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World Food Day, 16 October 2017
Orlando Ruiz
"The violence was so intense that I could not bear the situation anymore. "
" "

Orlando is a farmer, living in Pertenencia region, Sucre department, northern Colombia with his wife and eight children. He was born in the area and is proud of his ancestry.

Even contemplating leaving proved difficult. But a number of factors – worsening conflict, losing his father to violence, finding his children at risk of being recruited by armed forces, having to sleep in the mountains as it was not safe at home at night - pushed him to leave.

“The violence was so intense that I could not bear the situation anymore,” says Orlando.

They left quietly without telling anyone.

“The day we left no one knew about it; they only realized what was happening when I was loading the truck,” he says. 

For eleven years, Orlando and his family lived in Los Palmitos, in Sucre department, northern Colombia.

Life in town was different from what he was used to, from what he knew and loved. He only knew a few people. Back on his farm, he was used to working all the time. He had a sense of purpose. Sitting idle or having to resort to begging was inconceivable.

“I had two sisters who were taking care of a farm so I went there every day to help them milk the cows and they gave me some milk in exchange. Some days, by mid-morning, I wouldn’t have had anything to eat. I remember one day Dr. Mansola (an acquaintance) came to see me. It was around 10 a.m. and I told him, I’m sorry, I cannot even offer you some coffee. We don’t have any. Can you believe it? 10 am and my children hadn’t eaten anything. I started crying. That was the most difficult period for me,” he says.

In 2013, as land restitutions started, Orlando and his family returned. A peace deal was signed in 2016, with more and more desplaced farmers returning.

What was it like for him to be back?

“I was really happy. We are farmers, we love the country. The city - walking up and down the streets doing nothing - is not for us... You know how hard it is to have to leave your land, the place where you have your daily food. Being displaced is something you don’t want to remember,” he adds.

Even so, he thinks about his father every day, he says.

“I remember that it was a Tuesday evening. It was raining. Around 7 pm, I heard the shots…,” he says.

It took time, patience and perseverance to get back on his feet.

“Right there where you see the house, it was just jungle. I had to work hard to get things done. Little by little,” he explains pointing to his house.

At the beginning, he came back alone so that he can establish a base before bringing his family.

The farmers helped one another. They would work on one plot of land for a week; next week, on another.

Though they work more independently now, they set up an association, and continue to help one another.

They also received support from the Government – some financial support, a solar plant, farming tools, chickens and cows.

Orlando got five cows and a young calf. They now have 19 cows.

“I wake up at 5 am every morning and go check on the animals…My wife jokes that I pay more attention to the cattle than her,” he says laughing.

He also invested in buying over 7,000 small bocachico fish and built a pond for them.

“Things are much better now, he says. After all the suffering, I’m happy and live in peace on my land, with my children. They have all they need to succeed. If I die tomorrow, my children will have something to remember me for,” adds Orlando.

Together with the other farmers, he is aiming to sell the milk and yam to companies.

“We got some equipment for mechanical milking, and we are already thinking how we could become better entrepreneurs. We already have some companies interested in buying our milk - CODASUCRE – and our yam,” he explains.

Orlando has a flair for business. But listening to him, one realizes that he is above all a helper; he set up the farmers’ association with other farmers, and support from FAO, so that he can help other returning farmers re-establish themselves, and find also ways for farmers to live and work together in peace - in a community where those who remained or took over land now have to share it with those who have been returning.

He wants a better life for his children, for his community.

The FAO-supported project focused on promoting integration, reconciliation and sharing of resources, benefitting some 500 people - about half are returning farmers, the other half are host communities in Nariño, Sucre, Córdoba, Tolima y Magdalena departments of Colombia.

It enabled the setting up of a collective irrigation network, which captures and stores rainwater in an area that is dry and where access to water is essential for farming.

It supported farmers in milk, coffee and honey production – providing infrastructure, equipment and training; and provided small farming tools and training in sustainable agricultural practices and creating business opportunities.

FAO’s project partners are Sweden and the Land Restitution Unit.

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