It has been almost 9 years since the Mennonite Brethren (MB) Church’s agriculture foundation, known in Spanish as Foundacion Agropecuaria Tejiendo Esperanza (FAGROTES), started working with farmers to grow rice and later cacao at a large scale in the municipalities of the San Juan, Chocó – Colombia.
Initially, the desire to work with farmers to grow rice was mainly linked to different ways the church thought it could be an instrument of change in the community. The MB Church occupies a highly regarded space in Chocó. And in that respect, it thought it could do more for the community it was and still is part of – especially in spreading Christ’s gospel, building peace and lasting relationships with the wider community outside its immediate congregation. And the idea to expand the production of rice, one of the main staple foods in Colombia appeared to be a more captivating, cost-effective, and practical to church leaders who saw that food insecurity was bound to threaten their rural communities in Chocó.
According to Pastor Jabez (name abbreviated), one of the pastors in MB Church and its foundation’s technical assistant to farmers – the urgency for starting the rice project was two-fold. Firstly, the reason behind boosting the production of rice was to increase food production in the San Juan region, as Chocó department was becoming more and more dependent on rice supplied from other departments in Colombia.
Economically, the production of rice was to serve as an economic alternative for socioeconomic stability for many farmers in the San Juan rural communities. Many MB leaders including Pastor Jabez, share a story of an economic success within Chocó as many people participated in the growing of coca, an illicit plant – when processed with other chemicals produces cocaine. As community members gained high economic returns as a result of growing coca, food production was on the other hand heavily affected; and food insecurity was threatening the region of Chocó – a region that was once filled with all varieties of foods including cassava (yuca), yams, maize, plantains, fruits, and vegetables – just to mention a few.
Coca production also came with life threatening violence that either killed or displaced community members in Chocó. Many members of the MB church share one or two stories related to either losing or displacement of family members as a result of the presence of illegal armed groups – who would force community members to grow coca to finance their illegal activities including narco-trafficking. Thus, the MB Church thought growing rice would be one of the interventions in trying to restore peace, food production, and preserve the livelihoods of people living in rural communities in Chocó.
The MB Church appointed leaders of its Agriculture Foundation – Fagrotes, who embarked on extending the idea of growing more rice to interested farmers,and encouraged them to continue to take advantage of the presence of wetlands and fertile soils in Chocó – which support the production of rice and other grains.The primary role of the foundation’s leaders was to provide good varieties of rice seeds to farmers who had applied to be part of its project beneficiaries. And the secondary hands-on role was to accompany interested participants throughout distinct processes of producing rice. These processes included sharing useful information on growing rice, participating in clearing the land, planting, harvesting, and to the final process of milling harvested rice. The latter started once the church got its own rice processing/milling machine in San Antonio, Chocó, where its prototype farm is located.
In 2013, Fagrotes experienced its critical set-back in accompanying rice producers – when “the Colombian government through its program of aerial eradication of illicit crops (coca) with glyphosate,” fumigated a large portion of farm lands in Chocó, “without community consultation.”
The Colombian government war on coca growing (and narco-trafficking) might have had great intentions, but it did a lot of harm especially on food production within rural communities in Choco. According to Pastor Rutilio, Director of Fagrotes, the aerial fumigation hurt many rice (and cacao)growers as their farm fields were not spared, got totally burnt by the police’s fumigation, and left many farmers wallowing in food insecurity for a significant period. As a result, this political action demoralized many farmers who were participants in Fagrotes’ rice project at a time and beyond.
Today, although Fagrotes is giving more priority to cacao production, as another economic alternative to growing the illicit plant coca, rice production is still a big part for farmers. Most farmers in the San Juan region are now independently growing rice in large quantities – with little guidance from Fagrotes.
Additionally, many farmers working with Fagrotes are currently diversifying and supplementing their food production with a wide variety of food crops to prevent food insecurity in Chocó. Meanwhile, Fagrotes’ is still continuing to take advantage of available opportunities with local Colombian organizations such as Mencoldes Foundation to grow rice.Currently, Fagrotes is set to partner with the Mencoldes Foundation to work with youths between ages 17 – 35 to grow more rice mostly as a source of income for young people in the San Juan region – primarily in rural areas including Suruco, Chiquichoqui, Paimado, La Unión, Bebedo, Dipurdu, and San Miguel.
I think this is a great example of how MCC’s partners, the MB church, is leading the transformative work in the San region of Chocó. And it is important to recognize the processes that are being undertaken by its initiatives such as Fagrotes in building peace and reconciling victimized communities using food production.