• Blake Gentry

Mocoa’s Lessons for Indigenous Communities and Adaptation

Updated: Jul 22

The Higher Ground’s Blake Gentry has recently written a short paper on the indigenous people in Andean Colombia, who are facing threats from both climate change and encroaching development. In this blog post, we provide a summary of his report, which is posted separately by this website.


Blake’s post serves as an interesting critique of how adaptation planning may unfold, often with the best of intentions, but without results – and vulnerability reduction – that are intended.  We further note considerations for how the use of VRCs and the Standard Framework could avert some of the challenges that the vulnerable communities in Mocoa, Colombia faced through a more systematised planning approach and metrics to and for adaptation planning and finance.



Mocoa, Putumayo, Colombia, situated on the eastern slope of the Andes in southern Colombia, is home to eight unique indigenous communities. On March 31, 2017 from 11 PM to 1 AM Mocoa was inundated with 130 mm (5.1 in) of rainfall. One cause of the downpour was the 1°C (1.8°F) higher than normal sea surface temperatures driving moist air in the Eastern Pacific tropical zone creating a slow-moving mesoscale convective complex in that area of Southwestern Colombia. In the month leading up to the deluge, Mocoa had experienced 50% more rainfall than the average March. Indeed, from January – March of 2017 most of the Southwestern Andean Range countries, including Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Chile, experienced above average rainfall that produced flood-related disasters and multiple deaths.

Given the preponderance of indigenous communities in the region, Mocoa represents a strong case for climate adaptation in some of the vulnerable communities in the Americas. At Mocoa, the effects of the flooding were most apparent in land that had been cleared for pasturage; in addition, the pre-disaster construction of a mining road has intensified environmental and land degradation in an already overly mined region. Nevertheless, credit is richly deserved for the post 2017 flooding construction and effective use of an early warning system - that saved lives.




Several unique indigenous communities have been disproportionately affected by the flooding in terms of deaths and property damage. This is part of a pattern in which the effects of climate change on indigenous communities are exacerbated by activities undertaken by and for the benefit of non-indigenous actors. The adaptation process has not been made fully transparent to indigenous communities, nor has their full participation been widely sought, even though they were particularly vulnerable to the effects of recurring disasters in the region. Both land clearing and the mining were undertaken without consultation with local indigenous groups. Post disaster adaptation planning while generally socially engaged with affected publics, did not organize for the inclusion of indigenous political and social organizations.

An Adaptation Planning Critique


The Colombian Ministry of the Environment and aid agencies recognized that the region is under threat from the combined stressors of climate change and development. After the 2017 flooding, it took steps to implement some flooding and landslide controls near the confluence basin of three rivers. Those efforts were nevertheless, highly challenged to respond at a scale appropriate to the size of future related climate impacts. Scale determination however depends on a second parallel track for reporting hard scientific climate data required to calculate probable impact scale with another iterative impact.

While Colombian ministerial and local planning occurred after the 2017 flooding, the pace was markedly too slow to prepare barriers adequately for a second flood in 2018.


From a climate perspective, the planning did not construct a future scenario framework that surpassed “business-as-usual” appropriations. Their approach therefore did not measurably recognize the near certainty of enhanced effects from an intensified El Nino oscillation as a result of elevated temperatures in the Eastern Pacific or of the synergies arising between the El Nino and La Nina phases of the cycle (with flooding in the former being enhanced by the clearing of tree cover by fires occurring under the latter).


The VRC Framework provides for this planning exercise by contrasting economic impacts with and without the effects of anthropogenic climate change and thus with and without the worsened damage that occurs from these effects.


For instance, scenario-based flood modelling (with gradations of impacts from increased ocean warming and incumbent rainfall) could have been useful in determining the robustness of the new “hard infrastructure” design of check dams and rechannelling as a front-line adaptation in conjunction with the “soft infrastructure” of reforestation and afforestation to slow flowerage from the upper Putumayo watershed.

Another major problem with the adaptation activities to date is that they did not effectively address the issues of encroachment and over-development.


While post relief adaptation planning is the responsibility of the federal and state government, it is the sub–regional and local configuration of socio-political alignments which also have to overcome business-as-usual social planning to create an alternative path to rebuilding infrastructure robust enough to withstand the next climate impact. Improved projections on climate impacts from technically viable sources in a timely manner were needed to ensure robustness of infrastructure design in adaption planning. However, the exclusionary social response to indigenous in the adaption process was similar in federal and provincial policy directives for Mocoa’s indigenous communities.

Given indigenous resguardos and hillside vulnerabilities, post-disaster aid should be considered for integration into adaption capacity building and on – going participatory monitoring of Mocoa’s climate impacts. Indigenous communities living in the adjacent mining and oil transportation areas are not immune to the lure of natural resource development, and may (or may not) have also made choices about extraction of natural resources which accelerated impacts beset by climate. Their inclusion could have better informed adaptation planning officials on local conditions, and it could have mobilized citizen’s responses for medium and long term responses to extreme climate events. In the same vein, efforts to expand protection of national forests east of Mocoa may benefit from engagement with indigenous peoples as monitors and as a means to reduce vulnerable geographic settlements at the confluence of rivers with little short term protection from mudslides.

The concurrent catastrophic losses in four Andean Corridor countries in 2017, including Colombia, are almost certainly a preview of an increasingly more chaotic and damaging climate system, and farsighted inclusive short term social response will be needed to build toward filling the gap between post-disaster socio-economic relief and measures for prevention of losses and damages; especially in infrastructure and agriculture. Mocoa is not an isolated case in Colombia. In 2017, 182 other Colombian municipalities were on high alert for landslides.

For example, employing hillside indigenous communities in Mocoa, Putumayo, Colombia to restore vegetated hillside watersheds could prove as an effective investment as micro- projects for family businesses that will once again be shut down by another round of torrential rains and flooding. Consultation with the eight unique indigenous communities appears left out of the federal government’s response. That consultation would necessarily need to consider the unique features of each community including languages spoken, where appropriate.

In addition, as many countries migrate toward adaption planning from disaster relief planning frameworks, Mocoa is another example that countries, like Colombia, are waiting too long to integrate frameworks for policy and operations in order that adaption implementation prevents losses and decrease damages. Such integration, in the light of more sustainable development paths, needs to speed up.


“Holistic” is perhaps an over-applied term but, here and elsewhere, the challenge will be to develop incentives to plan for climate adaptation in a manner in which the scope of climate drivers and impacts and the measures to address these are defined and set forth systematically and expansively.


This approach can be simplified and enhanced through the use of Vulnerability Reduction Credits (VRCs) as a unified metric for enumerating the specific impacts of likely climate change and adaptation actions to counteract its effects.


The advantage of credit-based approaches such as the VRC over conventional intervention and monitoring methodologies is that they focus the best available understanding of the complex interaction between the climate system, communities, and adaptation into units of information that can be communicated between parties with intersecting and diverging goals and interests. Under circumstances in which regions such as Mocoa must adapt to rapidly evolving vectors of climate threat from numerous sources, this might represent, if not a truly holistic solution, then one that can be sufficient and equitable.


Blake Gentry is a program and policy consultant in indigenous community health, development, and climate change and the Higher Ground’s Indigenous Communities Coordinator. Blake’s full report will soon be posted on a new page on Indigenous Peoples and Climate Change. For further insights into these and related issues, watch this space or check out our main website: https://www.thehighergroundfoundation.org.


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