YOTOCO — "The first thing we did was to look for land, thinking not so much about crop productivity as security..."

Efraín Sierra, one of countless farmers forced off his land by Colombia's long-running civil war, recalls having had to move in the past from the district of Buga when paramilitaries moved in nearby in 1999.

So now, as part of government program to help resettle displaced farmers in the Valle de Cauca department, his first priority is to be sure no armed groups go anywhere near his new plot of land. 

Still, the situation around Valle de Cauca remains precarious as armed gangs claim to still be fighting the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas, at war with the state since the 1960s. But Sierra says the gangs' interests have mostly been economic, given the huge construction projects like hydroelectric dams being planned in some of the nearby districts.

He and his sons were among 271 peasant families who have benefitted from land re-allocation programs and counseling for rural farming projects from Incoder, the Colombian Rural Development Institute.

Today they live upland in the Yotoco district, which he says has little strategic interest for armed groups, even if it is less suited to farming.

Here is the setting of the "Japan and Australia" project, begun in 2012, where farmers are given know-how and assistance to grow coffee, fodder and livestock. Every peasant here has their story of forced departures, and of how they survived.

A coffee farm worker in Cauca, southwestern Colombia — Photo: Neil Palmer (CIAT)

Incoder has helped distribute property titles for dozens of plots. Sierra began to grow coffee in 2013, in spite of rural strikes then and meager profits. Coffee he said "is an option for each family's life project," though he said the Government needed to provide know-how alongside subsidies.

"The regional economy's failure is partly because they provide resources and no more," he said.

Missing the corn

The Incoder project was now inviting families to meet with technicians, where they review the progress. In one such meeting, Diana Marcela Bermúdez and her husband Carlos Andrés Franco praised the latest program for focusing the farmers on how to best cultivate their current land. Other farmers miss their original plots or the colder climes they came from.

For Euriel Delgado "the change has been tough, because we were not from coffee lands but lands producing potatoes, corn and beans."

Farming expert Oswaldo Crespo Carvajal believes this resettlement project is making major progress, noting that it was "not imposed."

Maize in Colombia's eastern plains — Photo: Neil Palmer (CIAT)

In the district of Trujillo in the northern part of Valle — the setting of episodes of merciless violence decades ago — Incoder is implementing other projects especially in the Kipara protected area, home for the past five years to the Embera people who were forced out of Caquetá and other parts of Colombia.

Ángel Miaza, a former chieftain, nomad and day laborer, says his situation has improved by growing crops on his own land, but insists that the government must provide more land now, as 182 persons were living in the protected area and "there's no more space to farm."

Social worker Amparo Ramírez says the impact of displacement cannot be overestimated, as families risk losing the agricultural work and culture they've relied on for generations. "Families' desire to be in the countryside is compounded by what they lived through in the city while they were displaced," explains Ramírez. "Memories and personal histories are a weight they must bear as they recover, in spite of the State's attempts to come closer to them. Another great difficulty in this process is the official appropriation of land. Ownership documents are hard to obtain for the informal nature of land ownership" in Colombia.

And yet in spite of the hurdles, the aim is not just to give people land and training, but also to spread the economic education that will turn them into businessmen of the countryside.