Two years ago almost to the day, 60 Colombian musicians came together and released a song called “Un Paso Hacia la Paz” (“A Step Toward Peace”). Amid joggling maracas, an impassioned choir of pop stars, indigenous singers, and Vallenato musicians sing, “Así es como canta Colombia por la paz” (“This is how Colombia sings for peace”), urging for an end to the country’s 50-year armed conflict.
Fast-forward to today, and the peace Colombia sings for is finally within reach.
Late last month, the FARC rebel group and the Colombian government announced a final peace deal, a permanent cease-fire to the unspeakable violence that has ravaged the country for half a century. And, as luck would have it, I had the privilege of seeing this moment unfold firsthand while my colleagues and I were in Colombia visiting coffee and cocoa cooperatives in the country’s lush and verdant Northern Sierra de Santa Marta.
I’ve loved visiting Colombia ever since Root Capital began working there nearly a decade ago, but this trip was like traveling to a new land. Virtually everyone my colleagues and I spoke with — especially in the countryside, which experienced most of the carnage — had a flicker of hope in their eyes when talking about the promise of the future. Born of a fierce desire to break with the past, it’s the kind of primal optimism that gives you goosebumps. This optimism is what is captured so beautifully in “Un Paso Hacia la Paz.”
Colombia’s peace deal is a previously inconceivable milestone for Colombia and for the world, but as in all post-conflict situations, the reality is that peace will only last to the extent that a country can meet the basic needs of its most vulnerable people living in serious poverty.
Our clients — agricultural businesses and the thousands of smallholder farmers they serve — have an essential role to play in rebuilding after conflict and in perpetuating peace. In Colombia, our clients have dedicated their lives and the purpose of their entrepreneurial ventures to consolidating peace wherever they can. By creating and maintaining a viable alternative to the drug economy in Colombia’s rural areas, these entrepreneurs have worked hard to create the economic conditions that lend themselves to a lasting peace.
One of the remarkable people I met on my recent trip was Marta Cecilia de Contrera, a 51-year-old Colombian farmer and member of one of the coffee cooperatives we work with. As we stood talking outside her red-and-white-painted wooden farmhouse, Marta told me that she had fled her life on the banana plantations of the country’s Caribbean coast in 1997, after paramilitaries killed several of her loved ones.
Eventually, she landed in the tropical rainforests of Santa Marta, where she and her then husband used their family’s life savings to buy a small coffee farm. As she showed me around, I saw a homestead that belied her past: flower boxes bedecking every corner of her house and candy-colored orchids dripping from old soda bottles that she had given new purpose.
Joining the cooperative was Marta’s turning point. Before she became a member, she was producing 1,000 kilograms of coffee per year. Today her yields are up to 6,600 kilograms, and she’s put her additional income toward transforming her home: cement floors instead of dirt, a proper kitchen, a new bedroom, a new toilet and a septic tank. She’s built a rustic coffee wet mill and a solar drying facility, and she recycles or treats all her farm waste and effluents. She smiles proudly: with the support of the cooperative, she’s made a life for herself that once seemed impossible. A big fan of Colombia’s peace accord, Marta knows what permanent peace could look like for so many others.
Agriculture can play a big role, and work relatively quickly, in sparking economic growth in post-conflict regions. It’s our job to unlock the potential for businesses and cooperatives like Marta’s to contribute to a more prosperous and peaceful world. From places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda, we’ve seen how investment in coffee in particular can create a positive pathway to peace. As Juan Esteban Orduz of the Colombia Coffee Growers Federation (FNC) put it, “When coffee moves in, conflict moves out.” From Colombia to the Congo, we’re invested in seeing that process through.
Today, on the International Day of Peace, my mind is on the important moment unfolding in Colombia, and the critical work we have ahead of us in that country and so many others around the globe. I’m full of the same hope and inspiration that permeate the Colombian countryside as we celebrate this incredible “paso hacia la paz” — this step toward peace.
Willy Foote, Founder & CEO
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