Project Status: The pilot phase began in October 2013 and a 5-year business plan began in October 2015. There is no defined end point to our project, but rather a series of progressive steps.
Location: Medellin, Colombia. Project based in: Colombia and Peru
Contact: Sam Williams
Email – Facebook – Website – Instagram
GOALS AND OBJECTIVES
Project Cordillera is an award-winning social enterprise that connects adventure tourism with high mountain communities. Beginning life in the Cordillera Blanca, Perú, and having recently started working in the Cordillera Central, Colombia, we are a group of passionate climbers and social entrepreneurs.
The project was borne from our experience as mountain enthusiasts and a desire to find sustainable ways to protect mountains. Millions of people around the world rely on these fragile environments. The value of even the most remote peak or valley, especially for its local people, cannot be underestimated. Throughout the history of alpinism, the sublime has and continues to have a deep impact in the way we, as alpinists, contemplate and approach these regions.
However, exploration has long been tainted by imperialism, ego and the perceived ‘conquering’ of nature. Either we continue this narcissistic crusade in an era of mass consumerism, cultural whitewashing and environmental crisis, or, we change direction. Many of the most inspiring climbers, explorers and writers – from Whymper to Hillary to Messner – paint a more empathetic picture of their relationship with mountains, as well as the people who inhabit them. The future of alpinism will be great if it holds, in no uncertain terms, absolute respect for these great features of our planet, as well as a deep understanding of mountain peoples and cultures, and what they can teach us all.
Project Cordillera contributes to mountain protection by promoting and protecting the crucial place occupied by these peoples and their values. Core to our vision, are a) to connect international alpinists and mountain enthusiasts with remote Andean regions, and b) to positively connect the people and places of the Andes with the outside world. With both aims, our core objective is for a revolution in the way people perceive, understand and communicate the human experience when among the world’s great mountains. In practice, we seek to transform the way travellers connect to communities.
Project Cordillera began as a small way to raise money and awareness for local development projects in the Peruvian Andes. We have impacted thousands of lives through focused and measured social, environmental and economic outputs. Through support of like-minded projects, we are building a network that supports sustainable immersive travel. The ultimate aim is to impact millions, and to help create a world where mountain expeditions are sustainable as standard.
RELATIONSHIP WITH LOCAL COMMUNITIES
The fundamental premise of our project is to collaborate with local communities. We are united by our shared aims to solve the problems that face Andean societies, economies and environments.
We are determined to break down the outdated international development narrative of ‘us’ helping ‘them’. It is through this non-interventionist attitude that we have built and continue to build strong, trusting partnerships. Our network – from operators, to community leaders, to program volunteers – works to identify community needs and collaborate to meet those needs through the innovation of sustainable tourism. We apply informal conversations, surveys and interviews. During the ideation phase of any specific activity, we draw on knowledge from the broader travel community. This process ensures that we are implementing an inspired and innovative activity that is of high value to the local community.
One new partnership that we are especially proud of is with Colombia Immersion, an immersive Spanish language school based in Medellín. Since December 2017, our collaboration has enabled students to take part in immersive expeditions while contributing responsibly to the growth of local businesses in small pueblos in the Antioquia region of Colombia. While on these trips, students have the opportunity to improve their language skills while exploring authentic pueblos and adventuring throughout the mountains of Colombia.
More generally, our interaction and collaboration is underpinned by an extensive Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) programme. This dialogue of development is strengthened by regular visits by M&E professionals to our projects and a Theory of Change framework that ensures our collaborative strategies continue to evolve and effectively deliver on our social, environmental and economic commitments. We recognise the limitations of a one-size-fits-all approach to M&E and so work with each of our partners to design a programme that best fits our partners’ needs.
Moreover, we contract sustainability into all our relationships: propagating labour and animal rights, employee welfare, fair wages and environmental responsibility. All the organisations with which we work are fully registered with their administrative sectors and the high standards of our partners are recognised by our Service, Safety and Sustainability Promise. This certificate recognises that our local partners are committed to building a sustainable future for adventure mountain travel.
BEYOND ‘BUSINESS AS USUAL’
Our ambitious project strives to be an example of regional best practice. We continue to lead, learn and grow in our practices of protecting mountain environments in a number of ways:
- Expedition quality and safety
First and foremost, we utilise our extensive networks and comprehensive knowledge to connect people to the highest quality expeditions. Safety is paramount and we go to great care to partner with the few regional inbound operators that deliver standards of certification, training, equipment and customer care comparable with European and North American services. We have an extensive vetting process that has enabled complete trust in our local guides: their experienced judgement calls are crucial to mountain survival. Every year adventurers die in the great cordilleras and we aim to change this.
We are committed to increasing the accessibility of sustainable, safe and exciting mountain adventure travel. We enable small experienced operators to expand their client base, providing access to European and North American clients. Moreover, we adopt a personable approach and have bespoke offerings, enabling clients to realise their ideal expeditions.
We widely share information and resources to promote, celebrate and safeguard the region. For example, we create informative content, including videos, that recognise the power of visual imagery to cultivate a sense of connection and amplify the reach of our project’s aims.
- Social enterprise model
As a social enterprise, our business model is progressive; we re-invest 50% of our profits to local community initiatives and deliver on our social, environmental and economic commitments. Within these areas, we focus on education for development, protecting mountain ecosystems and promoting local knowledge, skills and expertise.
- Lead on innovation
We use novel technology to streamline our operations; we are currently in the process of developing an easy booking widget. And we have unique product offerings. Increasingly core to our operations is the facilitation of immersive research and learning expeditions, which maximise the unique discovery and education possibilities to be found in the mountains.
- Regional growth
2018 is especially exciting as it is the first full-season of dual-country operations: in Perú and Colombia. We are open to continued growth and are cultivating further connections and partnerships in neighbouring countries. However, we recognise that this process must be organic and responsible: we will not compromise the fundamental values of our project.
Project Cordillera is managed by a team of volunteers with a wealth of skills and experience drawn from business administration, the international development sector and other valuable professional areas. Our team continues to expand: we now have two part-time paid staff members, one contract employee and a team of volunteers based in Colombia. Their work is supported by a range of highly skilled professionals who offer their time in a pro bono capacity. Financial planning, business strategy and governance are directed by a Senior Management Team of four directors, three of which are shareholders. We utilise an assortment of technology tools to successfully execute the shared vision of our remote team.
We set out in October 2013 with a pilot plan. The principle aims were to evaluate the effectiveness of our business model and to gain a comprehensive understanding of our current and future market; including detailed profiling of customers, networks, prospective partners and competitors.
Our 2015-2018 long-term business plan commenced with the launching of our new brand: comprising a new visual identity, a new website and new product offerings in Perú. During this period, we put in place the foundations to scale; and in 2017 this regional expansion was realised through the launch of our project in Colombia.
We are currently carrying out a comprehensive funding review. This review will inform the next phase of our business plan: it is envisaged that we will pursue incubator funding opportunities. Not only will this allow us to expand our offering of exciting, safe and high-quality products, but it will also ensure we continue to approach development sustainably. Our social, environmental and economic impacts are of utmost concern.
We support stewardship and deliver volunteering opportunities in several ways. We work with our local and regional partners to connect skilled and highly motivated volunteers to community programmes, especially the Guias Locales Programme. This challenging programme delivers outdoor education to mountainous youths; providing an opportunity to learn how to be a tour guide and to develop critical life skills, knowledge and enhanced employability. It includes substantial curricular on issues of environmental and ecological importance. These issues range from local matters regarding water supply, agriculture and waste disposal, to global issues of climate change, interconnectivity and mountain protection. Additionally, we help with more specialised recruitment, using our networks to attract international talent to the Andean region.
Secondly, we run our own ‘catalyst programme’ enabling skilled graduates the opportunity to work with us in an ‘internship’ capacity. Catalysts receive a structured professional programme designed to help take their careers to the next stage. The programme includes a professional mentoring initiative, support entering the not-for-profit, social enterprise and adventure travel sectors, associated expenses, and meaningful, relevant work. Often our catalysts seek to come to the Andes on their own volition in order to meet the communities and organisations with which we work.
Moreover, Project Cordillera is not just a business in the traditional sense. We support independent travel and all expeditions that value the places and people of their visit, even if they are not our paying customers. Our superlative passion and knowledge about the Andean region enables us to promote and facilitate expedition support as well as a platform to help independent adventurers work together. For us, a level of independence within adventure is critical as is the foundation of responsibility and understanding of our impact in the mountains. This is true socially, environmentally and economically.
HOW WE COMMUNICATE
The communication strategy of our project seeks to disseminate our core values and inculcate a sense of adventure, inspiration and community. Central to this strategy is our unique selling point of having a real knowledge of people and place; our human-centered approach seeks to catalyse positive and sustainable connections between the two.
We recognise the importance of being a professional, credible and sustainable project, but at the same time we seek to celebrate the people and places of the mountains through concise and compelling storytelling. Our enthusiasm and raw honesty is evident in all communication; be it through immersive video footage, an Instagram post sharing a truly exquisite vista, an e-book detailing tips for sustainable adventures or an entertaining blog post recalling our own escapades in the mountains. Tenets of transparency extend to our more official reporting structures. For example, our 2015 sustainability report communicated the impact of our 18-month pilot and, the completion of the second phase of our long-term business plan in 2018, presents an opportune moment for a follow-up publication.
We have built a loyal community of followers. Our audience is a marriage of the local community and the international community, the adventurer and the environmentalist, and the long-term partner and the potential client. Nevertheless, we are currently lacking far-reaching visibility and would wholeheartedly welcome the UIAA’s capacity to provide an international showcase. It is a platform from which we can foster further connections with the people and places that share our values and in doing so afford us the capacity to innovate and fulfil our desire to make a difference. Together, we can promote the growth and protection of mountaineering and climbing.