The full community analysis (en español) is available here
Also known as the ‘corner of progress’, ‘the enchanting/charming town’, or ‘land of pride’, Fundación is a municipality with approximately 86,000 residents located in the northeast of the Department of Magdalena with land extending from the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range in the east to the plains of the urban hub where the famous Fundación River runs along its eastern and northern edges. Despite being a much younger municipality than its neighbors, Fundación is significantly larger and has a more robust economy. On September 29, 2016, I found out that Fundación would be my home for the following two years. I would be the first Community Economic Volunteer (‘CED’) in the municipality in Peace Corp Colombia’s second phase, and I would join Audrey and Helena, Practical English for Success volunteers, who arrived to Fundación in April 2016. The goal of the CED project at a high level is to support a more entrepreneurial and financially conscientious culture.
Geography, Climate, and Transportation
Fundación owes its relatively developed economy and status as a regional commercial hub in large part to its strategic location. The department (i.e. equivalent of ‘state’ in the U.S.) of Magdalena is on the northeastern edge of Colombia with its northern border being the Caribbean Sea. Fundación has easy access to Colombia’s largest highway, ‘The Sun Route’, making it a two and a half hour drive from one of Colombia’s major ports in Barranquilla and less than two hours from departmental capital, Santa Marta. There are more than eight bus companies operating out of Fundación going to all parts of Colombia with numerous shared taxi services going to the small towns in/around Fundación.
The landscape of Fundación varies dramatically. In the low-lying western plains, the heat and humidity are utterly oppressive garnering Fundación’s nickname of ‘Fundición’, meaning ‘foundry’ or ‘smelting’. On the other hand, Fundación contains land near the peaks of the world’s highest coastal mountain range, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Fundación is divided into the urban hub, four ‘corregimientos’ (‘villages’), twenty-two ‘veredas’ (‘settlements’), and fourteen indigenous settlements. The urban core, where 83,000 people including myself live, is divided into sixty-six neighborhoods.
The unnavegable Rio Fundación (‘River Fundación’) begins in the Sierra Nevada, defines the east and north boarders of the municipality, and ultimately spills into the Cienaga Grande (‘big marsh’) de Santa Marta. Two vehicular bridges connect Fundación with neighboring municipality Aracataca. Due to heavy sedimentation and local agricultural development, the Rio Fundación frequently floods during the wet seasons of April-June and September-November. The municipal government is pledging to dredge the river and build retention walls, but I am told that the municipal government has promised this for decades. As a result, there are many neighborhoods and houses that are not only at risk of flooding but also do flood almost every rainy season.
Population, History, and Culture
The municipal government sites the population at 86,344 inhabitants as of 2016 while the national census bureau states it is 57,344 (I have repeatedly asked people about this large discrepancy in population figures, and I struggle to have a rational answer to explain it). Approximately fifty percent of Fundación’s population is under the age of twenty. The population is ninety percent of is mestizo/white, seven percent Afro-Colombian, and three percent indigenous. Approximately thirty percent of the population is considered ‘displaced’ by the various armed conflicts that Colombia has endured in the past forty years resulting in the national government financing entirely new neighborhoods of subsidized housing, especially in the past ten years.
Fundación is part of a broader region known as the ‘banana zone of Magdalena’ which is known for its massive influxes of internal migration and foreign immigrants throughout its history hosing diverse peoples including Spaniards, French, Irish, Italians, Germans, Arabs, Palestinians, Afro-descendants, North-Americans, and political refugees from Cuba and Venezuela. There were various settlements in what is now known as Fundación, but its history really begins with the arrival of the Santa Marta Railway Company which began construction in 1890 for the purpose of transporting bananas to Santa Marta and Barranquilla for export. Today, the railway is used for transporting coal from mines in the department of Cesar to the port of Santa Marta for export.
The United Fruit Company (UFC), a U.S. corporation that is now a part of Chiquita, had a massive presence in the region during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but relations with locals turned sour ultimately resulting in the infamous banana massacre of 1928 in a city between Fundación and Santa Marta called Cienaga. The workers were demanding more humane working contracts and payment in currency rather than company issued food coupons only redeemable at company stores. The U.S. government informed the Colombian government that it would invade the region if Colombia did not protect the interests of the UFC resulting in between 800 and 3,000 banana workers being killed at the hands of their own government.
In 1945, Fundación became a municipality separating from Aracataca, a smaller municipality to the north and boyhood home of Nobel Prize winning writer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Fundación sadly made international news through tragedy in 2014 when thirty-three children and one adult died when a church-affiliated bus erupted into flames.
Fundación has a predominantly Catholic population with three separate parishes. However, Evangelical Christianity is growing rapidly. As with most of Colombia, Fundación residents are more religious than people in the U.S. or Europe.
Cultural hallmarks of Fundación include vallenato music, swimming in/picnicking alongside the river near the train bridge, and its communal festivals in August which feature bullfights, music, parades, and typical Colombian dances. Below is a video from the vallenato concert celebrating Fundación’s 72nd birthday on June 4, 2017 in the 7th of August Park.
Government and Economy
Colombia’s government is a presidential participatory democratic republic divided into thirty-three ‘departments’ (the U.S. equivalent of states). In general, Colombia’s departments possess significantly less independence than the U.S.’s states. For instance, Colombia has no local/state police nor local school districts – all is centralized in Bogota. Each department is divided into numerous municipalities (a sort of blend between county and city/municipal governments in the U.S.). The municipalities are led by mayors and councilmen elected every four years.
Fundación’s economy can be divided in three sectors: commercial, livestock, and agricultural. The commercial portion is dominated by retail and healthcare with several large department stores, three supermarkets, an open-air public market, a plethora of restaurants, two hospitals, and several clinics. The eight financial services institutions include multinational banks such as BBVA and Davivienda as well as smaller micro-finance institutions. Despite its relatively high presence of banks, Fundación has an enormous shadow banking system with frequent loans between friends, various pawn shops, casinos, and prevalent, well-known ‘pagadiarios’, or illegal loan sharks charging 20% monthly interest.
Cattle raising for slaughter and milk production is Fundación’s largest industry given its grassy plains for grazing totaling around thirty-seven thousand hectares. Below is a video of some of my host dad’s cattle.
Agriculture in Fundación varies from heavy coffee production in the mountainous region to banana/plantain and African Palm Oil production in the lower lands although municipalities to the north rely much more heavily on palm oil and bananas than Fundación does.
Fundación has eight public and two private high schools with numerous elementary schools feeding into them. Education in Colombia is divided into primary which goes through 5th grade and ‘bachillerato’ which is 6th to 11th grade. The six public schools in the urban zone of Fundación have twenty-five total campuses totaling over 14,000 students. One large difference from the U.S. is that students only attend school for six hours per day with each school building offering classes from 6:30 AM to 12:30PM and 12:30 PM to 6:30 PM. This is primarily due to lack of educational investment and infrastructure. English as a foreign language Peace Corps Volunteers, Audrey and Helena, work in Instituto Colombia and Instituto Fundación, respectively.
Higher education in Fundación consists of a small SENA campus and several for-profit educational corporations. SENA (‘National Service of Learning’) is a national technical education entity that could be thought of as the equivalent of the community colleges in the United States being combined into one national agency then being merged with the Small Business Administration. SENA is my main counterpart and the focus of my work as a Community Economic Development Volunteer. While Fundación has a few alternatives for post-secondary education, the lack of an accredited university is a brain-drain on the community (i.e. smarter, wealthier kids leave for Santa Marta, Barranquilla, or the interior of the country for university and rarely return). As a result, less than 10% of residents have some sort of higher education.
Fundación faces many of the same challenges as equivalent sized cities in the U.S. – how to attract and retain wealth and intelligence without the presence of a university or a major corporate headquarters? Fundación is similar to Colombia as a whole in that it has profound income inequality and it falls victim to some corruption. However, Fundación does have its strategic location making it economically and socially better off than many of its neighbors. Moreover, the feeling of community and human warmth in Fundación has led it through its toughest challenges and continues to make it welcoming to all (even sweaty gringos). For that reason, Fundación merits its nicknames of ‘the corner of progress’, ‘the enchanting village’, and ‘the land of pride’.
A more detailed and visually pleasing version of this blog post (in Spanish) is available in the form of my community analysis here
Local news, events, history, and culture (in Spanish) here