Last month we wrote about our trip to Colombia and our visit to two CasaLuker projects, one a cocoa educational and research facility in the heart of the Zona Cafetera, the other an experimental growing project on the Caribbean coast in a region where cacao has not previously been grown. This month, we report on a Colombian cocoa growing region with an entirely different story to tell. It is a story of survival more than cacao.
This cocoa story emanates from the department of Meta, in the geographic heart of Colombia. The city of Villavicencio, with a population of 400,000, is its capital. And because it sits at the foot of the Andes, Villavicencio is considered a gateway to the vast tropical plain – Los Llanos – that sweeps eastward from Colombia to Venezuela.
Historically, Colombian money and power remained in the highlands around Bogota, leaving the decentralized Los Llanos region open to insurgents and corruption. By the mid-1960’s, Meta had become a stronghold for the Marxist, left-wing guerilla organization known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). While recognized worldwide for its use of harsh tactics, FARC also brought relative prosperity to the impoverished region by regulating cash crops such as palm oil, used for biofuel. Some roads were built and communities were loosely organized.
But, of course, FARC is most associated with the propagation of large amounts of coca, sold on the international market as cocaine. So Meta also became one of the largest coca producing regions in Colombia.
But Meta’s troubles did not end there.
In the early 2000’s, right-wing paramilitary activists began to challenge FARC guerillas. Lacking the ideology of the FARC, they forced recruitment by threatening young members of the community to join their efforts. Life for the residents of Meta communities became even more complicated and dangerous.
Fortunately, that situation is now changing.
Our introduction to the history of Los Llanos happened in the offices of Colombia Responde, a USAID-funded initiative headquartered in Villavicencio. We would be traveling with them to the small Meta communities of Vista Hermosa and Puerto Rico where we were to meet farmers who have transitioned from producing coca to planting cacao. We wanted to hear their stories, meet their families and tour their farms.
In a pre-trip briefing, we were shown a Meta map covered liberally with green, yellow and red areas. Green to indicate already transitioned regions, yellow to indicate areas currently in transition and red indicating rebel-held, coca-growing regions. We would be driving through red and yellow to reach the outlying green-zone farms. Though no incidents were anticipated, we had to understand that the department of Meta is still actively in transition – some areas still rebel-held, some FARC-controlled.
Colombia Responde is positioned at a major intersection in that transition. Following 50 years of FARC presence and government neglect, political divisions in the region run deep. The goal of the Responde pilot program is to act as a transitioning presence to help consolidation and unification in areas of social and economic development as well as governance, infrastructure and land restitution. Through a complex and encompassing network of assistance and programs, it offers paths toward healing and rebuilding.
And truly, everywhere we travelled in the region there was an emphasis on rebuilding. Even the new road from Villavicencio to Vista Hermosa — a drive which used to take eight hours — is now an easy three, a huge difference in a region that has been geographically cut off from the rest of the country for decades.
“The most striking thing is that after so many years people have begun to trust each other again,” Zaida Márquez told us. She is the communications coordinator for Colombia Responde and our translator. “Under FARC, the social tissue of the region was broken. You could not look your neighbor in the eye. Now they are beginning to find ways to be a community again.”
For many years, there were no organizations to assist. Now there are many to aid with legal and administrative issues. For the farmers who want to introduce cacao, and other crops as well, there are a growing number of cooperatives and grower associations. Liaisons with commercial allies are being created to introduce direct market links and there are technical support programs to boost production quality and volume. To date, 661 cocoa-growing families benefit from such support. Most produce on farms of approximately 2 hectares. Concurrently, there is a great deal of emphasis on the worth of cultivating fine-flavor varietals and optimizing production practices.
Visiting our first farm, its owner Bernardo Velasco Cortes tells us that “cocoa for a living creates a balance.” When we learn later that he was once kidnapped by FARC, he simply says that “no violence now is the most remarkable part.”
His neighbor Pedro Navarro adds that for many years he “always had his bags packed. With violence, you never know what will happen when someone arrives,” he tells us. It is estimated that some 5,000 people left Via Hermosa between 2005 and 2007. Many never returned.
Inside Navarro’s neat house, are bags of cacao leaning against the wall, ready to be taken to market. Both of his daughters who are there to greet us have recently graduated from a program called Protective Environments, which has trained them to teach good health practices within the community. That they can now move freely within their community is something that is still not taken for granted. Everyone remembers when it would have been impossible and relishes the new programs that bring much needed education and assistance into their lives.
Later, we visit the farm of another neighbor, Alvaro Garcia who is president of the local growers association of which they are all members. He was the first to plant cacao in the region. In 2005, Garcia had just purchased 1,200 cacao grafts, but had never grafted before, so he hired a technician to return to the farm with him. When they learned in route that 29 soldiers had been murdered by guerillas near the farm, the technician refused to continue. But before turning back, he quickly demonstrated how to graft on a nearby guava tree.
“I only saw it demonstrated that one time,” Garcia tells us. At the farm, he proceeded to make all the grafts himself. Seven hundred survived. Today he has 7,000 trees and offers advice and counsel to his neighbors.
Standing under some of those trees, he surveys his land. “There are really good times on this land. And really bad times here,” he says. “I have mixed feelings.”
The following morning, we are having breakfast in the nearby riverside community of Porto Lleras. Across the street from the river is a municipal building completely shrouded in a heavy nylon net so that grenades launched from the river will bounce away without causing serious damage.
Across the street from the municipal building — on the river bank — is a bombed out shell of a building. The explosion that happened there, we are told, killed Garcia’s oldest son.
In our short three-day stay, we heard similar stories everywhere we went. That made us realize more and more what hope can exist in something as simple as a cacao tree.
The statistics are staggering. More than seven million people have registered with the Colombian government Victims’ Unit. Most have been displaced by the violence; others have been kidnapped, threatened, injured by landmines or forcibly disappeared.
But there is even more reason for hope.
In November of 2012, formal talks began between the Colombian government and FARC. Those talks – being held in Havana, Cuba – continue. In March of this year, the Colombian government halted bombing raids against the rebels responding to a unilateral ceasefire declared by FARC.
Between them, huge progress has been made. Land reform, one of the most contentious issues, has been agreed upon by both sides, as has an outline for political participation and the elimination of illicit drug production. Both the government and FARC have agreed to work together to remove landmines from the Colombian countryside – one of the most heavily mined countries in the world.
According to a report by Colombia’s National Center for Historical Memory, more than 220,000 people are estimated to have died in five decades of conflict. More than half of the massacres in the past three years were carried out by right-wing paramilitary groups allegedly created to combat FARC. Ironically, it is the presence of the paramilitary that is now forcing the FARC and government security forces to search for common ground. Their goal is to join forces to protect the civilian population rather than to continue fighting each other.
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