Cultivating food, not coca

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MCC-funded program aids 100 Colombian families

by Shalom Wiebe

Manuel Mosquera, a tall man in a black rain cape, stands on the path separating two fish ponds. Mosquera, pastor of the Istmina MB Church and coordinator of the “Food not Coca” agriculture program in the region, is pleased with what he sees.

Carrying a small container of fish food, he tosses the pellets into the water as Camilo, a young son of the pond owners, looks on with interest as the fish jostle for the food. “We have bought ten thousand fry so far, and in the next day or so we are expecting a shipment of three thousand more,” Mosquera says, noting that they are raising three different varieties of fish: tilapia, cachama (pacu), and bocachico.

These fish ponds are one of many small-scale agriculture projects supported by the Mennonite Brethren “Food not Coca” program in the region of Choco, in the Pacific Region of Colombia. The program, now in its second year and funded by Mennonite Central Committee, provides complimentary support to the agricultural efforts of over 100 families.

A key component of the program is preventing the cultivation of coca, an illicit crop whose leaves are processed to create cocaine. “There is definitely a temptation to grow coca, especially in rural communities,” says Mosquera. “Farmers are finding it harder and harder to make a living with traditional food crops; planting coca is a sure way to make good money.”

Lucrative coca brings violence 

Coca has only been present in the area for less than four years, having moved into the region following massive aerial fumigation coca eradication campaigns supported by Plan Colombia in southern Colombia. But it has quickly become the most lucrative crop, causing a mass shift from production of traditional food crops to the cultivation of coca.

The production of coca in the area has brought many changes, both demographic and economic. As the coca economy inflates local prices, area farmers find that their traditional crops now no longer create enough income to sustain themselves and their families, thus the allure of coca cultivation. The coca trade is entirely controlled by the illegally armed groups who have moved into the region, bringing with them a rash of violence, displacements and massacres as they fight to control the fertile land and the crops grown therein.

Families from each of the 14 communities where Mennonite Brethren churches are located participate in the program. While the first group of participants is also church members, new participants from the community have been added to the program this year. Pastors in each community help select the families that meet the basic criteria to join the program.

Participants are chosen based on need, and the type of agriculture project initiated depends on their previous experience. If they have raised pigs in the past, then pigs would be the project of choice for that family or community. Current endeavors include raising pigs and chickens, fish ponds, beekeeping for the production of honey and cultivating plantain, yucca, a starchy root crop, and fruit such as papaya.

The project does not provide participants with money, but rather with the materials needed to start, be it seed for crops or animals such as piglets, chicks or fry. If participants already have land planted with specific crops, assistance in the form of fertilizer and labor for maintenance is provided.

Restoring a regular harvest

Jesus Alfredo Benitez inherited several plots of land from his father, but the rainforest was encroaching and yield had been down. “The support made a big difference for my farm,” says Benitez. “Without maintenance it would be a jungle.”

Fertilizer brought non-producing plants back into production, and Benitez has been able to bring regular harvests of guava, corn, plantain and yucca into town to sell.

Education on sustainable practices is an essential element of the project. Mosquera encourages natural methods of farming, with a focus on maintaining healthy soil and the production of a quality product. Rather than using chemicals that deplete the soil to kill unwanted underbrush, maintenance is done by hand with machetes, allowing the leaves of weeds to fall on the ground and decompose, adding nutrition to the soil.

Mosquera says at first some families planted yucca and plantain to feed to their pigs. “I had to educate them to use the food to sell in their community and to collect the waste, such as plantain peels, for their animals,” he says. “The first to eat must be the family, and second the pigs. How can we have families going hungry and pigs eating the food intended for human consumption?”

Cooperative congregations

Four of the church communities have formed cooperatives involving all the families in the congregation, to raise pigs or chickens. “Production is still not enough to enjoy the benefits” says Mosquera, “but they are learning how to work together, how to share responsibilities.”

The MB church in the town of Pie de Pepe, located in an active conflict zone, is one such congregation: 10 families from the church and two from the community have formed a cooperative to raise chickens. Unemployment is a problem as many people cannot go to work in their fields because of the presence of illegal armed groups.

“The chicken project has been a great blessing,” says Aurelina Borga, pastor of the Pie de Pepe MB church. “We are the only people in town who are in the chicken business, and we have been able to sell a lot of chickens. The people from the community are happy that we have started this business.”

An added benefit of the chicken project for the members of the cooperative is the availability of chickens not only to sell, but to bring home to their families to eat on occasion. “Although we had experience in raising free range chickens before, large scale chicken production was new to us,” says Borga, “At first 35 of our first 100 chickens died.”

After improving their technique they enjoyed more success, until recently when 30 chickens were stolen. Nonetheless, the community has high hopes for the future of their agriculture project.

Invest and improve

“Right now, instead of dividing the earnings from chicken sales between co-op members, we plan to reinvest the money in more chickens,” Borga says. “We are thinking of buying a pig one day when we have enough money in our budget to do so.”

While the families who participate in the program are not able to live off of the results of the program, this is not the goal of the program. “Our vision is to improve the living standards of the participants, to help them keep farming food crops and keep them from getting involved in the production of coca,” says Mosquera.

At first the farmers may not see large returns for their hard work, but the hope is that over time, people like the families involved in the Pie de Pepe chicken cooperative, with a steadily increasing number of animals, will be able to provide for their families and improve their living situation, without being tempted to plant coca.

Dreams

Mosquera continues to dream up new ideas. He is planning on encouraging people without plots of land for large-scale cultivation—those living in towns—to begin small urban gardens in their own yards.

“It will involve more education,” says Mosquera. “We need to help people realize that if they can provide their own green onions, tomatoes, cucumbers and squash, that will have a significant impact on their daily costs. Even if they aren’t able to earn money by selling what their gardens produce, they can save money and use it on something else.”

Mosquera continues, “An integral part of our identity as Anabaptists is service, and that is why we see this kind of community project as part of our mission as a church. While Jesus was on earth he spent his life serving the people. He is no longer physically here,” says Mosquera, “and has left us with the command to continue serving those in need in our communities. We can serve in many areas—in health, in agriculture."

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