The guardians of adaptation and seed custodians of Colombia

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A shorter version of this lesson has been featured on the booklet produced by the MDG-F Environment and Climate Change window "Seeds of Knowledge - Contributing to Climate Change Solutions". - Read more about the booklet or download it in English / Spanish / French / Arabic.



The use of traditional knowledge is emerging as a powerful practice to climate change adaptation and has a great potential for replication. In the Columbia JP we worked with indigenous seed custodians to create a network and knowledge of agricultural practices and products which can strengthen food security and sovereignty in the region. We learned that the use of traditional knowledge diminishes the vulnerability in the communities. In addition, when using traditional knowledge the community is more interested to participate on cultural dynamics exchanges and climate change knowledge.

The seed custodians cohabitate the central area of Cauca located in the south west of the country. The custodians are well known in their communities as people with traditional and ancestral knowledge on the different types of species of extreme climates of the zone. They are also known as people with great interest in conserving agro-biodiversity and the traditional orchards and their use of medicinal plants. They produce and consume healthy food for aliments, obtained by an organic matter.

These custodians have been doing this work in a very isolated manner without any organizational or strategic planning and they needed support to develop an organizational process. The custodians in the area were determined to recover the knowledge of their elders and their own experiences, which have been devoted to the collection, preservation and sharing of their own seeds. Their aim is to share this experience and knowledge in the region and in other parts of Colombia and the world, which are facing hunger and social injustice in the world.

The custodians/guardians traditional initiative was strengthen by the Joint Programme as requested by AGS, the Association of Indigenous Councils of Central Genaro Sanchez . The AGS has been one of the few organizations in the area committed to take forward the process of seed custodians.

Since 2008 the AGS has been supported by the Joint Programme and assumed the challenge of contributing their seeds and traditional knowledge to climate change adaptation activities in the upper river basin of the Cauca.

The Joint Programme provided the financial support and generated spaces for the exchange of experiences, knowledge and dialogue for peasant and indigenous communities. These spaces allowed them to reflect, develop and position themselves to better define their ways of managing their land and resources.

The Joint Programme taught the importance of recognizing and promoting the traditional knowledge of the custodians / guardians of seeds in the region. It is important to consider and respect their values, principles, and practices on traditional production systems. The initiative taught that the dissemination of their traditional knowledge is a key to increasing the resilience of the indigenous and peasants communities to extreme climate changes.

Purpose of the activity

The aim was to strengthen the capabilities of the custodians/guardians of seeds and rescue the traditional knowledge of the indigenous people in order to satisfy the safety needs and food sovereignty of the different communities. It aimed to improve, propagate and distribute indigenous seeds.

Original issue addressed by the activity

The Cauca was selected by the Joint Programme to implement the pilot initiatives designed to help the community adapt to climate change. It has a large indigenous population equivalent to 21% of country population. The Cauca Region, shown a loss of precipitation of 0.2 to 0.3% per annum and a temperature increase of 0.1-0.2 ° C / per decade. These have direct consequences on the moors, biodiversity, glaciers and are increasing desertification. The impacts are characterized by shortages of drinking water; food security vulnerability; loss of ancestral knowledge; migration of productive areas to conservation areas; and the increase of health diseases.

Strategy / approach chosen to address the issue

The approach was to develop Alliance of Seeds custodians /guardians with the political and financial support of the councils and stakeholders. The seed custodian’s strategy was defined in the policy framework of food security and sovereignty as part of the conservation strategy and the strengthening of traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples in the department of Cauca.

The alliance aimed to increase the resilience of the indigenous people and peasants communities to extreme climate changes, considering their values, principles, and practices of traditional production systems.

Implementation of the strategy / chosen approach

Initially, the vision was to create a network of custodians, but the development process of the network needed more time than the program duration.

After several consultations, it was advised to form a body that identifies and convenes the custodians, but does not need to follow legal and accounting procedures of a typical organization. Thereafter the alliance strategy emerged, which is an informal form of organization, but with a proper name, management and planning processes.

This strategy was selected by the Association of Cabildos Genaro Sanchez, the Joint Programme and the peasant organizations. Fifty-five (55) guardians of traditional knowledge belonging to indigenous councils gathered together to sign the act shaping the alliance. They were committed to share knowledge and to extend its new organization throughout the region. For better coordination a General Coordinator was appointed.

The Alliance is named: “The Alliance of Seed Custodians of the High Basin of the Cauca River”

The Alliance has important characteristics of intergenerational diversity: among the participants are adults, with their experience, cultural knowledge of tradition combined with the youth that have the open mentality to learn and share their knowledge and experiences.

The Joint Programme supported this process from August 2010 to June 2011. Within this period the following activities were developed:

  • The identification of seed custodians and their role in the community and the region
  • The promotion of the seed custodian’s role in the area
  • Two training workshops
  • Exchange of experiences, knowledge and seeds exchange
  • Development of the seed custodians alliance (February 2011)
  • Development of a five year vision
  • Tour to Centro Campesino Tulua Mayor - Andalusia (March 2011)
  • Meetings with councils and community management. (On going)

During the workshops the new Alliance of custodians was asked the following questions and strategic commitments:

  1. What are we?
  2. What do we do with the Joint Program support?
  3. What is our vision, goals and objectives?
  4. How are we going to proceed?

The custodians developed a five-year work plan which emphasized promoting alliances with indigenous councils and other peasant organizations in the area; with NGOs and other regional and national organizations interest in the subject; with youth and colleagues to promote generational sustainability.

Strategic Program Goals:

  1. Rescue traditional knowledge
  2. Conserve seeds
  3. Multiplication of seeds especially, maize and beans as species that have withstood the changes of climate.
  4. Seed certification
  5. Distribution sale, exchange, barters.


Three years for implementation was too short. To addresses this situation the Joint Program held meetings with great persistence but the peasants and indigenous complained about how little time was devoted to families. The institutional times and the communities’ time are very different and sometimes conflicting e.g. the time to think for producers is on the weekend and not during the week.

Results and Impacts

The “The Alliance of Seed Custodians of the High Basin of the Cauca River”, strengthened the planning skills of 77 families, participating in the process in the councils of the Kokonuko Town and the peasant organizations Asocampo and Asoproquitana. The families learned how to: plan their plots and traditional gardens; use living barriers; use and produce fertilizers in the bio-factor. These were key practices to adapt to climate change.

The Alliance gathered together different stakeholders, producers and communities to take one step forward on fair trade, food security and sovereignty. The work of the custodians also strengthened their research skills. Particularly on cultural methods for the selection of most resistant species in prolonged winters or summers.

Different indigenous seed varieties resistant to climate change were classified in the territory. An inventory of species of seeds resistant to climate change was created. These species have shown complementary benefits in the communities’ diet e.g. spices such as maize, beans, parsnips, sweet potatoes Majua.

The Alliance has also contributed to;

  1. The rescue and rehabilitation of the cultural practices of production;
  2. The association, rotation and multiplication of crops and sowings staggered
  3. The use of natural cycle of nutrients,
  4. The use of organic resources in the preparation of organic fertilizers,
  5. The relationship of the production cycle with the Moon cycles and the rescue of the rituality in production.
  6. The promotion of seed exchanges and the successful acclimatization of seeds (corn, tomato Paletará ) in the region.


There is a significant increase in the number of custodians and in the communication between the custodians and the communities.

The community has been empowered and the food autonomy has been boosted. The other key aspect is to know the value of the knowledge they already possess and the recognition of the seeds custodians within the communities.

The indigenous community recognizes that through this process, they were able to establish a cultivation plan according to lunar cycles and also to demarcate areas with crop names. They also learned how to use the seed exchange process as a form of adaptation to climate change. The seed custodians also learned how to carefully cultivate in a more organized way.

The indigenous communities also learned how to plan their plots and traditional gardens and how to produce fertilizers organically. These are all key practices to adapt to climate change.

The strategies have helped to motivate young people, children and families of the importance of rescuing their traditional knowledge, which is essential to improve their capacity on climate change adaptation.

Next Steps

The indigenous authorities and peasant organizations will absorb the skills learned. In order to assure the Seed Custodians Alliance’s sustainability, management’s funds are being put in place.

The Alliance is planning to disseminate their findings. They will scale up activities in order to attract other families and land owners to recover their traditional knowledge of resistant native species to climate change.

The dissemination of good practices will motivate families to adopt food security skills and sustainable productive systems. The benefits of this initiative will be extended to others territories and other communities and to right practice in the field of environment in general.

The workshop with children and young people in educational institutions helps to ensure continuity. There is much interest from teachers and students to Further Strengthen the Processes of Food Autonomy. The sustainability of the Alliance could rely on the development of the field schools.

Potential replication / application

The use of traditional knowledge is emerging as a powerful practice to climate change adaptation and has a great potential for replication. We learned that the use of traditional knowledge diminishes the vulnerability in the communities. In addition, when using traditional knowledge the community is more interested to participate on cultural dynamics exchanges and climate change knowledge.

From the Joint Programme experience in Colombia we drew the following conclusions:

Communities have their own ways of conceiving their territory, natural resources, organization and management to adapt to climate change. In order to assure the programme success, it is important to respect and recognize these ways of thinking. It is also important to respect and promote the use of their traditional knowledge. And to assure that communities have ownership of the programme and autonomous adaptation options. It is also key to consider the local context and the expectations of the producers participating in the process.

Information products

  • “Knowledge of exchange for adaptation of climate change”: Document of Systemization of the Experience of implementation of steps, of conservation and food security, for the climate change Adaption, en the high basin of the Cauca River. Available at:
  • “Alliance of Custodians of special vegetables and animals of Kokonuko Town and farmer organizations of the high basin of Cauca River, Colombia, as an autonomous measure of adaption to climate change”. Available at:
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