Anthropologist & Ethnographer (and our Colombian guide) – Carolina Serrano

When I first met Carolina, I could instantly tell there was so much more to her than being our super knowledgeable and passionate Colombian guide.  Literally from our first conversation she began to unveil a whole new layer to herself revealing a project she had been working as an ethnographer with an NGO for the local fishing communities to her successfully accomplishing for them to be recognized as a national cultural heritage.  Achieving this has brought infrastructure to these communities and is providing them with a livelihood.

Where do you live in Colombia?

I live by the mountains just outside of Bogota and love that I’m surrounded by forest and nature. I think your surroundings make a difference to your clarity of mind.  This is the perfect place for me to live away from the hustle of the city.

How did the project that led to being on the UNESCO list begin?

Whilst writing my thesis for my undergraduate degree on urban history, tourism, and cultural heritage in Cartagena, I had a chance meeting with a tour guide called Ana who was leaving Colombia that year to live in Switzerland and was looking for someone to replace her and after a few beers she thought I would be perfect for the job.  This was not a path I’d considered before but I found myself months later on a plane to Peru for training. The demand for tourism in Colombia at that time was slow and Ana didn’t leave the company, so I needed to find work.  Call it divine timing but the day after I returned from Peru, I had a call from the NGO I’d previously done an internship with.  As an intern I was asked to formulate an idea for a project and because my thesis was about cultural heritage and had researched some of the rural fishing communities, I thought it would be perfect if we could create a project to make this heritage as it will serve as a tool for ecological restoration of the wetlands amongst many other things. This resonated with the director of the NGO, so when they called me, the purpose of the project was to write ethnography on the life systems and practices around fishermen and the artisanal fisheries. 

As part of a six-month project between the NGO and The Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History (ICANH, by its initials in Spanish), we completed an ethnographic diagnosis, meaning a full analysis of the communities’ culture, their customs, their habits and mutual differences between three of the fishing communities in the Magdalena river flood plains.  I was in charge of managing this area, which is an extremely remote area, very hot and the wetlands were full of insects and mosquitos!  This was a really amazing yet challenging experience because on a daily basis I was confronted with the harsh reality of how many people live on the poverty line in Colombia. I’m not a wealthy person but I’ve had evident privileges throughout my life.  I’m educated, I travel, I live a certain lifestyle, so it was shocking but at the same time very educating to see how these people live and the problems they have to face on a daily basis that are so different to mine.  It was such a mix of emotions that at times made me feel guilty because on one hand I was missing my home comforts but on the next I was getting on speed boats sailing across the river and experiencing and learning about how these communities live, how to throw fishing nets correctly and about the whole unique process of fishing.  These months were a turning point in my life, and it strengthened my interest in learning more about our heritage and how tourism is very intertwined with cultural heritage.

When we came back to Bogota, I wrote a report that my team and I presented to the director of the Institute of Anthropology and this document served as a base to send an application to the Ministry of Culture for the practice of these fishermen to become a national heritage. It’s a really long process but hopefully soon it will make it to the UNESCO list.

This was such a beautiful project to be part of and I’m sorry I wasn’t able to make it through the whole project, but I am so pleased that my contribution made such a huge difference to one region in Colombia.

Have you kept in touch with any of the community families?

Yes, I’m still friends with some of the communities especially the social community leader.  Throughout this pandemic I’ve run crowd funding projects to send money to the community leader so he could buy the town groceries.  They are having a really bad time and they are such proud people it seems unfair they have experienced such violence and extreme poverty.  For me it’s also painful for me to see the children growing up in a world where they won’t be able to get a good education or the job they want, this has definitely got to change, and I have a few ideas how this can be done.  I think you can help these communities by sending money and groceries in the short term, but true difference is made by stopping this cycle happening in the first place.

What are you working on now?

I’m never bored, I have so many ideas of how I want to help these and other communities.  I’m working part-time with a magazine focusing on business anthropology, which is really interesting, and also continuing to learn how applied anthropology can be used in tourism to benefit these more unfortunate communities. 

Once tourism begins again and I can begin working as a guide, hopefully this year, my knowledge will help stop the exploitation of the local people and instead turn it around for people to visit Colombia with social consciousness and compassion.