The history of the Peace Community in San Jose de Apartado, Colombia illustrates the awareness for the need of food sovereignty that farmers have strengthened through the armed conflict. They progressively realized that independence from the armed actors also meant the independence of their food supply.
I began by accompanying the Peace Community in San Jose de Apartado (CdP) with FOR Presence for Peace on July 20th, 2015, the first day of a new unilateral ceasefire declared by the FARC, with the promise of a possible de-escalation of the armed conflict. That same day, we accompanied children from a school in CdP to visit an agro-ecological farm, a symbol of the fight for self-sufficiency that they have within CdP. Through the farmers, who told me the history of the creation of the CdP and its development, I learned how the armed conflict and self-sufficiency are entangled in one another as part of the struggle of this community from Urabá antioqueño.
The Displacement: “We’ve abandoned our crops and we are hungry”.
The inhabitants of the township San Jose de Apartado (SJA) have suffered through a long history of displacement due to both legal and illegal armed actors. In 1996, due to threats from paramilitary groups and clashes between the military and the guerillas, the have had to move towards the urban outskirts of SJA. “We abandoned our harvest day after day and now we are going hungry”, one civilian told me. They have not received any humanitarian help from the state at this time. A community pot is distributed once a day which helps them survive, but they feel the need to organize in order to live with dignity and autonomy again. That is how the CdP was born on March 23rd, 1997, based on active neutrality, rejecting direct and indirect participation in the war and reclaiming the right to continue working on their lands, despite the conflict.
The strategy since then has been to start preparing for the return of different routes to SJA that the farmers had to abandon because of the fighting. Preparation consisted of planting crops in these paths, a necessity for the survival of the people, and an essential part of a farmer’s work. Despite the support of different national organizations, this community’s work has confronted hard hits. For example, in October 1997, FARC guerrillas murdered three farmers, suspected of belonging to Convivir, a farmer’s organization created by the then-governor of Antioqua, Alvaro Uribe Velez, and designed to provide information to the military on the actions of illegal armed groups. Behavior that CdP has always rejected. Despite the trauma and fear, the process has continued since its first return in 1998.
The Return: “We had money but we did not have food”.
Thanks to the CdPs community work, in 1998, fifty families could return to La Union, one of the villages in the district of SJA. Following the return of others to their villages, they followed the same system of preparing crops. In 1999 the primitive project of cultivation was created by a group of women. At first, farmers did not have much experience in harvesting this product but after nine months they produced seven boxes that were transported to the city of Turbo with the help of the Diócesis de Apartadó. The project grew to include 60 groups of workers that produced 1000 boxes in a few months. But various boxes were soon lost or stolen and the discrete intrusion of the paramilitaries loomed over the business.
Before these complications, the CdP returned in 2000 to harvest what farmers from SJA have always worked on: cocoa. They decided to practice selling directly, to avoid the involvement of armed groups and fix prices themselves, with the idea of fairer trade in mind. It was an economic boom in the early days until the paramilitaries began intercepting shipments again, and stole 24 million pesos worth of goods, which put CdP on the brink of bankruptcy. In 2002, the same paramilitaries organized a food blockade for three months between Apartadó and SJA, killing those transporting food and thus preventing food from being delivered to SJA. One farmer remembers: “We had money thanks to the cocoa but there was no food”. A situation that made CdP rethink how they wanted to use their land.
Self-Sustaining Projects: “Should be done the farmer’s way”.
In the face of theft and paramilitary checkpoints, examples of the inaction of the Colombian state in this situation, members of the CdP decided to revise the management of cultivation and sought to no longer depend on a single product. “To some extent, the resistance to the armed conflict forced us to think about self-sustainability”, remembered a member of the CdP. In August, 2004, they organized, for the first time, in Arenas Altas (a village in the district of SJA) the Universidad Campesino, a place of learning and exchange on solidarity agriculture involving farmers from all over the country. It started as a discussion of self-sufficiency, food sovereignty and organic farming, sharing the experiences of other farming communities affected by the conflict. A year later, the CdP created their Agricultural Center to facilitate youth learning about harvests and facilitate experiments, especially in seed selection. The idea is to reach a point where the community does not have to depend on anyone from the outside for CdP to achieve self-sufficiency. Their focus is on land conservation and seeds so there is a diversification of crops. From the old ways of farming and the cocoa, progress was made toward the planting of rice, beans, corn, sugarcane, fruit, etc.
This idea of farm work also represents another fight for the CdP, at the same level as their fight for independence and neutrality during the armed conflict. A member of the CdP commented “This should be done the farmer’s way, cultivate land to sustain one’s family and community. It makes no sense to go hungry growing coca because you depend on the money from armed groups”. This course of action continues to develop the CdP little by little. Now there exist different farm projects that are achieving self-sufficiency, serving as examples to expand the idea to a bigger scale, like the whole village of CdP. This self-sustaining village project has merged in the last few years with the idea of a transition to organic farming, which the Agricultural Center has investigated through different experiments facilitated by the Universidad Campesina achieving notable success so far.
The history of the CdP illustrates the awareness for the need of food sovereignty that farmers have strengthened through the armed conflict. They progressively realized that independence from the armed actors also meant the independence of their food supply. Now, other processes are complicating matters: “We know that our food autonomy is in danger due to other issues, such as free trade agreements and provisions against saving seeds”, said one farmer. This fight now includes implications beyond the armed conflict and the advancing peace negotiations taking place in Havana.