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Resisting Violence through Sustainable Agriculture in Colombia

by Moira Birss

In the middle of one of the most fertile regions in Colombia, amidst a five-decade armed conflict, a small peasant community manages to serve as a model of civilian resistance against violence and displacement. But as I saw when I returned in February to the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, located in the northwestern province of Antioquia, their sustainable agriculture projects not only defend against violence but also create life.

“These are proyectos de vida, explains Javier, the Community member who manages the Community’s new agriculture center. These projects of life, as the name indicates, are more than an effort to reduce the Peace Community’s ecological footprint, to eat locally, and to reduce reliance on outside food sources. They are called proyectos de vida because they also serve as a survival mechanism against violence and a strategy against displacement.

With nearly two hundred Peace Community members killed since 1997 and thousands of human rights violations committed by guerrilla, paramilitary, and state armed forces, the Peace Community’s survival depends on a constant struggle to defend life. “We have to create our own principles and laws about land, and collectively defend the land,” Javier explains to me on my recent visit. “It is because of resistance, collectivity, and community that we have managed to stay.”

The Peace Community developed the agriculture center in the last year to serve as a hands-on agricultural research and learning facility for the development of food self-sustainability. The center includes a plant nursery, medicinal plant garden, worm bin for composting, and several acres dedicated to experimenting with the various varieties of crops grown in the region such as a banana field with 12 varieties of the fruit. Springs are being protected in order to conserve water sources, some of which feed into fish breeding ponds.

“Many peasants believe that what comes from outside is better than what we have. But no,” explains Javier. “That is why we have been working so hard in the agriculture center…to care for [what we have] and [to learn] how to care for our own resources, including farm animals.”

The need to organize collectively to defend land was a principal motivation for the founding of the Peace Community on March 23, 1997. Colombia’s violence is, more than anything, a battle for control of land between state, paramilitary, and guerrilla forces, with peasants nearly always on the losing end. The Peace Community knows this all too well. Several family members were killed by paramilitaries paid by Chiquita Banana, whose banana plantations cover large swaths of land in the region. In 2007 Chiquita Banana pled guilty to paying $1.7 million to paramilitaries responsible for selected killings, massacres, and displacement in the region between 1997 and 2004.

Current plans for the exploitation of a carbon vein near several Peace Community settlements have members worried and even more motivated to organize. In many parts of the country, communities have been violently expulsed from their land in anticipation of megaprojects like gold or coalmines. Fifty-six hundred, or 2 percent of the 280,000 displaced people in 2010, fled from areas in which the government has promoted economic activity, including mining projects. Increased militarization and violence at the site of a contentious gold mine project on the Ceroperro Mountain, sacred to Embera indigenous ethnicity, resulted in protective measures from Inter-American Human Rights Commission for 87 families after an army bombing gravely injured two indigenous people.

This year the Peace Community hosted the Universidad de Resistencia (University of Resistance), a gathering of peasant and indigenous communities held in the village of La Union every year since 2003. For four days in late February representatives from the multiple Peace Community settlements and rural organizations from all over Colombia gathered for workshops about food self-sufficiency, preservation of seeds to combat the spread of GMOs, medicinal plants, and more.

“It was wonderful to have shared something so important,” says Juan Carlos, a University participant from the department of Córdoba. “To look at the reality that is Colombia and all there is to do on these fertile lands.”

One of the most popular workshops took place at the Community’s new cane milling machine, where representatives from a peasant organization in Santander taught Peace Community members how to make panela. Made from boiling sugar cane juice into a thick honey then setting it to harden, panela is the principal sweetener used in rural Colombia. It is consumed in enormous quantities – drinking water is sweetened with panela and coffee has about four times as much panela as it does actual coffee.

The panela project represents not just an effort to produce an organic, local product, but a survival strategy. The Peace Community recognizes a real need to meet as many of its own dietary needs as possible. In February 2009, soldiers took or destroyed dozens of kilos of yucca, beans, rice and sugar cane that a community leader had stored at his remote property in order to later sell them in town to buy panela and other things he was not producing himself.

And in 2004, an eight-month paramilitary and military blockade on the road connecting Community settlements with the nearest town first drastically limited, then completely blocked, the goods and crops that could be taken back and forth to town. Though a Community protest march eventually broke the blockade, during those eight months Community members were forced to survive on the limited supply of beans, yucca, and banana they had growing in their fields.

The Community attributes the attacks to efforts by state and paramilitary forces to hurt a community fiercely challenging the status quo. Referring to similar events in 2009, the Community explains in a public communication how the state refuses to respond in such situations, and in fact uses them to attack the Community’s image:

“The authorities always call us ‘liars’ when we denounce the crimes that they commit against us. When we denounce the presence of blockades by paramilitary who act in collaboration with the army, murdering many of our friends and neighbors, they say that it is false, that the victims don’t exist…When we denounce these events, they say we are only trying to give the army a bad name…Despite such slander, we continue to keep the memory of these crimes and [present] them to the world so that history can judge.”

As Javier explains, “We can supply panela for the whole Community without having to depend on the outside. We know that if… there are blockades preventing cars from bringing up food, or if money is stolen from us, or if prices for our goods go way down, we have here the advantage of already having our own panela.”

About the Author:
Moira Birss
recently returned to the U.S. after two years in Colombia as a Human Rights Accompanier with the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Since graduating from the University of Michigan, she has worked on researching community-based models of alternative economies, advocating for affordable housing, and promoting environmental protection. Moira’s articles have appeared on Alternet, In These Times, and CommonDreams. She blogs at You can follow Moira on Twitter @moira_kb.

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