Goodbye to hunger: living mountains instead of depleted soil

In Colombia’s Andes, female farmers like Ewangelina Gonzalez suffered for a long time from malnutrition, despite the fertile soil. Thanks to agroecology, not only their nutrition but also their income has substantially improved. Two members of the SWISSAID Zurich Association are convinced of this thanks to that journey made at their own expense.

Ewangelina Gonzalez stands motionless in the green, undulating landscape. Under the brim of her brown felt hat, her alert gaze follows the arrival of visitors. She gives a wave and gestures for us to follow her. The path leads across a soft meadow to a hilltop lined with trees, and down a steep slope. At the bottom of the valley, you can see a small finca. From the hillside comes the splashing and bubbling sound of a hidden spring.

Live mountains and depleted soil

“Don’t be fooled by the picturesque landscape”, explains Ruben Garcia as we descend the steep path to the finca. “The farmers’ lives are hard.”
The environmental engineer regularly comes here to Mongua. The village is at an altitude of 2,975 metres in the district of Boyacá, about 230 kilometres from the Colombian capital Bogotà. As a SWISSAID project manager, Ruben Garcia is responsible for implementing the “Montañas Vivas” (“Living Mountains”) project.

“The people here earn their livelihood from two things: mining and agriculture. While the men work in the mines six days a week, the women take care of the fields”, Ruben explains. But this work became more and more difficult. The government’s agricultural experts advised female farmers to focus on growing potatoes. “The monocultures, fertilisers and pesticides were destroying the soil.”

Hunger despite potatoes

The result: harvest yields were in decline. Fewer and fewer potatoes could be sold on the market. Money for staple foods became scarce. Despite the fertile soil, people were suffering from malnutrition. This is where the SWISSAID project helps: “We give real assistance for people to reorganise their cultivation method”, says Ruben Garcia. In other words, moving away from monoculture and chemical products towards organic and diversified agriculture.

SWISSAID experts, together with the farmers, organised the construction of greenhouses. They designed water tanks and irrigation systems. At the same time, they helped them to build rabbit hutches and to start breeding. Each farmer also received a sheep.

“Our lives have massively improved”

Ewangelina Gonzalez serves us sweet coffee and mild soft cheese. We sit on a wooden bench under the canopy of the small finca surrounded by vegetation. “With the help of SWISSAID, our lives have massively improved over the last few years,” explains the 68‑year‑old. Thanks to the project, she now has enough to eat for herself, her sister Anna Rosa and her son Luiz Alberto, with whom she runs the farm. They sell any surplus produce on the market.

Today, there is a greenhouse where previously only potatoes were grown. Plenty of fruit and vegetable varieties thrive in the greenhouse. Irrigation fed from the water tank is ensured by a sophisticated system of pipes. “That makes my job a lot easier”, says Ewangelina Gonzalez. The new cultivation techniques have also made it more attractive for her son to take over and carry on the farm one day.