I have never felt so welcomed in a place as I did in Turmeque over the last MCC retreat. I have been been welcomed before all over the country, from Choco to Putumayo, but that welcome always seemed to include a sense of expectation, a reserve dependent upon my actions. Here, the only expectation was that we would love this place as much as its inhabitants.
School children followed us around town, yelling, “What’s your name?” and “Sit down please,” in English to our backs, hiding their faces in their hands and collapsing into giggles every time we turned around. When we left for a hike to a nearby farm, we passed through the central plaza where community activities were proudly announced by a man with a very loud megaphone on the street corner. As we walked by, he interrupted his own play-by-play description of the day’s events to “give a big welcome to all the foreigners visiting for the weekend.”
Our host, Elizabeth, and her mother invited us to their home in the evening. As we sipped panela sweetened coffee, they gave us a tour of their three hundred year old house, the walls thick and strong. Eli’s mother showed us the ruana she had made as Eli spun fleece into wool with the flick of her wrist on a hand spindle.
At first glance, therefore, Boyaca is simply a tranquil green. Driving past fields of potatoes, and placid cows grazing in ditches is it tempting to imagine that nothing has changed over hundreds of years. Boyaca, however, is not as calm as the seas of green onions and the proud hospitality would suggest, as international trade deals and agricultural policies threaten a way of life.
I was coming back to Colombia from home leave during the agricultural strike in August of 2013, watching the country being shut down by a group of farmers on the news. As part of panel during the retreat, Roselvira described to us the backstory: how food prices plummeted and campesinos were choosing to migrate to the city rather than work the land for nothing. Faced with no other choice, local communities organized themselves and protested against free trade agreement, certified seeds and for the right to stay in the country. The protests quickly grew into a national movement and conversation that still reverberates.
In her narrative, Roselvira painted the inhabitants of Boyaca as submissive and true to their daily life; it took a great injustice to get them to leave their fields and block the highway. Yet just as the seeds for their crops are planted with anticipation, the campesinos of Boyaca have been active for decades, leading land reform movements such as the ANUC, as Emilio, the most senior of the leaders, informed us. This is, after all, the land of the Battle of Boyaca, and seeds for this current movement were sown years earlier, and continue to bear fruits of resistance.
Sitting under a canvas tent, hearing the rainfall, eating arepas and listening to community leaders is a powerful and sobering experience. Despiet, the determination with which they spoke, however, the leaders did not express great hopes for the future. They are unsure how a peace deal with benefit the Boyaca countryside and claim that current higher produce prices are more of a temporary result of global market shifts than actual changes in policy. Young people continue to leave for the cities. If agrarian problems cannot be resolved, can there be true peace?
It is stunningly ironic that the same systems of global movement that allow us to enjoy this hospitality and connection with another place, also encourage trade deals and systems that destroy ways of life. How do we find a balance?
One way to encounter a possible equilibrium is to examine the connections between the field and the table. The food we eat is already an intimate link with the campesinos of Boyaca. Chilean apples may look prettier sitting on the shelf, but the purchase of a smaller Boyacense apple ensures that local production can continue.
I am reading Naomi Klein’s climate change manifesto, This Changes Everything. Her basic thesis is that we must change our system to change the symptoms. Unbridled capitalism, manifested in global trade deals and unfettered growth, have created the problem we are in now, not only with a warming world, but a system where some people are worth more than others. Changing to a more equitable system, including our trade policies, will hopefully not only result in mitigating rising sea levels, but will also ensure a more equal world, starting with the well being of local communities.
“The struggle must be of everyone, because we are affected.” said Emilio towards the end of the discussion. The campesinos continue to work for their rights, engaging in meeting with the Ombudsman, experimenting with small scale organic farms and ways to sell produce directly to the consumer, cutting out the expensive middleman. Despite this work, the increasing impacts of climate change, coal mining in the region and multinational involvement create constant obstacles. In the end, it is not just one way of life that is damaged; the rights of all of us to live well and to make healthy food choices are implicated.
As Klein points out, now is the time to demand change. The more I travel and get to know experiences around Latin America, the more I recognize the limitless creativity of grassroots movements. I don’t have a perfect solution, but a good start is listening and drawing connections from one local reality to another, as multiple solutions emerge. Also, let’s remember to always celebrate food and those who grow it!
Before leaving, our bus made one last stop at the door of Elizabeth’s mother’s home. We filed in and received an arepa from a giant pot sitting on the counter. She had spent all morning cooking over the wood stove so that we could eat a homemade treat on our way back to Bogota. We drove off with the taste of hospitality on our tongues and the unsettling reminder that we are all connected.