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Seeds of a better future
– by Leonardo Párraga
Chichamama painted on the wall of Mutualitos.
Drug trafficking and war have been part of everyday life in Colombia for decades. Bogotá’s neighbourhoods have seen a rise of violent crime. The members of criminal gangs tend to be from the city’s marginalised areas. They lack alternative perspectives.
Access to the arts is limited to the upper classes of society. They go to art shows, museums and private exhibitions, but others hardly do so at all. Access to high-quality education and well-paying careers is similarly limited to the elite. The disadvantage people lack opportunities to challenge and develop their world views.
The BogotArt Foundation is aware of such inequality. We think that, if citizens from underprivileged neighbourhoods cannot go to where the arts take place, the arts must go to where they are. As urban change makers, we use walls in the public space to paint pictures. What we offer, knows no discrimination, because the walls are there for everyone to see regardless of social strata, religion or ethnical group.
One population group that is particularly deprived in Bogotá are internally displaced persons (IDPs). More than 400,000 of them live in the agglomeration. The have fled violence to save their lives, only to be considered aliens in their new hometown.
They cannot go home
The displaced people have hardly a chance of ever returning home. Most likely, illegal groups such as Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) and various criminal gangs are still out there. They are violent and have little mercy with people who want to reclaim land that once belonged to them.
Citizens of rural Colombia have reason to fear for their land. It is an asset that many illegal groups want. Colombia’s society is multicultural, featuring indigenous communities, mestizos, Afro-Colombians, people of European descent and many combinations. Those who are powerless and poor are at greater risk of being driven from their land, and Afro-Colombians and indigenous people are especially affected.
Various civil-society activists are making efforts to help displaced people in Bogotá improve their lot. Rosa Evelia Poveda Guerrero is one of them. She leads Mutualitos, an organic farm and school in the city. She says she wants to contribute to sustainable peace by “planting seeds of hope”.
When she came to Bogotá nearly 10 years ago, her only resource was the determination to leave behind war and death. She found an empty plot in a marginalised neighbourhood. It was full of garbage, but she saw the potential to turn it into the headquarters of an urban revolution, to bring the countryside to the city. She cleaned up the piece of land and began to cultivate it. She is growing traditional fruits and vegetables. She avoids chemicals and artificial fertilisers, because she believes that Earth itself provides the nutrients needed. She only uses landrace seeds, just like her grandmother once did.
She also keeps some small animals like chicken and rabbits. Her goal is to teach young people that they can achieve food security and thus gain independence without conventional education. She inspires similar projects that serve to develop skills and find livelihoods beyond the market system. It is possible to trade organic fruits, vegetables and all sorts of services for other products and services, without using financial means. This mutual support system is called “mano cambiada” (“changed hand”). Rosa invites students from schools and universities as well as youth from the neighbourhood to Mutualitos and shows them how to run an ecological farm.
Rosa is a peasant relied on the traditions of the rural community she came from to revitalise an urban plot contained by four walls. The countryside is where she learned how to grow different crops in an environment-friendly way.
The neighbourhood is called “La Perseverancia” (“determination”), a name that describes Rosa’s attitude well. The local community appreciates her. Rosa is a leader who inspires young people in the area. “La Perse”, as the area is called for short, can sometimes be quite dangerous, but the situation used to be even worse. A few years ago, her farm was attacked. Her daughter was hurt in the incident and a couple of goods were stole. Because the local people like Rosa, they found the robber. He was sent to jail and no other criminal has since attacked Rosa, her farm or family.
Leading by example, Rosa manages to motivate young people to engage in peaceful activities. Many of them have a violent and criminal background; they were involved in drug trafficking and robbery, for instance. Planting seeds of hope, both in a metaphorical and literal way, she shows that one has the power to change the minds of people if one shows them an inspiring alternative and new paths in life.
Rosa’s ideas are contagious. Other people have started urban farming, following her example.
Rosa is a strong woman. She has always known that she can shape her own reality. If she does not receive help from the government, she will help herself, using creativity as the asset that enables her projects to happen. In more fortunate countries, governments do the kind of work she does or support it. In Colombia, private persons are rising to the challenges of deprivation, injustice and exclusion.
Rosa has created an oasis of hope, and has managed to turn former gang members into productive members of society. As we share the goal of inspiring young people, the BogotArt Foundation has become a partner of Mutualitos. We translated Rosa’s emphasis on protecting nature into a visual artwork.
Two youngsters from La Perse, an artist from Denmark (known as “La Extranjera”, or in English “The Foreigner”) and a Colombian muralist joined forces to make Rosa’s walls talk. “Chichamama” is the name of the mural. Chicha is a traditional maize-based drink produced by various indigenous communities across the Colombian territory. Corn was the main food that the Muisca indigenous community consumed, being a key nutrient not only for the body but also for the soul.
The name “Chichamama” is related to “Pachamama”, an Incan expression meaning mother earth. In the Andes, indigenous cultures have always stressed the links between humanity and nature, being the destiny of earthlings defined in the way they relate with Mother Nature, the provider of all the things they need. We want to show that it is still possible to produce food with the means that Mother Nature provides, avoiding artificial forms like the genetically modified organisms.
Leonardo Párraga is the founder of the BogotArt Foundation, an initiative that uses art to fight social exclusion, stereotypes and non-democratic attitudes in Bogotá.