Organic farming puts an end to hunger

There and back in a dugout canoe: The farmers of Bahía Solana have a long way to go to get rice in their cooking pots and on their plates – and it all begins with a simple canoe on Colombia’s Pacific coast.

It’s a familiar story: “Are you coming?”, asks the husband, who is ready and waiting outside. “Yes, just a minute,” sounds a voice from inside the house – his wife still has a job to finish indoors. While the husband waits outside, the grunting of a large pig can be heard coming from the house opposite, and soon afterwards the animal appears in its sty. Finally, the man heads off on his own – it isn’t far – and half a minute later his wife hurries after him.

Only accessible by boat or aircraft

Husband and wife Alberto Arías and Nubia Bermudez from the hamlet of El Valle on the Pacific coast of Colombia aren’t about to go on holiday; they’re setting off with tools on their shoulders en route for the rice harvest. El Valle is part of the community of Bahía Solana and there’s no road connecting the villages with the outside world. You can only get here by boat or light aircraft.

Almost no way through

The first surprise soon follows: the rice fields of El Valle are dry, just like wheat and rye fields elsewhere. But water is not far away. The groundwater table is not even two metres below and more water is supplied almost on a daily basis: this region gets about four to six times more rainfall than in central Switzerland. 

But Alberto and Nubia have still not reached their field. Their narrow dugout canoe is lying on the bank of the Río Valle – that’s where they store their equipment and a cooking pot. Nubia climbs carefully into the narrow, unsteady canoe so as not to capsize it. Then their journey begins: first, the couple punt up the wide and slow-moving Río Valle, and then they turn into the narrow Río Angía. The exhausting journey through the verdant undergrowth takes two hours, passing brightly coloured birds and fallen trees. Sometimes, they have to cut a few branches to clear a way through.

Globalisation reaches the furthest corners of the earth

As idyllic and remote as the location is, it hasn’t remained untouched by globalisation. Colombia began to import cheap rice in the 1990s and its own production decreased drastically. Instead of tackling the challenge of producing rice themselves, the people of El Valle started to buy this basic foodstuff at the market. Rice cultivation – even with the support of Swissaid – only experienced an upturn again after the turn of the millennium. And the rich supply of rice is substantial: 14 local rice varieties alone grow here, with great-sounding names like Fortuno and Mariangela, Chino, Negrita and Tres Meses. Each variety has its own qualities and uses.

Previously, the people lived at altitude close to their rice fields but younger people have now been drawn down to the village where there is more going on and their children can go to school. They put up with the two-hour trip to their fields. Once they get there, they stay for a week. They take food and cooking utensils and camp in a sturdy straw hut. They cook and eat together.

Today is the rice harvest. First, Alberto sharpens his sickle and then his machete; he tests the sharpness of the blades with his thumb and grins, “I can cut everything to the ground with this!”

Threshing as a sport

A little later, a small procession wanders through the undergrowth: two men carry what looks like a short canoe on their heads, followed by men and women with sickles. They harvest in teams of two: Alberto cuts a few clumps of rice stalks, until he has collected a sizeable bundle. He passes this to his wife, who whacks it three times in the small boat which acts as the container for the rice. This causes the rice grains to fall off the flowers into the small canoe, while Nubia discards the stalks and husks, which will rot and then be used to fertilise the soil again. The rhythm is breathtaking: cut, cut, cut – thresh, thresh, thresh!

It’s very important to the rice farmers of Río Valle for a husband and wife to swap over so the women take over cutting while the men thresh. “We treat this a bit like a game,” explains Leonor Murillo, one of the older female farmers, who has now taken Alberto’s place and his sickle. “Whoever cuts the most is the winner!”

Organic is taken for granted

The entire community are winners. Nobody mentions that the rice is organically cultivated – that’s taken for granted. Since Swissaid has been involved, rice cultivation has flourished again. “Today, we know far more about fertiliser and fighting diseases,” says Leonor Murillo. “Before, we lacked knowledge. Now, we know what we can do to combat pests.”

The two-person teams continue to cut and thresh – in a rhythm based on years of experience. “We’ve been doing this since we were children,” says farmer Ismael Cordoba. “Our parents taught us.” When the small, boat-shaped containers are full, the leaves and leftover flowers are removed until only rice grains remain.

Left to dry under plastic

Now, the rice has to be dried. The rice farmers of Río Valle used to take their harvest back with them to the village and lay it out on the road to dry. That worked to a degree, but time and again a car would drive over it and push the grains apart, and often small stones from the dirt roads would get mixed in with the rice.

Now, before the harvest the farmers construct a drying hut from plastic sheets – a kind of greenhouse that the wind can blow through. “It used to take two to three days,” says farmer Ruperto Nagles, “but these days the rice is dry in a single day!”

The new methods are proving effective. “That’s our food!” exclaims Leonor Murillo in delight, while she cuts off a new clump of rice and hands it on. “And we now also earn something extra out of it! What we don’t eat, we sell at the market.”

Project code: KO/2/14/01 

Project costs: 100'478 Swiss francs

Project duration: Until 2015

Beneficiaries: 945 Women, men and children