By Maria Mercedes Garcia
Hernando González, the 29-year-old president of the Cocoa Producers’ Association of Santo Domingo de Mesa, El Carmen de Bolivar (ASOPAGRO SDM), has achieved the wisdom that most people strive for. Gonzalez successfully mobilized his community of 400 returned families and established a regional productive partnership, which now receives support from the Ministry of Agriculture, the company of Professional Assistance for Development - Prodesarrollo Ltda., the Chocolates National Company, the local government of El Carmen de Bolivar and the organization for Agricultural Project Management - G&G Proagros.
González returned to his region in 2008 after struggling to find a job elsewhere. "I had a very difficult time. When I got back I found an abandoned township.” He began looking for help and learned that to access economic resources he should represent an established organization. He thought to form an association to represent the four villages that make up Santo Domingo. "It was tough because the local farming community did not want to get organized; there was too much suspicion caused by many broken promises. At first eight people gathered, but eventually grew to 200," he explains. In 2010, the organized community formed ASOPAGRO SDM.
With the help of G&G Proagro, the association presented a project of supporting 50 farmers with 100 hectares of cocoa and secured support from the Ministry of Agriculture through the Productive Alliances Program. Once the feasibility studies were ready and they determined the association’s viability, Prodesarrollo Ltda. recommended that ASOPAGRO SDM apply for funding. “Only then people believed that if we were organized, we could achieve great things. Most importantly, the cocoa project was defined by us, taking our own needs into account; it was not something defined by outsiders," Gonzales says.
However, the association struggled to provide the 65 percent of the project’s total cost to make it viable. The producers requested the support of the Colombia Responde, an initiative implemented by CHF International with funding from USAID to support the Government of Colombia. The Colombia Responde program strengthened the partnership with an investment of $16,835 to cover some of the required contributions by producers.
To date, the total project value stands at $322,671: 28.34 percent is contributed by the Ministry, 5.21 percent by the local government, 1.39 percent by the Chocolates National Company, 2.43 percent by SENA, 5.21 percent by Colombia Responde, and 57.39 percent by producers, in land and labor. The support of Colombia Responde provided resources to implement environmental management plans and hire skilled labor. Emiro Pérez, the manager of G&G Proagro, says that "Colombia Responde has been essential, because it filled the void that other organizations had left. This alliance, unlike others in the Montes de Maria, has had 100 percent compliance with the goals of the operational plan. This ongoing support has strengthened trust between the Chocolates National Company and producers, increasing producers´ credibility and sense of belonging, leading to a greater commitment. This has also improved production levels."
The Productive Alliances Program has provided the recovery of security conditions in the region and proven to communities that organized and established groups are more likely to get support. This differs from Perez’s description of the past when "armed resistance groups originally saw them as foreign governments’ investments and as paramilitary strategies for taking control of the region. Farmers who tried to get support were threatened with death. The first alliance of Montes de Maria was only established in 2006."
The objective of an alliance, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, is that farmers engage in a productive activity, sharing risks and benefits with other stakeholders of the economy, such as organizations responsible for marketing or processing the raw materials. In one alliance recently established, farmers of the Chocolates National Company became the trading partner for the project and agreed to buy the cocoa production for 10 years.
The long-term presence of the Chocolates National Company ensures that the product meets the technical requirements of the market. The company gives technical advice, training, and updates of the fluctuating product prices. The Ministry has also provided support through a “modular incentive,” in which the association will have a resource to continue its strengthening process.
Gonzalez believes that even without receiving the economic benefits of the Alliance, the producer understands that the region recovers its vitality due to these projects. With the sustainability and economic stability for the family, farmers can start thinking about sending their children to college and can start dreaming again. Gonzalez argues that the farmers have learned and gained a greater sense of belonging to the region. In the past, people only survived without the strength of organized communities. Today, Gonzalez’s association expects to become a large-scale production company. He is confident that they will succeed, especially now that they have learned to relate to institutions and how to knock on doors.