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Local grads making strides with grass-root efforts to help displaced Colombian farmers return home

POSTED: February 21, 2012 1:30 a.m.
/For The Times

From left, members of the grass-roots organization Give Us Names Josh McKague, Zack Mellette, Michael Christmas, guide Juan Sebastion, Dan Roge, Caleb Collier are pictured during a visit to Colombia.

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Three years ago, the members of the grass-roots organization Give Us Names decided to be the change they wanted to see in the world.

Today, the seeds of the team members’ collective concerns are bearing fruit.

In 2009, they traveled to South America to learn more about how government-funded anti-narcotics campaigns were affecting the people of Colombia.

The U.S. State Department’s Plan Colombia, part of the nation’s war on drugs, proposes "funding of $96 million over the next two years to enhance the ability of the Colombian National Police to eradicate coca and poppy fields," according to its website. The money will go to upgrade aircraft spray equipment for fumigation of narcotics crops.

The group soon learned the aerial fumigation intended to kill fields of drug plants was also killing local farmers’ crops nearby.

"With that, they basically lost their cash crops and means for income," said Zack Mellette, a member of Give Us Names and a Hall County native.

While Plan Colombia offers funds to provide economic alternatives to farmers growing poppy and coca, it offers no financial help for subsistence farmers and those growing other crops who find themselves caught in the cross hairs of the drug war.

Without money to reinvest in new crops, many of those farmers and their families were forced to leave their homesteads for the cities to try and find work.

The Give Us Names teams documented the plight of one displaced farmer, Abelardo, in the documentary, "Leaving La Floresta," which they screened Friday at First Baptist Church in Gainesville.

After his crops were decimated, Abelardo, his wife and five children were forced to relocate to the city.

"Abelardo was working 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, digging tunnels for a water company there," Mellette said.

"They were living in the slums in a one-room hut in a really dangerous neighborhood that had a high threat of violence."

Through their fundraising and awareness campaign, the nonprofit team — which also includes Michael Christmas, Dan Roge, Justen Clay, Caleb Collier and Ryan Bernal — was able to help the family return home.

The family returned to their farm in January after spending nearly a year in the city slums.

"Our investment was used to get what they needed to start farming again," Mellette said.

"We cleared some space on a portion of their land that wasn’t fumigated so they can grow rice as a part of a co-op. Rice is the easiest to get off the ground and to turn around for a profit.

"Hopefully, they’ll be able to expand bit by bit into different crops."

If all goes well, the group is hoping to use this model to help other families.

"We’ve created a process for measuring the success of their return and for identifying and working with other displaced families," Mellette said.

"Our goal for this year is to move five families back to the countryside. It takes around $5,000 (per family)."

Give Us Names hopes to partner with two or three other organizations to get other families back to their farms, Mellette says.

In addition to helping in Colombia, the group is also planning to do more in the United States, including pressing Congress for a better solution to the problem.

"In 2012, we want to spend time doing more advocacy and awareness work in the states," Mellette said.

Throughout the spring, the group will continue on its tour, where they will show their documentaries "Leaving La Floresta" and "The Return."

Just as they made presentations at Chestatee, North Hall and West Hall high schools during their stop in Gainesville, the group hopes to reach out to students at other schools nationwide.

"For us, it was a huge honor to speak to them. It’s really cool for young people to connect with things outside the normal spheres of their life and to discover something about the world," Mellette said.

"We’ve really connected well with students, both high school and college, as well as people in the faith community. Going forward, I think there will be a lot of really cool ways for multiple generations to be engaged with what we’re doing."

Although they’ve encountered a few challenges over the last few years, Mellette says the group has no plans of leaving its mission undone.

"We had to be pretty resilient to keep things going in the face of tough finances for the organization, but we’ve been able to keep afloat and to keep marching forward for our long-term vision," Mellette said.

"The idea is to give names and faces to the people who are suffering — the voiceless people — and to advocate on their behalf.

"Right now we’re committed to working in Colombia, but I think we’d all love to see a day when we’re able to create a blueprint for what we’re doing in Colombia to empower people all over the world to do the same kind of work."



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