The Fe en Colombia program began in 2014 as a campaign for inter-institutional coordination among public and private entities and international cooperation in Colombia. It aims to improve the living conditions of the most vulnerable populations in the southwestern part of the country, within the framework of full security. The national government, along with the Army and other armed forces, now wants to expand the program to the rest of the country.
To find out more about Fe en Colombia, Diálogo spoke with one of the leaders of the program, Major General Mario Augusto Valencia Valencia, who presently heads the 5th Department of the Army and is a member of the 5th Committee on Strategic Revision and Innovation, responsible for restructuring the Army at all levels, including major and minor operating units.
Diálogo: What groups did the program focus on initially?
Major General Mario Augusto Valencia Valencia: People who were dedicated to [illegal] coca cultivation and those tied to the guerrillas, such as militias responsible for blocking the Pan-American Highway, for example, which connects Cali to Popayán. These blockades have been very violent and have caused a lot of harm. There have been deaths of police officers, deaths among our civil population, and much damage to the infrastructure. In that area, the Pan-American Highway is the only link between southwest Colombia, especially between Cali, Popayán, and Paso, in Nariño. So, the National Army proposed that the community replace their illegal crops, which built a bond of communication and trust and brought together the institutions responsible for managing these programs. Two projects were implemented: one in a rural community and one in an indigenous community. In the indigenous community, for example, coffee replaced coca with very good results. Those communities began to bring about change together with the Army and all the other institutions, because in addition to offering them legal crop options, infrastructure projects were carried out, bridges and schools were built… That is when institution building began to take part in the process. Today, that community has planted more than 77 million coffee plants, and the leaders who previously aided or were members of militias of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are completely on board with the civil institutions.
Diálogo: I understand that growing coffee does not produce as much income as growing coca. So, how were you able to get them to make the shift from illegal to legal crops?
General Valencia: Because culturally, growing coca is not deeply rooted in the soul of the indigenous person, the rural resident. You have to understand that before coca, they had been growing other crops for generations, and these have become more recognized. Coca is an imposition that some guerrillas made; they told them to change their traditional crops for coca for thier convenience. But they feel that they should go back to their traditional crops, and this is an opportunity being given to them. For this reason, when we propose replacing their crops, we first study what types of crops we can offer. We have studied the thermal soil, we have evaluated which crops will give them even more profitability than coca itself, because, within the narcotrafficking chain, the rural grower continues to receive very little money. The money, the big profits go to the guerrillas from the traffickers. The growers receive very little from what they produce.
Diálogo: And when there are illegal crops, the whole environment is marked by violence. Isn’t that right?
General Valencia: Yes. Legal crops allow the communities to recover their autonomy, recover security. And if they have strong institutional partnerships, they get away from the guerrillas. They push them away themselves. So, those communities are encouraged to follow this process. In 2008, even though the communities didn’t trust the troops due to the [negative] propaganda from the guerrillas, the Army established an office of ethnic affairs in the city of Popayán. We must remember that we were in a very violent stage in that area, such that the office of technical affairs was not opened within a military compound. It was opened outside, in a government building. And that is when we began to hear of the needs, the complaints, the claims, the opinions, everything that the indigenous people, the Afro-Colombians, the rural workers wanted to communicate. We took careful note of everything, and we began to call on the institutions, and we told them: “These communities need us to bring them a school, and a health center, to improve their roads, and build them a bridge.” We began to respond to everything that the ethnic communities had asked for.
Diálogo: And this also reestablished a bridge of communication…
General Valencia: Exactly. To me, communication is one of the most valuable steps that we have taken, reestablishing that bridge of communication and once again building trust. In 2012, in view of the success that this process was showing, we were able to establish a productive projects office inside a military installation. Even though there are already government offices that have these protocols and programs for productive projects, we understand that their coverage is insufficient. The office of productive projects did not reach into the most distant areas where there are Soldiers, and along with the Soldiers, those communities. That office was able to construct 77 very important productive projects, and this converted us into recognized leaders, not only by the communities, but by the institutions themselves. The institutions have very good programs, good budgets, and capable people who lead them, but each institution does what it can in isolation. The military commander has the great advantage that his men are active throughout the mountains and the jungles where their work is already recognized by all the communities. For this reason, the military commander calls on all the institutions and tells them: “Together we can all have a decisive impact on these communities that have so many needs, but we cannot do it alone. We need to unite, to share leadership, to see a vision in which we all have to come in with the best the state has to offer these communities and begin to build.”
Diálogo: When you saw that everything was moving along well, did you withdraw from any regions where the Army and other forces had been active?
General Valencia: We made a gradual transfer [to governmental institutions]. Thanks to our past experiences, we do that only when we are sure that it is no longer necessary to maintain permanent physical security in order to operate because the community can regulate itself. We have some very valid examples of that. We transfer responsibility to the mayor, to indigenous leaders, to the chairs of community councils, and boards of community action in those very conflictive areas only when we have completed our work. We have already tried this and received very good results.
Diálogo: What specific objectives are you seeking?
General Valencia: The first thing is to make an assessment of the basic needs of those most vulnerable populations within our borders. We collaborate with institutions to generate trust and develop public policies in those communities. We present the government offer to create space and opportunity, but ultimately, we organize the dispersed communities. We bring them together and convert their members into community entrepreneurs. We seek to build credible and continuously strengthening community support for the government institutions and to make those institutions more transparent. That is to say, this process is leading the institutions to continue to improve, because they become more committed to the communities, and they have to be sure that they fulfill what we have promised them. We monitor this. We have already organized the communities, and they are observers of their own communities’ improvement processes. Then, we create productive products or spaces that are sustainable so that these communities that were dependent on the support of the state, private enterprises, and others, can finally become self-sustaining. They begin to work, offer employment, and pay taxes to the government. That can be achieved.
Diálogo: And how is the program articulated?
General Valencia: The program is articulated by locating zones and communities; we have already said that the building and recovery of trust is fundamental. The state offer has to reach the farthest corner, and then the question is, “how can a government offer get to a community where there is no electricity, no cellular service, no roads? How can that community have the opportunity to know what the State can provide?” We show them the productive projects in infrastructure, in the environment, in all sorts of things so that the communities feel confident that they can trust the state more than the enemy. We understand that there is a variety of communities: indigenous, rural workers, Afro-Colombian, students, victims, religious devotees, and others that are organized territorially, by ethnicity and culture, or economically, who are submerged in vulnerability. We greatly respect the organization of the communities; we do not change anything about their traditions, their world view. We respect it all. The communities put forth the terms we must abide by in offering them help; this is very important. We can’t alter their traditions, their culture, the way in which they govern themselves, or anything of the sort. And the organizational process begins with the individual, whom we soon convert into a team. We associate with the person, and finally we distinguish the person as a community entrepreneur. We are talking about communities where the educational level is very low; there are communities in which the leaders are not academically prepared. We undertake this effort in conjunction with our institutional partners so that we can prepare that leader in all senses. We bring in a lot of recreational tools, and we carry out different events. For example, minga is a community exercise that the indigenous rural populations practice so that they can carry out a project together for the benefit of the community. For example, if winter has damaged a road, they plan a minga and everyone goes out to fix the road to make it passable. If a bridge has broken, they organize a minga, and they all join together to work and bring together other resources to fix the bridge. For us it is very important to empower the leaders.
Diálogo: How do you decide what areas to work in?
General Valencia: We bring together military strength and military planning to that which all the institutions have focused on. That’s why I said that when we come to agreement with the institutions, and they joint that effort, all areas become part of the institutional approach. It is logical that the military strength is supported by consolidation in a way that allows the state institutions to come into an area immediately after it has been cleared of the presence of illegal armed groups to support those communities. As members of the Military, we cannot make a difference in areas that the institutions are not going to reach.
Diálogo: Up to now, this has been a National Army program. Are there any plans to expand it to the other Armed Forces?
General Valencia: At this time, the Committee on Strategic Revision and Innovation has made the decision to include it in their plans. All of the Military branches will incorporate the program in their planning to become integrated with all the institutions, including the private enterprises and the international community’s support, to achieve this process in the whole country in a coordinated, joint, and inter-agency manner.