Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Colombia: The Seeds of Return

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Colombia: The Seeds of Return

Article excerpt

As terror and death stalk rural Colombia, preserving biodiversity is a priority for the food security of displaced communities

"I grabbed the basket we used for storing beans and maize, threw in a couple of blankets and some nappies and put one of my children in it," said a 44-year-old peasant woman. "I hoisted another child on my shoulders and tied a piece of rag to a third and kept him in front of me. I was carrying another child in my belly. We had to spend the night in the forest. I was knee deep in mud and the kids were up to their eyes in it."(1)

Similar tragic stories could be told by thousands of Colombian families who are being forced to abandon their homes because of civil war, which is mainly being fought between paramilitary forces and guerrillas. Since 1985, forced population movement has affected 1.5 million (308,000 in 1998) of the country's 38 million people. More than two-thirds of the refugees are from the countryside.

"People leave because they can no longer live off the land," said Hernan Henao, director of the Regional Studies Institute at the University of Antioquia, a few days before he was murdered on May 4 1999. "Armed groups use intimidation, threats and massacres to stop the peasants going to the villages to buy and sell." One by one, in families or in groups, people are fleeing the countryside. Many die on the road. Most end up in the poverty-stricken outskirts of the cities. Only five per cent organize themselves into new "resettlement" communities or return to their land.

As farmers leave the countryside, local food production comes to a halt. Swissaid, a Swiss non-governmental organization working with displaced communities, the Diocese of Apartado and the International Red Cross, is trying to restore this production, especially in the Uraba region, one of the hotspots of the civil war. The first priority is to guarantee food security by collecting seeds of basic foodstuffs lost during the war. The second is to re-establish family plots, which are traditionally tended by the womenfolk and where a wide variety of crop species are grown.

The Indians, guardians of biodiversity

Participants in the programme start by making an inventory of lost varieties and then go looking for them in nearby villages. If there has been a massive exodus of people, there will be no neighbours and therefore no seeds. The job then becomes harder. "In an area where everyone has left, you can lose a variety that a community has been using for centuries," says Hans Wiederkehr, Swissaid's representative in Colombia. A lot also depends on how long the population displacement lasts. "North of the River Atrato, for example, not a single one of the 47 known rice varieties identified there were left when people returned to the area a year later. This was long enough for rice, maize, bean and plant seeds to be lost, because their germination period varies between three and six months. Yucca and plantain seeds, however, can survive for about two years."

But how can people recuperate the seeds when they live in an atmosphere of flight, fear, threats and death? "What we're doing can only succeed because the communities retain a basic capacity for self-management," said Wiederkehr. "In this sense, the contribution of the Indians (who were living in the region when the Spaniards came), has been crucial because they've turned themselves into what you might call 'guardians of biodiversity'. For more than 500 years, the Indians have lived like nomads, so they're very good at organizing themselves and resisting. …

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