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IDRC @ICLEI World Congress: Support Adaptation Initiatives from Local Communities


Interviewer: Hello. Welcome to the new episode of Discussions on climate change. We are at the ICLEI Conference with Professor Gonzalo Lizarralde, Senior Researcher for the project Adaptation to Climate Change in Informal Establishments: Understanding and Supporting Bottom-up Initiatives. Well. It’s a long text. Yes, well hello.

Gonzalo: Hello.

Interviewer: So to begin with, can you tell us more about yourself and the project you are working on?

Gonzalo: Well, it’s an IDRC-funded initiative bringing together a range of stakeholders in Canada, but also in Latin America and the Caribbean, to explore the best alternatives for adapting informal establishments to climate change, but particularly in the region of Latin America and the Caribbean.

Interviewer: You really work everywhere.

Gonzalo: Yes, we have partners in Colombia, Cuba, Chile, and Haiti. So, the idea is really to work with local partners to explore what are the best climate change adaption solutions and to understand what adaption mechanisms already exist, and then to explore their potential. And to ensure that the best strategies are incorporated in the strategic plans, put forward in public policies, and integrated into urban planning. Then second, to ensure that good initiatives already coming from the people are included in the climate change action plan.

Interviewer: OK. Because you listen a lot to the community and as you said, you want to strengthen the solutions that are coming from the community somewhat. So, why did you choose this bottom-up approach - listening to the community?

Gonzalo: We very quickly realized with our research that there is a double paradox when we think about climate change. The first paradox is that it’s the people living in informal settlements that are the most vulnerable, but the paradox is that these populations are also those that have a capacity for creativity and a very strong adaption response. So, although it is the vulnerable populations, these are populations where we develop many innovative and interesting strategies. So that’s the first paradox. The second paradox is that women are also a particularly vulnerable population, but again, it is a population in which there is a huge development of solutions for adaptation to climate change, and in particular, water management. Once we realized that we were faced with these two paradoxes, we said that the natural answer was to go and see what these populations, both vulnerable and extremely adaptive, were doing. The basis of this project was then “let’s first see what is done from a bottom-up manner, and then try to integrate that into the plan and the policies”. But a first step will be understanding what is already happening on the ground afterwards to integrate it in public policies, in strategic plans, and in more formal plans, etc.

Interviewer: OK. It is an approach that in the last few years researchers are starting to integrate into their research, not just to show up and say we’re going to do that, but to really see what’s going on, to listen to what’s going on in the field, and then to integrate that into the research. But just a thought: do you think that this is an approach that can lead to social transformation, especially in the context of gender?

Gonzalo: Yes. Indeed, it is an approach that is starting to be used more and more. But I would say that the emphasis on our projects is that we don’t want this approach to be an exception, but rather to become a form of professional action. We are working with architecture schools. We work with engineering schools. We work with urban design schools and the idea is to develop this reflex in the students of these programs. This is the difference. These students must understand that this is not just anecdotal, that it’s not just an experience and that it’s not just a way of doing things. The idea is to develop the reflex that listening, observing, and understanding before proposing any ideas must be the natural mode of action. It is to develop this natural reflex in students. So, we are working with universities in these countries - in Cuba, Haiti, Colombia, and Chile - in which we integrate workshops, we integrate courses, we integrate educational activities in which we will develop this kind of professional reflex. Once this professional reflex is well adapted, we are convinced that this great transformation that you mentioned earlier will come about naturally because the engineering students, these urban planning students, and those in architecture, are all going to finish their studies and they will be the agents of change. They are the ones who will be in management positions. They are the ones who will be in the planning offices. They are the ones who will be in government jobs, in NGOs, etc., and they will be able to make the change. So, our goal is to understand, to be attentive, but also to develop a whole new generation of professionals who will listen, observe, and understand before drawing, before planning, before proposing anything. So yes, we are convinced that in this way, we will have this change, not a short-term transformation, but a transformation for the medium- to long-term.

Interviewer: Do you think that the social structures currently in place actually play a role in advancing the path toward this integration of solutions from the field?

Gonzalo: Yes, and no, that is to say that the social, political, and economic structures in place can serve both to explore the potential of these changes but can prevent them as well. So yes, there are factors that facilitate this integration of bottom-up solutions, but there are also many structures, mechanisms, and systems in place that only prevent or create limits or barriers to this adaptation. For example, in terms of governance, yes, there are certain governance structures, some mechanisms that allow for a smoother passage of solutions that come from informal institutions to policies, but the opposite also exists.

Interviewer: That’s true.

Gonzalo: Structures that prevent these bottom-up solutions or neighbourhood-based solutions from becoming a part of politics. There are barriers to urban policies. There are barriers to building codes. There are subsidy policy barriers to certain solutions. In short, there are many barriers. The purpose of the projects is to understand what these elements are that can bring about the changes, so use them, get them, but also identify the elements that prevent change, transformation, and see the solutions to get through these barriers, to be able to break them down and make real change happen.

Interviewer: You said before that women have an important role to play in the emergence of solutions for climate change adaptation. What is your project doing to strengthen their status as such, but also without alienating the rest of the community in the process? I mean the men, and the rest of the spectrum in general.

Gonzalo: Yes. So, we are working on this project on several levels. We are working on it at the educational level, meaning training this new generation of agents of change. On the other hand, we are also working in implementation and research. In implementation, we are interested in bringing about the solutions for change that come from the community in general, but we pay particular attention to those that come from men. And at this level, to tell you the truth, at the level of implementation, we must not make great efforts and therefore there is no great risk of alienation because it’s mostly women who come to us to explain that they have an initiative to be supported and that they have an idea to be put in place, etc. At this level, there is a kind of emphasis that is both fluid and natural without having to force it. So, funnily, I do not see a large effort or a large risk because it is the women who already make a lot of initiatives almost naturally. They are the ones who want the initiatives to be strengthened, and at this level, this issue is happening naturally. On the educational and research side, again, there are certain things that are already done naturally, others are a little less natural. In a natural way, what is happening in Canada is as much as what is in the countries in which we work. It is the design, the planning, and even the engineering that are changing. These are occupations that, only a few short years ago, were very much dominated by men. But very quickly, these disciplines are changing, and these are disciplines in which we find a great proportion of women, to the point that for example, here in Canada, 60% of our architecture students are women, and a good portion, if not higher than that, of this percentage are also in urban planning. However, there is still a gap in engineering schools. We also work with partners who have engineering schools, but this kind of gender-balance is already taking shape, it’s happening in general in architecture, urban planning, and social sciences schools, and even a little in engineering in Latin America and the Caribbean. So, it doesn’t have to be forced too much. However, when it comes to doing research, we must be more attentive to identify the solutions that are more interesting, and to tell the narrative from the women’s viewpoint. Don’t forget that historically, the city was created mostly by men, and the history of the city was written by men. So the city’s narratives that we currently have today mostly come from men in developed countries because it is mostly the intellectuals then the researchers from major universities in the Western world who taught us about understanding the city. But in the research, there is a little more effort and, in this project, we are highlighting a narrative of the city, a narrative of the environment from women. There is an effort that must be made, because we have to identify them, we have to give them the microphone and a voice, and we have to listen to them - we have to ask the right questions to obtain this “feminine” narrative of the city.

Interviewer: That’s true.

Gonzalo: And, at the end of the project, I think we will have a better understanding of the city because we will have listened to and recreated the narrative of the city and its informal neighbourhoods from the female viewpoint.

Interviewer: Have you run into problems and challenges by using this somewhat innovative approach? I know that the project is still somewhat in its infancy, but have you been able to identify some of the challenges you will have to address that you may not have thought of at the beginning of the project?

Gonzalo: Not for the moment. No, not regarding the gender issue. We had some great tensions because, again, our approach is a non-forced approach, almost natural, natural in the sense that it is already the women who make a great deal of effort to manage water. It is the women that want their voices to be heard. More and more women are studying issues related to the transformation of the environment. So, at this level, the process is well underway. We are not changing the rules of the game. I would say that the risks arise when we adopt the gender issue to change the rules of the game, and that’s when the risks are high. For example, I studied a reconstruction project in Central America, where in my opinion, house ownership was changed radically and too quickly, giving them to the men rather than the women. Rapid changes like that make radical transformations in very short periods of time, we see tensions appear. For example, in Central America, in many of these projects, family relationships and family dynamics have been changed within households because a tradition based on the man’s power is suddenly being confronted with equality, and neither the man or the woman has had the time to make the transition. There we find a lot of tension. It’s the opposite in this project: we try to see what is happening right there on site and then try to explore this potential. We are not imposing any kind of transformation. We are not proposing a question of gender simply because we think it is more morally acceptable. We are doing it because we know that there is a movement that is happening on site already, and we can explore its potential. Yes, it is morally correct, but it is a process that is already in place on site.

Interviewer: That’s true.

Gonzalo: That’s the difference, and that’s why, for now, we have not encountered many problems, barriers, or many risks regarding it. Now, there are plenty of other barriers to other aspects of the project. For example, there are many difficulties to make the authorities understand that the grassroots solutions, those emerging bottom-up solutions coming from informal neighbourhoods, are real solutions. There is still a pejorative vision. There are still prejudices. There is still this idea that everything that comes from the grassroots movement is chaotic, disorganized, inappropriate, temporary, and that’s where we find the biggest barriers. The big barriers on the part of the decision-makers, the people in power for whom more formality is synonymous with disorder, chaos, and profiteering, because they are the people who will benefit the most from the system for their own interests. Showing them the other side of a formality, showing them that there are adaptations, showing them that there is a huge struggle for survival and that there are important, substantial solutions that come from these areas, is much more difficult, and that’s where we find our barriers.

Interviewer: Yes. From a financial viewpoint, the solutions generally coming from the grassroots sectors are cheaper to implement than the solutions coming from X, Y, and Z.

Gonzalo: Yes.

Interviewer: That’s also something...

Gonzalo: Just to give you an example, many decision-makers in Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti still think that informal settlements must be eradicated and replaced by new, cleaner, greener, more pleasant neighbourhoods, with large highways for vehicles. There are still a lot of prejudices like that. There are still politicians in Colombia who think that informal settlements need to be erased and replaced by more formal solutions. We still have decision-makers in Caribbean countries who think that coastal populations must be relocated inland because they will be threatened, but we forget that these coastal populations have had a close relationship with the sea for centuries.

Interviewer: Exactly.

Gonzalo: So, that’s where we find the biggest barriers. To change these prejudices, to make it clear that there are other ways of seeing things, and changing the narratives of the territory, to change the dominant narratives about the city, is a real barrier and the project tries to address them.

Interviewer: How do you actually see the future of the project, and then, after the project as well? Do you think we could at least lower, if not eradicate, those barriers?

Gonzalo: I think so. I am very hopeful that our youth-based training methodology will have a great impact. As a teacher, I cannot do anything. I am an educator, so I am convinced about the importance of education. And, as a teacher, I’m convinced that real change comes from education. As a teacher, I am convinced that change is produced by working with the new generation, precisely because it is new. If this new generation develops the right reflexes, the right approaches, and the necessary skills, it is these stakeholders of tomorrow who will produce this change and it will be irreversible because the structures will already be in place, because the strike force will already exist, and going backwards will be very difficult.

Interviewer: That’s true.

Gonzalo: As for other means of action, we don’t know yet. We hope they work. We hope that they will lead to good solutions. We have great hopes, but that doesn’t guarantee us sustainability. I think that training and education give us a leg up because that’s where the real potential for change is, in the medium- to long-term. But the problem with education is that it doesn't produce results tomorrow morning. We must wait. We must wait for these new engineers, architects, urban planners, sociologists, geographers - they will find themselves in a position of action to see the change and it is a just a matter of having patience. It will come in 5 or 10 years. The new generation of Haitian architects will build the Haitian cities.

Interviewer: That’s true.

Gonzalo: They will become the ministers and mayors. Same thing in Colombia, same thing in Cuba. And so, I’m very optimistic that with this youth-based approach, by training the new generation, we will have very long-term impacts.

Interviewer: Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us and keeping us informed about what is happening with the project, and we really hope the project will be successful.

Gonzalo: Thank you very much.

Interviewer: Thank you.

Gonzalo: Thank you for the interview.