Friday, March 18, 2011

Not just peace-building, but life-building

Returning this February to the Peace Community after over a year since my last visit, I was reminded that one of the most amazing things about the Community is that it has not only served as a model of civilian resistance in the midst of an armed conflict for 14 years, but that in such a context it manages to designs and implement alternative development models, or what it calls proyectos de vida—life projects. 

A sign lists the 12 types of bananas grown here
The newest proyecto de vida that I discovered upon my return was a centro agricola, or agriculture center, founded in the time I was away. The Community designed the center to serve as a hands-on agricultural research and learning center for the development of conservation 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—like 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.

“These are proyectos de vida, explains Javier, the Community member who manages the center. “Many peasants believe that what comes from outside is better than what we have. But no. That is why we have been working so hard in the agriculture center here in the community, learning to care for [what we have], how to have a seed bank, how to care for our own resources, including farm animals. Sometimes people come with so many things from outside that at the end of the day turn out harming us.”

The need to organize collectively to defend land is being felt strongly these days, as plans advance in the area for the exploitation of a carbon mine. Given the precedent in other parts of Colombia, where communities have been violently displaced from their land in anticipation of mega-projects like gold or coal mines, the Peace Community has every reason to be worried, and to strengthen its collective processes and land practices, like through the agriculture center.

In the spirit of sharing experience and knowledge among peasant communities, the Peace Community hosted this year’s version of the Universidad de Resistencia (University of Resistance), a gathering of peasant and indigenous communities held every year since 2003) in the village of La Union, where the center is located (and where FOR has its home base). 

For four days in late February representatives from the multiple Peace Community settlements as well as from communities and rural organizations from all over Colombia gathered for workshops and knowledge interchange about food self-sufficiency, preservation of seeds in order 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 in these fertile lands.”

Javier demonstrates the 1st step of making panela: pressing cane
One of the most popular workshops took place at the Community’s new cane pressing machine (trapiche), where representatives from a peasant organization in Santander department taught Peace Community members how to make their own panela. Panela, made from boiling sugar cane juice into a thick honey then setting it to harden, is the principal sweetener used in rural Colombia. And by used, I mean consumed in enormous quantities: people hardly drink water if it isn’t sweetened by a bit of panela, and coffee has about four times as much panela as it does coffee.

The desire to produce their own panela, as well as the other workshops and projects of the agricultural center about food self-sufficiency, come not just from adherence to some abstract principle. The Peace Community recognizes a real need to meet as many of its own dietary needs as possible because it has suffered from food blockades and robberies in the past. 

In 2004, for example, an eight-month paramilitary and military blockade on the road connecting Community settlements with the nearest town first drastically limited, then completely blockaded, the goods that could be entered from town or the crops that could be taken to town to sell. Though a Community protest march, in which hundreds participated, 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, without rice, panela, salt, and other staples of their diet. 

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

Experiences like the food blockade are why, says Javier, “We have to create our own principles and laws about land, and collectively defend the land… It is because of resistance, collectivity and community that we have managed to stay.” And, I would add, to create inspiring and important models for peasant communities the world over.

1 comment:

Peter said...

Moira, when I saw the development of the centro agricola and the beginnings of the panela-manufacturing scheme last November, it was a joyous moment for me. Literally, in the shadow of a permanent military force on the hill, these stuff really is - as you say - life-giving. Abrazos, Peter.