Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Food Sovereignty in Valle del Cauca

The mountains around Tulua, two hours north of Cali, were notorious for paramilitary violence until a few years ago, and many still fear returning to their farms. Paramilitaries like H.H were responsible for thousands of murders and disappearances in the area, many of whom haven't been found.

Tulua is a large regional centre with a population of around 200,000.The nearby village of La Marina has seen increased military activity recently and army helicopters overhead are a daily occurance. The FARC have retreated into the mountains stretching into neighbouring departments and the area I visited hadn't seen any clashes recently.

Three years ago some local farmers who live in one district two hours by vehicle from Tulua town, decided to form their own agricultural cooperative with the aims of supplying their food needs and increasing organic production. It has become the norm throughout Colombia for farmers to focus on one or two crops and cattle and buy produce from local markets, with obvious drawbacks. In lean periods they have to rely on the one or two crops they produce with subsequent malnutrition.

This cooperative is trying to diversify by cultivating carrots, tomatoes, peas, beans, cabbage, beetroot, radishes, yucca and lulo fruit as well as raising hens, pigs and cattle. Many also cultivate coffee. The unreliability and low value of organic cultivation in a tropical climate with frequent insect infestations, forces many to rely on chemically treated produce as well as supplement their income from working as day labourers for wealthier farmers. Organic produce doesn't sell for much more than the chemically grown equivalent so time spent weeding and planting repellents isn't profitable and works out at far less than the 15000 pesos they could earn as day labourers.

To avoid having to sell produce to intermediaries in the main markets, it is sold at the weekly farmers and organic market, which is laid on by the authorities. However, this entails selling their produce early on Saturday morning so they have to come to Tulua on Friday evening and sleep out under the market canopies.

Such small-scale farmers' initiatives are supported to a certain extent by government bodies, such as the Corporacion Autonoma Regional del Valle del Cauca, which exploit the media potential of their projects, but often fail to follow through on their promises. They have supplied greenhouses but failed to provide the suitable engine for the sugar-mill as promised. The poor state of the mountain roads vastly increases transport costs given the necessity for frequent repairs - the local authorities have repeatedly failed to make any improvements. There is also no health post in the community.

For all the government's rhetoric and glossy brochures about supporting small farmers, as the recent farming scandal shows, it is only the already wealthy landowners that benefit from its policies. The small farmer, pushed out onto mountain sides far from regional markets, is limited to ekeing out a living with the hope of the right weather and absence of infestations.

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