Small Loans, Big Impact for Colombian Farmers

Small Loans, Big Impact for Colombian Farmers

Jorge’s entire farm is visible from the ridge above it, as it falls down the steep slope and into the curving valley around a small stream. All told, Jorge cultivates about two hectares of land in a rotation of corn, rice, and two staple root crops, cassava and ñame (yam), of which he sells a part in the local market and keeps the rest to feed himself and his family. He farms all of the land by hand, using simple tools like machetes and hoes to clear brush off the steep slopes and loosen up the soil in pockets which he then plants by hand. Jorge is truly a small-scale farmer.

Everyone in the communities of Sincelejo, Colombia, is a farmer. Another source of income, such as a job working in the local school or keeping a store, is supplemental to farming. A partner organization to Mennonite Central Committee, Sembrando Semillas de Paz (“Sowing Seeds of Peace”), works to help farmers in this community build their livelihood. Because of the difficulty of the farmland and the lack of available capital to invest, many farmers are unable to build up their production and struggle each year to break even. Most farmers, including Jorge, do not own their own land, and are therefore unable to access loans. In order to help the community gain access to credit and build their food security, SembrandoPaz has begun a small-scale loan project.

Food security doesn’t only refer to the availability of food in a certain community, but also depends on the stability and resistance to risk of those food sources. If a small-scale farmer can only produce at subsistence or minor commercial levels, and can’t even produce the total amount of food that his family consumes, his sources of food are highly vulnerable to risk. With a few weeks of drought, he can lose his crops for the year or at the least suffer a decline in harvest. If a crop fails, farmers in this community often have to use tight resources to buy food at market price from other farmers. With the small loans project, SembrandoPaz hopes that farmers will be able to increase their crop production so that both expand their food sources and resistance to risk.

Alberto, or “Tinguito,” along with Jorge, is a partner in the project. His farmland is about the same size and similarly falls down a ridge into a valley cut by a small stream. Because farming these hillsides is so labor intensive, many farmers have to employ other members of the community to help them clear and plant the land, and Tinguito didn´t have the resources to hire others. He used the loan to hire other community members to clear new land and plant a hectare of rice. Tinguito proudly shows off the technique, which involves loosening up the soil with a hoe, then bending down to spread seven small grains of rice in the hole. Although handicapped from a land mine explosion that happened just six years ago, Tinguito puts as much energy into his crop as any other farmer. Every morning at 6am, he saddles his donkey and rides out to the field, often returning late in the afternoon. “If we have land, we have to plant it,” he says. “We are poor, but we are rich in land and food and we have to take advantage of that.”

SembrandoPaz shares Tinguito´s opinion. The organization believes that poverty is more complex than a lack of money. The director, Ricardo, believes that money is a tool but the ultimate source of wealth is the human being. The community has the wealth of good land, farming skills, knowledge of the land, and willingness to work hard, and a program of investment in the farmers can help them take advantage of their resources. Also, instead of charging interest, SembrandoPaz asks for a small contribution of the net profit from the crop to build up the loan fund. By contributing to the same fund that provides their loans, the community members become part of the effort, instead of simply recipients of financial resources. A lack of capital isn´t the only challenge, however. Only twelve years ago, the community found itself in the midst of the struggle for territory among the Colombian army, the main guerrilla force, and paramilitary or “self-defense” groups. Tragically, the farmers were often forced to help one group and then targeted for collaboration by the enemy group. The struggle ended in the massacre of 16 community members and the forced displacement of almost all the rest. Because they left their source of livelihood behind, many community members quickly began what they call a “voluntary labor return.” Nevertheless, they found their homes burned, livestock scattered, and cleared farmland almost consumed by brush. These losses have impacted the community in an enormous way, leaving them with sense of hopelessness and despair. Also, because the armed groups purposely divided one from another, there is a sense of distrust between members of the community.

While the loan project doesn´t begin to address all of the factors, it focuses on supporting the farmers, not only monetarily but also relationally. A SembrandoPaz worker visits the fields and checks in with the farmer about the progress of the crop several times in the growing season. SembrandoPaz has a long-term plan of accompaniment with the community, and intends to support the same farmers currently in the project over the next few years.

Misael has a long-term vision for his fields. As he sweeps his arm across the hillsides green with young cassava and rice plants, he talks about the possibilities of mechanizing more of his land to assure better production. He used his loan from SembrandoPaz to hire a tractor to plow a small piece of his land this year, which then can support a three-crop planting of cassava, corn, and ñame. Next year, he hopes to assure a larger investment, and over the long-term, would like to start up an agricultural co-operative in the town with the goal of directly marketing their products, and therefore assuring better prices. Combining resources with the vision and hard work of community members like Misael, SembrandoPaz hopes to continue to strengthen the small communities of Sincelejo in the years to come.

Written by Larisa Zehr for MCC

11/28/2012 | Comments: 0 | Add Comment