The solution to the problem of rural development in Latin America depends not only on access to land, but also on the quality of food production and supply processes.
Agroecology projects have emerged in recent years as an innovative response to the need for higher-quality and more sustainable agriculture. Their aim is to make the countryside a sustainable resource and to combat a farming model that contributes to the climate crisis.
Agroecology is the implementation of the concepts and principles of ecology (the study of the balanced relationships between plants, animals, people and their ecosystems) to agricultural production systems.
In 2004, five agronomy students in Fusagasugá, two hours south of the Colombian capital, Bogotá, set out to create a peasant and environmental movement, to protect the land and strengthen local economies and food sovereignty. They founded the organisation Tierra Libre, which has become a successful model for Colombian and Latin American agroecology.
Made up of farmers, environmental leaders, and professionals from the agricultural sciences and other areas, it has been operating successfully for 15 years, with various branches.
Tierra Libre’s story – its achievements and challenges – is told here through three young women representing different aspects of the organisation.
Angie, the future
Angie Paola Espitia is 18 years old and works for the coffee farmers association and the organisation’s eco-shop, La Huerta de Tierra Libre. She was born in Fusagasugá and graduated from agricultural technical school. She is now studying electronic engineering because she knows technology is key to helping the countryside to progress.
Today, more than ever, the Colombian countryside requires a new way of managing its productive economy. Traditional farming methods, the indiscriminate use of resources and fertilisers, and the ravages of climate change are forcing farmers to be more aware of the complexities of food production processes, and to make changes to substantially improve the unsustainable way things have been done for decades.
As Angie says, it is necessary to promote concepts such as food sovereignty, and relevant information on climate, the proper use of soils, the efficient use of water and the application of environmentally friendly nutritional programmes, to help producers find solutions.
Although Colombia contributes only 0.49% of the world’s annual CO2 emissions, it is one of the countries most affected by climate change. Also, about 70% of its food comes from small farmers. Implementing new agricultural methodologies and technologies in the field is key to improving the negative impacts on crops.
“In Tierra Libre, I am starting a process of farmer leadership,” says Angie. She is the youngest leader within Tierra Libre. Her parents started an agroecological school with the organisation’s founders. She decided to continue that path and now also runs schools of bioconstruction in the countryside.
“My vision for the future has always been the same: to stay in the field. I didn’t know how to do it, but with the experience I’ve had, I’ve become convinced that we must implement a daily technological advance in the countryside. I want to live in the countryside with a new vision, in which young people feel welcome,” says Angie.
This is a key point and one of the main characteristics of the schools that Tierra Libre has founded in the region: to respond to the challenge of ensuring that young people do not leave the countryside.
Young people aged 14–18 account for some 12 million of Colombia’s population of around 50 million, according to the Centre for Research and Popular Education (CINEP). Of these, 22% are rural youth. One of the most pressing challenges facing Colombian society is keeping these young people in the countryside. The region’s large urban population results mainly from abandonment of the countryside, which has become unsustainable and a victim of industrial agribusiness and trade wars.
The future looks bleak. According to the Latin American and Caribbean Demographic Centre (Celade), in 1950 the rural population was slightly larger than the urban population. Now, it is expected that by 2050, less than 15% of people will be living in the countryside.
When young people leave the countryside, there is a shortage of productive labour, leaving only two options: abandonment or industrial exploitation, which has a negative impact on the soil and the market. Leaders like Angie and agroecological projects are key to a sustainable future – teaching a new way of understanding, encouraging the young and providing valuable activities.
“Here, women have been encouraged to take leadership roles, to love ourselves, to be strong and empowered,” Angie says. Women have become one of the structural axes of the project. The publication ‘Andares de mujeres del Sumapaz’ explains how rural women are key to the development of food sovereignty and the economy of the countryside. Women are not only farmers and entrepreneurs, but also responsible for the well-being of their family, including providing food, childcare and caring for the elderly.
Despite being the pillar that sustains peasant communities, women farmers in Colombia are able to make decisions in only 26% of the Agricultural Production Units (UPA), according to the 2013 National Agricultural Census. Another worrying fact, which shows the precariousness of women in the countryside, is that women hold titles to only 26% of the land. Empowerment processes for rural women, through schools and organisations such as Tierra Libre, are important to guarantee a more balanced and sustainable production system.
Angie is keen to continue her studies and pursue her dream of living in a fairer countryside where technology is the way forward towards real sustainability for peasant economies.
Sarita, guardian of La Huerta
Sara Daniela Martínez, known as Sarita, is an administrator who runs the eco-shop La Huerta, one of the jewels of the Tierra Libre project. She works in economy and fair trade, which are the foundations of La Huerta, and also deals with gender issues within the organisation.
Founded in 2016, La Huerta directly supports the local economy, selling only food grown by farmers in the region. Its central aim is to deepen the ties between farmers and those who receive the food they grow. Its name is a tribute to traditional peasant houses with their subsistence vegetable gardens.
At La Huerta, each process is transparent; by interacting directly with the farmers who grow the food, people can understand the cultivation cycle. Sarita says that, thanks to La Huerta, many farming families have a stable livelihood that they did not have before.
Sustainable supply chains, which provide workers at the bottom of the chain with stable jobs through fair trade, have long been promoted by organisations such as the International Labour Organisation (ILO). The importance of these chains is evident in the numbers. For example, coffee is grown in more than 70 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Around 80% of the world’s coffee is produced by 25 million farmers, mostly smallholders with less than five hectares of land.
This scenario is repeated with different crops in the region. The close proximity between producers and the market, eliminating intermediaries that do not add value but do add price, means that fair trade has become the key to the resilience of smallholder farmers.
Sarita, who trained as a zootechnician, was born in Fusagasugá. She believes the biggest obstacle facing agroecology is the government’s agricultural policies, which do not effectively protect the countryside.
Sarita’s political stance is a consequence of the actions of Colombian president Iván Duque. Instead of supporting the UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants, approved by the General Assembly in November 2018, he abstained, despite the fact that it clearly benefits the Colombian peasantry as a whole.
The Duque government wants to promote business development in the countryside without considering the farming economy and access to land. It wants to approve a bill proposing that uncultivated land can be handed over to national or foreign companies, initially for 15 years, but ultimately in perpetuity.
In Colombia, due to the historical lack of true agrarian reform, access to land for peasants has traditionally been through the adjudication of baldíos – lands still owned by the state. Today, the few remaining baldíos have been reserved for peasants without sufficient land, not for companies – what is what the government wants to change.
Handing baldíos to subjects other than these farmers should be illegal, as the Constitutional Court has pointed out in previous rulings. If the government’s business development project is approved, says Sarita, it would be a significant blow to the rights of peasants.
Kate, a natural leader
Leidy Katerine Cubillos, known as Kate, is 24 and lives in Bóchica, in Fusagasugá. She is studying environmental engineering, and has done various jobs within Tierra Libre.
She took part in the 2018 consultation on prohibiting fracking and mining in the region. This highlighted that the area is home to the Páramo de Sumapaz, the second-largest páramo on the planet – a unique and fragile high-altitude ecosystem that is also an essential water source for many nearby municipalities.
Kate has also led school projects that promote youth leadership and the defence of the territory. She is currently secretary of ASOCAM, the regional peasant association of Sumapaz province, which was created by Tierra Libre.
ASOCAM, which was founded more than 15 years ago in Fusagasugá and continues to spread throughout the region, seeks to promote food sovereignty, agroecology and a peasant economy; to have a defined plan for their land and the creation of socio-environmental movements; to provide alternative education and teaching methods; to promote peasant identity, culture and youth, and happy and sustainable lifestyles. It is an ambitious agenda that Kate has taken on with determination.
Kate also believes it is necessary to deepen the love for the land, “to promote the rootedness for what is ours and to defend it”. She says the greatest challenge for Tierra Libre is “to withstand the passage of time, to fight for and maintain its vision: a free land where the rights of the peasantry and the youth are protected, and where a dignified life is created.”
The success of Tierra Libre is unique in Colombia. Not only does it seek to improve the relationship with food production through agroecological techniques, but it has also set up peasant associations and projects that strengthen the rural-urban relationship, and encouraged young leaders who are crucial for the survival of the peasantry in the country. It has not received any government money, yet it stands firm as a viable option to the runaway mining locomotive, which has been the main engine of the Colombian economy for decades.
Agroecological processes, like the ones promoted by this exemplary project, are an essential part of the reconstruction of a local, balanced, fair and sustainable economy, which will keep young people in the region and contribute to a transformation of the countryside where the values of sustainability and food sovereignty prevail over an extractivist tradition that has wreaked havoc in the region for too long.
This article and the accompanying documentary were produced with the support of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, Bogotá Office – Colombia
Teaser photo credit: Author supplied