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Colombian farmers turn deforested land into sustainable Amazonian farms

  • More than 450 families from seven towns in the south of Caquetá, Colombia, have transformed their farms into spaces for soil, forest and water conservation while pursuing agricultural production projects that give them food sovereignty.
  • Most of the people living in the Amazonian foothills of Caquetá were displaced by the armed conflict and colonized the region through the extensive livestock projects promoted by the government.
  • Amazonian Farms (Finca Amazónica) was created 17 years ago to provide sustainable production alternatives, and many of the program’s trainers are farmers from the region who understand the importance of living in harmony with the forest.

The town of San José del Fragua is just over an hour’s drive from Florencia, the capital of the department of Caquetá, in southern Colombia. On one side of the road are the majestic peaks of the eastern Andes and on the other side, the beginning of the immense Amazonian plains.

The town of San José del Fragua is small, and residents still remember when the armed conflict arrived in their territory, first with the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and later with the paramilitaries. For years, traveling along the crystal-clear waters of the rivers that cross the municipality and its tourist sites was risky. Today, locals are trying to take advantage of the potential for ecotourism in places like the imposing Piedra del Indio Apolinar, an immense rock some 92 feet high and 130 feet wide that is considered sacred by the Inga Indigenous people. Another attraction is Portales del Fraguita, where a river by the same name looks like it has split a mountain in two to pass through.

Piedra del indio Apolinar, San José del Fragua, Caquetá. Foto: Antonio Paz.
Piedra del Indio Apolinar in San José del Fragua, Caquetá, Colombia. Image by Antonio Paz.
Portales del Fraguita, San José del Fragua, Caquetá. Foto: Antonio Paz.
Portales del Fraguita in San José del Fragua, Caquetá, Colombia. Image by Antonio Paz.

Visitors to the rural area will notice that cattle ranches dominate the landscape, once covered by Amazonian forests. Caquetá has one of Colombia’s highest rates of deforestation. According to official figures from the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies, the region lost 94,847 acres of forest in 2021 — almost 15,000 acres more than in 2020, the largest increase in the country.

Data from Global Forest Watch indicate that the municipality of San José del Fragua alone lost 1,433 acres of forest between 2020 and 2021. The areas most affected by deforestation tend to be in the Amazonian foothills, where the agricultural frontier is increasingly encroaching the jungle.

As one gets closer to the Quimbayo Gutiérrez family farm, the landscape begins to change. There are more trees and occasional patches of natural forest. The family is part of the program known as “Amazonian Farms” (Finca Amazónica), an initiative started in 2006 by the Catholic Church under its Southern Vicariate of the Archdiocese of Florencia.

The goals of the Church in southern Caquetá include conserving the Amazon, and one of its main projects involves working with peasants who were displaced by the armed conflict and settled in the Amazonian foothills, cutting down the forest in their attempt to survive in a new place. The area encompasses San José del Fragua as well as the municipalities of Morelia, Albania, Curillo, Valparaíso, Solita and Belén de los Andaquíes.

For almost 17 years, Amazonian Farms has been transforming local methods for the appropriation and use of Amazonian resources, with rural families actively participating.

“All this used to be pasture,” said Petronila Gutiérrez, who, together with her husband and children, runs the La Miranda farm, a 79-hectare (195-acre) property they have reforested and worked with sustainable agriculture and cattle-raising techniques.

“The stream had dried up because it had been deforested. There was a lot of burning in this area. The first thing we did when we came to Amazonian Farms was to let the trees grow next to the stream. The most important thing was to recover the water. Family, land, forest, water and the desire to work — that has been our commitment, and be aware that this is not an overnight process. All these processes take a long time, but you see the results,” Gutiérrez said.

Así lucen muchos predios del piedemonte amazónico del sur del Caquetá. Foto: Antonio Paz.
A typical farm in the foothills of the Amazon in southern Caquetá. Image by Antonio Paz.
La familia Quimbayo Gutiérrez dejó que la vegetación amazónica se recuperara en varias hectáreas de su finca y la quebrada que pasaba por su predio reapareció. Foto: Antonio Paz.
The Quimbayo Gutiérrez family allowed Amazonian vegetation to grow back on several acres of its farm and the creek that once ran through their farm returned. Image by Antonio Paz.

Smallholder farms conserving the Amazon

Gutiérrez and her husband, Ovidio Quimbayo, were among the first families to join the Amazonian Farms project. One of the most attractive aspects of the project was that they were able to design and plan their own farm and how they would make it compatible with the conservation of the Amazon forest. They determined the time frame for implementing their sustainable productive projects and created a work plan to meet those goals.

Gutiérrez said farms like hers work because they understand that they need the soil, water and forest in excellent condition so their properties can also guarantee their food sovereignty.

“All these plants that you see here in this ecological garden, in the greenhouse and among the native trees — I planted them,” Gutiérrez said as she walked among the dense grass, pointing out fruit trees and aromatic herbs and pulling up the roots of ginger and turmeric plants. She is proud of her work as a farmer and recalls that, when food was scarce and expensive during the COVID-19 lockdowns, she and her family had food to spare and bartered with their neighbors on other Amazonian Farms-supported plots.

Vivero en la finca La Miranda de la familia Quimbayo Gutiérrez. Foto: Antonio Paz.
A plant nursery on the Quimbayo Gutiérrez family farm, La Miranda. Image by Antonio Paz.

It hasn’t all been easy, though. Families like the Quimbayo Gutiérrez clan say that getting their youngest members to commit to the work is one of the main challenges they face.

One of their sons, Edinson Ovidio Quimbayo, agreed. “It was only a few years ago that I became involved with the vicarage because I always had the idea of being a cattle rancher, like many of those who live in this region. My idea of a successful rancher was that of traditional ranching — whoever had the most land. That was not very much in line with the ideas of my father, who has always been a farmer,” Quimbayo said.

He changed his mind when a severe drought hit San José del Fragua. Many people ran out of water, including cattle ranches in the region. To Quimbayo’s surprise, there was still water available on his parents’ farm, which he had once viewed with suspicion because of its methods of cultivation that involved coexisting with native Amazonian trees and allowing the vegetation to regenerate around the creek. The family farm still had water and food during the drought and seemed to be immune to the ravages of the climate.

“At that moment, I understood that this Amazonian Farm was worth it, and I began to do the training,” Quimbayo said. “It was hard for me, but I understood that it was better to have intensive [or efficient, rather than extensive] livestock farming, where what matters most is not so much the number of cows you have, but rather a better and more profitable product.

You can have a lot of animals, but that is also a lot of expense, and you don’t realize that, in the end, you have very little money left. We began to divide up pastures, create agroforestry systems where we have vegetation that provides shade and food for the animals, and we began to rotate the cows in the 52 lots that we have today.”

Sistemas agrosilvopastoriles en las fincas amazónicas. Foto: Antonio Paz.
Agroforestry systems on the Amazonian Farms. Image by Antonio Paz.

Agripino Lara, a leader of Amazonian Farms, says in its nearly 17 years in operation, the program has supported 710 farming families. “We are currently working with 469 family farms in 73 villages in six municipalities in southern Caquetá,” he said. “The program has had an impact on about 35,000 acres of land in the Amazonian foothills — consider that the average size of each farm is about 30 hectares”.

Lara assured that the farmers can live in the Amazon. The idea of the project, he explained, was that their farms would remain compatible with the Amazonian soil, which is quite fragile, and that the families would gain a sense of belonging to the region. “Amazonian Farms seeks to promote food sovereignty and care for biodiversity, soil, water and forests. The objective is to propose integrated human development and farms as real options for conservation and climate change mitigation and adaptation,” he said.

Uno de los ríos que atraviesa el municipio de San José del Fragua en el departamento de Caquetá, Colombia. Foto: Antonio Paz.
One of the rivers that crosses the municipality of San José del Fragua in the department of Caquetá, Colombia. Image by Antonio Paz.

Three decades of community effort

Agripino Lara emphasized that one of the strengths of Amazonian Farms is that farmers who participate often replicate the knowledge they acquire, as some of them become facilitators of the program. They train families in conservation and sustainable production techniques, visit the farms and provide advice on the implementation of all activities.

One such farmer and leader, Diego Fabián Gómez, said: “I began with the Vicariate of the South in 1996 when I was a very young farmer living on a farm in a rural area of Florencia. One day, Father Arnulfo Trujillo arrived and I started to get involved with the spiritual part, but I also started to get interested in the social part, and I took a course to become a community promoter.”

Finca La Miranda de la familia Quimbayo Gutiérrez en 2021 y proyección a 2024. Esta planeación es uno de los principales ejercicios participativos del proyecto Finca Amazónica. Los campesinos diseñan su finca con base en los conocimientos adquiridos. Foto: Antonio Paz.
Maps of the Quimbayo Gutiérrez family farm, La Miranda, showing 2021 and projections for 2024. This type of planning is one of the main participatory activities of the Amazonian Farm project. Small producers design their farms based on the knowledge they have acquired. Image by Antonio Paz.
La familia Quimbayo Gutiérrez ha sembrado frutales entre los árboles nativos de la Amazonía. Foto: Antonio Paz.
The Quimbayo Gutiérrez family has planted fruit trees among the native Amazonian trees. Image by Antonio Paz.

In 2009, Gómez said, the vicariate decided to implement the three thematic areas of its mission in all its projects in southern Caquetá, including Amazonian Farms. “These thematic areas are living the faith, the Amazon and human rights. All the projects must include these three areas. In Amazonia, it’s about caring for the territory; in human rights, everything that has to do with the defense of the territory and guaranteeing the rights of the peasants; and living the faith, that’s the spiritual part,” he said.

The interest of the Catholic Church of Caquetá in caring for the environment became even more pronounced after Pope Francis dedicated one of his encyclicals, “Laudato Sí,” to this issue in 2015. Then, in 2020, he published the exhortation “Querida Amazonia” (“Dear Amazon”).

Including the Amazon as a core focus of projects in southern Caquetá became a priority, as demonstrated by a book about the Amazonian Farms program published by the local vicariate in 2020. The book states, “Settlers came from different regions of the country, encouraged by government programs in extensive livestock production as a regional economic alternative, [and] they tried to preserve their social customs and the customs of the region, maintaining their own social, cultural, religious and productive customs in a fragile and biodiverse Amazonian ecosystem that they did not understand, which ended up permeating the relationship of man with nature.”

Conserving the Amazon while promoting sustainable production alternatives is one of the phrases repeated by small farmers like the Quimbayo Gutiérrez family. They are convinced their role in the countryside is indispensable for Colombian society. Ofelia Sotto Correa, a farmer from Belén de los Andaquíes, asked, “If they end up removing us from the countryside for lack of opportunities to produce or to secure our livelihood or because the government decides that oil is better than water, what future will there be for the new generations?”

Edinson Ovidio Quimbayo, campesino perteneciente al proyecto Finca Amazónica. Foto: Antonio Paz.
Edinson Ovidio Quimbayo, a small farmer who is part of the Amazonian Farms project. Image by Antonio Paz.

One of the Amazonian Farms initiatives that farmers mentioned most frequently was the effort to conserve native seeds. “If we have seeds, we achieve food sovereignty for the families,” said Diego Fabián Gómez. “There is now a network of native and creole seed conservationists among the farmers, which also promotes the exchange of these seeds among everyone.”

Petronila Gutiérrez has been one of the most active participants in the seed conservation project. “It has been promoted through bartering, that is, exchanges,” she said. “The neighbors give to us and we give to them, and then we plant to ensure that the species are conserved. Here on the farm, I have more than 80 different seeds.”

The families that are part of Amazonian Farms have also been participating in farmers’ markets for several years, a strategy that Lara and Gómez consider very important because having a solid income is one of the main concerns in the region.

“The farmer’s market in San José del Fragua is held on the first Sunday of every month,” said José Naez Baquiro, from the village of La Palmeras in San José del Fragua. “About 18 of our families always show up. We sell everything, and we decided to sell at the same prices as the other markets because we sell clean crops; there are no chemicals and we sell directly to the consumer.”

María Petronila Gutiérrez es una de las campesinas que más ha aportado al proyecto de conservación de semillas nativas y criollas. Foto: Antonio Paz.
María Petronila Gutiérrez is one of the small farmers who have contributed the most to the conservation of native seeds. Image by Antonio Paz.

Amazonian Farms also uses environmentally friendly stoves that insulate heat and use it more efficiently, reduce air pollution from CO2 emissions and also require less firewood (so fewer trees are felled).

In the area of basic sanitation, they have implemented technologies such as single pit latrines, sanitary batteries with a connection to septic systems, grease and soap traps, wastewater filters and biodigesters that, in addition to reducing the potential contaminating potential of human waste, produce gas that is used for cooking food.

Estufa ecológica elaborada con asesoría del proyecto Finca Amazónica. Foto: Antonio Paz.
A clean stove designed with guidance from the Amazonian Farms project. Image by Antonio Paz.
Estufa ecológica elaborada con asesoría del proyecto Finca Amazónica. Foto: Antonio Paz.
A clean stove designed with guidance from the Amazonian Farms project. Image by Antonio Paz.

Several NGOs working in Caquetá highlight the conservation program of Amazonian Farms and its role in addressing the high rates of deforestation in the department.

Diego Cardona, coordinator of forestry and biodiversity at Censat Agua Viva, an environmental NGO that works with communities in Caquetá and other regions of the country, assured that scientific research had already confirmed that community management was much more efficient in maintaining the quality of ecosystems and territories. It has also led to lower deforestation rates when compared with other measures such as, for example, the creation of protected areas with strong restrictions such as national parks.

“Amazonian Farms is an effective measure to reduce and control deforestation in a region like the Amazon and the department of Caquetá, which is the most affected by forest loss in the country. It is a completely legitimate and necessary measure that has shown good results,” said Cardona.

At an event called “Dialogues on Deforestation” organized by Censat Agua Viva and Tropenbos Colombia in Florencia, Caquetá, in September, the environmental lawyer Sergio Martínez said, “Initiatives like this contrast with the dominant discourse that has existed for some time now, especially since the start of the [government anti-deforestation initiative] Operation Artemisa, which sees peasants and Indigenous people as threats and predators of nature. They have been moving forward with their commitment to the care and conservation of their territories without the support of government entities.”

Banner image: María Petronila Gutiérrez, whose farm La Miranda was one of the first to join Amazonian Farms. Image by Antonio Paz.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on Feb. 13, 2023.

Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: Agroforestry is an ancient climate change solution featuring trees which also boosts biodiversity and is now being adopted around the world: a discussion with three guests, listen here:

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