No highways connect Bebedó, Colombia, a small town on the shore of the San Juan river, to nearby communities.
The 672 residents come and go only by boat. They don’t have electricity or any paved roads.
What they do have is three police stations. Officers often survey the riverbank, dressed in dark green, the yellow, blue and red of the Colombian flag on their uniforms visible from passing boats.
Residents live in what some call a “red zone,” land on the border between areas controlled by the government and those controlled by illegal armed groups.
Since armed groups arrived in the Chocó region in the late 1980s, the isolated area has been known for growing coca, the plant used to produce cocaine.
Before, farmers relied on crops such as yucca, plantain and sugar cane. Small mining operations — time- and labor-intensive work that brings little reward — helped families make ends meet. Today, with low returns on crops and small-scale mining pushed aside by larger companies, families have few options.
Growing coca, a tree that requires relatively little maintenance, gave struggling farmers an income unmatched by any other work in the region.
Rural Colombians do know that coca is illegal but that's more abstract in the face of hunger."
Farmers themselves are so far removed from the process of making cocaine that they’ve likely never seen the drug in its final form, says Bonnie Klassen, director for MCC’s work in South America and Mexico. They have little opportunity to know of cocaine’s effect in the U.S. and other countries — and, in the midst of their own need, little chance to reflect on that devastation.
“Rural Colombian farmers do know that coca is illegal, but that’s more abstract in the face of hunger,” Klassen says.
The cost that’s most apparent is one close to home. With coca comes an increase in guns and violence. In Chocó, multiple armed groups fight each other over coca production.
Government efforts to eradicate coca put farmers at risk of losing their entire crops, whether legal or not, at any time, and confrontations between the government and armed groups are always a threat.
By 2012, Ramon Casildo Mosquera Murillo, like some other farmers in the region, began feeling the risks of coca were too high. But without the added income, Murillo would need new ways to support his three children and aging parents.
The MCC-supported Cacao not Coca project, run by the agricultural program of the Mennonite Brethren Church in Chocó, provided a way out.
Murillo attended a training session on how to grow cacao.Then the church’s agricultural project gave him 1,900 cacao seedlings in the hope that after two years they will bear fruit that can be harvested and processed into chocolate.
Since 2009, MCC has supported the efforts of the Mennonite Brethren Church in Chocó to help farmers support themselves without raising coca.
A first step was building a rice mill and distributing rice seeds. The church also committed to buying the rice after harvest as incentive for farmers to plant a crop many had abandoned when mills in the area broke or they couldn’t find buyers.
From 2012 through 2015, MCC, through its account with the Foods Resource Bank, is providing $172,400 to help support the project’s efforts to promote cacao, which can provide farmers twice as much income per harvest as other food crops.
A cacao nursery was built next to the rice mill. Last March, the project began training farmers and handing out plants. By October, some 110,000 cacao plants had been given out to 140 families.
Helping families increase their income and live with dignity is part of the mission of the Mennonite Brethren Church in Chocó, says Jesus Alfredo Benitez Palacios, who manages the agriculture program.
“We’re not only called to preach the word but also to find alternatives and help people who are marginalized or people who are poor or in need,” he says.
For Jose Rutilio Rivas Dominguez, president of the regional council for the Mennonite Brethren Church in Chocó, this is part of the church’s call to peace. “We believe that peace isn’t just an absence of war, but that peace means having adequate life conditions for people,” he says. “So if we can help people live better then we’re building peace.”
The work is not without challenges.
It took months to get electrical lines to the rice mill approved. Farmers have had planting stalled by two major floods in the past three years.
At one point messengers from an armed group came to ask for money from the project. Rivas Dominguez, in a response almost unheard of in this region, talked to the group’s commander, explaining that, as Christians committed to nonviolent peacemaking, the church would rather close the project than contribute to armed conflict. The commander later called back, saying the group would respect the church’s position.
The most devastating blow came last spring, when nearly 70 percent of the project’s rice crops were wiped out by fumigations that were part of an anti-drug program of the Colombian and U.S. governments. While the fumigations were intended to eradicate illicit crops, in some cases fields without any coca were destroyed, leaving farmers to start over.
The fumigations also had a significant impact on the cacao effort, not only destroying some of the new plants but also making farmers hesitant to devote time and resources to a crop that takes two years to produce and could be destroyed at any time. Project leaders who had initially hoped to reach 240 families re-evaluated the project, deciding instead to devote more training and support to the 140 families already growing cacao.
Despite the setbacks, Rivas Dominguez says the church remains committed to the agricultural project. “I believe that our community’s dreams are more important than the difficulties we may face and that we have the right to live differently, to have a better life,” he says.
Seeing farmers who’ve had success with the project also is encouraging.
Nubia Maria Valencia Rivas and her husband Genaro Jabe Hinestroza finished their first rice harvest with the agricultural program in August. Though Valencia Rivas grew up farming rice with her family in Paimadó, just upriver from Bebedó, they stopped cultivating it 12 years ago when the local rice mill broke and they had difficulty finding buyers.
It was challenging to make a profit growing only crops like plantain and yucca, so they turned to coca to support themselves and their children. In early 2013, however, they decided the risk of fumigations was too high. When a friend told them about the church’s agricultural program, it was the option they needed.
Valencia Rivas says growing rice with the project is an improvement on the past because of the church’s mill and commitment to buy the product, which it sells back to community members for a small profit. “Here there’s a lot we can do and grow, but if we can’t sell it then we’re just left with it. So that’s the main thing for us, having the guarantee that we can sell it,” she says.
In May, the couple decided to add cacao. They had tried planting a few cacao seedlings in the past, but they hadn’t been trained in techniques such as using natural fertilizer. Now they use the waste from rice plants to provide extra nutrients for the cacao. Because they cultivate both crops on the same land, the cacao will increase their income without much added labor.
This is what Rivas Dominguez would like to see happen throughout the Chocó region.
“We want to see people living differently,” Rivas Dominguez says, “to see agriculture being strong here in this region, big rice crops or cacao crops, and know that people have the income they deserve and that they are able to live better lives with dignity.”
Want to read more? Explore a pastor's account of his life in this rural area, his call to ministry and the challenges he sees in his community.