From the Worldwide Faith News archives

[PCUSANEWS] Cultivating a future for Colombian villagers

Date Thu, 26 Feb 2004 07:58:06 -0600

Note #8142 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:

Cultivating a future for Colombian villagers
February 25, 2004

Cultivating a future for Colombian villagers

Tiny 'farm' may be the beginning of the end of the lean years

by Alexa Smith

PITAL, Colombia - Sidney de la Sala leans back in his chair as he talks,
often staring up at the whirling ceiling fans as if to pluck his words from
the air.

	"When we diagnosed the needs of the community ... they are
socio-economic," he says. "There are no resources here for people to earn
money; they don't exist."

	Looking at the fan, he continues: "So, we asked ourselves, 'What can
we do with the resources that are here? What is here is the ground; so, what
can we possibly do with this?'"

	De la Sala, a teacher, works in metropolitan Barranquilla, 30 minutes
by car and a world away from this little village.

	His chair is in a corner of the God Is Love Presbyterian Church, a
peach-colored sanctuary on one of Pital's main drags. Out back is a
bathtub-sized cement pool where rainwater is collected in the months when it
does rain. (Pital has running water for only one hour each morning.) Just
over the concrete-block fence is a neighbor's tangled garden, where vines
weave themselves along poles and trellises, separated by winding dirt paths.

	Across from de la Sala sits 65-year-old Hilda San Juan, her gray hair
pulled back in a tidy bun. Next to her is Augusta Villanueva, a lean and
sturdy younger woman whose hand moves occasionally to her chin as she listens
to the conversation. Also present for this sunset meeting is Dianna Socarras,
the youngest of the church's elders.

	This is the steering committee for Seeds of Hope - a church-planting
project that has its members, neighbors and schoolkids literally planting, on
a swatch of land not far from town. Corn and yucca. Tomatoes and peppers.
Beans and chilies. Onions and lettuce. During the rainy season, these crops
grow from seeds collected from members' plots and kitchen gardens.

	They decided to use the ground to feed the community. They have even
put a few men to work, weeding and plowing to pick up a few extra bucks.

	The committee is here to hear an agronomist talk about how to create
a self-sustaining farm. He suggests raising fruit on one portion; bees and
honey on another; goats, for milk, on another - maybe even fish. They're here
to learn and to see whether what he says will be useful for Seeds of Hope.

	"The goal is to improve the lives of the people in this community,"
says de la Sala. "If we plant the land, the people can have food more
cheaply. We want to have a market to sell ... here, and in other towns, too."

	All in good time. Right now the church is working a tiny piece of
land they have on loan. They're starting small but dreaming big - hoping to
someday buy a substantial tract and farm it organically, to feed and employ
some of the more than 60 percent of Pital residents who don't have work or
any prospect of it.

	Chronic unemployment has created other woes, most of them the
predictable consequences of  poverty, de la Sala says, especially among the
kids, like those wrestling and laughing on the church's wide porch. There is
no money to buy healthy food, so they suffer from malnutrition. You can see
the signs of it. Malnutrition. Protruding ribs. Bad color. Inability to
concentrate. Recurrent illnesses. One thing leads to another.

	Pital is on Colombia's northern coast, where for five months of the
year there is no rain at all. There is no way to water the fields when the
sky stays dry.

	To a casual observer, Pital seems downright quaint, almost Mayberry,
Colombia-style. Neighbors with little else to do sit on their porches
talking. The centerpiece of the town is the Catholic church, which is
encircled by a dusty park with swings for the kids. Little shops painted in
brilliant greens, reds and blues line the main thoroughfare. Children play
unattended; in a town of 4,200 people, many of them kin, everyone knows where
every kid belongs. In the evenings, cows plod along the paved streets,
walking home from grazing.

	The town itself is completely surrounded by other people's property.

	It wasn't always this way. San Juan remembers when the land was owned
and farmed by people who lived here. But that generation died out and the
land was sold off, cheap. But there was nothing to take the place of
agriculture. San Juan says her husband plants a few rented plots, having sold
his 30 acres years ago, for a pair of shoes that to his dismay didn't even

	"I always remember that, and I want to cry," San Juan says as her
neighbors smile sympathetically and roll their eyes. This clearly is a story
they have heard many times before. "When I was a kid here," San Juan says,
"we didn't have many things. But we lived OK. We weren't worried about having
what we needed."

	Villanueva's memory doesn't go back that far. But she remembers
hearing from her parents that life here wasn't always so poor. "My parents
told me there was a good life here, when they could plant a lot of things,"
she says. "I can't remember that; my parents just told me."

	Outsiders came in and bought up the land, at bargain prices, from
people who desperately needed money to survive.

	That was the state of things a few years back when the Rev. Gloria
Ulloa, 44, herself a farmer's daughter, arrived. She now lives in
Barranquilla and works in Pital about five days a week. Her wish is that the
people's basic needs could be met.

	Ulloa has a three-step approach to the study of the Gospels:
understand the context; comprehend what the scripture actually says; and
apply what it says in your context, giving the words flesh. In Pital, she
says, that means growing food to feed people and give them purpose.

	That's a mundane task, but it has theological meaning: Working with
the earth means understanding the responsibility God has placed in human
hands to care for the planet and its people, Ulloa says; the theological and
the practical are entwined.

	The people of Pital are slowly recovering an identity that they lost.

	"People are planting the ground again," Ulloa says, sitting in a tiny
sanctuary whose chancel was repainted recently with images of farmers, tools
and crops.

	Asked whether Seeds of Hope is energizing people, Ulloa nods and
smiles. De la Sala grins. But it is San Juan, a mother of nine grown kids,
who speaks: "I think that life comes to the people when there is a plan, when
they know what they have to do and are able to do it."

	Ulloa says few of the people of Pital could afford to buy property,
but a community can do what an individual cannot. She is keeping her eyes
open for "for sale" signs.

	The synod council of the Presbyterian Church of Colombia (PCC) is
deciding whether this project is successful enough to warrant the purchase of
more land.

	When PC(USA) Moderator Susan Andrews visited Colombia last month, one
of the gifts she received from the PCC was a communion cup carved by hand
from a gourd grown in Pital, filled with fresh fruit and vegetables grown in
the soil of Pital.

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