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Ana Maria Gutiérrez is reviving rural communities in Colombia by equipping local leaders to address social and environmental issues at home instead of moving to the city as a solution. Through her foundation, Organizmo, she is identifying these leaders and training them in community development techniques and even bioconstruction. In turn, they spread their skills among their neighbors to strengthen social fabric and transform the community’s living space.

This profile below was prepared when Ana María Gutiérrez was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2014.


Ana Maria Gutiérrez is reviving rural communities in Colombia by equipping local leaders to address social and environmental issues at home instead of moving to the city as a solution. Through her foundation, Organizmo, she is identifying these leaders and training them in community development techniques and even bioconstruction. In turn, they spread their skills among their neighbors to strengthen social fabric and transform the community’s living space.


Ana Maria Gutierrez is equipping rural communities in Colombia to improve their own living conditions, tying them closer to their environments in a situation causing many to move away. In areas with insufficient infrastructure, waste management, and housing (over 1 million units are lacking across Colombia) her Organizmo foundation identifies local leaders and offers training in architectural techniques and other solutions. Her approach is one that places value on the knowledge and resources at hand, changing perceptions that local or recycled building materials and traditional cultures are inferior to those outside. Organizmo training also emphasizes the symbiotic relationship residents have with their environment and finding solutions that reduce the communities’ environmental footprint. Finally, the approach is one that is driven by the community. Local leaders share the new skills they have learned and determine how they will use them to carry out new projects that change the community’s lifestyle. 

Through her Organizmo training center and in the communities themselves, Ana María is working with local leaders to identify the problems they want to tackle. Then, after they develop their own community action plan, Ana María plugs in partners ranging from universities to the government to other foundations to support the plan with needed expertise and resources. Meanwhile, the community leaders receive Organizmo training in construction and other community development techniques as they implement the plan. In this way, the leaders learn as they go and pull in other community members. The actual construction becomes a platform for community interaction, directed by local leaders who are multipliers of the techniques they learn. Organizmo continues to offer open workshops during and after the community projects to encourage the new habits of ownership and relationships to the environment. 

In collaboration with universities, the Organizmo training center, and international partnerships and volunteers, Ana Maria is proving that given the skills, rural communities can solve their own infrastructure problems. She has already trained 1200 people in her development and bioconstruction techniques who have taken those skills across Colombia and to 8 other countries; universities in Colombia are incorporating her approach into their architecture curriculums; and her Laboratory for Social Housing documents and continues to develop the techniques. In the meantime, the local leaders are transforming their neighbors’ habits and thereby their communities to make them places people want to stay.


The situation in rural areas of Colombia is precarious for various reasons. Until recently, many areas were controlled by the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and other paramilitary factions and were considered narco-trafficking zones due to coca cultivation and trade; some continue to be under the influence of these groups. Local farmers have been forced off their land or pressured to grow coca instead of other crops. Even farmers not pressured into growing coca have been affected by aerial pesticide sprayings. These attempts to eradicate coca in large areas also kill other plants. Due to these events, the number of internally displaced people (IDPs) in Colombia today is estimated to be just under 5 million. Nearly 85% of IDPs are Afro-Colombians or indigenous populations. Those who were not driven from their land are left vulnerable in communities controlled or threatened guerrilla groups, or are simply out of reach of the government services. 

This upheaval is compounded by the fact that many rural communities still lack paved roads, electricity, and running water as well as access to solid building materials to improve infrastructure. An estimated estimated 42,000 families are without homes. Their makeshift dwellings -- coupled with the solid waste that is thrown into areas of public space or water sources nearby -- generate health problems and affect the ecosystem. This environment negatively impacts daily life and routines within homes and the community, leading to overcrowding, health issues, violence, and drug use. 

These communities are excluded from public services -- public schools, roads, waste management, and much more --because both municipal and national governments tend to see them as outside of their responsibility or are unable (until recently or in some cases, currently) to enter the area due to the guerrilla groups. This makes their situation even more precarious. Unable to self-manage their own environment, these communities become dependent on handouts. Usually, national and international CSOs are the ones to try to intervene, but their solutions often lack a cultural and environmental understanding of the settlements. These outsiders tend to focus on the poverty and attempt to fix it instead of appreciating natural and cultural richness of a community. This mentality, in turn reinforces negative perceptions and low self- esteem within the community. 

Finally, there are few programs in Colombia that focus on developing a community’s assets; for example, trainings on recuperating local knowledge and resources or encouraging community-led projects. As a result of movement away from native land and cultural practices and encroachment of modern society, traditional awareness of and connection to the environment is quickly disappearing in communities that were once tied to the land.


After traveling the world to study different approaches to bioconstruction, Ana Maria returned to her native Colombia to found the Training Center for Design and Construction Techniques in Bioconstruction (Organizmo) in 2011. Her idea was to use architecture as a tool to generate equality and improve quality of life in vulnerable communities. However, from the other experiences she had seen, Ana Maria knew that sound building practices alone are not enough -- any intervention would need to bring awareness of the relationship between the community and its environment as well as offer actual solutions to issues faced by the communities. Ana Maria began testing methods for doing this by teaching two workshops per month for community leaders. Later, thanks to the bond with these leaders, she would be able to link with their communities and initiate the full Organizmo Program. 

Ana Maria has since developed a way of coaching and training that can be replicated and adapted to any region of Colombia. She first selects a community to enter based on need and referrals. The recommendation or request for assistance might come from the government (the Ministry of Culture, Ministry of Agriculture, or even local governments), the Red Cross, British Council, or other citizen sector organizations, or from the community leaders that have participated in Organizmo training that recognize a community could use the help. The scale of projects she handles varies from districts of 500 to 700 families, reaching about 2000 to 3000 people. Once a community has been selected, the first step is conducting a baseline study to assess needs and assets in the community. This research phase lasts anywhere from two to six months, depending on the size of the project and community. 

The next step is implementation. In this phase, Organizmo designs trainings in different bioconstruction techniques and alternative technologies considered appropriate for the environment. These are tailored to the practices and characteristics of each community and its ecosystem, so that the planned techniques are sure to be feasible and adopted. They must also be affordable and use resources and local energy sources as the community is responsible for sourcing all materials. Simultaneously, workshops and the actual construction begin. In that way, community members are trained in bioconstruction techniques and have an immediate opportunity to put the new skills to use. The construction, more than satisfying a need for infrastructure, is a platform for community interaction and generating ownership of the space. 

The workshops, taught by Organizmo employees and visiting architects and specialists, train participants in all sorts of bioconstruction techniques. The classes have both theoretical and practical elements and are taught in one to seven days. During each workshop, participants build a structure corresponding to the given technique. Workshops cover bioconstruction methods including: building with bales of straw or recycled bottles; using earth, such as adobe, rammed earth walls, or wattle and daub; making green walls and roofs; and using technologies such as dry bathrooms and rainwater catchment. 

The techniques in these community workshops are identical to those taught in the Oraganizmo Center. The Center is based Tenjo (a town outside of Bogota) and serves to spread her bioconstruction techniques beyond Colombia, where people from all over the world come to train. Interns and volunteers are also able to spend weeks at the Center and in the communities to learn while they work. As a driving philosophy, Ana Maria fights to change the perception that modern materials, such as concrete and metal, mean progress and economic abundance while recycled and earthy materials are associated with poverty. In all of the bioconstruction techniques, the approach gives value to construction techniques with recycled materials. 

The next phase of Ana Maria’s work is monitoring. After the workshops and construction, she follows up to observe how active the community is in their new space. It is important to note that Ana Maria moves to the rural communities during initial training and construction. Then, for up to a year after the intervention, Ana María returns to observe what has changed. This enables her to serve as a spokesperson and advocate for the communities. After ensuring that the Organizmo values and techniques endure -- particularly those related to cultural issues -- she gradually steps back. Ana Maria plans follow up with capacity strengthening workshops in the community, for example entrepreneurship workshops. So far, the monitoring has revealed positive new ways of doing things in the communities, inspired by Organizmo trainings. In addition, health and environmental conditions show improvement. For example, dry toilets replace less sanitary forms of open defecation, and methane gas, produced by bio-digesters, replaces wood burning fuel. 

Each community project brings together different partners that can help manage the development along the way and support the community in finding the needed resources for the projects. Ana Maria herself has worked as project manager for social innovation within the Centre for Social Innovation (CIS) of the National Agency for Overcoming Extreme Poverty (ANSPE) and with Compartamos con Colombia (Let’s Share with Colombia). Outside of specific community projects, Ana Maria is partnering with universities, local governments, and other CSOs in order to build more sustainable, livable communities throughout Colombia. 

In her work with universities, for example, she has developed a relationship with the Kassel University in Germany and the Institute of Earth Art and Architecture of California who regularly send volunteers to Organizmo. In partnership with the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, Ana Maria founded a Laboratory for Social Housing to support research to continuously improve bioconstruction techniques and to systematize her achievements and knowledge. Also, an interdisciplinary group of civil, mechatronic, and industrial engineers who are practitioners of the National University and Antonio Nariño of Colombia are actively working with her. More generally, she convinces universities to include the bioconstruction techniques as part of their curriculum, and within the Organizmo Center offers internships to the universities’ students. 

An example of a partnership with a local government, Ana Maria has a pilot project in five education institutions in the city of Tenjo to introduce themes around environmental education and management through workshops with teachers and students. With this, she is testing a consistent curriculum across institutions that not only emphasizes environmental education, but that also generates clear actions in the community. For this, she worked with both the Mayor of Tenjo and the Ministry of Environment and Development. However, to further scale, Ana Maria recognizes she also needs partners at a national level. She is already working with the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Agriculture. The Agricultural Ministry is in charge of the Program of Development of Social Housing in rural areas, which will be key in allowing her to extend her projects across Colombia. 

To further spread concepts of bioconstruction and consciously sustainable architecture, Ana Maria and Organizmo organized public design contests. For example, a nation-wide contest, in partnership with a university, challenged anyone to submit prototypes social, sustainable, and innovative housing designs. Another sourced designs for the Cultural Center in the community of Maria Mulatto Lectora in Sucre. Organizmo has also done public projects, such a recycling park in San Jose de Saco. 

Ana Maria identifies community leaders who can be multipliers of the information shared in the training. In 4 years of workshops and community projects, Organizmo has provided training to more than 1200 people. 4000 people have indirectly benefitted from instruction in bioconstruction, permaculture, and alternative technologies. People trained at the Center have then used these techniques they learned in Colombia, Venezuela, Costa Rica, and Peru. 

In the short term, Ana Maria plans to replicate the techniques and the community participation methodology through the Organizmo Center by training 2500 multipliers annually in bioconstruction and community dynamics to affect more than 11,500 people a year. In the longer term, she wants to double her scope every year. In the area of community projects, she is considering implementing a prototype sustainable community of 60 to 100 homes. The model would serve as a training site for the community building teaching methods and as a test site for low-cost housing prototypes that incorporate bioconstruction techniques and alternative technologies. 

For Ana Maria, the proof of success is when a community adopts the techniques taught in workshops for projects beyond those initiated through Organizmo and continues to develop their own bioconstruction techniques and alternative technology, taking ownership of building a vibrant place to live.


Ana María grew up in a household attuned to the natural world. Her mother was a bacteriologist, and both her father and grandfather worked on a farm, and she learned to share their love for nature. Her family was also involved in social causes; her mother supported various foundations, and Ana María would often accompany her in volunteer work. She went on to study architecture at university, and after graduating, she then moved to New York to work for an architecture firm there. 

The routine work did not fulfill her, so she decided to travel for a year to explore bioconstruction. Ana María planned her trip through the main centers of bioconstruction of the world, and through workshops and volunteer work she learned and compared techniques and materials that could be applied in Colombia. The travel took her to Russia, Eastern Europe, Egypt, China, Thailand, India, and Brazil. Her experience with these different variations of construction and community training that took a sustainable and participatory approach led her to have a clear idea of the project that she wanted to create upon return to Colombia. She also realized her passion for living, working, and building in direct contact with vulnerable communities. 

Back in Colombia, Ana Maria developed her methodology based on several main principles that have become incorporated into Organizmo: 1) Learn by doing; (2) Start with a baseline community study; 3) Generate self-reinforcing behaviors consistent with the environment; and 4) Accompany and follow up to ensure that the community takes responsibility for what they build. Even today, Ana Maria usually moves into the communities where she is working, and loves teaching and sharing insights with each community. Now she invites other specialists from all over the world to come teach in Organizmo’s workshops. In this way, she is offering others the same opportunity to share their insights and learn from her work that she was able to experience during her travels.