Figure 1. Part of the series Cataclismo, author: Dayana Camacho. 2021.
The Cauca Valley in southwest Colombia has been in an environmental emergency for over a decade. Once the testing grounds for World Bank river basin development models1, its waterscape now changes rapidly, causing abrupt social-environmental shifts. Rivers overflow, destroying levees, bridges, and roads. Vital wetland habitats for wildlife disappear as agroindustrial plantations flood. The rising water levels have displaced entire communities as reclaimed swamplands return to their place –haunting the State’s disciplinary imagination.
This essay explores strategies for fostering life and communal well-being in this hydro-world on edge. We draw from two years of artistic research-practice in the Cauca Valley, including fieldwork visits, archival research, life histories, and interviews. Thinking amidst the afterlives of terraformation and the cruel optimism in technosalvationism, we ask: How can change, abruptness, and surprise impact our ways of imagining resilience and collective flourishing? Can flow and wetness inspire practices focusing not on transformation or control but on reconciliation, restoration, and territorial recovery? To do so, we attend –critically and joyfully– to various ways of living, dying, flowing, and flourishing in the Cauca basin’s Sonso and Agua Blanca lagoons. Through storytelling and visual art practices, we weave the notion of “soft sedimentation”—an intersection of speculative placemaking and political and ethical reflections in the context of environmental transformations.
In geomorphology, soft sediment refers to structures that (re/de)form in water-saturated, cohesionless, or liquefied environments. “Soft-sediment deformation” describes liquids unmaking geological structures and remaking them as antiformal—imagine a sand pancake. We appropriate this notion to think with our watery environments, allowing it to drift towards new shores. For us, soft sediments name structures in motion as well as modes of sedimenting that emerge as structures collapse –for better or worse. Sediment beds that do not dissolve but trans-form amidst waves. As storytellers, we want to embrace the productive capacities of compositional thinking as we imagine new placemaking practices that simultaneously consider environmental, social, ethical, and political dimensions. We don’t aim to offer a theoretical scaffold; instead, our notion advocates for practices that honor relational structures amidst flux and encourages reimagining our interconnected existence in a rapidly changing but already-dense present.
In their 2019 SFMoMa exhibition, curators Eungie Joo and Jovanna Venegas reappropriated Joseph Nye’s notion of “Soft Power” —their show’s title— to explore non-coercive artistic practices that exert their influence on the world. This idea resonates with our essay. One of the 20th century’s unfulfilled promises involved transforming waterscapes with human-made structures to create agricultural abundance. In response, we seek to tell this story otherwise by presenting narratives that acknowledge the socio-environmental complexity of our already-soaked world. Even in its geological underpinnings, softness reminds us that even modest internal triggers could be more meaningful than external seismic forces in shaping our foundations.
I. Agua Blanca
In a restless world, we strive to build a solid ground for ourselves and our kin, layering social, ecological, political, and material sediments. We call ourselves well-grounded. But what if we paused and questioned our foundations? In Cali, the Cauca Valley capital, we live amid waterforms. We see them as life-sustaining sources and believe that cities built near rivers flourish. But what if these bodies of water are not just “out there” but connected to everything “here”? What if we’ve unwittingly taken root amidst the echo of a vanished waterform—a lagoon, marsh, or capricious river that changed its path? Though these currents may be imperceptible, what if they aren’t? How solid is our ground?
The Cauca River, one of Colombia’s largest, runs alongside Cali and through the valley before reaching the Caribbean. Seasonally, the Cauca overflows, breathing life into lagoons and marshes, nurturing the land, and offering its inhabitants fishing, hunting, and commercial opportunities. In Cali’s lowlands, the Cauca once fed a lagoon known as “Agua Blanca.” Historian Eduardo Mejía Prado offers a concise depiction of Aguablanca on the eve of the 19th century:
[Agua Blanca] is about an hour away on the road [from Cali], which is only dry during the summer, [but otherwise] rafts and canoes can navigate through it, bringing food and wood from Cauca, disembarking on a shore where horses and oxen await to take them to the city. […] (Peasants also) fish [here] using large nets […] and catch hundreds of what they call bocachico [Prochilodus magdalenae], an ordinary fish that many poor people consume, and the veringo [Sternopygus seguilabiatus], an eel without scales, catfish, barbudo [Rhamdia quelen], sardines, and shad.2
A colonial city, Cali’s initial urban expansion occurred towards the Andean foothills, close to the Cali River and away from the flood-prone Cauca Valley. However, 20th-century population growth led to urban development extending into the lowlands, transforming construction paradigms and revaluing bodies of water. In the agrarian economy, the Agua Blanca lagoon was invaluable; but to modernizing elites, it became an obstacle and threat to urban expansion. Thus, in the 1950s, regional state agencies built a 16-mile levee, draining the biodiverse-rich lagoon and converting it into a hydraulic complex that could be mechanically regulated through water pumps so that the city’s low-income housing projects would eventually envelop it.
This does not mean the lagoon was gone: its flows were suspended. In 2010, during Colombia’s worst rainy season, the region experienced its water management system’s vulnerabilities. In the municipality of Obando, a levee ruptured, flooding at least 3,000 hectares—an area nearly a quarter the size of Cali. Many families lost their homes and livelihoods. State agencies sought external consultants to evaluate risks and recommend adaptive strategies and, after years of study, they concluded that the existing system was susceptible to climate change effects. If it collapsed, over half the city could be flooded, affecting around 900,000 people and causing 25 years of infrastructural setbacks.
In response, the local government launched Proyecto Plan Jarillón, an engineering initiative to fortify infrastructure and relocate thousands of families near Agua Blanca levees— Latin America’s largest resettlement project. Still ongoing, Plan Jarillón is becoming, by many accounts, a failed project.3 Experts argue it is financially unsustainable, the levee remains vulnerable, and over 2,500 families have been forcibly evicted by State forces.4 Relocating these families to smaller apartments disrupted their livelihoods, as many engaged in pig breeding, poultry farming, and fish cultivation. Adding complexity to the situation, governmental compensation has been provided only to designated “owners” of each dwelling, although up to eight tenants may occupy a single home. This selective compensation left several people virtually homeless, often without viable or dignified alternatives.
Intended to ground the city against unanticipated anthropogenic transformations in the waterscape, Plan Jarillón requires low-income communities in these flatlands to unground themselves for a modern urban dream—or perhaps a nightmare—shielded from rising water levels.
However, a lingering question remains: What common ground will surface once ever-shifting currents carry us all apart?
Plan Jarillón, an ongoing impasse affecting our city and lives, initiated our collaboration. Over the past years, we—the authors—have critically examined the ambivalent relationship between restructuring and de-structuring processes in the Cauca Valley, as well as the interconnected nature of environmental and social sedimentation. As a capacious notion, sedimentation came to us after a morning visit to Sonso Lagoon, 40 miles north of Agua Blanca. Situated on the Cauca River’s right bank, the lagoon is one of the last remnants of the once-ubiquitous freshwater ecology covering the river’s alluvial plain. Bathed in the morning sun, the lagoon’s surface glistened while a symphony of auditory textures animated its expanse. Life still abounds here, with lush flora surrounding the watery-looking glass, macrophytes surfacing from its depths, and microscopic critters dancing just beneath the surface.
Historically, this thriving ecology has nourished local fishing communities. However, these wetlands now balance on a delicate mesh of interconnections, vulnerable to predatory forces. Anthropogenic disruptions have besieged Sonso Lagoon since the latter half of the twentieth century. The construction of an interregional highway blocked freshwater flow into the lagoon in the 1970s, while artificial canals built in the 1990s directed its water to other properties. Constant assaults on the lagoon’s ecosystem persist, from land reclamation efforts to the construction of dikes along its tributaries. The pollution from adjacent livestock farming and the release of untreated agricultural wastewater only intensify the lagoon’s distress.
In this context, an unanticipated interloper appeared: the water hyacinth (Pontederia crassipes), a free-floating aquatic plant characterized by lush flowers, foliage, and feathery roots that interconnect the plants as they establish dense colonies. Known as the “terror of Bengal,” the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies it as one of the most dangerous invasive species in the world. Hailing from the Amazon basin, Colombian state authorities introduced the water hyacinth to these wetlands due to its ability to absorb contaminants from agroindustrial wastewater. But thriving in still waters and without natural predators to keep it in check, the hyacinth’s proliferation went uncontrolled for decades. Today, the plant occupies almost 70% of the lagoon’s surface, displacing native species, reducing oxygen levels, and triggering sediment accumulation. Particles and organic matter become trapped within the plant’s roots and leaves, leading to excessive biomass accumulation and potentially drying up the entire lagoon.
In the Amazon’s currents, the water hyacinth’s sedimentation serves a redistributive purpose, drifting delicately along the river’s flow and acting as a natural filter that breathes life into its surroundings. The plant is not a problem; it plays a crucial role in the ecological cycle of life and death. However, as it ventured into foreign territories, the hyacinth was forced into a new identity, encapsulating the aspirations and offerings of these unfamiliar landscapes. In the Cauca Valley, the hyacinth’s sedimentation reveals a society longing for control, stability, and order, overwhelmed by human-made pollution and slow to embrace biodiversity’s intricate magnificence and vulnerability. The crux of the issue, then, lies not in the hyacinth’s inherent sedimentation processes but in what it sediments, how it redistributes prevailing conditions, and its long-lasting consequences.
The hyacinth’s unwelcome arrival initially brought despair to the Sonso riverine community, threatening generations-old artisanal fishing practices. In response, many locals relocated, pursued alternative occupations, or sold their properties. Still, a resilient majority sought alternatives. Against the current, they focused on nurturing, rehabilitating, and protecting the lagoon’s ecosystem, which required coexisting with the water hyacinth and managing its population and growth. As they worked diligently to restore their life-sustaining waters, departmental and international funding opportunities began to appear. This shift to conservation and care practices later paved the way for a locally-managed ecotourism venture, drawing numerous visitors interested in birdwatching and wildlife. In response, the community established tourist accommodations, a community center, and even a library where they rigorously document the process.
In recent years, the Sonso community has harnessed the water hyacinth’s sedimentation capacities. Initiatives include repurposing harvested plants into organic fertilizers, which outperform many commercial chemical fertilizers and eco-friendly alternatives. The community is also experimenting with extracting fibers from the hyacinth and transforming them into paper. Through these new relationships, the water hyacinth emerges as an unexpected ally, sedimenting social and ecological structures that foster resilience, cooperation, knowledge preservation, community empowerment, and growth—a re-grounding amidst the flows of an ecology and economy in constant transformation.
Sedimentation, a geological and ecological concept, has become central to understanding place-making processes in our practice-research exploration in Floralia, a community adjacent to the Agua Blanca levee. Floralia was once part of the Agua Blanca wetland system, and when heavy rain occurs, the entire neighborhood submerges unless the water is mechanically pumped to the Cauca River. In 2021, we initiated a project to gather local memories about flooding, exploring how people coexisted with water and experienced the ephemeral watery landscapes. Dayana Camacho’s video essay, Cataclismo (Cataclysm), was the first outcome of our collaboration. It features testimonies from neighbors who retold their experiences dealing with flooded homes during heavy rain and details their strategies for relocating furniture, cleaning walls, and coping with the challenges of living amid floods. Surprisingly, we also found that Floralia’s residents sometimes confronted flooding with joy, sharing stories of inflatable floats, swimming, and even holding diving competitions in makeshift pools. Our research has taught us that the people of Floralia learned to go –figuratively and materially– with the flow. Even more, the floods brought the community together, as neighbors worked collectively to clean their homes after rainfall. These watery alliances led to the formation of a community board that successfully advocated for the local government’s installation of a water pump, significantly reducing the intensity of seasonal flooding.
Figures. 4 and 5. Tertuliadero de Floralia, author: Alejandro Ponce de León. 2021.
Throughout our research, we have met several neighbors facing eviction due to their proximity to the levee. On December 2, 2021, in collaboration with alternative radio collective Noisradio, we organized a communal discussion with Floralia residents about the Cauca River, the risks of its overflowing, and the challenges and issues surrounding Plan Jarillón. The residents present strongly opposed being forced out of their homes, and some worked to this end with local politicians and had legal representation. Bound by solidarity, we learned that several residents had formed associations and even operated community centers distributing free food to the un-housed. But in winter 2022, Cali experienced heavy rainfall that critically affected the entire city. While listening to stories of resistance, we soon found ourselves documenting stories of despair. The deluge damaged hundreds of housing structures near the levee, and one of our interlocutors even lost her entire house to the river. The dilemma we encountered in our research was that residents were familiar with living near water and were unwilling to leave their homes. Yet, the flooding was tragically destroying their lives.
Again: what common ground will surface once ever-shifting currents carry us all apart?
Figure. 6. La planta que habla, author: Dayana Camacho. 2023.
In some capacity, this essay is our response to the deluge, the ethical-political questions it poses, and its eco-social dilemmas. Here, we have been trying to imagine compositional placemaking practices that can be attuned to the world’s flow. Dayana’s recent watercolor series on the proliferation of the water hyacinth, weaved into this essay, explores the plant’s potential to withstand flux. Its ability to proliferate swiftly amidst fluctuating currents and conditions captivates us. In this plant, we also see a reflection of the human condition—our invasiveness, insatiability, and adaptability. Water hyacinths forge intricate aquatic worlds, grounding themselves in a specific place while preserving a transient, malleable, and adaptive structure. Their aquatic communities root not only through vertical connections but, more importantly, through lateral and horizontal ones. They anchor themselves to one another, seamlessly knitting territories where new life begins. In Floralia, this lateral connectedness proves vital for contending with eviction and remaining buoyant amidst flooding. Such laterality is not necessarily a tactically planned response. Instead, pressing times and the resulting movement give rise to a community-as-laterality, with pressure and motion catalyzing the solidification of communal bonds among its members. In other words, motion nurtures the sedimentation of the social milieu.
In contrast to rigid, fixed, or structured sedimentation, these processes are fragile, temporary, and adaptable while delicately interwoven. They need to be cared for. An invitation to cultivate “soft sedimentations” is, then, to embrace the socio-ecological affordances of compositional practices that cultivate resilient futures amidst ever-shifting waterscapes. This could be through place-making processes that engage with the material concreteness of territory as well as the social, cultural, and environmental dimensions that arise through contact and experience, manifesting as shared foundations amid the dissolution of the not-so-grounded modern world. To us, soft sedimentations conjure landscapes of interstitial encounters, such as the Sonso Lagoon, where boundaries blur, and categories become porous. It evokes a multidimensional tapestry of life, where human experience and ecological flux interweave and give rise to new structural formations, as in Floralia. It may also be a process of territorial becoming, an unfolding current of matter and meaning that resists fixity. Soft sedimentation processes embrace the vibrant heterogeneity that characterizes our already-soaked worlds, advocating for adaptive, resilient, and inclusive practices capable of weathering planetary upheaval.
This capacious notion invites a variety of responses. A politics of soft sedimentation, for example, could align with hydrofeminists Mielle Chandler and Astrida Neimanis’ concept of gestationality, a communal mode of existence arising from water’s inherent ability to support life in all its diverse forms.5 As the hyacinth finds its foundations in the flow of water, soft sedimentation politics would aim to transcend hierarchical and sovereign structures ingrained in modernistic perspectives, recognizing that earthly survival is inherently a collective, enveloping, and fluctuating endeavor. As an ethical proposition, soft sedimentation would embrace the potential for nurturing conditions that allow unpredictable plurality to flourish, dissolving structural layers and barriers separating sovereign selves from one another and enabling careful responsiveness to others—both human and more-than-human. As a design proposition, soft sedimentation offers fertile terrain for creative exploration and experimentation, challenging definitions of structure, foundation, and ground while opening up a rich array of expressive possibilities. By embracing fluidity, resilience, and adaptability in place-making practices, soft sedimentation invites us to engage with the weaving of the entangled web of relationships that constitute our communal lived experience, relinquishing the illusory comfort of fixity, and embracing the generative potential of non-mastery and flux.
We encourage you to welcome this notion into your own carrier bags and, with it, weave territories that nurture a plurality of fluid orientations while remaining open to continuous transformation and flourishing.
This is part of the cluster GeoSemantics. Read the other posts here.
- Amy Offner, Sorting Out the Mixed Economy (Princeton, 2019), 21-22.
- Eduardo Mejía-Prado, Orígen del campesino Vallecaucano (Cali Colombia, 1993), 515-516.
- The Global Reporting Program at the University of British Columbia’s School of Journalism has an insightful piece on the Plan Jarillón: Surviving the City. “Before the Dike Bursts,” April 28, 2017. http://internationalreporting.org/survivingthecity/before-the-dike-bursts/.
- For full coverage, see the corresponding entry on the EJAtlas: EJOLT. “Comunidades étnicas y populares asentadas en el Jarillón del río Cauca en Cali, Colombia.” Accessed April 1, 2023. https://ejatlas.org/conflict/comunidades-etnicas-y-populares-asentadas-en-el-jarillon-de-cali.
- Mielle Chandler and Astrida Neimanis. “Water and Gestationality: What Flows beneath Ethics.” In Thinking with Water (Montreal, 2013), 61.