Special issue by El Espectador 2020, about the Rural Alternative School (ERA) of Miranda, Cauca. "Access to Land: The Crossroads of Reincorporation". This is part of a series of publications on the New Reincorporation Areas (NAR by its acronym in Spanish) formed by reincorporated people to continue their collective reincorporation and economic security processes, 5 years after the signing of the Peace Agreement in Colombia.
"Today we are in the process of rejoining the farmers’ way" José, participant from Miranda’s Alternative Rural School".
In Miranda, northern Cauca, campesinos (rural peasants) members of ASPROZONAC (Association for the Constitution of the Campesino Reserve Zone) shared 10 hectares - for 10 years, on the La Elvira farm - with ex-combatants in the process of reincorporation who were part of the FARC's Sixth Front and Gabriel Galvis mobile column, to develop their productive projects. They are currently raising tilapia, pigs and cattle in association with reincorporated members of the Center for the Promotion of Territorial Development Corporation (CEPRODET).
José, a former FARC combatant, has been fully committed to strengthening productive projects since 2017. That year, because there was no land to plant, he and a group of 40 ex-combatants decided to leave the Monterredondo reincorporation zone. Since 2017, those who grouped together in the municipality of Miranda, were fortunate enough to be granted land from their common areas, in the Campesino Reserve Zone, where 25 plot holders live, in a working partnership agreement to implement their productive projects and settle down for the construction of their homes. This was also a gesture of solidarity and gratitude on the part of the campesino community, as they said that for several years, they felt protected by the ex-combatants in the territory before the signing of the Peace Agreement.
When we saw that there was a group of reincorporated farmers who wanted to work and did not have any land, we signed a working partnership agreement with CEPRODET. That is how the corporation arrived," says a campesino leader from the Reserve and a neighboring NAR farmer.
In the five years following the signing of the Peace Agreement, Paso Colombia - Sustainable Peace for Colombia, a subsidiary of One Earth Future, has accompanied this process with the Rural Alternative School (ERA in Spanish) initiative, which seeks, alongside the community, sustainable development for their territories. It was the first cooperating organization to contribute with the construction of a bio-factory and common spaces for assembly; they brought technicians to teach the community how to make fertilizers and cultivate crops; they delivered a project for planting chili peppers, and helped organize and distribute productive systems. This, without expecting any payment in return.
The corporation also had accompaniment from two allies in enabling the use of a lake for the fish farming project: the World Food Program and the Catalan Association for Peace. Both participate by following up on the initiatives and also by contributing to their financing. This has allowed tilapia farming to consolidate as the most solid source of income and transformation for the corporation. Today they have a capacity of 800 kilos and, in the future, they aspire to produce at least two tons of fish per month.
"The help that we first assumed would come from the government never arrived. They only fulfilled the basic income and left the collective productive project up in the air by not giving us access to land. Only international entities, some universities such as Javeriana, SENA, Paso Colombia, ACP, UNDP, DIPAZ and others have collaborated, and quite a lot", adds José.
This story in Cauca is the product of arduous community building. Before arriving at the Campesino Reserve, the ex-combatants from the Monterredondo AETCR pooled their Seed Capital and invested it in leasing a farm and purchasing cattle, pigs and fish. They rented Los Samanes farm, next to the AETCR, where they paid 5 million pesos a month in rent and made their first investment: they bought 15 cows, 5 breeding sows and fish. "That project lasted until the year the lease money ran out. That year we did not achieve what we had hoped for: that the government would choose to buy the farm or that Finagro would finance us, or that someone would lend us money. It couldn’t be done. So, we had to shut down the project," explains Lorenzo Heredia, secretary of the corporation and administrative project assistant of the Catalan Association for Peace.
After some setbacks and learning, they have managed to implement their fish farming, pig farming and livestock projects, in which ex-combatants work with the campesino community that has joined the corporation. "Today we are in the process of reincorporating to the campesino's way," said José. In addition, a store is being set up in the town of Miranda, in the Casa Campesina (Campesino House), for the distribution and sale of food from the Campesino Reserve and the NAR. "The business is not the supermarket itself; the business is to sell there. So that we sell our products at a better price. Same for the farmers, they have given us a hand here, we work on their land," adds Lorenzo.
UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) supported them in the development of a brand for their products and hired a marketing company to develop several brand proposals. The proposal they chose, by means of an assembly, was “Productos Aldea, calidad para la vida” (Village Products, quality for life). "Now we have the brand, this brand is ours, it belongs to CEPRODET, and our products will be sold under the name Aldea," says Lorenzo.
The name Village emerges as a productive, cultural and demonstrative idea that captures the corporation’s process. In addition, it represents the first form of organization, because when they decided to join collectively with the investment of their Seed Capital in 2017, several of them chose to invest because they had knowledge in livestock, fish and pig farming. "This Village is also demonstrative, because we want to show society that, although we come from an armed conflict, we have the capacity to move forward, to work in harmony with the environment and to do it the way the campesinos and the community do it. Not anymore as an organization in conflict with the State, but looking to find solutions through political means", complements José. Through this idea, they have received support from institutions such as SENA (the National Training Service) to train and expand their knowledge on these tasks.
On the site, there are houses built out of brick, which are not the majority, and others in bahareque and scrap metal. There is also an essential space to organize some of the houses, a kiosk and a communal kitchen. Only a few have decided to settle there. Out of the 40 who started, today only about 15 ex-combatants remain, the rest have returned to their native areas or have left in search of other opportunities.
In the future, the ex-combatants want to adapt a space to have their own warehouse within the NAR, so that locals from different villages can also find their products there and thus promote their processes to achieve greater distribution. The bet is to obtain more infrastructure to set up the necessary machinery, in addition to some already donated, for the production, processing and distribution of food, and thus be able to generate more income and jobs. One of these is through dairy products, for cheese and yogurt production.
The search for land continues. To date, they have made several proposals to the ARN (National Agency for Reincorporation) for land that fits their productive projects, but they have not received any response from the Government during these years: "We are still looking for land. What is happening is that we no longer expect the Government to provide it. We don't even go to the meetings with the ARN anymore, because there is always a lot of chatter. At the beginning they asked us to look for farms, so we did, we looked for them, we asked for papers, we took them, etc., and they told us no, that they would not give us land. And they told us that it was 'too close to town', and we wondered: what is the point of going to where they’ll kill us? What is the point of us going so far away? However, in June, "they called us from the ARN to offer us some land from the Special Assets Unit and they gave us a big list from all over the country. We selected nine from the list in the department of Valle. They asked us about the altitude, climate, extension, purpose and we sent all the information, but they haven't said anything yet," he adds.
Despite these efforts to build peace through farmer and rural work, the dynamics of terror, fear and uncertainty continue for these people during the reincorporation process, to the point of leaving no other alternatives for other ex-combatants than to return to their places of origin or look for other jobs outside the NAR or Campesino Zones. They demand immediate attention to the security issue, as the armed conflict has intensified in this region of the country. The presence of illegal armed groups in the territory, including residual armed groups, is constant. Several of the Reserve's campesino leaders and former combatants have warned of the threats they have received due to the presence of "paramilitaries" in the area.