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How one neighborhood in Colombia is tackling climate change at the community level

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

In Colombia's second-largest city, rainy season floods and dry season fires are now a fact of life. As reporter Jorge Valencia found, local residents are grappling with those and other effects of climate change by taking matters into their own hands.

JORGE VALENCIA, BYLINE: The city of Medellin stretches through a valley. Dozens of high-rises soar into the sky. Thousands of trees blossom along green corridors local officials planted to reduce air pollution and keep the city cool. Up the slopes of the surrounding mountains, brown cinderblock houses crowd into the poorest neighborhoods. In many of these communities along the edge where urban becomes rural, local officials still don't provide one basic utility - clean drinking water.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER FLOWING)

VALENCIA: On a recent Saturday, a few residents from the district known as Comuna Ocho were taking water from a creek and installing a large filtering system so they could send drinking water to a few hundred families downhill. The day I visited, they opened the faucet for the first time.

BLANCA SERNA: (Speaking Spanish).

VALENCIA: "My eyelashes are dancing," says Comuna Ocho resident Blanca Serna. Neighbors - many work in construction, cleaning houses or busking on city streets - raised the money so they could buy the two 2,000-liter tanks and their filtering system.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER RUNNING)

VALENCIA: So one of the engineers just came in, whispered in my ear as I was recording the tank, and he said, that's what dignity sounds like.

Indeed, the residents of Comuna Ocho are doing something extraordinary. In one of the areas with the least resources in Medellin, neighbors are doing a lot to provide for themselves, focusing largely on how a warming planet is changing their lives on the mountainside.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Shouting in Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Shouting in Spanish).

VALENCIA: More than 1,500 community activists attended a city council meeting last year. A group of them were presenting recommendations on how the local government can prepare for extreme rain or extreme drought - things like planting trees to prevent ground erosion or clearing debris from creeks so they don't flood as easily. But only two of the 21 members of the council bothered to show up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JUAN MANUEL LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Speaking Spanish).

VALENCIA: It's their loss, said neighborhood president Juan Manuel Lopez. And the city officials who did hear them were reluctant to take action. Tomas Tintinago was the city of Medellin's undersecretary for environmental management.

TOMAS TINTINAGO: (Speaking Spanish).

VALENCIA: "The thing is, implementing recommendations for creeks and hillsides is too expensive," Tintinago says.

TINTINAGO: (Speaking Spanish).

VALENCIA: "So community members think they're not heard if we don't do as they ask," Tintinago says. He explains the city has many urgent priorities, so residents of Comuna Ocho who want to have a conversation on climate change do feel unheard.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER FLOWING)

SERNA: (Speaking Spanish).

VALENCIA: "It's like we're not a part of Colombia," says Comuna Ocho resident Blanca Serna. She says Medellin city officials act like the taxes from the working poor don't count. It makes her upset, but she also turns it into a reason for optimism.

SERNA: (Speaking Spanish).

VALENCIA: "It'd be great if we could all realize we don't need the government to give us everything," she says. "We can take care of ourselves." For NPR News, I'm Jorge Valencia in Medellin.

(SOUNDBITE OF WILCO SONG, "MANY WORLDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jorge Valencia
Jorge Valencia has been with North Carolina Public Radio since 2012. A native of Bogotá, Colombia, Jorge studied journalism at the University of Maryland and reported for four years for the Roanoke Times in Virginia before joining the station. His reporting has also been published in the Wall Street Journal, the Miami Herald, and the Baltimore Sun.