By John R. Thomson

There’s a good reason life in Pasto, Colombia appears different to a visitor from the capital, Bogota: it is.  Pasto reflects all the many faces of the country, but does so with a decidedly different attitude and a very different flair.  These differences date back centuries.

In many ways, Bogota is a typical accelerated capital city: its nine million citizens move at an impersonal, self-important pace, comparable to just two other Latin American centers; Mexico City and Brazil’s commercial capital, Sao Paulo.  The air is one of super, often hyper- activity. Efficiency is occasional; results, questionable; attitude, incidental.

Challenges abound in Bogota with choking traffic, a daily influx of some 1,500 displaced campesinos, massive corruption and rampant crime. Through it all, universities abound, the arts flourish and the climate is unremittingly fair.

On the other hand, 500 miles to the southwest, there is Pasto with 380 thousand inhabitants.  Capital of Narino Department whose western border is the Pacific Ocean, things move at a brisk but sensible pace; people are more relaxed and open-minded and their products ranging from coffee to handicrafts are arguably the finest that are produced in Colombia or the rest of Latin America.

Yet there are many challenges that include eliminating the still flourishing coca cultivation; balancing the demands of disaffected indigenous inhabitants with basic community services; convincing prospective tourists the spirit, handicrafts and beaches of Narino are worth the minimal risk.  And doing it all on a miniscule state government budget of 10 million dollars for 1.6 million citizens.

Fortunately, popular enthusiasm for change is matched by dynamic government action.  Consider cocaine.  Efforts to eradicate coca cultivation have been a comprehensive failure.  Airborne fumigation campaigns have blighted all crops, infected citizens, earned widespread opposition and done nothing to significantly decrease production levels.

A new test project has been launched by Narino Governor, Antonio Navarro Wolff that actively involves farmers in the process.  The “Si Se Puede” [Yes We Can] trial project was launched in two cocoa infested areas just a year ago with then Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, (the leading candidate to succeed President Alvaro Uribe), in attendance.  The multi-level program graphically informs campesinos of the dangers to themselves, of the sharp increase in crime, of the true costs and profits and of the financially positive farming options available [including lemons, peanuts and broccoli].  It assists in clearing the fields — fumigation merely kills the leaves, not the roots of the sturdy coca plant — and provides technical, micro-financial and marketing assistance.Independent observers believe Si Se Puede can be successful, many citing a similar program launched by Colombian activist Sonia Amado that has virtually eliminated poppy production in Narino.  Ms. Amado contends, “Colombian campesinos know making money is not everything, and they know cultivating narcotics complicates their lives.  When you show them murders in drug cultivating areas are more than double the national rate, they quickly calculate their personal misery index, including alcoholism, prostitution and spousal abuse.  Then, the idea of perhaps making a little less becomes acceptable.”

Si Se Puede project director, Plinio Perez believes “Involving the people from the very beginning has been critical and has won their trust and involvement.  It will be a long struggle, but we are optimistic.”

“Results to date are encouraging, Governor Navarro agrees, “but it will take at least two more years to judge test results.  One thing we know is that what has been done before has not worked.”

Narino’s long-neglected indigenous native population has benefited from another recent Navarro innovation; Latin America’s first multi-national, multi-cultural festival.  Held in Pasto and neighboring areas, the August event was the first ever cultural activity involving the entire Andean region of South America, with ethnic groups from eight countries providing an exceptional and diverse array of music, theatre, spiritualism and handicrafts.  The “Time to Flourish” festival attracted over 800,000 visitors as well as virtually every native pastuso.

Noteworthy highlights were a music and dance group from Ecuador’s Cuenca University and presentations of shaman tribal rituals by several of more than 200 gathered for a rare conference of native spiritual leaders.A presentation of “La Vida es Sueño” [Life is a Dream], by Baroque Spanish playwright Pedro Calderon de la Barca, produced by Marcela Bustamante, Antonio Navarro’s remarkably talented ex-wife, was staged and acted at a Broadway level of professionalism.

Pasto’s fifth annual film festival organized by architect and filmmaker Javier Delgado, presented 115 productions from eight nations [entries from Venezuela and Ecuador were withdrawn, evidently for political reasons].  The department’s varied landscape has made it a favorite for film producers from Europe and North America, and no less than 57 made-in-Narino films were shown.  Mr. Delgado’s next challenge is producing a Narino-based documentary targeted for presentation at the 2011 Sundance festival.The pace is brisk and positive, and the driving force has been Narino’s governor, Pasto native, Antonio Navarro Wolff.  The question is: how does he do it, given the minimal funds available just to maintain 2,200 schools, 2,000 miles of roads and 124 medical facilities?  The answer is innovation.  “There is much that we can and must do to set Narino on a solid growth path”, Governor Navarro believes.  “If we keep doing things the way they have been done for decades, we simply will not grow, so we keep looking for new approaches, which include new ways to raise money.”

When skeptical Bogota bureaucrats were unwilling to provide financing for the coca eradication test and with nothing available for the August festival, the Governor had to find new funding sources.  A recent visit to the trial area by British Minister for Development Gillian Merrow and Ambassador John Dew will be followed by a 40 million Euro grant from the European Union directly to the Narino government by year’s end, funding that will allow the department to pay staff salary arrears as well as implement further refinements to the project.Because Colombian departments are not permitted to raise taxes, most of Narino’s operating revenue comes from sale of state-produced alcohol but there is little or nothing available to fund new initiatives.  So, in order to underwrite Augusts’ multi-national festival, the Narino government inaugurated a special licensing stamp for state contractors, costing two percent of their contract revenue.  Not surprisingly, the bootstrapping businessmen readily agreed to fund what became a booming success.

Elected governor in 2008, Antonio Navarro Wolff has pursued a very different career.  A native of Pasto, he spent several years following university graduation in M-19, Colombia’s first major radical political insurgency.  After a colorful, combative and life-threatening career as M-19’s second in command, the future politician led a group of his comrades back into society and launched a leftist political party, Polo Democrático Alternativo.

His prominence as a reformed guerrilla plus reputation for incorruptibility led to appointment as one of three wise men [with conservative leader Alvaro Gomez and liberal politician Horacio Serpa] who guided the creation of Colombia’s 1991 constitution.

Elected Mayor of Pasto in 1995, Mr. Navarro earned a reputation for action and incorruptibility, both unusual traits among Colombian politicians.  Colombia’s leading newspaper, El Tiempo and the FES Leadership Institute, named him the best mayor in the country. Later, he was declared Colombia’s outstanding congressman by Cambio newsmagazine.

Election as Narino governor was natural, according to one leading local conservative: “The man gets things done.  He appoints people based on their abilities, not friendships or favors; as mayor and now governor, he has created a new spirit for Pasto and Narino”.

Action has continued to be Mr. Navarro’s byword since becoming Governor – action with a purpose and a distinctly different approach.  It all may go back to his guerrilla days, when he was critically wounded in an attempt on his life that cost him a leg and required countless surgeries to reconstruct his face.  “He was very close to death”, a long time friend and supporter told me. “He decided to live, and to make a difference.”Mr. Navarro has twice sought Colombia’s presidency and continues to be considered a possible candidate. Although he has significantly moderated his political creed to a pragmatic, free market approach, his unorthodox style is considered a major impediment by many observers.  As one analyst remarked, “Navarro Wolff is clean, independent and unpredictable … that’s not the kind of person who gets nominated, much less elected, in Colombia.”

In addition, there are a considerable number of people who can neither forgive nor forget Mr. Navarro’s violent past.  The Governor’s reaction is intriguingly incomplete, although in no way threatening: “I’ve always just tried to do the job — whatever it is — well.  That done, the future should unfold well; if not….”

Interestingly, Narino’s different approach goes back to Colombia’s fight for independence.  The people of Pasto told Simon Bolivar nearly 200 years ago that they preferred to stay with Spain, thank you, and many citizens remain proud of it.

Today, Narino department’s determination and the Navarro approach to politics continue to be very different from the Colombian norm. Bureaucratic buck passing is as unpopular as arriving too late for dinner in Pasto, although both are standard fare in Bogota.Time to Flourish festival director, Carmen Perini unwittingly summed up the Pasto attitude, when asked how a multi-faceted, multi-national festival could be organized in 10 months.  She shrugged and said, “This is the very first encounter of all the Andean cultures in one place at one time.  It simply had to get done”.  Fortunately for Pasto, Narino and nearly a million visitors, Ms. Perini and her team were impressively successful.

Similar success in eradicating the coca scourge could finally write Narino’s name large on Colombian and South American maps.  In the bargain, the energy and dedication displayed by Narino’s governor could set an example for politicians of every persuasion.

Bogota resident John R. Thomson focuses on political and social developments in developing countries.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Featuring Recent Posts WordPress Widget development by YD