Old and new committee members' meeting
For rural subsistence farmers time is a precious commodity. Waking up long before dawn and resting long after dusk, doing back-breaking work for 15 hours a day, to earn just enough money to sustain themselves and their families, is an unfortunate norm. Despite this, we were incredibly lucky to have inspired 12 rural villagers to gift to us some of their most rare commodity - time.
Our latest visit to Los Medios was one of the most exciting yet. We were invited to attend the handover and first basic training session for two new community committees. The two committees are responsible for the management and day-to-day running of the Community shop and Community Savings Fund.
Both the shop and the savings fund are projects that are jointly run and administered by the Department for Social Prosperity, The Bavaria Foundation and Corporacion Interactuar.
The shop is part of a network of local, rural shops that jointly are known as ‘Tiendas de Paz’ or Peace Shops. The idea of the Tiendas de Paz project is to incentivise persons violently displaced from their homes to return to the land that was once theirs. The idea is also that with a village shop, the community will not only be able to restart their lives in their native villages, but will be able to become and remain self-sufficient. Farmers from the village and surrounding areas are encouraged to bring their produce to the shop, to be distributed both in the village and throughout the surrounding Tiendas de Paz network. More than just aid, this project is about empowerment and autonomy.
The Community Savings Fund is an assembly and committee managed pot of savings, that are released, up to $1m pesos (roughly USD350) per loan, to support local, rural production projects. The money is loaned at a low interest rate solely to inhabitants of the village who need capital for any kind of agricultural production project, for example - to buy higher quality feed for animals, or to buy new machinery to be used in the production of panela (unrefined cane sugar). Loan requests are approved or denied by a committee, based on a number of factors. The Fund is again aimed at promoting self sufficiency in Los Medios and encourages campesinos (country people) to look for and capitalise on opportunities they face in their working lives.
The handover process, which took place in an empty classroom in the Los Medios school, was quite chaotic and very loud. Both old and new committee members were vying for their voices to be heard as they expressed the trials and tribulations they face, as well as the successes and pride they felt in themselves and in their community.
We were able to identify various points of weakness and difficulties faced by the committees, varying from inaccurate bookkeeping, to gaps in technical knowledge for the computer software used in the shop, to hesitance to standardise and commercialise agricultural products for wider distribution outside the Tiendas de Paz network. To address these issues, we have arranged a series of training sessions and hands-on workshops funded by your donations, that will allow the new committee members to develop their theoretical skills in real-life situations. We are also in the process of doing an agricultural assessment of produce in the area, to determine the scope for transformation of agricultural goods into higher value products - for example transforming raw block panela (unrefined cane sugar) into a ground or powdered version, which would demand a higher price when sold.
Despite the skills gaps, the community is improving rapidly. The proof was all around the village and became glaringly evident, as I said at the beginning of my report, with the arrival of every single one of the committee members.
What the inhabitants of Los Medios lack in financial or business skills and discipline, they make up for in enthusiasm and determination. They are determined to push through a change in their community which will allow economic and familial security to become a long term reality and they are determined to learn new skills to do this. We at Together for Colombia are determined, with your help, to continue to help make this a real possibility and we are sure you are too!
As ever, we and the inhabitants of Los Medios are eternally grateful for all that you have given so far.
To read the latest blog entry on our visit to Los Medios, or to get in touch with any questions or comments, please visit our website at www.togetherforcolombia.com.
Until next time…!
The Tiendas de Paz Community Shop
The New Committee!