Simon Eliecer Valencia Moreno is a farmer who lives with his wife in Paimadó, a rural community here in the Chocó region of Colombia where I’m accompanying the Mennonite Brethren church in my role as a Seeder. Like many rural communities in the region, Paimadó is only accessible by river, and Simon, like other farmers, has faced many challenges.
In the rural communities of Chocó, there are few possibilities for economic advancement, and farming has been complicated by the presence of armed groups, pressure to grow illicit crops, and fumigations that harmed the environment, ruined legitimate food crops, and damaged human health. Informal mechanized mining has also caused a lot of environmental degradation within the region.
In response to this challenging situation, Fagrotes, which stands for Weaving Hope Agricultural Foundation, an organization founded by the local Mennonite Brethren church, began a cacao-farming project four years ago. (Cacao is used to make chocolate). With the support of Fagrotes, Simon and other farmers in the region have begun cultivating cacao.
By promoting cacao production, the foundation hopes to generate opportunities for employment and increased income. This provides farmers with an economically viable alternative to growing illicit crops “in order that the inhabitants [of rural communities] can have a better quality of life,” according to Jesus Alfredo Benitez, a local pastor in the Mennonite Brethren church who works with the agricultural foundation.
Like other local farmers, Simon planted his five-acre cacao farm three years ago with two thousand seedlings provided by Fagrotes. He had previous experience farming borojó, a local fruit used primarily as a juice, and continues to maintain a borojó farm, but had no previous experience with growing cacao.
“Before, we didn’t know anything about [cacao production], but now we have the knowledge by means of the foundation and the training they gave us,” stated Simon.
In addition to caring for his own cacao farm with his wife, Simon had the opportunity to work as a local assistant with the foundation and monitor and support other local cacao farmers. “I visit other cacao farms, and I record what’s good and what’s lacking. With what I know [about cacao farming], I advise the other farmers, and I invite them to visit my farm as well,” he noted.
Cacao is a crop that requires at least two years of care to begin producing fruit and up to five years to reach its maximum production. Simon’s farm had previously produced around 50 kg of cacao, which he was able to sell back to the foundation for a fair price. And, with the hard work that he and his wife have invested in their farm, it had its first significant production of fruit this season. “I feel satisfied with the foundation,” he said. “[My wife and I] are grateful, and I know that others are grateful too.”
While farmers continue to face many challenges, the foundation hopes to “weave hope” through cacao farming and its capacity to provide an economic alternative for local farmers in Chocó. As Jesus Alfredo Benitez noted, “The response of the community has been very accepting of the project,” and, “the communities see the foundation favorably.”
The foundation has built trust with local communities by continuing to accompany cacao farmers and providing support in response specific needs, such as that of farmers, including Simon himself, who recently experienced crop loss due to significant flooding in the region.
Since the cacao project began, Jesus Alfredo also noted a change in government action from aerial fumigations to the manual eradication of illicit crops. This is due at least in part to the foundation and other entities speaking out nationally and internationally about the harm caused by fumigations.
“I love the work that the foundation is doing, and I believe I can continue forward by cultivating cacao,” expressed Simon.