Co-Designing Inclusive Health Communications Approaches in Colombia 

Q&A with Sinergias NGO and Julia Knoerr, Senior Program Associate for South America

Sinergias, a Colombian non-governmental organization focused on social development, public health, and human rights, has partnered with Internews in South America since 2020. In the following interview, Juliana Jaimes, a member of Sinergias’ communications team, and Valentina Riveros, the organization’s Communications Network Coordinator, share more about their efforts to support community mental health, protect journalists facing attacks, and build dialogue between ancestral and Western medicine in local communication processes under two Internews projects: “Addressing COVID-19 in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana and Peru,” funded by USAID through the Human Rights Support Mechanism from October 2020 to September 2021, and “The Power of Trust: Countering Vaccine Hesitancy and Misinformation in Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru,” funded by the Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP) from October 2021 to September 2022. 

Note: The following responses have been translated from Spanish and edited for length and clarity. 

Julia Knoerr: Could you provide context behind Sinergias’ work methodology in both projects? 

Valentina Riveros: We detected that the [health] information that was reaching the communities [in the Colombian Amazon] was very much from an urban context and was not useful or practical. [Under the HRSM Amazon project], we decided to provide an educational course in combination with Universidad Nacional and [developed] El Canto del Tucán, a tool through which we could explain very complicated concepts surrounding health and COVID-19 in simpler terms. Often people did not even know what COVID was or how it was transmitted, so this served as a tool for the communities to understand a little more about this disease.  

We began to develop projects that were a little broader in terms of communications and which were no longer only within the framework of COVID-19. [These] were aimed at other community health processes, [were] much more specialized in the communities, and took into account the interests they had. There was a transformation in the process of El Canto del Tucán from a radio program that simply built content with the communities to creating a whole training space around community communication and health journalism. [With the support of Internews,] it has also become a process of seeing communication as a tool that is part of all the processes that can take place in communities, and not only as something external. 

JK: How did Sinergias’ strategies change with the CDP project based on communities’ needs? 

VR: In the CDP project, there was a transformation in the issues that we wanted to address; although everything was within the framework of COVID-19, other issues arose that were also relevant for the communities, including environmental issues, mental health, and traditional practices such as midwifery. This changed our dynamics of working with the Indigenous communities [in Vaupés and Putumayo]. Thanks to the CDP project, we were able to facilitate the return of health professionals and of Sinergias staff to the territories. We were able to start having much closer contact with the communities. 

In the case of Vaupés, the people who were involved in the project wanted to continue this work around communication in their communities, and we have been following up on the process. Although everything was in the framework of COVID-19, and although [the pandemic] impacted us a lot in all areas of life, and even more in the Indigenous communities, it also allowed us to strengthen many internal processes and sparked some people’s interest in building health information from the communities for the communities themselves.  

Juliana Jaimes: The scenarios in the two departments [Vaupés and Putumayo] were very interesting. In Caquetá, there was radio communication because there was already a community radio station. So, the approach we took there was more of reinforcing what was already happening. We held workshops with people from the radio station who were going to be editing, and several of the exercises in the sessions were very focused on radio.  

In Putumayo, we talked to some of the participants about creating a communication collective that would continue. They are still meeting in the same place and using the same virtual platform to coordinate future processes and future meetings. We also worked with Internews and two participants to reactivate a space that existed in Putumayo—a community radio station—so, it was very interesting how it transformed and how the initial objective transformed with the current needs of the communities. 

JK: Could you describe some of the mis/disinformation trends that you’ve seen in digital or physical realms? 

JJ: There are different dynamics of territorial communication. In the case of the Vaupés, there is not really a good enough Internet connection to be connected through social networks or through digital media, nor is there a culture of consumption of these types of [platforms]. In Vaupés, the culture is much more linked to radio and communication through radio transmitters. They are not massive radios; people do not listen much to the biggest radios in Colombia—they are more like community or local radios. The radio of the Army is the one that has the strongest signal in these areas. However, we realized that there are not really many channels or broadcast media platforms, and the local media outlets are still very local in their information production; their news focuses more on accidents or road closures and does not cover national-level information or, for example, basic information about the pandemic. 

There is no content production designed for Indigenous communities like El Canto del Tucán. The State never communicated information about the pandemic with an intercultural approach. Communication in Colombia in general lacks this intercultural vision in the sense that the majority of Indigenous communities do not speak Spanish well, so messages do not reach them. In Putumayo, [in areas] where there is slightly stronger Internet access, there is much more open consumption of social networks, and through social networks, of course there is also mis- [and dis]information.  

In the case of the pandemic, there were issues of disinformation about vaccines on social networks. Since there was no other information channel beyond the local radio, it was difficult to discuss or compare what was coming in with other information sources. They could not go to Google or look for big media outlets in Colombia; there is no interest in these either. We understand that there is no interest because [community members] do not feel represented by how they have been discussed or how their territory has been referenced in the media. Generally, this news is shared from Bogotá or from big cities, which are where the media headquarters are located. It is written by people who are not Indigenous or by people who do not live in the territories. And of course, their worldviews are not included, and the realities they are living are not [well] articulated. That is why we also wanted, through this project, to reinforce those channels in which [community members] could take ownership over some of the dissemination through community radio or [other] communication products so that they could recount [the realities of] their territory from their territory and with their own vision, more or less as a way to begin to change these dynamics of local information consumption and production. 

JK: What are the most relevant strategies you have seen to mitigate mis/disinformation among project focus communities?  

VR: One of the mechanisms that has worked the most to mitigate some of this misinformation has been to translate terms that sometimes come across as very scientific or very niche in medicine, for example. Translating this [terminology] into language that is easier to understand and comprehend worked very well, especially in the development of El Canto del Tucán. The other is translating key messages into communities’ languages. This was also one of the strong focuses in El Canto del Tucán. 

JK: How have these projects maintained long-term sustainability? 

JJ: [Even though the projects are over], the processes remain active, and there is interest to continue. There is interest in local research and in demonstrating to others, through communication, the health issues that have not been shared sufficiently or with [Indigenous] worldviews. When we opened [the discussion to] more topics, as a practical exercise, we realized that [community members] were very interested in sharing their own processes, such as midwifery and traditional medicine, or problems such as alcoholism or environmental threats that surround them and affect their health as well.  

VR: This whole communication process was also boosted a lot by the alliances we created in the territories, for example, with the support of community radio stations – in the case of Caquetá, Coreguaje Stereo; in the case of Putumayo, Radio Waira and the OZIP [Organizacion Zonal del Putumayo]; in the case of Vaupés, las Asociaciones de Autoridades Tradicionales Indigenas del Amazonas. It has been key to strengthen these communities and community radio stations with strategic allies in the different departments. 

JK: Do you have any concluding thoughts?  

JJ: Just a reminder of the importance of these processes for Indigenous communities to strengthen their own government and governance, which are historical struggles. That is also part of their power to communicate and tell their own stories how they deserve to be told at national and international levels. Their communication [capacities] can be developed not only for others, but also internally for their own communities. These processes for Indigenous communities have been very important learning and construction spaces.

Read more about our project “The Power of Trust: Countering Vaccine Hesitancy and Misinformation in Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru,” funded by the Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP) from 2021 to 2022.

Click here to read more about our rapid response project “Addressing COVID-19 in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana and Peru,” funded by USAID through the Human Rights Support Mechanism from 2020 to 2021.