Fostering self-sufficiency: FUNDAEC encourages local food production

CALI, Colombia — As the pandemic took hold in Colombia, uncertainties about many aspects of life quickly set in. FUNDAEC, a Baha’i-inspired organization in the country, recognizing that the crisis would have long-term ramifications, looked at how it could be of practical service to society at a time of dire need.

Leslie Stewart, the Executive Director of FUNDAEC, explains how the organization swiftly directed its attention to supporting local food production initiatives. “The country’s economy has been severely affected, with more than 10 million people who are now unemployed.

“Given this situation, food production, which is a component of our different educational programs aimed at development, became a central issue at the start of the pandemic. Since March, FUNDAEC has focused on four broad areas in supporting initiatives aimed at food self-sufficiency: creation of home gardens, cultivation of larger farming plots, food processing, as well as distribution and commercialization.”

FUNDAEC (Fundación para la Aplicación y Enseñanza de las Ciencias) was founded in Colombia in 1974 and has been dedicated for over 40 years to developing capacity in people to contribute to the well-being of their societies. In this most recent undertaking, it drew on its decades of experience and research in the area of food production to create online workshops, assisting people to learn about different aspects of agriculture, for example seed selection, soil health, pest and disease management, and the harvest.

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Selecting seeds of a maize variety to plant at a facility of the University Center for Rural Wellbeing in Perico Negro, Cauca, Colombia.

Ms. Stewart describes how FUNDAEC’s approach to development is inspired by the Baha’i principles of the harmony of science and religion, oneness of humanity, and selfless service to society. “In our efforts to contribute to social progress—in its material and spiritual dimensions—we believe there needs to be a dialogue between science and religion. Agriculture plays a crucial role in the building of civilization. It is important to the processes of community life, and should benefit from insights found in both religion and science.

“However, materialism, which has been directing the development of agricultural systems, has not been able to bring prosperity to all, and the issue of food is becoming central to that discussion. So how can spiritual principles help in the way we understand development and food production? For example, we need to ensure that agricultural practices are based in fairness and cooperation, and that efforts are carried out with humility and appreciation toward the land and the environment.

“We have found that during this period people are naturally discovering a sense of common purpose—seeing that they can take an active role in transforming their adversity into an opportunity to be of service to their fellow citizens—and that our role as an organization has been to try and channel energies in a helpful way.”

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Members of a family in Puerto Eugenio, Córdoba, Colombia, plant crops on a “community learning plot” they started together with other members of their community and with the assistance of a group of young people studying FUNDAEC material as part of the Preparation for Social Action program.

In Aipe, central Colombia, a group of people collaborated with the Baha’i Local Spiritual Assembly to begin a small farm. Having developed relationships with the Mayor’s office and a local agronomist, this effort inspired some 13 families around the designated land to start their own gardens, leading to a first harvest that could be shared with over 70 people. In turn those individuals who benefited from the harvest have been drawn into the efforts and are finding great purpose in serving their community through food that is healthy, organic, and fairly distributed.

“The example that people are setting in producing food for their communities is contagious,” says Ever Rivera, a coordinator of FUNDAEC’s programs. “People who have not produced food before have the example, as well as the support and accompaniment, of those around them. Even the daily conversations between neighbors are generating local knowledge about food production.”

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A family in Riohacha, la Guajira, Colombia, has planted several species of crops on a plot of 40 square meters. Having learned to enrich the soil with natural fertilizers, and plant aromatic species as a biologic control to protect the crop, the family is now harvesting the fruit of their efforts.

Arelys, a participant in the food production initiatives in Tuchín, has been struck by how people have started to connect with the land around them in a different way. She says, “Families have felt motivated realizing that they can produce food in spaces they already own, and people have seen what positivity can come from moments of crisis.”

Yesneyer from Aipe explains how in her town there is no culture of agriculture and food is generally imported from the countryside. However, FUNDAEC’s online courses have been helping people to look at their land differently. “We have realized the potential for planting seeds in virtually any piece of land where there is soil!”

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A family in Villa Rica, Cauca, Colombia, is using recycled containers to grow vegetables, herbs, and spices on their terrace. Various garden plants help attract bees and repel pests. They have shared their harvest with four other families and are helping others in their community to start growing plants in their own homes.

In addition to the workshops, FUNDAEC has been producing and distributing a monthly bulletin that connects participants across the country to a growing body of knowledge being generated from the local initiatives.

As part of its ongoing efforts, the organization also contributes to a discourse on agriculture among government officials, academics, and civil society organizations. “It is about opening a dialogue between the farmer who has this deep traditional knowledge and the student of agronomy who brings the best practices of modern science”, says Ms. Stewart. “This dialogue avoids, on the one hand, undue romanticizing about a ‘simpler way’ in the past, and on the other hand, uncritical acceptance of modern technologies. Instead it allows for the building of an alternative system that brings together the profound traditions of the farmer and spiritual principles—being thankful to nature and understanding the impact of one’s relationship with the land for future generations—with the insights and best practices from modern agronomy.”

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A family in Puerto Tejada, Cauca, Colombia made use of limited space by growing herbs and vegetables in recycled containers hung from a wall.

Over 1,500 people across the country have now become engaged in almost 800 agricultural initiatives facilitated by FUNDAEC since the pandemic. Reflecting on the initial harvests from these initiatives, Ms. Stewart states:

“Harvest time is a very special time. It invites reflection and allows people to appreciate that, just as the plants grow, we also grow in our capacities as people and as a community. Participants are seeing how certain spiritual qualities are essential in this effort. Unity is needed for a quick collective response to a need in times of crisis. Faith is needed to trust that the seeds planted will germinate. Patience is necessary to wait for plants to grow and develop, and to face the small setbacks along the way. Love, perseverance, and diligence are required in order to carry out the daily tasks.

“This period has been a time to be thankful for the ‘generosity’ of the Earth, by caring for it and protecting it.”

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