The life of Maricela took a turn one day as she was selling obleas (wafer cookies), sliced mangoes, and chontaduro (a local palm fruit) while advertising hikes to waterfalls from a small stand in Villa Carmelo, which her 17-year-old daughter now runs on Sundays. It wasn’t far from a trail, and on rare occasions a hiker would appear. “That’s where I met Robert,” Maricela told me. She’s referring to Robert, her Airbnb cohost and the founder of Desarrollo Biodiverso, an NGO that combines permaculture science with responsible tourism.
A Dutchman, he had studied environmental science and had worked in Ghana and Nicaragua on various sustainable projects. He was staying in Cali and told her he had been searching for a location where he could carry out his goal of preserving the region’s biodiversity while stimulating the local economy.
Maricela was enthusiastic about how much potential the area had and told him about her nearly neglected finca. They decided to join forces, and in 2017, her finca became the organization’s home in Colombia.
Robert built cabins at the finca, which are rented out on various online platforms, and applied principles of permaculture to the gardens, promoting the idea of all plants and organisms working together. Maricela and Martha manage a range of hiking tours and sustainable workshops.
Aside from wages for the staff, everything earned from the cabins, tours, and farm products gets reinvested into the project and the local community. Neighbors have seen what they’re doing and have been inspired: They’ve launched their own ecotourism services, rented out cabins, or switched to composting instead of buying chemical fertilizers.
Robert, who comes from the Netherlands, one of the leading countries in terms of efficiency and sustainability regarding food production, water and wind management, spent most of his life travelling. After studying environmental science at the University of Breda and graduating at the University of Deventer, he went out to venture in the world, looking for eye-opening real life experience. He is the brain behind the whole concept.
The Biodiverse Development foundation was initiated in the spring of 2017. It consists of a self-sustainable farm, a community for volunteers and a visitors centre for everybody who is interested in contributing to the foundation’s objectives or would like to experience a sustainable way of living. Connected with nature, it offers a personal internal development.
The foundation takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, whilst addressing the needs of the travellers, the environment, and the local host community. It offers a kind of experience that respects their cultural heritage, conserves the biodiversity and minimises the negative environmental impacts that tourism can have.
Since the end of 2015, Robert is actively visiting Colombia. In 2016, he picked Cali as his main city with the focus of starting a project in the region. In December 2017, he meets Maricela and the whole project becomes more tangible. Maricela is from the mountains where she grew up and studied ecotourism for 12 years at the age of 30. In 2017, she and some other locals initiated the Mercado de la Montaña with whom the BDF also collaborates.
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