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Jesus Alfredo Benitez harvests corn. Shalom Wiebe

Jesus Alfredo Benitez harvests corn. Shalom Wiebe

Food not coca

Shalom Wiebe and Cathryn Clinton
February 3, 2009

AKRON, Pa. – Mennonite Brethren churches in the Choco region of Colombia provide alternative agricultural projects for families in the "Food not Coca" program. The program, funded by Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), supports the efforts of more than 100 families.

Coca cultivation has changed the economy by inflating local prices. Traditional crop prices don't sustain farmer's families. Coca, when processed illegally, produces cocaine which is a sure income. "There is definitely a temptation to grow coca, especially in rural communities," explains Manuel Mosquera, pastor of the Istmina Mennonite Brethren Church and coordinator of "Food not Coca."

"Our vision is to improve the living standards of the participants, to help them keep farming food crops and keep them from getting involved in the production of coca," says Mosquera.

MCC supports the Food not Coca project with funds from Foods Resource Bank (FRB), an ecumenical organization that supports international agricultural projects through MCC and other Christian organizations. FRB is funded by contributions from U.S. farmers and their churches and communities. More information is available online at foodsresourcebank.org.

The first participants in the Food not Coca project were church members from the 14 communities where Mennonite Brethren churches are located. Community participants were added in the second year. Pastors selected all the participants based on need. The projects matched the farmer's experience.

The project provides materials rather than money. For those with crops, fertilizer and labor for maintenance are offered. For others, seed or animals such as piglets, chicks or fry for fish ponds are provided.

"The support made a big difference for my farm. Without maintenance it would be a jungle," said farmer Jesus Alfredo Benitez. Fertilizing non-productive plants back into production meant that Benitez was able to sell his guava, corn and plantain in the town of Istmina.

Four church communities, Boca de Suruco, Basurú, Paitó and Pie de Pepe formed cooperatives involving all the families in each congregation. They raise pigs, chickens and yucca.

The Pie de Pepe cooperative is located in an active conflict zone. Unemployment is a problem as many can't work in their fields because of the presence of illegal armed groups.

"The chicken project has been a great blessing," says Aurelina Borga, pastor of the Pie de Pepe Mennonite Brethren church. "We are the only people in town who are in the chicken business, and we have been able to sell a lot of chickens."

Education on sustainable practices is also an essential element of the project. Mosquera encourages a focus on maintaining healthy soil and a quality product.

Few are living off proceeds from the project, but Mosquera is encouraged. "Production is still not enough to enjoy the benefits," notes Mosquera, "but they are learning how to work together, how to share responsibilities."

He plans to encourage people living in towns to begin small gardens in their own yards. "It will involve more education," says Mosquera. "Even if they aren't able to earn money by selling what their gardens produce, they can save money and use it on something else."

Mosquera has many new ideas for the region. "An integral part of our identity as Anabaptists is service, and that is why we see this kind of community project as part of our mission as a church."