The Life and Times of the Campesino
I would like to share with you an excellent fieldwork experience I recently had in several of the farming communities located on the outskirts of Popayán, one of the oldest colonial cities in Colombia. Our team worked with CCAFS on a project related to climate change and its effects on agricultural production. In this region the effects of climate change have been noted by campesinos as climate variability, such as the intensity of wet and dry seasons, with longer or shorter rainy seasons. These effects of climate change can impact men, women, and children within farming families differently. Such gender differences are often overlooked in development work. For the last three months, I participated in a research project to address how climate change impacts farming families and how they are adapting.
Our research consisted of working alongside a campesino organization called ASOCAMPO and our partners at the Fundación Rio Piedras and the Acueducto. At first, the pace was slow, just like in all development work we had to organize contacts and a way to visit the communities which caused the initial lag. However, by the end, we were able to visit 27 households and interviewed a total of 36 participants from the subcuenca Rio Piedras. This subcuenca, which is a small watershed basin, is divided up into three regions; parte baja (lower), parte media (middle), and parte alta (higher). We visited each section and I was amazed to see the similarities, as well as the differences, among these regions.
For instance, the parte baja, which is the lowest region, is the only part of the cuenca that can grow coffee. This section has the right temperature to cultivate a variety of crops including banana and plátano which cannot be grown in the parte alta. In recent years, rising temperatures has caused a chemical reaction that affects certain crops called “chimisquina,” this process occurs after it rains and it becomes extremely hot the leaves on the plant burn causing crop damage if the plants are not cleaned. Additionally, because it is a little more populated than the higher regions of the cuenca, the size of the farms are smaller.
The parte media is an interesting case because of past struggles over land rights. This region was once dedicated to large farms called “terrateniente” created during colonization. The natives of this area were called “terrajeros” and were only permitted to live on these large farms if they did most of the work. Because of land reformation efforts by the country these large farms were divided and available for purchase. This is important to understand about the region today because most of the people we interviewed live on what used to be the terrateniente, meaning that campesinos do not possess a land title but still work the land privately. Because they have lived there for generations, they have the right to buy the land. Despite this option to purchase, the land is difficult to afford so the campesinos tend to just pay rent and grow crops. What also makes this region an interesting case, is that a lot of the members we interviewed had previously owned land collectively but now hold private titles to the land or are in pursuit of one. By obtaining private ownership of land, people that were indigenous are redefined as campesinos because collective land is a central part of indigenous identity. As a result, a struggle over land between those claiming private land titles and those fighting for collective land rights caused a rift between campesinos and indigenous. This land conflict issue wasn’t resolved until 1983 after the massive earthquake that affected Popayán and the subcuenca.
In the parte alta, which is about 2600-2900 meters above sea level, is the highest in the cuenca. This area is dedicated mainly to livestock and trout production, because this region is high in elevation, cold, and it is difficult to plant some types of crops. Therefore, most houses in this region have “huertas,” which are small gardens dedicated to producing food for household consumption. However, because of rising temperatures resulting from climate change, most of the participants we interviewed have tried planting new crops in the region, such as yuca. A large part of income for this section comes from selling milk, cheese, and fresh trout. What is also important to note here are that majority of women milk the cows, process the milk, make cheese, manage the trout farms, and harvest the fish they sell to the market. Also, campesinos dedicate part of their land to “reservas,” which are land set aside to preserving natural forests and planting new trees, to protect natural water sources and trees.
Despite the fact that we would spend two-hours at each household viewing the farms and conducting our questionnaire, these people were all happy to oblige. After, we would thank them for their time; they would turn around and say “no, thank you for your time,” which alludes to how friendly these people are. What was amazing was that every participant we had the chance to meet grew their own diversity of food for household consumption. Around 85% of our participants never had to buy vegetables throughout the year because they grew enough vegetables to consume for the entire year. This was mostly because of the women. One finding from our study was that a majority of the women are in charge of taking care of the household garden and small livestock like chickens, rabbits, and guinea pigs.
Women are also in charge of selling products they had produced on the farm in the market. I went to a local market in Popayán called La Esmeralda and talked with a few women venders. One woman I met was from a community close to where we worked. I asked her why she liked to travel to this market to sell her items and she said it was because it was easier for her to sell all of her products. I asked if she also liked to come here to socialize and she looked at me and smiled and said “of course, this is where I can meet new people and talk with my friends.” I was also able to speak to an indigenous woman from Silvia which is approximately 2 hours from Popayán. Her reason for traveling that distance to sell her products was because it has “always been a way life for them (the indigenous from Silvia).” What I found interesting was that this group of indigenous travel every weekend from Silvia to Popayán just to sell their products although the cost of travel means that they may not make as large of a profit as they would selling closer to home. I definitely learned a lot through my three month stay in Popayan. The campesinos I had the pleasure of meeting are remarkable individuals and I admire their perseverance towards creating a better future for themselves and their children. This is Seth signing out of Cali.