Every time I visit Bogotá’s central market of Paloquemao, I am amazed by the array of produce of all shapes and colours. The parking lot is full of flowers overflowing out of the back of trucks, while inside there stacks of grains and nuts, freezers loaded with cuts of meat, stalls lined with medicinal herbs to cure every ailment, cartons full of eggs carefully arranged by size and, of course, hundreds of different varieties of fruits and vegetables.
Beyond the incredible assortment of produce and the fun of “people watching” while drinking at the market’s entrance, Paloquemao represents the richness of a vibrant campesino culture that can be found throughout the country. Food is, after all, much more than the act of simply eating.
To know where our food comes from it to participate more fully in the complicatedly beautiful cycle of land, seeds, labour, transport, purchase, preparation, and consumption. In Colombia, it is rising at five in the morning to pick fruit in the backyard, it is an afternoon spent plucking chickens to prepare soup, it is a bicycle ride of many kilometres to plant yuca, it is laughter over fried fish and freshly ground corn formed into arepas to eat as a family.
Food is the rhythm of our days and the cycle of our lives, a cycle that directly depends on Colombian campesinos. Campesinos may not have a university, or often high school education, but they are the true experts when it comes to understanding seasonal cycles, soil care and food production. As a local coffee farmer explained, scooping up a handful of what appeared to be simple black dirt in his farm in Armenia,
“One must learn how to read the soil.” The stifled conversation previously inside his home became one of emotion and excitement. In the field, he pointed out each plant, explaining with precision exactly every step in the growing process. For over two hours, he taught us about erosion, the best planting times according to the moon, the important relationship between coffee and cocoa plants, the value of composting and more as he shared what he had learned through years of experience and hard work. The resulting cup of coffee that we shared was the perfect culmination his local knowledge. From statues of green onions and potatoes in plazas in Boyacá in honour of local crops, to ñame festivals on the coast, each region celebrates their agricultural specialty with pride. Beyond pride, however, local level production of these crops guarantees the livelihood of the majority of the families in the area.
Additionally, by producing their own sustenance, family food security is ensured in areas where there are often no stores nearby. In the words of many, it is a way of life that: “Does not provide much money, but the dignity of living on the land is what it means to be truly wealthy.” Visit any small community in the department of Bolívar’s Montes de María mountains and chances are good that bundles of unhusked rice will be hanging from the rafters of straw roofs, to be eaten throughout the year. Small backyard gardens are filled with eggplants and tomatoes, while chickens and pigs root in the dirt nearby. Fruit is eaten in season to complement these everyday staples. Local seeds are stored for the next cycle of planting.
Yet the campesino lifestyle is not idyllic. Beyond the backbreaking work of tilling the soil by hand, many farming families do not have market access to sell their products. Plus, prices are often not high enough to justify transporting produce to market. Violence has forced many farmers to flee their land, along with agricultural policies and international trade deals that favour multinational companies and large scale farming over traditional methods. Oil producing palms are planted instead of food crops.
Despite these threats, campesinos refuse to change their way of life without a struggle. In 2013, thousands took to the streets to demand policy changes during a month long strike. Beyond simply striking, however, farmers also proactively work together for better lives.
In Istmina, Chocó, for example, a campesino group from several communities has formed a local cooperative and purchased a rice processing machine. Collectively, the processed rice can be sold for a higher price. These practices are replicated throughout the nation in many small communities, trying to ensure that farmers can earn a living and remain doing what they do best: feeding a nation.
From the country to the city, cycles of production and consumption are interconnected. The beautiful variety of fruit and vegetables at Paloquemao arrive from around the country. Each item is the story of an intimate relationship with soil and seeds and also of the need to safeguard small scale farming. The food of all of us, depends on the vibrancy of the campo.