The Station that Freed Them

JJ Salazar with local farmers

The Station that Freed Them

Rare Pride Campaign Manager JJ Salazar uses radio to connect and empower rural communities in post-conflict Colombia
S.H. IrbyOctober 5, 2017

For decades, radio communication was out of reach for the small, remote mountain towns of Cisneros, a district in Colombia’s Valle del Cauca. In part, their geography forbade it: the towns are buried into jagged slopes and dense forests that create natural obstacles to radio signals from surrounding cities. At most, they could hope to catch a random, choppy signal from Cisneros’ busier Buenaventura and Dagua municipalities. Cisneros’ most isolated communities had neither a radio station of their own nor the means to create one, and no way to send important messages out to all of their community members with clarity or speed, until Cimarron Stereo 88.5.

JJ Salazar and Carlos Antonio Hurtado at the radio station

JJ Salazar and Carlos Antonio Hurtado at
the Cimarron Stereo 88.5 station.

The Cimarron station is the brainchild of Rare Pride Campaign Manager Juan de Jesús “JJ” Salazar, a zootechnician with regional water authority Corporación Autónoma Regional del Valle del Cauca (CVC), and local leader Carlos Antonio Hurtado. The idea to dig into a radio effort came to JJ when he started a campaign with Rare and CVC in late 2013, to promote conservation and sustainable management of forest and water resources in the local El Tanque and La Guinea watersheds. Not far into the campaign, JJ met and spoke with Carlos, a member of the Community Council of Black Communities, a local organization that works to preserve Cisneros’ cultural roots. Carlos told him about the small towns that no radio signal could reach. He saw the extent of their disconnect for himself, riding up a steep dirt road by horseback to get to them. These towns depended heavily on the watersheds, and in JJ’s mind, they deserved just as much access to the campaign’s educational messaging and ideas for sustainable farming solutions as Cisneros’ less isolated communities. So JJ and Carlos teamed up to help them start a station from scratch, recruiting local help along the way.

Cimarron Stereo could’ve been crumpled by obstacles from the start, as life in Valle del Cauca was complicated by interwoven environmental, social and economic issues. Unsustainable farming practices were rampant and habitual, aggravated by climate change bearing down on the whole valley. The target audience, local farming communities of Cisneros, deeply distrusted public entities like CVC after half a century of civil conflict. And there was the combination of isolation and poverty that had prevented the remote towns from accessing radio in general. 

The entire process would be a slog — starting the station, spreading a message of sustainability, getting the users to embrace it. But for JJ, Carlos and those who would join them, each road block only affirmed the urgency for a station and a clear signal. The payoff, they learned, was freedom, through connection and self-representation.

•  •  •

CVC originally sent JJ to Cisneros to transform a rigid status quo: unsustainable resource use. For years, many landowners throughout Valle del Cauca have cut down forests to expand agriculture and ranching, and allowed their cattle to stray and graze on vegetation along streams. JJ was familiar with the practices, having once taken part in some of them on his own land upstream in the valley. “Me traditionally, my mom taught me to work our land,” says JJ. “My father used to tell me that our goal was to expand, so we could make our cultivation bigger and have bigger production.” 

His goals changed when he saw how plant life on his land collected water, the impact of his deforestation and uncontrolled cattle grazing on the land and the river nearby, and the devastation of a 2011 landslide in the area. JJ came in contact with CVC when staffers came to the area to survey the damage, and he joined them shortly after.

In 2013, JJ and six peers from CVC launched watershed conservation campaigns with Rare in communities of the La Guinea-El Tanque, Pance, Sonso, La Paila, El Jordan-El Rincón, Bitaco and Frayle watersheds. Called Rare Fellows, they aimed to make landowners more aware of the impact of unsustainable activities, help them reconnect with nature, and offer them sustainable alternatives. 

At the time, Valle del Cauca’s forest and water resources were in bad shape. Deforestation and other farming and development activities had broken down important water-regulating forest ecosystems — a trend that persists today. Climate change has amplified the impact, particularly considering the basic nature of watersheds: water is the vehicle through which the majority of climate change effects lash out and become pronounced to people, through droughts, floods, storms, sea-level rise, salt-water intrusion into groundwater supplies, and more. Poor resource management and climate change have delivered watersheds a one-two punch: after people thin out the density of the area’s natural means of resilience — like the rich forests — worsened droughts and floods overtake communities, multiplying their suffering at unprecedented levels.

JJ’s campaign first sought to show the local farming population how the natural life around them is connected through the forest-water cycle — to destroy the masses of trees and bushes along streams in montane forests is to destroy natural water filters and regulators, which will ultimately threaten the local downstream water supply. The campaign then aimed to highlight and encourage the adoption of sustainable solutions available to local farmers, such as organic fertilizers, cacao and fruit agroforestry systems, and silvopastoral systems enabling trees and livestock to coexist.

•  •  •

In his plans to bring these messages forward, JJ also had to navigate a socio-political reality affecting all of Colombia: half a century of nationwide armed conflict, primarily pitting the Colombian government against insurgent groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). 

In rural areas like Cisneros, the conflict bred violence, economic instability, and displacement. “The conflict has had a great impact on the community in Cisneros, because there were constant confrontations between public forces and irregular groups, where civilians were in the middle,” says JJ. “This has affected the whole system of production and income generation, so many people had to move to other regions, causing a great displacement and abandonment of the farms.”

JJ tells of how Cisneros once had a marketplace where inhabitants of the larger, more populated centers of Buenaventura and Dagua used to travel to buy their agricultural and meat products. Those products were considered the area’s best in freshness and price, he says. The exchanges brought in much of the income for the small-town people of Cisneros, but the interactions came to a halt when the conflict worsened. “The armed conflict discouraged that process and the producers could not return to sell or transport their products in a normal way, which created a lot of insecurity,” says JJ.

Meanwhile, rural people lost trust in all levels of government and its institutions with each bureaucratic blunder by national, regional and local authorities amid the conflict. The relationship between regional environmental authorities and local people became particularly fraught, as the former’s presence became associated less with helpful policy follow-through and more with fines and sanctions. 

CVC partnered with Rare to start the seven watershed campaigns in Valle del Cauca with the motivation to mend the rift. “Communication is very important to build trust, because for a long time in the locality, there was no such relationship between the community and institutions, especially CVC,” says JJ. He believed that a local radio station could do more than mic up his campaign messaging. He hoped to restore communication and trust both within Cisneros communities and with CVC.

Communication is very important to build trust, because for a long time in the locality, there was no such relationship between the community and institutions"
JJ Salazar, Rare Pride Campaign Manager

JJ didn’t have any radio experience, but he had will. JJ and Carlos — assigned by the Community Council of Black Communities to work with JJ during the campaign — first sought help from Gustavo Granados, a local doctor who had experience setting up a station in Dagua, and Mauricio Quiñonez, also from the council. 

Together, the team figured out what they’d need to start up the station and who they could rely on for support. They determined the radius for the station’s signal — 12 watts — and their basic equipment needs. They would have to find the funds for a radio transmitter, console, antenna, speakers, microphones and headphones, all of which had to be easy to fix and maintain with local labor, as well as resistant to extreme humidity and heat typical of the area. 

JJ’s campaign mentor from Rare, Namir Nava, helped them shape their messaging strategy. CVC contributed resources to create the station’s mural and banner, while the Community Council funded equipment and worked with JJ and Carlos to ensure that the station accurately represented the “Cimarron” identity on which Cisneros was founded.

The station was named “Cimarrones,” after the escaped slaves who took refuge in the jungles of western Colombia and established “palenques,” communities free of slavery. “These slaves managed to flee from the Spanish yoke and enter the tropical rainforest to become like the Maroons, fugitive slaves who contributed to not let their race disappear and moved toward freedom,” says JJ. 

He and his colleagues saw in the station the potential to embody the same mission, and directed its slogan at the liberating quality of boosting communication to and throughout Cisneros communities. The station became “Cimmaron Stereo 88.5, the station that frees you.” “Cimarron Stereo is the only station promoted by a Community Council throughout the region and has the only radio signal that arrives very clearly to the transistors of our farmers and water users,” says JJ.

Cimarron Stereo first aired a year and a half after the start of JJ’s campaign, with JJ and Carlos as hosts. Carlos was so excited, he couldn’t keep his voice from cracking when he first spoke. They developed messaging on the importance of taking care of the forest and not impeding its beneficial relationship with water, especially the sources supplying local aqueducts — La Guinea and El Tanque. “The messages have mostly been through short spots with local voices and people who have more experience in the subject,” says JJ. “Different local personalities and authorities are invited to talk about the campaign and the progress it has made over time.” JJ says it encourages community members to talk to one another about the campaign and its ideas. 

One of the station’s most popular programs is a radionovela — harnessing the drama of telenovelas in radio form — called “Love is Forever,” a 12-part series adapted from a similar series Rare developed in previous work in Mexico. “Love is Forever” discusses local conservation issues within more relatable social contexts and situations — dating, friendships, and family. “The interesting thing about the radionovela is that people feel that what happens during the development of the story is reflected in some real-life situations and serves as a model or guidance for the management of daily environmental and social conflicts, where different economic, political and social interests converge,” says JJ.

From its first airing, Cisneros’ small towns were abuzz with excitement about the new radio station and its possibilities. JJ and Carlos still get positive feedback from them, particularly about their new understanding of their environmental impact. “The most outstanding response I have received and perceived by the listeners is the commitment and change of attitude toward environmental situations presented locally,” says JJ. “Children, young people and adults are constantly approaching me to comment on the programs I do and the importance of caring for and preserving nature.” JJ believes this shift in thinking across multiple generations of families will also be crucial in helping local people unite to adapt and become resilient to the onset of climate change.

The most outstanding response I have received and perceived by the listeners is the commitment and change of attitude toward environmental situations presented locally.”
JJ Salazar, Rare Pride Campaign Manager

Once the station was up and running, it didn’t take long for members of the community to join in and produce their own creative programming. “People from the community have been hooked, they have found a hobby and interest to participate,” says JJ. “With weekly spaces, they promote not only activities of the campaign, but also manage and promote messages on health, sports, and more.”

Local organizations and communities now develop their own content with the help of volunteers. A programming board with local members approves the content, “always thinking of a framework of respect, autonomy and inclusion that contributes to generate better community relationships,” says JJ. Carlos currently serves as the station’s director.

Local people can also get information on public order issues from the station and learn more about the projects that different state and private entities carry out in the territory. In part, the Community Council originally bought into the project because its members saw the station’s potential to inform local residents about two major infrastructure projects underway: currently, the government is working on expanding the electrical grid as well as the two-way road on which Cisnero sits, which links the Port of Buenaventura (a port that handles around 80 percent of the country’s imports) and the capital, Cali. The projects solicit community consultation, negotiation and compensation, so it was crucial to inform all areas of Cisneros about the projects. Cimarron Stereo has helped local authorities accomplish that.

By giving people in Cisneros a means to reach more of their community, JJ and his colleagues found that the feeling of trust the area desperately needed arose naturally. “The radio programs have helped to create trust because we tell everything that happens inside the territory in a direct way,” says JJ. “Today, we can say that there is a means of communication that makes CVC visible to the community.” 

The radio programs have helped to create trust because we tell everything that happens inside the territory in a direct way.”
JJ Salazar, Rare Pride Campaign Manager

It’s also been meaningful to see local people find their voice on the radio, he says. “It is impressive to see how people without any knowledge or learning have managed to let go and see themselves as presenters and communicators who reach the the community,” says JJ. “Everyone prints their own personality and versatility when facing a microphone, even though it is not easy to be able to speak coherently on radio, and they improvise on many occasions and adequately convey what they want to say to so many people.” It’s been liberating for them, says JJ, being able to directly express their ideas to their peers. It’s been liberating for listeners in return, as they’ve become more informed and engaged in the issues that affect them.

•  •  •

Though his watershed campaign with Rare came to an end in late 2015, JJ keeps working to make the station and its programs better. “We still have to fly higher and achieve sustainability in the time of Cimarron Stereo,” says JJ. “It requires support in audiovisual media training, expanding the area of coverage in the region, support equipment, and the dream is to reach the Internet — which has been difficult — for provision of the service in the area. We continue to search for wireless alternatives in spite of scare resources.”

He’ll be up against new hurdles, now operating in a landscape of post-conflict transition. November 2016 marked the beginning of the end of the Colombian conflict, when the chief opposing forces, the Colombian government and FARC, reached a peace deal unanimously approved by the country’s congress. The post-conflict transition in rural Colombia will be a defining moment for local people and nature. Countryside areas like Cisneros and their farming communities will witness the return of those that left their lands behind — lands that have since grown lush and wild in their absence. Their relocation poses the risk of accelerating environmental degradation, if the people that return rush to develop and industrialize on that land. 

JJ wants to make sure that doesn’t happen. “We have been working with those communities that we call ‘resistant’ — who never left the territory despite the armed conflict — and with the ‘returned displaced’ — those who left and returned — with whom we have been building a new way of protecting natural resources, without implying not to produce, but with a culture of agricultural conversion toward sustainability,” says JJ. “It is a path we are mapping hand in hand with the communities and institutions.” 

Communities and authorities like CVC have to work together to create harmony with the environment, he stresses. “We must also understand that this is not achieved overnight, it is a slow but sure process,” says JJ. “It is important that municipalities and entities that have a direct impact on the agricultural sector are also better and more closely involved in the process, it is an obligation and is still very incipient in the Cisneros sector.” 

Fortunately, JJ and his colleagues at Cimarron Stereo have experience breaking down barriers to communication, information and empowerment. “Training with Rare and CVC and social marketing experience has allowed us to overcome mental, economic and technical barriers that we had when we thought about the radio station,” says JJ. “Through management and local support, they were happily overcome. This taught us that with persistence and perseverance, we can move forward, no matter how many sticks we encounter on the way.” When they see how the station has changed life for the previously isolated people of Cisneros, every stick is worth the work.