The next battle

Driving down the steep, rugged slopes from the town of Abejorral in Colombia’s northern Antioquia department towards the El Picacho coffee plantation is no easy task, even in a four-wheel drive.

Deep potholes that litter the mountainside track act as booby traps designed to rattle bones, while great sand-coloured rocks slow the descent to barely a crawl.

Ever Anaya Osorio knows the route better than anyone. The independent coffee farmer and founder of El Picacho makes the trip several times per week, delivering his Maria Camila arabica brand to customers in Abejorral and the nearby town of La Ceja, about three hours from Medellín.

“The roads are shocking,” Anaya says on the terrace of his El Picacho farmhouse. “It is something that coffee farmers are always complaining about to mayors, to governors, but nothing gets done. And not only in Abejorral – this is nationwide.”

Like most coffee farmers in Colombia, the 55-year-old is feeling the strain.

Roads aside, the slump in prices last year to less than 100 US cents per pound has left him struggling to make ends meet, with the cost of buying fertilisers and employing up to 30 workers to harvest his 5.6-hectare plot weighing heavily on his balance sheet.

Meanwhile, Anaya says the coffee borer beetle, known as the broca – “coffee’s number one enemy” – is tenacious enough to wipe out his entire crop.

Unlike most other farmers, though, Anaya has had to face another, more personal challenge: readjusting to civilian life after three years in the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), the country’s most feared right-wing paramilitary group.

Active from 1997 to 2006, the 20,000-strong AUC was one of several armed groups engaged in Colombia’s five-decade civil conflict that left more than 260,000 people dead and millions displaced from their homes.

Often working alongside regular army units, the AUC was set up to fight the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and other left-wing insurgents, but was deemed a terrorist organisation by the international community because of its involvement in the narcotics trade and other criminal activities.

The conflict was officially brought to an end after a peace accord was signed in late 2016 between the government of former President Juan Manuel Santos and leaders of the FARC, although hostilities in many parts of the country continue.

Anaya insists that in 2002 he had little choice but to join the paramilitaries.

The FARC, which at the time controlled vast swathes of rural Colombia, was extorting 10 per cent of the profits of his family-run cattle-ranching business, leaving him and his relatives struggling to survive. After the guerrillas killed his uncle and cousin, and then levelled death threats against his mother, he fled with his family to the sanctuary of a nearby town. Seeking revenge, he enlisted as a logistics expert with a local unit of the AUC.

“Those that criticise often do not know the full story or why one would end up there (in the AUC),” says Anaya, who left the group in December 2005 after it struck a demobilisation deal with the government. “Sometimes it is the lack of opportunities, the lack of education, or just not really knowing what one is getting into.”

The job of reintegrating tens of thousands of ex-fighters like Anaya into civilian life has been one of the biggest challenges of the ongoing peace process.

Many former members of the FARC, in particular, were recruited in their teens, and have spent their entire adult life holed up in remote jungle camps, learning few of the necessary skills for a livelihood outside of the guerrillas.

Since 2003, Colombia’s Reincorporation and Normalization Agency (ARN), a government unit set up to oversee reintegration, has helped those who have resigned from the ranks of the FARC, the AUC, and other illegal armed groups to retrain and start businesses in areas such as ecotourism, fashion, and sustainable agriculture.

In 2019 alone, the government approved 869 individual or collective productive projects involving more than 3200 one-time members of the FARC, each granted eight million pesos (about US$2300) by the ARN to help with setup costs.

Many are developing their new skills in 24 government-approved transition zones designed to facilitate the reintegration program.

“It is incredible the number of ways that they have found to work productively,” says a representative from ARN. “There is an emphasis on territorial development, so these productive projects often involve part of the local community where they live. It is an integrated approach that pushes these projects beyond just income generation.”

Some coffee ventures, profiting from the agency’s technical assistance and support in accessing markets and land, have already tasted success.

Acopaz, a cooperative made up of 47 former FARC members, struck a deal with Lohas Beans to export 200 tonnes of coffee grown in central Tolima department to the United States, while Ascafe, another cooperative from southern Cauca department, won the Best of the Best category at last year’s Ernesto Illy International Coffee Awards in New York, seeing off some 5000 challengers.

According to the ARN, successful reintegration is vital to ensuring that ex-combatants in Colombia are discouraged from rejoining illegal armed groups.

For the most part, demobilisation in Colombia has worked well, but some former fighters – including several high-level commanders – are abandoning the peace effort and taking up arms again, posing a grave security risk.

Since the 2016 deal with the FARC, 20 to 28 splinter groups have emerged, boasting more than 3000 members or a quarter of those guerrillas who signed up to the ARN’s reincorporation process, according to Bogota-based think tank Ideas para la Paz.

Figures for ex-paramilitaries who rejoin armed groups are more difficult to come by.

Many who rearm are driven by ideology or disillusionment with the government’s handling of the peace process, while others are tempted by the financial rewards offered by criminal activities such as cocaine production, extortion, and illegal gold mining.

“The underlying conflict and the illicit economies that fuel that conflict have not been resolved,” says Nicolas Urrutia, senior analyst at security firm Control Risks.

“Despite the fact that individual groups may have found or may have been able to get to negotiated agreements for demobilisation with the government, the black market for combatants and people that know the terrain and know how to handle themselves persists.”

Others choose to rearm amid personal security concerns. According to Ideas para la Paz, in the three years to October 2019, 147 ex-fighters were killed in suspected reprisal attacks.

“And that is no longer something that is only happening in remote areas or places where they have gone to resettle and reconnect within families in their places of origin far away from the transition zones, but it has also started to happen – although for the time being in smaller numbers – close to and even in the transition zones themselves,” Urrutia says.

“That sends a very chilling message to combatants and creates an additional incentive to rejoin an underground group.”

A decade and a half on from his own demobilisation, and with a business to expand, Anaya has little time to dwell on the past.

Having arrived in El Picacho almost a decade ago, Anaya has set up the only fully equipped coffee-producing farm in the local area, with units for washing, depulping, threshing, drying, toasting, and packing the beans.

On peak harvest days, the plantation produces about 2500 kilos of cherries, yielding 500 kilos of dry coffee. It is tough, meticulous work, often carried out in 30°C heat.

Finding new channels to market his coffee is fundamental for the future of his business, but the low returns restrict his options. A recent uptick in prices has brought some respite.

“New markets do exist, but you need to get out and look for them, and how do you do that?” Anaya says. “Right now I do not have the means to travel to Medellín; I cannot just abandon the farm for two or three days. And the costs are high. It all adds up.”

Colombia’s National Federation of Coffee Growers has supported Anaya through free training courses and technical advice. Amid the price slump, the trade group has been encouraging farmers to cut costs and focus on the quality of their beans. However, the challenge is not straightforward.

“It is true that profitability depends largely on reducing production costs,” says a representative of the Antioquia Coffee Growers Committee. “But cost cutting has its limits, because the price of fertilisers and labour depend on external factors that cannot be controlled by us or the farmers.”

As the clouds begin to descend on the lush green slopes surrounding El Picacho, it is hard to believe the region was once the backdrop to some of the most intense fighting of the conflict.

Anaya, like most Colombians, prays the violence has been confined to the history books.

“I may be wrong, but we all have the right to make mistakes,” he says. “But we do what we want to do, and I chose to change. With the little measure of help that I have received, well, I have made that change.”

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