A group of 20 peasant farmers of all ages are in a meeting in a wooden house. On the floor, there are cats and dogs, but this doesn’t matter, the debate carries on with interesting questions. “What are we eating? Are we autonomous when it comes to what we eat?” a 40-year-old woman asks. She has the task of giving this class in the form of a workshop. At first nobody wants to answer, she carries on “What type of native beans do you grow?”. “The cagavivo bean is native here” Don Orlando finally dares to answer. He is a man of about 50 years, slim and with a strong body, dark skin and indigenous features. From this point the debate opens, “and speaking of corn, you know that there can be contamination caused by the pollen if there is a transgenic variety near your crops”, the workshop leader warns and finishes with the decisive phrase: “Don’t bring anymore corn from other parts!”. The teacher is a specialist in the recovery of native seeds, this for her means recovering the peasant farmer identity.
With the teacher guiding the process, the group talks about the seeds that they have lost and the ones that they would like to recover, the loss of the foods that the ancestors made, the bad influence that television has had on the eating habits of their children. “Here the children don’t eat fruit, they want to drink fizzy drinks and they think that fruit is grown in the shops”, a lady says while she lets slip a giggle. “To keep our territory, we have to have food sovereignty”, the workshop leader responds with a serious face. The debate centres on how they can recover their prior eating habits, the importance of minerals for the human body, the different ways of conserving dry beans and corn, about techniques of storing cocoa, how to control bugs in the tomato plots. “What is good for us we turn away because it doesn’t taste nice”, Orlando says laughing.
This workshop forms part of the Peasant Farmer University, an initiative created in 2003. “Why don’t we convert this Training Centre into a university?” a peasant farmer asked that year. “Why?” responded another. “Colombia is full of universities why would we want to create another one?”, a third person said.
But a few weeks later, a group of leaders from the rural communities had a meeting to talk about the idea of creating an alternative university. They agreed that they wanted one without classrooms, an open field without degrees, without pupils or pupils where everyone teaches and everybody learns. “A university centred in the problems that peasant farmers face” recalls Father Javier Giraldo, who has accompanied the Peace Community for the last 20 years. In 2004 the first session of the University took place in Arenas Altas (hamlet that forms part of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó). This is event was then followed by events in Caquetá and the indigenous territory of the Kankuamos in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.
This year, the classes have returned to the Peasant Farmer University in the Peace Community, the motive being the acts organised for the 20th anniversary of its creation. We were there as international accompaniers, observing as the men and women take notes of formulas for fertiliser, soap or other organic micro-organisms, for sulphur or ash concoctions, they are all useful and practical recipes for their daily lives and their rural work. It appears just like any other advanced chemistry lesson. Meanwhile, in gardens in other houses or in other spaces in the community, the other groups are learning about health, education and rights. On the last day, they share in the general assembly the knowledge they have learnt during the classes. The satisfaction among everybody, teachers and pupils is abundant. It is a very practical way of learning things and everybody is eager to apply their new knowledge in their daily chores.
Bianca Bauer and Noelia Vizcarra