The social ministry of the Mennonite Brethren Church (MB) that Seed and MCC partner with in Chocó supports many different projects. One of these, an agricultural project, works with small farmers in the San Juan River region. This project is in the process of becoming a foundation that aims to develop into a self-sustaining cooperative that assists small farmers and promotes the MB Church. In San Antonio, a small community just outside of the municipality of Istmina, the foundation FAGROTES (Fundación Agropecuaria Tejiendo Esperanza or Agricultural Foundation Weaving Hope), owns a farm which functions as a base for many of its program initiatives. In large part, these initiatives seek to support rice farmers and provide incentive for other farmers to grow cacao instead of illegal coca. Additionally, FAGROTES raises and sells fish and pigs that compliment and provide income for its bigger initiatives.
Behind the rice mill in San Antonio, the foundation has a nursery where they plant and grow thousands of young cacao seedlings. When they are three months old they can be delivered to be replanted.
Here is a picture of a typical rural farm. Each farmer plants hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of young cacao seedlings. They place a small stick next to each tree so that they are not chopped down accidently during the farm clearings.
Cacao trees are tricky to grow. They are susceptible to many pests, require steady, warm temperatures, and plenty of shade. Many farmers will grow the fast growing banana or plantain tree next to the young seedling to provide shade as it grows. It takes about two years for cacao trees to begin producing fruit. The most mature trees in this project are just reaching one year old. However, some farmers already have been growing cacao in Chocó as evidenced by this two-year-old tree.
Part of the work the foundation does is visit each farm that grows cacao, offer advice and to monitor the crops. Here, Jabes, director of the cacao project, and Anibal, one of the field coaches, talk to Manuel about pruning and cleaning his cacao trees.
Sometimes getting to the farm is the hardest part. Due to the complete lack of roads, visiting is done by boat and then on foot. Boating along the rivers is generally beautiful. However, due to centuries of mining, most recently at the hands of large multinational corporations, many areas of the riverbank have been turned from thick jungle into mountains of stone.
Usually, these mountains of stone are accompanied by a dredge. These large floating hotels and work sites turn over and separate tons of stone each day looking for gold. While these large companies offer short term jobs to many unemployed men, they are contaminating one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world.
Many farms we visit are off the main river, requiring us to navigate shallow, narrow creeks. Due to hidden logs and thick vegetation floating or growing right underneath the surface, the boat motor is hauled aboard and we make our way up the creek the old fashioned way: paddling.
Usually during these visits we stay overnight in nearby towns. Those further downriver, like the town of Bebedó pictured here, do not have electricity yet.
We always wake up early to visit the farms. This can be difficult for those that love to sleep in, but early mornings make for beautiful scenes of fog burning off the rivers as the sun comes up.
The second initiative includes supporting local rice farmers. The farm in San Antonio bought a rice processing machine in 2009. This accessible processing plant gives farmers a place to sell and process their rice locally.
Many farmers do not have space to dry their rice before it is processed. In between the rice mill and cacao nursery at the San Antonio farm, there is a greenhouse where rice is spread out to dry before being processed.
Here is a picture of bags of wet rice waiting for drying space on the floor.
Jabes, Eliecer (a local teacher), and Anibal catch ‘Mojarra’ in one of the ponds in San Antonio. The fish are gutted, cleaned, and sold to local communities.
Like the fish project, pigs are being raised to sell locally and will support other regionally focused initiatives. The bulk of the pigs’ diet is the outer shell from the rice that is removed during the processing. Using the husk which would otherwise be wasted is a great example of self-sustainability.