A decade ago, growers of coca (the plant used to produce cocaine) were pushed out of southern Colombia by aerial spraying and military operations. Some then moved to the Pacific coast jungle province of Chocó, attracted by its remoteness. At that point, Chocanos had few or no viable alternatives to cover basic family needs, so coca-growing seemed attractive. Unfortunately, the coca economy has now inflated all prices in the region, making it all the more difficult for families to avoid the illicit economy.
The Mennonite Brethren (MB) pastors in the area began preaching from the pulpit against involvement with coca-growing, but knew they needed to offer more than just words. MCC then partnered with the MB Regional Church Council to help families recuperate their traditional food crops, particularly their primary staple—rice.
Around 150 families in 17 river communities received rice seed and training to strengthen food production in the region once again. The MB churches worked through many obstacles to open a community rice processing plant that allows families to process their harvest and obtain a high quality final product, not only for their own consumption, but also for sale.
Unfortunately, once the rice processing plant was up and running, a paramilitary commander demanded a meeting with the church leaders. The regional church president, José Rutilio Rivas, and two other pastors went to the appointed location with fear but also with profound clarity. With weapons in hand, the paramilitary commander insisted that the church-supported rice processing plant pay a “vaccine” to the illegal armed group. This “vaccine” could enhance safety.
Rutilio responded resolutely, “The Mennonite church has been committed to non-violence and peace-building for centuries. We will not support any of the armed groups, not even the state armed groups. If you force us, we will close down the project, though it is of service to the community. But we will not support you, even if it costs us our lives.”
Surprised by such boldness, the commander promised respect for their position of non-collaboration.
Story supplied by Bonnie Klassen, MCC Area Director for Latin America & the Caribbean.
Attend MCC Ontario's Fall Conference on Nov 14 to see, hear, and experience first-hand how MCC is changing lives and communities through peacebuilding. More info at mcco.ca/fall-conference.