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Yadira Ferrer* - Tierramérica

BOGOTA, Nov 9 2006 (IPS) - Colombian lawyer and activist Rodrigo Vivas won the 2006 Sasakawa Prize, awarded annually by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) and The Nippon Foundation, for his “rainwater harvest” project, aimed at combating desertification.

The award, which includes a 200,000-dollar prize, is one of the most prestigious environmental laurels in the world. Vivas received the Sasakawa Prize on Oct. 30 at a ceremony in New York, sharing it with the Tenadi Cooperative, of Mauritania.

He grew up with parents and grandparents who were farmers in the southwestern town of Poayán. Now Vivas, 36, describes himself as a man of the countryside who is obsessed with water conservation.

The obsession emerged three years ago when his nine-year-old son was sent home from school because there was no water, and the teachers feared that unsanitary conditions at the school might trigger an epidemic.

“The lord of the rains”, as his friends call him, created the non-governmental Fundación Acción Ambiental (Environmental Action Foundation) six years ago, focusing on local issues. The foundation works with farmers to encourage protection of biodiversity, proper water management, food security efforts and strengthening of community organisations.

Vivas is also executive director of the Consortium for Sustainable Hillside Agriculture, CIPASLA, which is active in 23 rural districts of the Andean region of Colombia.

Tierramérica spoke by phone with Vivas, at the CIPASLA headquarters, in Popayán.

Q: What does it mean to you to have won the Sasakawa Prize?

A: Winning it reaffirms my personal commitment and the commitment of the communities in my country to build a better life, and it is recognition for the hundreds of families that now value the development and strengthening of a culture of collecting and making best use of rainwater. Water is a universal right and a public good that should not be privatised. Rural communities, who ensure the country’s food security, have the right to take advantage of rainwater to satisfy the demands of family farming and all possible uses.

Q: How did the “rainwater harvest” project come about?

A: Ever since I was a boy, I learned from my grandfather – a humble farmer – to love, respect and take care of water. And thanks to the exchange of experiences we have had in the last four years, I consider it necessary to promote in Colombia an alternative project for supplying rainwater in arid and semi-arid rural zones, like there are in Mexico, Peru and Bolivia.

Q: What is the scope of the project?

A: The goal is to establish 500 tanks throughout Colombia to supply rainwater. We are starting with 40 municipalities and we hope to replicate it in others, turning it into a national policy.

Q: Why is it important to collect rainwater?

A: The dominant economic model in Latin America is unsustainable in ecological and water terms. The world is reaching an extreme situation in the waste and destruction of water sources. There is practically no human activity that shouldn’t be reformulated if the species wants to survive its own environmental irrationality. The extractive and transformative industries, agriculture, trade, services, urban and architectural planning, the consumption patterns and even our personal hygiene habits must be rethought in order to prevent a not-so-far-off exhaustion of water supplies.. For these reasons, fighting poverty and desertification is the duty of everyone.

Q: What message do you want to communicate to the international community as you receive this prize?

A: That we should organise ourselves as civil society in defence of water, supported by national and international political leaders.

(*Originally published Nov. 4 by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)

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