Marcela Chaves Alumni Profile

December 08, 2018

The Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment (CCSI) launched an Alumni Profile Series in which alumni of CCSI’s Executive Training on Sustainable Investments in Agriculture are interviewed about their career paths.

In this profile, Marcela Chaves, Advisor to the Land and Sustainable Livelihoods Program at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and a 2018 Executive Training alumnus, highlights the importance of meaningfully engaging with all stakeholders to promote responsible investments in agriculture and improved livelihoods for rural communities.

1. What do you do for work?

I work at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Bogotá, Colombia. I am the Agency’s Land and Sustainable Livelihoods Advisor, responsible for managing the USAID’s land portfolio in Colombia. We are currently implementing one of USAID’s largest land portfolios. Through this program, I manage the support to land rights policies, including policies regarding land restitution, access to land and land titling, and the support to mobilize funding for socioeconomic opportunities in targeted rural regions of Colombia that have been highly affected by decades of conflict and that hold significant agricultural potential.

2. What does a typical day look like?

Working on land and rural development issues in a country like Colombia is as fascinating as it is challenging. Each day is completely different, with some days focused on internal strategic discussions; high level and/or technical meetings with our government counterparts; travel to conflict-affected rural areas to visit producer associations, hear from families going through the restitution of their lands or land titling processes, hold discussions with regional governments, or meet with our private sector partners who are contributing to the transformation of these areas into viable economies. Each day helps me remember the importance of what we do and the level of passion the people that work on land and agricultural development have, including myself.

3. How has your career trajectory led you to where you are today?

I studied business administration at university, and I am about to obtain my MBA. Before working at USAID, I used to work in the private sector, which has helped me understand the dynamics in both the public and private sectors. After my experience working to support rural families and vulnerable groups in Colombia, I believe this is the best place where I can help make a difference in a country like Colombia.

4. What is one of your most memorable moments in your career and why?

My most memorable moments are all related to visits to the regions where we work, listening to communities, social leaders, and learning from them on resilience and hope. Seeing how these families, who have seen the effects of the war in Colombia directly, speak about how they see their future, full of hope and change, is something that has made me understand that anything you can do to help them contributes to their aspirations and fulfillment of their dreams. Shifting Colombia’s history of conflict and violence is important, but most importantly, supporting these communities in realizing a different future is what triggers my commitment in working on rural development.


5. What major issue related to sustainable investments in land are you particularly interested in at the moment?

There are several issues that interest me at the moment. For example, I’m interested in demonstrating that both the Colombian public and private sector have an important role to play in transforming rural Colombia, and that involving communities actively and enabling them to participate in decision-making, hand-in-hand with relevant institutions and commercial partners, builds trust, strengthens state presence, and triggers responsible private sector investments. In addition, one of my main technical interests concerns demonstrating that third party investments can help to build self-reliance when facilitating the work of critical stakeholders more than implementing their mandates to fill the void when they are not present. My core areas of interest have to do with international cooperation roles to secure sustainability, and with the creation of an environment in which those actors that will remain in these regions once we leave can work together towards a better future for rural families.

6. What was your main lesson learned or take away from CCSI’s Executive Training on Sustainable Investments in Agriculture?

Learning in greater detail how investment drivers motivate the implementation of agricultural projects, how tax collection revenues work around these investments, as well as the linkages between domestic legal frameworks and international human rights law has been of great importance to better understand the environment in which the portfolio that I manage works. How disputes between agricultural investments and potential violations of human rights take place in real life also provided me with insights of how these dynamics work and how implementation of land-related sustainable agricultural investments can generate best practices that can showcase responsible investments in countries affected by conflict.

7. How do you apply that lesson in your work?

One way is by advocating for responsible land-based agricultural investments with both factual and qualitative justifications. Another way of applying these lessons is by supporting the establishment of responsible Public Private Partnerships, in which we have been able to demonstrate that the private sector can mobilize funding to improve agricultural value chains while working in alliance with the Colombian public sector who can provide the goods and services needed to secure these improvements. Making sure that we identify those private sector actors willing to commit to improve the conditions of rural producers and those public sector actors willing to commit to the provision of services has been a way to demonstrate that responsible investments can take place.

8. What advice would you give to young professionals in your area of work?

There are two pieces of advice I would like to give. One is that listening to communities and end beneficiaries is essential. Knowing if the support you are providing is really making a difference is critical, and that is only learned by talking to the communities you are targeting your efforts to. The second is to believe and push for both responsible engagement by both the public and private sectors in host countries rather than trying to fill the voids identified by third party institutions. This is the only way that any third-party support will be sustainable once it ends and that self-reliance is nurtured in the support.