Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Organic Solidarity

Riding one of the chiveros (open-air jeeps - the picture at right is taken from the top of one) out of the town of Apartadó into the veredas, or villages, towards the Peace Community, I find myself surrounded by various kinds of banana trees. It seems about every day that someone brings us some kind of banana – the bananas we’re used to eating in the States, baby bananas, plantains, or the extra-sweet and squat manzanos. Cacao is a close second, and other crops grow quite well in the fertile soil, but it’s the banana that has dominated production and politics in this region.

Massive banana production began here in the 1960s, and in the 1970s Urubá, as this region is called, became the center of banana-worker organizing in the country. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when paramilitaries began to exert their power, they collaborated with the military to destroy the banana worker unions, along with their usual tactics of mass displacement and civilian killings. One of the two primary blocs of the AUC (the primary paramilitary organization until the recent demobilizations that I discussed two posts ago) that operated in the area called themselves the Bloque Bananero. These days, paramilitary groups control all the major banana buyers. If campesinos sell their bananas to these buyers, they are not only indirectly supporting paramilitarism but also locked into a production system that also obliges them to purchase inputs like pesticides from these same paramilitary-controlled companies.

Today, the Peace Community is working to turn the tables on the politics of bananas. They have begun to grow their baby bananas organically, and have forged a relationship with a nonprofit in Europe that will market and sell the fruit. (The picutre on the left is me on a horse riding through a baby banana field.) The baby bananas will be packaged in boxes with the community’s name – Peace Community of San José de Apartadó – so while they won’t have an official fair trade label, it will be clear that they’re coming from an organized community working for social justice. The community will receive for these organic bananas a price that is double or even triple what they currently receive. With such a price community members will not only be able to insulate themselves a bit more against the hunger that is always lurking close by, but also help themselves be more sustainable and independent from the econo-politics of the war here.

The community already has a bit of experience with organics: they have been producing organic cacao for a while now, and just last month began selling it to a European buyer for a price 1.5 times the market price for conventional. If they are able to obtain the machinery and know-how to process it before selling – which they are currently working to do – they will be able to sell it for up to 4.5 times the market conventional price. For campesinos living on the edge of poverty, such prices increases are extraordinary, and offer the possibility for more autonomy.

Word travels fast in el campo, and many other campesinos have been, understandably, very attracted by this significantly higher price. Though of course wanting to bring other people into it's struggle for autonomy and protection from the conflict, the community has not taken too kindly to sudden attempts to join the community by those who up until now have shown little interest in participating. Why, they ask, after 11 years of survival as a peace community, are prospective members suddenly and in such numbers knocking at their door? When the community has lived by principles that they have struggled to maintain – at the expense of the lives of140 members – they are finding it difficult to accept new members who seem attracted solely by the price of organic cacao. “There are people who want to participate in the community because of the price of cacao. But we are not doing this for the money. We are doing this for the ways that it can help us advance as a peace community and maintain our principles,” said one community leader.

Those principles might seem realtively simple in theory, but in practice here, in the middle of a complicated and violent armed conflict, they are not simple at all: No collaboration or sharing of information with any armed actor, participation in community work projects, no carrying of arms, and speaking out against impunity and injustice. As I described in my first post, the armed actors in this conflict operate under a “you’re either with us or are against us” assumption; if you don’t cooperate with either, you’re suspect from all sides and thus targeted from all sides. That tension is palpable here, but with international accompaniement and advances like this organic production, the community continues to survive and move forward.


MaryB said...

So glad you are finally there, enjoy and know you are loved. MB

Daniel said...

great post Moira. it's really wonderful to hear your first hand accounts and learn from your experiences. thanks for keeping us updated and educated!
que te vaya muy bien.

John said...

Excellent account, Moira!