Cultivating Peace Crops in Colombia
By María Isabel García
Some 50,000 people displaced by the decades of armed conflict in Colombia have been able to return to their lands. A group of women from the village of Villahermosa has added a new dynamic to the process of rebuilding the community.
BOGOTA, (Tierramérica).- Dozens of women left their native village, Villahermosa, in 1997, fleeing the violence unleashed by leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and the government armed forces, a displacement from home and community suffered by at least two million Colombians in the last decade.
A year later, when the women returned to their lands, they brought with them perhaps a handful of seeds and a chicken or two. They had lost nearly everything, but decided to start from the beginning by recuperating their crops and, through them, give a new sense of meaning to their lives.
Some 50,000 people displaced by the Colombian internal conflict have been able to return to their towns of origin or have moved to other regions to begin rebuilding their communities, according to government data.
As in Villahermosa, many are doing so through what are known as food security projects.
The women of Villahermosa, located along the lower Atrato River in the department of Chocó, bordering Panama, are survivors of the terror wrought by right-wing paramilitary squads and the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) as they battled for control over this strategic area.
They left their land behind four years ago and headed to the village of Pavarandó, where they established their own ''community for peace,'' a concept proposed by the Catholic Church through which a group of people commit themselves to remaining neutral in the nation's internal conflict, to not using arms, to act collectively and to adopt plans for internal security.
The women took the commitment so seriously that, among the pacts they sealed during their forced exile in Pavarandó, they agreed not to associate with even their own husbands or children if they were known to be involved with one of the irregular armed groups.
Villahermosa is an ecosystem transition region between the humid provinces of the south and the dry province of the Caribbean.
''In the year the women spent in Pavarandó they realized that they had lost their crops and their culture. It isn't the same to do the washing in an unknown river. And those who weren't from the river, missed their own plots of land,'' agronomist Marta Lucía Gómez told Tierramérica.
Upon their return, the women understood that they no longer possessed many of the varieties of rice they had before, as many as 48 different strains in the region. The seeds have not yet been fully recovered, said Gómez, who has been a part of the peace communities of the lower Atrato River as a consultant for the Suissaid Colombia Foundation, which finances food security projects for the displaced as they return to their land.
The same losses occurred with yellow corn, which has been used as long as anyone can remember to feed chickens, and with 16 other types of corn, which have names like purple midget, 'cariaco,' 'tacaloa' and 'porro'.
All of these farm products, along with the plantain - which as a perennial survived the absence of the farmers - make up the basic diet of the area's inhabitants, largely Afro-Colombian, in addition to smaller indigenous and 'mestizo' (mixed-race) communities.
Today, more than three years after their return, the families of Villahermosa are growing onion, tomato, paprika, eggplant, spinach, squash, oregano and cucumber.
They also cultivate medicinal plants, such as 'llantén' (ribwort) to alleviate tooth pain, 'paico' to eliminate intestinal worms, 'poleo' to use against joint pain and, of course, ornamental plants because flowers and greens brighten life.
''Now we are going to recover sweets. A year and a half ago we planted sugarcane and a sugar mill has already been built in order to have honey and to sweeten foods. After we meet local demand, we would be able to sell the surplus to other villages,'' said one of the women who has resettled in Villahermosa.
The process of rebuilding life in the communities of returnees in the Lower Atrato benefits from the solid foundation of ancestral solidarity among the Afro-Colombians.
A work exchange system, in which groups of eight to 10 people take turns doing the necessary tasks on one plot of land or another, provides efficient mutual support.
''While men dominate the arena of negotiations with the municipality, the women gather seeds and exchange them with relatives and neighbors, rescuing the region's biodiversity,'' commented Hans Peter Wiederkehr, executive director of Suissaid Colombia.
With emphasis on long-term biodiversity recovery and an integral cultural preservation, the Suissaid projects are benefiting some 2,300 families who returned to the Colombian departments of Chocó, Urabá and Bolívar.
But there are people who have returned to their villages or relocated in at least 17 of Colombia's 32 departments, leading the government to designate a 290 million-dollar budget to lend them a hand, according to the National Department of Planning.
''The experience in Lower Atrato teaches us that any strategy for recovering food security has to be based on an analysis of each community's cultural framework,'' commented Wiederkehr.
These groups ''hold knowledge about the importance of the variety of species in resisting plagues or climatic factors, even if they do not do so through a scientific explanation,'' he pointed out.
Perhaps it is not necessary to explain why the whistling and singing of the villages' elders work better than chemical products to scare off the flocks of birds that come to raid the cornfields.
* María Isabel García is an IPS correspondent