycle in which local communities, in order to satisfy their basic needs, drift away from traditional sustainable practices as they are forced to adapt to external market demands. Ironically, the combination of this vicious cycle and the Pacific coast communities’ physical and cultural isolation from the rest of Colombia has made this biologically diverse region the poorest in the country in terms of socioeconomic indicators. Only a small percentage of regional government revenues for the department of Chocó are internally generated; with the remainder consisting of transfers from the national government. The infant mortality rate in the Pacific region is twice as high as the national average, and over half the region’s population lacks access to formal health care. Moreover, according to a study by Programa Biopacífico, at current deforestation rates, all primary forest in the Colombian Pacific region will be completely destroyed by 2050.

The Strategy

Sergio co-founded Fundación Espavé, a CO overseen by twelve partners, in 1994. As Executive Director, Sergio coordinates the operational staff in Espavé’s four offices throughout the Colombian Pacific region. Each office manages development initiatives within its geographic region. In the past Fundación Espavé has received most of its funding from international donors. Now, it is advancing an internal revenue strategy in which as an investor and stakeholder in the community-run enterprises it helps create, Espavé is entitled to a percentage of the revenues from these initiatives. The fundamental concept underlying Espavé’s work is the idea that the forest will only be conserved if the communities living within it see sustainable economic value in its conservation. Sergio gleaned his idea for Espavé’s diversified product portfolios from the varied ways forest communities traditionally used the forests’ resources for their own consumption, drawing upon the plants and animals for housing, clothing, food, and medicine. Sergio believes that significant economic opportunity lies within this diverse resource use. By developing and formalizing these traditional practices, Espavé helps communities adopt an attractive, environmentally sensitive alternative to extractive industries.Espavé uses forest biodiversity to design product portfolios that are specific to each community. Diversification is an important principle in researching new initiatives because limiting the forest to a single economic activity threatens its ecological balance. The first step in launching a community enterprise initiative in a new region is a product feasibility study. Sergio and his colleagues evaluate a given swath of forest to identify what currently unused products—such as palm oil, seeds, natural dyes, fruits, seasonings, and natural sweeteners—could be part of a business portfolio. Having spent over a decade in this region, Sergio can readily match distinct terrains with how to collect materials and manage small-scale cultivation of different products. Sergio is also careful to balance the seasonality of the products within a particular portfolio so that the communities in that area can expect income streams throughout the year. Finally, he evaluates the technical development and resource management plan that will be necessary to create a successful community enterprise built upon the product portfolio in question.Once the product portfolio has been created, Espavé organizes local families into producer and gatherer networks that divide and share the labor responsibilities involved in the community enterprise. The individual family is the basic unit in these networks, and women in particular have developed important new leadership roles in the gathering and cultivation of products. Currently, Espavé is collaborating with 500 Afro-Colombian families throughout the Pacific coast region. Many of the community members participating in these initiatives were not economically active before. Those individuals who have already been working in extractive activities find the collection and cultivation schemes in Espavé’s portfolios to be less labor-intensive and more lucrative. Espavé also enables communities to have more control over their economies. To ensure his diversified product portfolios are embedded in the socioeconomic systems within forest communities, he partners with other COs that specialize in social issues. This roots Espavé’s economic development focus in a broader context. The key to Sergio’s success in delivering forest products to national and international markets is his articulation of a socially conscious value chain that includes partner COs and the private sector. During its early years, Espavé was able to process and commercialize products on its own, but as the products became more complex, Sergio realized he needed to forge alliances with other intermediaries and distributors. He builds collegiality and empathy throughout this value chain by including distributors and retailers in the U.S. and the U.K. He even arranges for representatives from these companies to visit the Colombian Pacific forests to understand the origins of products. One example is acaí, one of Espavé’s most successful products which is a fruit that has gained popularity among health-conscious consumers in the U.S. Espavé has organized 300 Afro-Colombian families into an açaí gathering network. The raw fruit is gathered by Bosque Húmedo S.A., a corporation which is involved with the local acaí collectors, Fundación Espavé, and local investors—and the company responsible for processing it into pulp and its distribution.Another example of a successful community enterprise is Taná Organic Spices, a brand created by a network of 120 Afro-Colombian families, mostly headed by women, in the city of Quibdó. In 1996, 75 female heads of household began working with Espavé to improve the cultivation and processing of cilantro, oregano, basil, and other spices with the goal of reaching sophisticated national markets. Today, the original network of women has expanded to include 45 additional producers from a neighboring region who grow turmeric and ginger. These producers sell their crop to a separate group of women who process the spices, which are then sent to Espavé to be packaged and distributed to national supermarket chains like Carrefour and Almacenes Éxito. The Taná initiative generates approximately US$45 per month to each woman in the network.Currently Sergio is exploring opportunities to bring the Espavé community enterprise model to other regions in the Pacific coast, and to the Amazonian forest in Colombia and Ecuador, where he will focus on forested areas that are similar to those in Colombia’s Pacific coast. In other regions and countries with different environmental and social characteristics, Sergio intends to partner with local COs to jointly adapt the Espavé model to local needs. He considers the knowledge and experience of these local COs to be critical to the successful replication of his model in very different contexts.

The Person

As a child, Sergio was fascinated by the rich biodiversity of the forests in the Pacific Coast of Colombia, so his early interest in the region was an environmental one. He also recalls accompanying his grandfather to his rural farm and learning about how to work the land. Yet once he graduated from university and went to work for the Indigenous Organization of Antioquia, which is the neighboring department to Chocó, he became increasingly concerned not only for the forest but also for the communities living within it. Sergio observed that despite the ecological wealth of their environment, these communities depended heavily on foreign aid in the absence of viable economic opportunities.In response to his experiences working with these populations, Sergio founded Fundación Espavé in 1994 with a group of professional colleagues who had worked with social movements among the Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities of the Pacific coast region. He also completed an MBA in the late 1990s to build additional technical and conceptual skills for his work with community enterprises. As a Colombian who is of neither African nor indigenous descent, Sergio recalls meeting significant resistance when he began his work through Espavé. Many local communities were suspicious of Sergio’s motives, worrying that he was interested only in economic profit for himself. After twelve years of working closely with these populations to develop sustainable, environmentally sensitive community enterprises, however, Sergio has steadily gained both their trust and respect. He now looks forward to directing his energy and expertise towards other regions in need of concomitant economic development and environmental conservation.