By Dan Siebert, Saskatchewan farmer and member of MB Church at Main Centre
and David Esau, pastor of Eagle Ridge Bible Fellowship (MB) in BC
This morning we left Istmina by boat, heading through the jungle on the San Juan River to a place where the Mennonite Brethren churches have partnered with MCC in an exciting agricultural and community development venture.
What you need to know is that it’s virtually impossible to make a living as an honest campesino (small-scale, subsistence farmer) in Chocó. While years ago growing coca (for cocaine) was localized to mainly one area in Colombia that is no longer the case.
When the Colombian and USA governments decided to take care of the problem with aerial spraying, coca growing spread throughout the country, especially to the isolated jungle areas of Chocó where a number of our MB churches are located.
Honest farmers in the church suddenly found themselves unable to survive due to the soaring cost of living; those growing coca inflated the cost of most goods because they had extra money and because growing food crops went down.
Your basic options: grow fruit that sells for $0.35/kg or coca that sells for $1000.00/kg.
What’s an honest farmer to do?
Enter project “Weaving Hope”.
As we climb out of the boat and onto the 3.5 hectare parcel of land, the first thing we see is a rice processing plant built on the tailings of a spent gold mine. It looks more like a field of gravel than a field of dreams.
But on this plot of land the MB churches and MCC are weaving hope of a value added agricultural project. By processing the rice for market themselves, the local farmers are able to sell directly to consumers.
This project, however, almost didn’t happen. There were numerous obstacles along the way such as buying the land, getting power to the facility, and inspection approval.
But the biggest hurdle along the way was the local para-military group demanding money for protection – a security payment. Known as a “vaccine”, every Colombian knows this is code language for “give us a significant cut.”
After much prayer, the key church leaders went to meet with the para-military commander. They underlined that this project was owned and operated by and for the community. As leaders of MB churches they repeatedly emphasized how they could not and would not support any armed group, period.
Pastor Rutilio said “Mennonite churches have been committed to nonviolence and peace-building for centuries. We will not support any armed groups, not even the State Armed Forces.… We will not support you, even if it costs us our lives.”
After tense negotiations broke off, the pastors prayed yet again. 15 minutes later they received a call from “the boss” that they and the community were free to proceed with their project. “Thanks be to God!”
In addition to the rice processing plant, we toured their small fish farm and their growing nursery of cacao trees (for coco/chocolate) that will be transplanted on farms in local communities.
With 80% of the beneficiaries being outside of the church, the MB churches and MCC are weaving hope for honest farmers in the Chocó.