It is a hot and steamy day in the streets of Cartagena, Colombia, and the streets buzz with activity as vendors sell hats and paintings to tourists and transport them via horse and cart down the cobbled pavements of the UNESCO world heritage site. But in the chilled rooms of Cartagena’s conference centre, there is another kind of buzz: it is the 6th Regional Platform of UNISDR for Disaster Risk Reduction hosted by the Government of Colombia in collaboration with UNISDR for Latin America and the Caribbean, and it is one at which civil society is taking centre stage.
It started with a workshop for civil society on Tuesday, organised by GNDR, which saw civil society actors come together from across the region, from Argentina to Mexico, to discuss how to collaborate for greater impact and the points that they wanted to convey at the Platform. Participants spoke about how NGOs and CSOs can contribute to sustainable Community Based Disaster Risk Management efforts and came up with a concrete set of actions for more IMPACT (Inclusion, Monitoring, Action Plans and Transparency) in collaboration efforts over the next two years. This allowed civil society to go into the Platform and speak with a united voice about the importance of engaging with local communities in the implementation of the Sendai Framework.
Lorenzo Mota of the Servicio Social de Iglesias Dominicanas in the Dominican Republic commented, ‘both the Civil Society Forum and the 6th Platform were significant and important moments, fruit of a participative process led by GNDR, which have had a great value for our networks… local leaders participated directly with their voices, knowledge and experiences, including in crucial decision-making about their lives.’
After the Civil Society Forum, the Regional Platform kicked off in earnest on Wednesday and was introduced by outgoing President, Juan Manuel Santos, who made specific reference to the relationship between DRR and conflict, a topic particularly pertinent, coming as it did just two days after the results of the Colombian elections, which threaten to imperil the country’s peace agreement. Numerous parallel Forums took place, but by far the most engaging was session 5 on ‘Civil Society Participation in the Sendai Framework Implementation and Monitoring’. Breaking with convention and protocol, the session (organised by GNDR and the Colombian Red Cross) put community leaders at the forefront, and saw delegates rotate through a series of ‘experiences’, where these community leaders outlined the impact of disasters in their neighbourhoods and how they were working to address them. Neri Gomez from Perú, for example, highlighted the challenges faced in the San Juan Lurigancho community, where there are up to 5-6 people living per small house, in a zone at high risk of earthquakes. These houses are built on stones, stacked with no cement, and buildings are at high risk of collapse – including the school, which is built at the bottom of the mountain. A high level of immigration, lack of access to services such as water and deforestation add to the community’s vulnerabilities. Other community leaders from the Wayuu indigenous community of la Guajira, along Colombia’s coast, and from El Arenal in Zacapa, Guatemala also outlined the hazards that they faced and the efforts that they were taking to address them.
GNDR members were involved in a number of sessions throughout the Platform, including a comedy play which highlighted the contributions that disabled people can make in DRR and putting young people such as Francisco Pereira whose organisation of young leaders in Esmeraldas, Ecuador, aims to tackle discrimination and xenophobia, among other issues, at the forefront on the ‘ignite’ stage. In addition, GNDR’s Regional Development Coordinator for the region, Mave Bastias, attended lunch with Mami Mizutori, UNISDR Special Representative of the Secretary-General for DRR, accompanied by GNDR members, and succeeded in reading the civil society statement at the UNISDR Ministerial Meeting.
On Friday, the last day of the conference, delegates struggled to get into a packed room for session 18 on ‘Local Leadership and Community Resilience’, leaded by IFRC and co-lead by GNDR trough RET International, which saw local community leaders from Dominican Republic, Chile and Nicaragua present their experiences. Delegates then split into groups to discuss the challenges of how to integrate local community leaders in national DRR action plans, and how these can be addressed. Don Manuel Aguilar a panellist from a fishing community in the South of Chile, stated that ‘for me [participation in the Regional Platform] was a recognition for a decade-long fight that we had to maintain regarding the annexation and the privatization of the Chilote sea. It also signals to me that fishermen, those that live on the products of the sea like seaweed, and workers should be represented in the same proportion as NGO members for these events to be equitable and just’.
As the conference draws to a close, the sun sets over a sparkling sea and delegates gather to drink rum and cocktails in the bars scattered throughout the walls of the old city, overlooking the bay. It feels like there is something to be truly celebrated here: as never before, the voices of Latin American communities have been heard by regional leaders, and civil society has galvanised. Their efforts, and the importance of the work of CSOs, have been recognised by UNISDR and other actors as crucial to the development and DRR processes. Cheers to that!