Amid a jungle occupied by illegal armed groups and drug traffickers, CorpoCampo offers sustainable crop alternatives for 1,200 Afro-Colombian and indigenous families
I grew up in the Amazon jungle surrounded by rivers, bright green trees and birdsong. My parents and eight brothers and sisters and I harvested and sold coffee and cocoa beans in Putumayo, southern Colombia. Those were difficult times. We tried to sell our products on horseback in the middle of the rain and mud and there were many times when nobody bought what we produced. Despite poverty, we were happy. My mother taught us to find the good side of things and inspired us to be better human beings. My past marked my life and inspired me to create a company that would serve the people in my town.
In the 80s we lived the coca boom – the plant used to make cocaine. No crop could compete with it because it was so lucrative. But it was a temporary solution to make ends meet. It also brought violence, pain, and death.
I learned to plant and work with coca and that’s why I understand the reasons people do it. Back then, farmers did not have many opportunities and we needed to earn a living. When I turned 15, my mother sent me away to study in the nearest town and from there, with the help of a family friend, I moved to Bogotá. There, in the capital, I had many daytime jobs in order to pay for my studies.
In 1998 – during the coca grower strike – I started selling palm hearts for a company in Putumayo. We had to carry the products on our shoulders, so that profits weren’t spent on transportation costs. We also joined a UN- and government-led alternative development programme to replace coca with palm hearts. At first it was a challenge, because coca does not need significant infrastructure for harvesting, while palm hearts do, and the air-spraying of crops damaged the water, fauna, forest and other crops that served as a means of subsistence.
Despite these difficulties, which we continue to work on, in 2003 we took a loan and created CorpoCampo, a family business that promotes the sustainable management of the forest through the harvesting of palm hearts and acai. CorpoCampo provides technical assistance and buys the crops at a fair price from Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities and farmers. This is how we started the first palm hearts production plant in Guapi, a small town four miles from the Pacific Ocean on Colombia’s coast. There, our company represents the only legal opportunity to generate income.
Today we employ 1,200 Afro-Colombian and indigenous families in Guapi and the cities of Buenaventura, Tumaco and Puerto Asís – areas where violence and poverty have caused damage. We have discovered that when there is an assured supply chain, farmers can count on a sustainable alternative that allows them to substitute illicit crops, avoid deforestation, prevent climate change and earn an income. While a person who grows coca earns £13 per day, up to £50 per day can be earned harvesting acai.
CorpoCampo employs 240 female heads of household, some of who have up to 10 children. Thanks to our company they have an opportunity to generate a decent income that allows them to live better, empowering them to resist the pressure of illegal groups and be an example in their community. In addition, awareness of environmental conservation has risen in the areas where CorpoCampo operates – people know that the forest is untouchable, that they can live from it and in harmony with it.
Although it is not easy doing business in the middle of the jungle, due to the lack of infrastructure and the presence of illegal armed groups and drug traffickers, CorpoCampo is committed to work with thousands of families who have decided to bet on a better future. We believe that through the sustainable use of the forest, and adding value to the crops, prosperity is generated for local people. Today we export palm hearts and acai, with an estimated valued of more than £3.5m a year, to France, Germany, the Netherlands, Lebanon, the US, Chile, and Mexico.
I am honoured to have received the Business for Peace award, alongside Lori Blaker, CEO of TTi Global and Martin Naughton, founder of Glen Dimplex Group. It is recognition of all the silent work we do in places where there is a lack of security, institutions and job opportunities. We have faith in people and it fills us with joy to give them a hand and be able to help them grow and positively transform their lives.
With great pride, we are one of the nine companies in Colombia that are part of the global Business Call to Action platform, whose secretariat is led by the United Nations Development Programme. Together, we seek to accelerate progress towards sustainable development goals, challenge and support companies to develop inclusive, commercially successful business models that in turn generate development for those left behind.
At CorpoCampo we are convinced that through sustainable production partnerships, peace is being built. This award encourages us to expand our operation, protect more land, and provide the world with nutritious and healthy food.
Edgar Montenegro is founder and CEO of CorpoCampo and recipient of the 2018 Business for Peace award
Content on this page is provided by Business Call to Action, and originally appeared on The BCtA Guardian Lab.
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