Colombia’s five decades of civil conflict saw hundreds of thousands killed, and millions displaced from the countryside. Our Tiendas de Paz (peace shops) project is helping to build a new future for those who are now returning to their homes
For Rosa Inés Duque, a mother of three, the turning point came when the rebels put her two youngest children on their target list for recruitment. Henry was in his early teens; Johana was just a girl.
Two years earlier, in 1998, armed bands had first started infiltrating the hills around Rosa’s home village of Los Medios, in the Antioquia region of northwestern Colombia. Left-wing rebels who opposed the government battled against right-wing paramilitaries; and the drug cartels alternately supported or attacked both sides. All of them demanded the support of the villagers.
The rebel groups would pass through the village and recruit the teenagers. Those children were the first to die in combat. Rosa Inés Duque | villager
Rosa sent Henry and Johana to stay with relatives in the city of Medellín, 150 kilometres away. A year later, she and her husband Oscar left their family farm and joined their children. They were not the only ones. Of the 300 families in Los Medios, only 35 stayed, a flight from the countryside that was repeated in many parts of Colombia. An estimated five million people became refugees in their own country.
Even in the big city, the conflict could not be escaped; Rosa received constant death threats by telephone, as the rebels demanded that she and her family return to the village.
They found it hard to get by. Oscar opened a small greengrocers shop, but it did not do well, and Rosa had to use her sewing skills to make clothes.
In 2004, Oscar was the first to return to Los Medios, working as a farm labourer and sending money back to support the family. Three years later, the army finally took permanent control of the area, and the rest of the family returned to their village.
Rosa resumed her former position as president of the village community action group, but there wasn’t much of a community left; farmland lay unworked, and most of the houses were just empty shells. Trying to rebuild was tough.
In 2013, Los Medios was one of 11 rural communities in Antioquia selected by Bavaria, SABMiller’s business in Colombia, for its Tiendas de Paz project. Part of SABMiller’s 4e, Camino al Progreso (Path to Progress) programme which across Latin America supports around 40,000 tenderos (small shopkeepers). Tiendas de Paz is aimed specifically at rebuilding rural communities in Colombia where most of the population has been displaced by the conflict.
The village shop is always at the heart of Colombia’s isolated rural communities. The Tiendas de Paz project either builds a new tienda (shop), or improves an existing tienda, using collective ownership to engage the whole community in the enterprise.
Seed finance is provided by Bavaria and the Colombian government, averaging around US$14,000 for each tienda, and Bavaria has enabled access to financial and banking services for the villagers. The collective appoints a rotary committee to take the surpluses from the tienda and provide microcredit for small, productive projects put forward by the community, often aimed at improving the efficiency and profitability of local farming.
Key to the project is the training in accounting and entrepreneurship brought in by Bavaria, building up the skills of local people to ensure that the tienda is run on sound business lines. Training in soil and crop management helps the village farms get back on their feet, and the tienda serves not only as a source of food and drink (often the only one for many kilometres around), but also as a marketplace where farmers can sell their produce and buy supplies.
The community served by each Tienda de Paz averages several hundred people, with some travelling up to four hours on mule-back to get to the tienda, which is also the social centre for the entire neighbouring area.
In Los Medios, more than 60 families have now returned from exile. Rosa says: “We feel very blessed, very lucky, to have a second chance and a future for us all in the countryside. We are extremely proud to be part of the Tiendas de Paz project, it’s everything to us. Our lives revolve around the tienda.”
Rosa is particularly appreciative of the economic boost created by the committee members who have undergone business training:
They can learn to become the entrepreneurs that we have needed for a long time. We are very grateful to Bavaria.Rosa Inés Duque | villager
And she is full of hope for the future: “I want the community to be prosperous, to always be looking forward with ambition, and to always progress. This is my greatest wish.”