Last year, Ithaca resident Grace Ritter traveled to Colombia with the human rights group Witness for Peace to visit the small farming village of Cajibio, situated in the Andes Mountains of southwestern Colombia. Ritter recalls that a sense of natural splendor belied the reality of life in a country ravaged by 40 years of civil war. “It’s really beautiful. There are huge mountains and very lush greenery. It’s sort of hard to tell that there’s actually a war going on there. When things happen, they happen quickly and quietly, and go back under again.”
Colombia’s recent history has been marred by constant conflict between government and rebel guerilla forces, as well as the presence of a large trade in illicit drugs.
Ritter’s visit to the troubled country last March set the stage for the Sister Communities Project, a newly formed agreement between Cajibio and several U.S. cities for delivering humanitarian aid and publicizing human rights abuses in the Cajibio area. The project was first formulated in meetings between Witness for Peace and the Cajibio Small Farmer’s Movement, and later taken up by the Committee on U.S. Latin American Relations (CUSLAR) at Cornell, as well as groups and individuals in Ithaca, Cortland and Syracuse.
Under the Sister Communities plan, CUSLAR hopes to raise funding to purchase plots of land from government owners, at the cost of $45 per plot. These modestly-sized gardens will then be given over to Cajibio farmers, who engage in small-scale subsistence agriculture to feed themselves and their families. CUSLAR plans to solicit donations at community events such as the upcoming Alternative Gift Fair, to be held in December.
“A lot of people don’t have land and they can’t grow food for themselves. They can’t make a living,” said Meaghan Sheehan ’03, the co-coordinator of CUSLAR. “The government often times only distributes land to people who are going to sell out [of the local area] and export.”
“There is a way to make money farming illicit crops, like coca or poppies, in higher regions in the Andes,” Ritter said. “The Cajibio community didn’t want any part of that. They’re just trying to find a way to make a food crop and support themselves that way.”
According to planners, the project is also intended to serve as an alternative example to the sizable military aid that the United States sends to Colombia each year — aid which CUSLAR says only perpetuates a conflict already a nearly a half-century old.
“Our feeling is that the drug war … is misguided and destructive,” Sheehan said. “The aid that is being sent in the form of guns and weapons is being directed towards the counter-insurgency as opposed to drugs. The U.S. says we need to help in this conflict but there are other ways to do it besides violence.”
The Project also hopes to build a network of contacts through which it can publicize human rights abuses, drawing attention to violence which otherwise might not reach the public. In 2001, according to Sheehan, Cajibio citizens were murdered without sufficient explanation when paramilitary forces entered the city.
“As that happens we can send the word out to our members and [e-mail lists] and connections up here and let people know what’s going on,” Sheehan said.
CUSLAR has already begun spreading the word about the project, recently speaking to students at Trumansburg High School. Organizers are also working on a pen-pal system in which students from Ithaca would share correspondence with Colombian students.
The partnership plans to continue expanding into new areas of cooperation. According to a statement from Cajibio’s Small Farmer Movement, their “goals include developing organic agriculture projects, improving the nutritional state of families, … facilitating community work and creating jobs.”
Archived article by Jeff Sickelco