“Release the yellow butterflies,” young people set sustainable goals

Colombia is an enchanted land of magical realism and contrasts. It’s a country in which millions of creatures coexist in peace, making it a true paradise of biodiversity. Yet despite the country’s growing wealth, inequality in Colombia has also grown, and rural areas are the most affected. Indigenous people and Afro-Colombians are amongst the most vulnerable.

Urban Colombia is thriving, innovative and highly sophisticated. Rural Colombia is impoverished and, for the past 60 years, has been mired in armed conflict. In rural areas families and businesses have had to face myriad risks including threats, bombings, kidnappings, landmines, child recruitment, assassination, and massacres. These have been difficult years, but we know that we have a chance now for a new start in Colombia.

Manzanillo del Mar is a mere 30 minutes from Cartagena, yet it’s a world apart. Colombia is a country of contrasts – sometimes it seems incredible that the landscape can change in almost the blink of an eye.

The first thing to capture my attention was how advertisements for large hotel projects line a narrow unpaved road. The second thing was starting to see some informal means of transportation such as motorcycle taxis. Picturesque façades and a road that becomes ever narrower made me feel as if I was definitely in a different and magical place.

Ready for The World’s Largest Lesson

We were welcomed by Luis, a teacher who has been at this school for about five years. He tells us about the space and challenges of teaching art for example. He also describes the difficulty of holding physical education classes under the sun in temperatures of more than 35 °C. But Luis’s expression says something more. Luis is a teacher who loves his students, he admires them and knows them perfectly.

From Luis we learn that this school is 100 per cent Afro-Colombian and that the students are “creative and spirited.”

Today they will be taking part in the World’s Largest Lesson which UNICEF has launched so that children and young people can learn about the Sustainable Development Goals in creative and engaging ways, and consequently, get inspired and engaged in their communities that contribute to achieving the Global Goals.

The outside world is already encroaching on this seaside paradise and the children, who have started to feel the consequences of the tourists crowding beaches that until recently were only for them.

Our welcome quickly turns into elated cheers when the teenagers recognize a popular television actress and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Belky Arizala, who has travelled with us to co-facilitate the lesson.

We all try to remain focussed on the main reason for our visit, but at times the heat and the excitement of being here together make work a little difficult. Among greetings, photos and cries of happiness we at last managed to enter the classrooms.

A woman in UNICEF blue stands surrounded by young men wearing UNICEF tee shirts
UNICEF Josué Mejía CuartasUNICEF Colombia Deputy Representative Viviana Limpias visits a school in Manzanillo del Mar.

We soon discover that the students are fully aware of the problems that plague their communities, and that they also know, without much instruction, the path to committing themselves to take action to change their own lives and those of their neighbours to create a more sustainable future.

I have no doubts the discussions we held on the Sustainable Development Goals will resonate in the minds of these youngsters who, more than listening to and learning from us, gave us the pleasure of listening to and learning from them. Sharing the World’s Largest Lesson with the Manzanillo students made me understand that we now have a window of opportunity in which children and adolescents can become the protagonists of a new chapter in Colombia’s history.

Colombia’s Nobel Laureate, Gabriel García Márquez in his book A Hundred Years of Solitude wrote:  “The war is over; Tell Mauricio Babilonia he can release the yellow butterflies.”

Right now there are a million butterflies inside every Colombian citizen, as they see the possibility of peace, development, and future in their children.


Viviana Limpias, is UNICEF Colombia’s Deputy Representative.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked with “required.”