Today was my first day in the field in Colombia, where I am working with rural farming associations on conflict resolution. It was an eye opening experience, from police checkpoints to family feuds.
I’m visiting villages right on the edge of the Colombian jungle, bordering the pacific coast. The Pacific coast of Colombia is one of the most dangerous areas of the country because it’s where all the drugs go to be trafficked abroad. The goal of my work is to help farmers find other crops to grow that can sustain them as well, or better, than coca. This means managing a lot of internal conflict that comes with completely changing your strategy (imagine Chipotle trying to deliver gourmet Ethiopian food… tomorrow). Many of us can relate to the experience of making a 180-degree shift, either at work or personally… it can be brutally hard.
We had to follow strict rules during our expedition to the village, including getting checked at the base of the mountain, not going up too high (where the cartels operate), and leaving well before dark. It’s a fascinating (and certainly frightening) thing to be a few hundred feet away from an invisible “do not cross here for fear of death by cartels.”
Once we arrived to the village, the issues I was there to help manage came to light. Two families feuding over the power (i.e. money) that comes from their crops, primarily
strawberries. One man had started the association, but refused to share the power… so much so, that the resentment had grown, and they demoted him from their chair of the board to the secretary. He has not taken this transition well, and continues to vie for power.
Most of the farmers I work with only have elementary-level education, but they all understood ego, and this is where I started. How do we manage the ego, how do we manage our fundamental emotional concerns like autonomy and fairness, how do we speak to each other with respect…
It was a complicated, often heated, deliberation. In the afternoon, I asked them to give me the problem they wanted to address with me that afternoon as a group, and their goals for the organization. They were all the same: we have poor communication, people are not nice to each other, but we all want the association to succeed and work together as a team. Sound familiar?
This was the first apparently positive step, as everyone saw the similarities in interests and ne
eds. In the end, I was able to help them come to an operating agreement for their association meetings, including a moderator, an agenda, and guidelines for communication: which they all signed and kept up in their office. In the end, I told them that they were the only ones who could enforce the agreement, but I had high hopes for them. I asked the leader to stay in touch, and let me know how things progress over time… I’m keeping my fingers crossed for this tiny community hanging off the side of a mountain.
Today was an immensely rewarding experience. I’ll continue with different associations every day for the next week, and will continue to provide interesting insights for those who are interested :).