AKRON, Pa. – Can a humble turtle and the capybara, a knee-high hamster look-alike, help alleviate flooding and hunger on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, where they’re endangered native species?

It may seem unlikely, but the two species are cast in flood-alleviation roles by Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) partner organization, Sembrandopaz (Sowing peace).

Vast areas of Colombia are awash in a fifth year of unprecedented rainfall as two rainy seasons seem to be merging into year-round precipitation. At the end of 2010, more than 1 million acres of cropland were under water ­– water that did not subside before this year’s rains began in April. Parts of Colombia’s Caribbean coastal region, one of the hardest-hit areas, have been under floodwaters since 2007.

MCC provided $41,600 to Sembrandopaz in early 2011 to purchase local food for people displaced from their homes. The organization worked with local churches to distribute food to 4,000 to 5,000 people, a portion of the 2 million displaced by the flooding in December 2010.

Food aid is essential during such emergency periods, said Ricardo Esquivia, director of Sembrandopaz, but so is addressing the environmental problems that contribute to the flooding. With $5,400 from MCC, Sembrandopaz is training committees living in areas that are receiving food assistance to address the problem of increased sedimentation in rivers.

“Imagine a river that used to be five meters (more than 16 feet) deep, now with two meters of sedimentation. That leaves just three meters to hold the same amount of water,” Esquivia said.

That’s where the capybara and the river turtle get involved.

Capybaras and turtles typically live in wetlands, which naturally prevent sedimentation from flowing into the rivers. The wetlands also help absorb overflow from the river.

However, over the years farmers and ranchers have been filling in wetlands to increase the amount of land available for growing rice or raising cattle. While economically beneficial for the short term, the practice allows more dirt to wash into the river and without the wetlands, there’s less space for river overflow.

In the Las Palmas area, the local committee is working to obtain governmental permits and funds to buy privately owned pastures along riverbanks to convert them back to wetlands. Once ecologically recovered, they’ll raise two native wetland species – the capybara and a river turtle – in wildlife zoo-nurseries. At the same time, committee members will encourage families to reduce the amount of rice they cultivate and/or move their rice paddies to higher land.

In exchange, participants will sell half the animals, both turtles and capybaras, for their meat, for which there is ample local demand, and leave half to procreate. The endeavor will help conserve the species and provide income-producing incentives to protect the wetlands.

The wetland “zoo-nurseries” will be enclosed, so as not to antagonize ranchers, who view the capybaras as nuisances that eat pasture, foul drinking water and spook cattle, horses and farm families.

The project is heartening to some of the community’s young people who are concerned about environmental degradation and now see an opportunity to act for change. “They’re encouraged to know they’re not alone in their concern and commitment,” Esquivia said.

Deforestation of river banks is another contributor to sedimentation. Dumping trash into rivers, routinely done by both individuals and municipalities, Esquivia said, adds to sedimentation. Mining of gold and other precious metals involves using large machinery, such as dredgers, which increases sedimentation, as well as contamination of rivers.

In response, the local committees will encourage community tree-planting, Esquivia said. They’ll also teach environmentally friendly trash-disposal methods and advise people on where to build houses to co-exist with long-term flooding.

“MCC continues to work at diminishing the risks of disasters by reducing people’s vulnerability and mitigating the negative impacts of potential hazards,” said Willie Reimer, MCC’s director of Food, Disaster and Material Resources. Conservation work, such as keeping mangrove habitats healthy to protect people from tsunamis and in this case, supporting the health of the river environment to reduce flooding, is part of how MCC works proactively, he said.

The conservation work is supported by a new, hopeful theology that guides these environmentally sustainable efforts. Sembrandopaz and the Mennonite Church of Colombia are spreading the concept of “care for creation” in the communities in which they’re working. The idea is that people are called to care for God’s creation, rather than to exploit it or passively to accept disasters as “God’s hand at work.”

The concept fits comfortably within MCC’s purpose statement: “MCC envisions communities worldwide in right relationship with God, one another and creation.”

“Worship is more than singing songs of praise…” Esquivia said. “The earth is God’s work. Water is from God. Rivers are from God. But the damage done to them is due to human carelessness.”

Emily Will is a freelance writer from Frederick, Md.