Fighting between guerillas, the drugs mafia, paramilitary associations and the military is still widespread in many parts of the country and spills over into the neighbouring countries of Panama, Venezuela and especially Ecuador, which are used as training grounds and safe havens for both guerillas and paramilitary forces. The number of displaced persons in Colombia has risen continually in recent years. According to estimates by the UNHCR, there are currently around 3 million displaced persons within Colombia, and 20,000 Colombians are living as refugees in Ecuador. 40 per cent of internal displaced persons and refugees are children. Illegal armed groups are increasingly recruiting children as mercenaries.
DVV International has been collaborating in Colombia with providers of adult education longer than in any other country of Latin America. The climate of uncertainty and violence in which our partners develop their activities implies a special responsibility toward the focus groups that they serve. Their work requires a high degree of foresight in planning and circumspection in the implementation. Their projects concentrate primarily on the promotion of sustainable agriculture, the organization of small farmers in crisis areas, the empowerment of women, and work with indigenous communities to increase their participation in political and social processes.
The largest of the DVV International partners in Colombia is the Fundación para el Desarrollo Rural Integral Comunitario “Alternativa Comunitaria” – Centro de Investigaciones y Servicios Comunitarios (CISEC), whose projects have come to be known as “islands of peace”. CISEC’s main area of operation is the department of Cauca, where guerrilla and military forces as well as the drug mafia and paramilitary groups are particularly active. Ecological farming is the chief focus of the foundation’s work. Through years of experience and research, CISEC has developed and tested an ecologically compatible concept of agriculture specifically designed to the needs of the region, and has succeeded in convincing growing numbers of farmers of the advantages of sustainable farming methods. In addition, it conducts projects to rehabilitate farm land, restore woodlands, and promote ecological livestock raising methods. The foundation has built up the Juán Tama School Centre, an important institution for the region’s indigenous, black and mulatto minority groups, where youth are provided with opportunities to learn new farming techniques and handicrafts that they, in turn, can teach their families and put into practice at home. Extension workers from the centre visit the farms to accompany the process. The Juán Tama Centre has come to be considered a model for attempts to provide multi-cultural learning in an environment of normality even in regions plagued by crisis. Last year the school and even the foundation itself were the target of a number of guerrilla assaults, but through skillful negotiations, the director of CISEC has achieved an understanding that the premises of the foundation are to be respected as neutral ground.
Another Colombian organization which specializes in the improvement and propagation of ecological farming techniques is the Asociación para el Desarrollo Campesino (ADC), an organization based in the Department of Nariño not far from the Ecuadorian border. ADC seeks to promote the sustainable management of ecosystems. Under the guidance of ADC, peasant farmers around Lake La Cocha have successfully applied ecologically sound strategies of natural resource management to convert their land into outstanding examples of nature reserves. Another aspect of the work of ADC involves the organization of rural cooperatives with special emphasis on the involvement of women. DVV International supports ADC’s ongoing training efforts for small farmers in a variety of areas such as marketing, or the operation of computers which are becoming increasingly common in the management of cooperatives. Within the framework of a programme entitled “Disoñadores del Futuro”, ADC works together with a number of Colombian universities to conduct national conferences on eco-agriculture and strategic solutions for conserving natural habitats while producing food on the same land. In close cooperation with the Colombian ecology movement, the association is helping to set up a network of nature reserves based on the principles of sustainable agriculture. As the region around Lake La Cocha is also a strategic zone for both the drug mafia and guerrilla groups, access to some areas has become highly restricted and extremely dangerous. Peasant farmers are often coerced into growing coca. A number of farmers with whom ADC had been working for many years have lost their lives during armed conflicts.
An important objective in our cooperation with various Colombian partners is to help women assume an active role in social processes. One organization which receives assistance from the DVV International to this end is the Fundación Prodesarrollo del Occidente de la Sabana (PRODEOCSA). PRODEOCSA conducts operations in Madrid and a number of other smaller communities in the western part of Bogotá where the cultivation of flowers is the chief industry. The foundation organizes opportunities for women employed in that sector to finish their formal schooling in evening courses. It conducts seminars around environmental themes, trains child-care workers and helps to set up and oversee neighbourhood child-care centres. It helps women to organize and run businesses like bakeries for example.
We have been working with the Corporación Esfera Azul (CEA) since the start of 2007. This NGO also works in Cauca like CISEC, and there is close cooperation between the two institutions. Besides running ecological agriculture schemes and nature protection activities, the aim is to train the groups and individuals taking part in the economics of solidarity, environmental protection, organization, participation and social control.