Seeds of hope in fields of war

Amid the chaos of their lives, Colombia's poor find a way to survive and to generate a bit of hope, if not for themselves, then for their children

Rosalba Gomez (right) credits the women's cooperative "Merquemos Juntos," or "Let's Shop Together," with sending her son to college, saving him from a possible life as a guerrilla  

BARRANCABERMEJA, Colombia (CNN) -- Rosalba Gomez would never have believed that a visit to the market with only 500 pesos (25 cents) could spare her son from a life with the guerrillas.

Years later, with her son enrolled in a university, while all his former friends have enlisted with rebels or criminal gangs, she feels she never made a smarter investment.

"I sent my son to Bucaramanga [a city 100 kilometers (60 miles) away] when he was 13 and now I thank God," Gomez said.

Thanks to a scholarship fund, she has been able to put two of her children through college. She hopes to send her third to university when he finishes high school.

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The auspicious shopping trip that changed her life came in 1993. It was a modest attempt by nine women to find food for their families in one of Colombia's most-violent cities.

Unemployed and desperately poor, Gomez and the others had few options.

They lived in a run-down "commune" northeast of Colombia's oil center, Barrancabermeja, in an area controlled by the country's second-largest guerrilla organization, the National Liberation Army, or ELN.

Forced to follow the whims of gun-toting guerrilla militiamen who did not hesitate to kill anyone they suspected of collaborating with the police, army or right-wing paramilitary groups, the women felt trapped in their own homes.

When they ventured outside their neighborhood, crossed the railroad tracks and entered government-ruled Barrancabermeja, they were treated as pariahs.

"The government sees us all as guerrillas. All doors in the city are closed to us," said Guillermina Hernandez, one of the nine.

"If you go to asking for a job at any business, if you are from the northeast, you don't get work. This has a terrible effect on the community, because if we don't have a job, we don't have food, we can't have an education, we don't achieve anything without a job."

Guillermina Hernandez (center) is one of nine women who began the cooperative by pooling their grocery money. The co-op now runs a store, a scholarship fund, a trust fund and other programs.  

'Let's Shop Together'

Seeking to surmount their dire circumstances, Hernandez, Gomez and seven other women pooled what little grocery money they had. They hoped that, as a group, they could buy more. Each pitched in 500 pesos, and together they went to the market.

It paid off.

Not only did each woman receive enough to feed her family, but also the women had some left over. The women resold the surplus to pay for other daily needs, and began again.

The women then sought help from a local priest, obtaining a loan to help them buy foodstuffs. More families joined and before long a humanitarian aid organization offered to help them.

Today, there are 44 families in the program, called "Merquemos Juntos," or "Let's Shop Together."

"All of the 44 families didn't know each other from before," said Hernandez. "We weren't friends. If we ran into each other, we were distant: You are there, I am here. Now when we meet, we feel like one family of 44 families."

The members of Merquemos Juntos teach job skills such as sewing to help unemployed women earn money  

"Merquemos Juntos" now goes far beyond shopping.

Members staff a cooperative store on the grounds of a church in their neighborhood. They teach -- and some learn -- basic job skills, such as sewing, to give unemployed women a source of income. But most importantly, Hernandez said, they have established a trust fund for area children to go to school in other cities.

The communes, where armed groups often pressure young people to join their ranks, is a dangerous place for children to grow up.

"The economic situation that we are living in makes this a reality," said Angel Miguel Solana, a community leader. "There are many children who leave to go pick coca [the plant from which cocaine is made]. That is no secret. They go to the paramilitary groups or they go to the guerrillas. There are few kids who have the guidance of their parents."

So far, "Merquemos Juntos" has managed to send nine children to high school and 13 teens to university.

And Hernandez hopes to expand the project even further.

"My dream for the future is to be able to have in this area a cooperative for credit, for savings. We don't know what we will name it, but it should be where the people have access to it, where someone won't tell them that because they live here, their house has no value, and they can't get a loan," she said.

"From the top of the bridge [the dividing point between the communes and the city], everything here is [seen as] worthless. For those of us who live here, if we don't do something for ourselves, nobody will."

Lino Bohorquez started as a farm laborer. Now thanks to a program called Project Hope he owns a small plot of land where he grows palms.  

Getting a piece of the action

An hour's boat ride down the Magdalena River from Barrancabermeja, outside the town of Puerto Wilches, 50 families are pinning their hope of escaping Colombia's civil war on a field of young palm trees.

Like the residents of Barrancabermeja's communes, Lino Bohorquez used to feel trapped in a cycle of violence and poverty.

He grew up a campesino, a laborer who worked on any farm that would hire him. He had no land and little money. Around him, other peasants suffering in similar conditions were joining guerrilla groups or paramilitary forces.

"In some sectors of the society, those without employment, without work, sometimes they have to join armed groups to earn a salary, to be able to survive," Bohorquez said.

He was not interested in taking up arms, but he knew of no opportunity to make a better living. He certainly did not believe he could grow a future from the seeds of African palms.

"Before, we thought it was a business for the rich, for the big [businessmen], not for the little [ones]," said Bohorquez.

"It was a program only for those who had money," agreed Salvador Acosta, a peasant who for years struggled to survive by growing yucca and plantains. "The [landowners] wouldn't give us the opportunity to have such a business, so we could do better. Simply, if you had money you could grow palm. They never gave us the chance to do something like that."

For decades, African palms have thrived in Puerto Wilches. The choice crop of landowners looking to cash in on palm oil, the trees grew along the river in thick forests covering thousands of acres.

The owners, however, refused to live anywhere near their plantations. After several landowners were kidnapped by ELN guerrillas, most fled to Bogota, Cali or Medellin. From a distance, they lived off their palm profits, leaving their fields in the hands of contracted managers.

Peasant leaders, allegedly under the influence of the ELN, complained they were overworked and underpaid and demanded higher salaries. The landowners refused. When the peasants threatened the strike, the owners threatened to shut down the plantations. Neither side seemed ready to give in.

A respected Catholic priest from Barrancabermeja, Francisco de Roux, stepped in with a compromise. He proposed that the owners give the peasants a small piece of the business by letting them plant African palms on small plots of their land. He also asked the owners to end a monopoly of the nearby palm oil processing plant and share the facilities with the peasants.

A year after Project Hope began the first palm saplings are ready to be planted  

The landowners agreed, and the campesinos returned to work.

A year later, the first saplings are ready to be planted. Bohorquez is anxious to get started with his 10-hectare (25-acre) plot. He firmly believes the program, now named "Project Hope," will soon expand tenfold, eventually including 500 families and 2,500 hectares (6,250 acres) of farmland. He hopes that one day they can build their own processing plant.

"I believe that at least, at my age, that I'm going to be able to have a retirement with this program. For my children, they are going to have a place to work. They are going to have an income. And maybe it will be possible through this program that they will be able to start studying at the university. It's possible."

Come back to this section of our Colombia site for future reports by Steve Nettleton.

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