BOGOTA — In a shopping district adorned with Santas, twinkling lights and tinseled trees, one mall stands out for not decorating itself with the normal Christmas clutter. The Atlantis Plaza shopping mall in Colombia's capital appears to be taking a Scrooge-ish approach to Christmas this year by refusing to dress in the holiday spirit.
But looks can be deceiving.
The mall says it is forgoing Christmas decor this year to fully embrace the giving spirit in a way that could have a lasting impact long after the lights have been taken down. Instead of spending thousands of dollars on fiberglass reindeer, giant candy canes, and Santa's Village, Atlantis is putting the money towards anti-poverty projects for people living in Colombia's remote and famished northern desert, including a program that will help feed 400 indigenous children for all of 2017.
“We've been trying to do something different for several months now, while cutting back on costs,” said Paulo Lara, the mall's 35-year-old manager. “So this Christmas we won't turn on the lights, but we'll light up some hearts.”
The shopping mall's decision to “skip” Christmas is a novelty in Colombia, where centros comerciales regularly try to attract customers by spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on lavish holiday decor.
And it's not just malls that go crazy over the holidays. Bogota´s municipal government spent more than $6 million in fancy Christmas decor in 2013, though this year, it has cut that back to around $2.5 million.
Atlantis says it wants to distinguish itself from other malls by doing the right thing this year and focusing on those in need instead of all that twinkles. The mall is hoping that its minimalist approach to Christmas will also be appreciated by customers who are tired of the aggressive year-end consumerism frenzy.
“I think we are in a society where we are losing lots of values,” Lara told me. “So maybe people will become fond of a place that helps to recover those values.”
Lara says Atlantis will save around $170,000 by skipping Christmas decorations and plans to earmark $100,000 of that to help three indigenous villages in Colombia's arid La Guajira Province.
The plan, according to Lara, is to finance education projects, water wells, support farms and nutritional programs. The villages are inhabited by the Wayuu, an indigenous group that relies largely on raising goats, but has been severely affected by drought, corruption and government neglect.
“In one of the communities people have to walk 2 kilometers to fetch water,” Lara said. “And it's not even potable water.”
Lara says the partnership with the three villages began after a chance encounter with Lovenet, a Colombian foundation that has been working in La Guajira since the beginning of the year.
After discussing the needs of villages in that region, and the shopping mall's desire to do something positive, the foundation and the mall decided to team up.
“We have been blessed by this partnership,” says Angela Aguirre, director of Lovenet. “I think that civil society needs to have a more active role in solving our country's problems.”
With funding from Atlantis, Lovenet will handle a program where nutritional supplements are distributed to 420 kids in the three villages. Aguirre, says that currently many kids in these villages are just eating one meal a day, and many times it's just water mixed with corn.
La Guajira has experienced a major problem with malnutrition in recent years. Since 2007, more than 4,700 Wayuu children have died prematurely in the province, mostly from poor nutrition and sanitary conditions, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
To raise additional funds for the Wayuu villages, Lovenet is setting up a network of volunteers and selling Wayuu-inspired designer dresses, which were exhibited at a recent fashion show in the mall.
The mall's hallways are now lined with large pictures of the Wayuu children who will benefit from this year's Christmas donation, along with messages of how to help.
“I loved this idea,” said Camilo Rico, a college student who walked by the mall on Wednesday, and snapped some pictures of the unusual decor. “I just shared a photo of this on snapchat.”
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.