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ABBY CMIEL (BA ’19)

Confusion, busyness, language, friendships, listening, buses, understanding.  These are a few of first terms I use to pull apart the multifaceted and difficult process of adjusting to a new city, a new job, a new environment and a new language. Now, a few weeks removed from my summer experience in Colombia, I continue to deconstruct the experiences, difficulties, and opportunities for growth that defined my time there.

The conflict and peace agreements, sustainable tourism, the coffee industry, language barriers, and entrepreneurship each served as markers of my time, and it is through these lenses I recount my summer to curious friends, parents, professors and strangers. Through my internship with ID Social, a small consulting firm based in Bogotá, Colombia, I had the chance to meet with and work alongside about 10 small businesses and nonprofits in the country. Working with Biko brought me to the streets of Bogotá, imagining myself as a daily commuter interested in biking rather than driving to work. Centro Gabo brought me to the vibrant city of Medellín, investigating how to engage young people with the fascinating history and literature of their country. CRAN brought me face to face with the children brutally impacted by conflict. Origen de Paz brought me to the regions ripped apart by war, but knit back together through resilience and sustainable tourism. The Semana Sostenible Conference brought me together with entrepreneurs from around the world to debate and collaborate on environmental and social wellbeing.

As I traveled, taking a bus to my office just a few blocks away or to the other side of the country, I often felt uncomfortable, out of place, and misunderstood. My accent is overwhelmingly American. My height immediately gave away my foreign-ness. And yet, I felt repeatedly more welcomed than outcast and more accepted than disowned. My rough Spanish and frequent sense of confusion often humbled me into listening rather than speaking, and acting with compassion rather than immediate action. Each partner I worked with shared their story, their passion, their vision. With time, they often shared the impact of Colombia’s 100 year conflict and ongoing peace process on their life. They shared their fears for their businesses, but also for their lives and wellbeing. And most importantly, they reminded me of our shared humanity.

I have never been quite as baffled by the human capacity for both destruction and restoration as the day I visited one of our business partners at their coffee farm in rural Colombia. At 4 AM, my boss and our two friends, the owners of the coffee farm, pulled up to my apartment with a quick honk. Still bleary eyed, I tried to muster some Spanish phrases and gesture my gratitude they were letting me come along. We sped off with a jaunt, buzzing through the early morning in Bogotá before the traffic became unbearable. Then, as we passed outside of the city limits the old jeep slowed to a causal pace. We rounded through the Colombian country-side, and as the sun sifted through the mist, the rolling hills became stunning shades of green. We got to the couple’s finca, a coffee farm blended with an international tree conservatory, and toured through the lush forests and tasted the fresh fruits. Each piece of the farm had purpose and supported a perfectly symbiotic ecosystem.

The natural beauty and sustainability unfortunately stood in stark contrast to the difficulties many living there had experienced. The couple explained the history of the coffee region from Spanish colonialism to a new form of domination exerted by The National Coffee Growers Federation.  Many farmers had been driven out by the terror endemic in the region throughout the conflict. Many more had been driven out by the destructive practices imposed upon them by The Federation. As we drove back down the mountain at the end of the day, we saw farm after farm shut down after being unable to pay back their debts, leaching their lands of the natural resources, or suffering from the effects of climate change. I saw how the greed of The Federation and complacency of the average consumer had such a direct influence on the pollution of some of the most fertile land in the world. I saw how people were driven into poverty as a result of this destruction.

However, I also saw how the brave couple used sustainable agriculture and education programs to change the lives of many of their community members. I saw how ID Social’s partner organization, KoffieTapp, supported organic farms like theirs in reaching a broader marketplace. I saw how my boss worked with KoffieTapp to advise them in decreasing packaging waste and creating an environmental mindfulness campaign. I saw how people are excited about reducing their impact on the environment and increasing their positive impact on the world.

Each of our partner organizations were driven by a desire to reach a triple-bottom-line of environmental, economic, and social responsibility. They each acknowledged their responsibility to the broader world and spent their lives trying to reach it. I quickly realized too that the people who cared most about reducing conflict, protecting the environment, increasing credit for the marginalized, listening to stories of the oppressed, promoting cultural literacy, and offering living wages also cared the most about me. The people who refused to buy into the story of limitless consumerism and time limits and unending political conflict, the people who cared deeply for peace in their country, were also the people who listened to my broken Spanish and wanted to hear my story.

By spending time in Colombia this summer, a country considered to be broken and ridden with crime and terror, I learned that the news and public opinion do not tell the whole story. In fact, they often tell a story far from reality. I learned immensely from the history of conflict in the country. And yet, I learned even more from the entrepreneurs of change who refused to define the people of Colombia by anything other than their resilience.