Colombia: Putumayo farmers build a better future by planting cocoa
The ICRC supports a cocoa-farming project being spearheaded by farmers in the San Miguel region of Putumayo department. For the families taking part in the project, cocoa is a livelihood alternative, enabling them to support themselves and strengthen their foothold in a region that has been wracked by armed conflict for many years.
Although the price of cocoa is falling, Argemiro Melo is anxiously awaiting the waning moon to plant out the 250 cocoa seedlings he has in the nursery. He is not the only one whose hopes are riding on this crop; hundreds of farmers living in the rural San Miguel region of Putumayo department (bordering Ecuador) now depend on cocoa as their main source of income.
Argemiro is originally from Nariño department but he came to the town of Canadá in the 1970s to earn a living. Like his neighbours, the family's livelihood used to come from growing coca, but this all changed at the end of the last decade with the crackdown on coca production. The end of coca production in the area also heralded the departure of four of his five sons, who left for Nariño and Ecuador in search of work. "I want to bring my family back together. Growing cocoa means a fresh start for us," he said.
The communities living along the banks of the San Miguel river are isolated and have few livelihood options. On top of that, the presence of armed groups has resulted in periodic outbreaks of violence that have made the lives of the civilian population very difficult.
For local farmers, it has long been a struggle to earn a living and support their families. "Life here hasn't been easy," said Daniel Muñoz-Rojas, head of the ICRC sub-delegation in Florencia, Caquetá. "In humanitarian terms, the most serious consequences of the armed conflict are linked to the use of explosive devices, which have hampered people's movement around the region and restricted farmers' access to their crops. Another problem is the lack of livelihood alternatives for the local communities, which has led to despair and stood in the way of development."
From coca to cocoa
Cocoa is an alternative that promises to restore the prosperity and hopes of local families. Farmers have now planted more than 500 hectares of cocoa in the region. But the farmers did not immediately strike gold with their choice of crop. "After coca, we tried peanuts, but many people's crops failed. Then we turned to a starch-rich tuber known as malanga, and finally we began to plant cocoa. We see that this is our future," said José Cundar, a community leader in the town of La Unión.
One of the pioneers of this cocoa production was Leonel Martínez, who planted the crop on his farm in the Monterrey area. He had seen it grown successfully in Ecuador and was driven by need. "When we started out, we knew nothing about how to plant it," said Leonel, who now has eight hectares planted with cocoa. He did not have much luck initially, owing to his inexperience in sowing, pruning and handling the crop.
From farmer to farmer
In June 2011, the ICRC stepped in to help the population overcome the serious consequences of the armed conflict. It lent its support to the initiative of the San Miguel farmers and began working on a cocoa project in consultation with the community. The goal was to increase the food supplies and income of 320 families by boosting cocoa production.
The starting point was the 349 hectares of cocoa planted by families in 13 towns and districts near the San Miguel river. "When we arrived in the area, people didn't know how to handle or prune the crop, or control the diseases affecting it. Nor did they know what fertilizer to use. All this had an impact on production," said ICRC agro-ecological engineer Anderson Peña.
Fabio Portilla, a resident of La Unión and owner of one of the most prosperous cocoa farms in the region, recalls the situation some months ago: "The crops were disastrous; frosty pod rot (a disease that commonly affects cocoa plants) was rife. We didn't know how to prune the plants or anything. Now we know how to stop the spread of disease and production has gone up a lot."
The ICRC's approach has been to pass on knowledge from farmer to farmer. They speak the same language. "We trained 24 individuals from the 320 families to pass on what they had learnt to their communities. The farmers are teaching other farmers using language they all understand," explained Anderson.
Thanks to pruning, disease control and use of organic fertilizers, production has risen. Although there is still a long way to go, the farmers are enthusiastic. They have set up an association and many farmers who did not originally take part in the project are now starting to plant cocoa. Joy and hope can now be detected in the gaze of the new cocoa farmers. "We have more peace of mind now. People have a fresh, more positive outlook," said Fabio.