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Desperate to Heal the Soil, Colombia’s Smallholder Farmers Go Regenerative

And they are already seeing the benefits
Maria Cristina Mosquera, a FUNDAEC liaison with farmers in the Growing Hope project, pulls some vegetables from the training farm. (Photo Credit Masha Hamilton)

When he was 18, a devastating motorcycle accident shattered Milton Valencia’s dream of becoming a professional Colombian soccer player.

To grapple with towering medical bills, he took work in the sugarcane fields near his home in southwest Colombia’s Norte del Cauca region. For energy, he chewed on sweet raw canes straight from the field, sometimes as many as three a day—a practice that would later give him diabetes.

Valencia’s job gave him a front-row seat as life changed for the mostly Afro-Colombian and Indigenous farming communities of his childhood.

He watched as the soil’s vitality was sapped.

He watched as the ground hardened and yields shrunk.

“I saw toxins end up in the river,” he recalled. “I saw animals die during crop burnings. But you work where you can find work.”

  • Milton Valencia believes farmers _have to go back to the natural way._ (Photo Credit Masha Hamilton)
    Milton Valencia believes farmers _have to go back to the natural way. (Photo Credit Masha Hamilton)

The Environmental Cost of Monoculture Crops

Sugarcane now accounts for 88.5 percent of the permanent crops in this region.

Monoculture crops, which cover some 80 percent of agricultural land globally, are responsible for degraded soil and decreased biodiversity.

Sugarcane fields are cited specifically for their large carbon footprint due to the intensive use of agrochemicals, fossil fuel inputs, heavy water use, and burning fields in preparation for the next season.

A burning sugarcane field in Norte del Cacau, April 2024 (Photo Credit Masha Hamilton)
A burning sugarcane field in Norte del Cacau, April 2024 (Photo Credit Masha Hamilton)

Turning It Around with Growing Hope

Now more than two decades later, Valencia is working to heal the soil and restore his community’s vitality while fighting a shifting climate.

It’s all part of the Growing Hope project run by the nonprofit Foundation for the Application and Teaching of Science (FUNDAEC) and supported by The Rockefeller Foundation.

Using compost and care instead of chemicals, Valencia tends a plot of diverse fruit trees in FUNDAEC’s hands-on training site in Perico Negro, some 20 miles south of Cali.

Grantee FUNDAEC is helping fight climate change and food insecurity by supporting farmers in Colombia’s Norte del Cauca region as they heal a soil damaged by monoculture farming and overuse of chemicals.

Valencia and other smallholder farmers = a critical part of the climate change solution.

  • FUNDAEC’s Maria Cristina Mosquera harvests some food from the training center (Photo Credit Masha Hamilton)
    FUNDAEC’s Maria Cristina Mosquera harvests some food from the training center. (Photo Credit Masha Hamilton)

Resourcing Farmers to Fight Climate Change

A Rodale Institute report showed transitioning the globe’s agricultural land to regenerative farming could effectively sequester all of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions.

Milton Valencia worked on the sugarcane fields for 20 years. Now he is returning to chemical-free farming practices. (Photo Credit Masha Hamilton)

And the World Economic Forum notes that some 510 million small farms globally are responsible for 70 percent of the food produced in low- and middle-income countries. Those farmers must receive resources to adopt more sustainable farming practices if the world is to effectively mitigate climate change, the Forum says.

At the same time, about 31 percent of Colombia’s rural population is food-insecure, according to the World Food Programme.

The Notre del Cauca region suffers from among the highest level of food insecurity in Colombia.. Nutritional shortfalls also stem from the sugarcane monoculture.

“Agriculture is foundational to the survival of our humanity—to our health and the health of our Earth,” said Bita Correa, acting director for FUNDAEC, which has worked in the region for 50 years.

“We’re facing a crisis,” Correa said. “For farmers to continue to provide us with nutritious food season after season, we have to support them in shifting to environmentally friendly farming.”

Valencia puts it simply: “We have to go back to the natural way.”

The project's multidimensional approach includes:

  • The Perico Negro training center, which includes a “Garden of Senses” where aromatic plants and condiments are grown;
  • Four adjoining plots where Valencia and others work regeneratively, taking home 70 percent of their yield while implementing techniques they can then use on their farms;
  • A hotel being built on training center grounds – and expected to be completed this summer – that will include a restaurant and a shop to create sustainability. National and global visitors will be able to see the regenerative work underway while staying on-site;
  • Individualized work with 40 farmers from four communities that includes hands-on training to transition their farms to regenerative agriculture and support for two growing seasons while they make this transition;
  • Perico Negro’s first organic farmers’ market; and
  • Support of two local schools to teach students and parents about regenerative agriculture, plant trees, and replace packaged snacks with fresh foods. “Our hope is that some of them will fall in love with farming, because we need farmers,” said Ever Rivera, the project’s co-director along with Correa.

Transitioning to regenerative practices is not easy for small-holder farmers, who cannot afford a bad season while the soil struggles and they forgo fertilizer.

But FUNDAEC is very trusted in the Norte del Cauca area, and more farmers want to be included in the Growing Hope project than FUNDAEC can now support. They hope word-of-mouth will fuel the region’s transition to composting, crop diversification, and chemical-free farming.

Luis Dario foregoes chemicals and uses a shovel to clear unwanted growth beneath a plantain tree. (Photo Credit Masha Hamilton)

“Growing Hope’s beautiful multifaceted approach is critical to transforming the food system because it addresses the complex interplay of ecological, social, and economic factors,” said John de la Parra, Director, Global Food Portfolio, The Rockefeller Foundation.

“By integrating training, market access, and community support, FUNDAEC empowers smallholder farmers to adopt regenerative practices that enhance resilience to climate change, improve food security, and foster community wellbeing.”

The Rockefeller Foundation and FUNDAEC share a 50-year relationship, since FUNDAEC’s founding in 1974.

Its early work included the development of the Tutorial Learning System, a formal non-classroom secondary education system focused on allowing remote rural areas to gain relevant knowledge, and the Preparation for Social Action program, a non-formal process to equip participants with the skills to promote community well-being.

Statistics to Remember


    of the Earth's land is used for agriculture, says the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations


    of all greenhouse gas emissions come from the global agri-food system


    of the globe’s farmlands support monoculture crops, which hurt soil health and biodiversity

Meet Those Transforming the System

FUNDAEC’s Maria Cristina Mosquera liaisons with the community farmers, keeping a close eye as they transition to regenerative practices.

To walk the land with Mosquera is to see how much farming and soil quality means to her.

Maria Cristina Mosquera examines a compost pile. (Photo Credit Masha Hamilton)

“I like to care for the soil, see how things grow, and bring the fruits of my labor to the table,” she said.

Mosquera believes smallholder farmers are exceptionally in tune with climate change issues.

“They directly feel the impacts of summers that are hotter and longer,” she said.

“They see the impact of decreasing groundwater. Fifteen years ago, you could find water by digging two or three meters. Now we’re helping some of the farmers make their own wells because you have to dig eight or ten meters to find water.”

Alfonso Tenorio, 68, confirms that. He began helping his family farm when he was 12 years old.

“Back then, we had lots of groundwater. I remember being up to my knees in mud at times,” he said. “Now the soil is parched, and when rain does come, it is extreme and we have flooding.”

Today, Tenorio farms 2.5 acres (1 hectare) with his son Luis and daughter Marcenelly. In 2023, he lost 19 lime trees. He was counting on eight bushels of limes per tree, so it was a costly, discouraging loss.

Alfonso Tenorio with his daughter Marcenelly and son Luis farm as a family. Behind them to the left is a pile of developing compost. (Photo Credit Masha Hamilton)

Just weeks after Growing Hope began training him about how to compost and create organic fertilizer, he was already seeing the difference in his farm’s soil quality. “I feel more optimistic and motivated,” he said.

Along with Valencia, Jairo Yamir Castillo also tends one of the training center plots. He began farming as a child, and started adding chemicals to his own farm about 20 years ago.

“I liked it in the beginning. It was a quick fix. But then lots of problems started coming,” Castillo said. Now he is weeding by hand and trying to heal his own farm while working on the FUNDAEC plot. “Chemicals kill the weeds, yes, but they kill many other things also,” he said. “They wipe out the biodiversity we need.”

  • Jairo Yamir Castillo has worked three months adding compost to the plot he tends at FUNDAEC's training center, and has already seen results (Photo Credit Masha Hamilton)
    Jairo Yamir Castillo has worked three months adding compost to the plot he tends at FUNDAEC's training center, and has already seen results with healthier plants. (Photo Credit Masha Hamilton)

At the Ruhi Arbab School in the town of Puerto Tejada, 330 students are being exposed to the benefits of regenerative farming, crop diversity, and good nutrition. One mother of two, Maria Elena Londono, lives with her family 100 yards from sugarcane fields, and says when the fields are burning, “the house fills with smoke and ashes for two or three days, and everything must be washed afterwards.”

The principal of Ruhi Arbab School collects vegetables grown on school grounds with FUNDAEC support as part of the Growing Hope project. (Photo Credit Masha Hamilton)

Through the project, she is glad to see her children’s relationship to the land changing, and their understanding of nutritional needs growing.

“This project can generate a lot of conversations for students around nutrition, health, productivity, and well-being,” said Rivera. “A lot of the diseases we see in this region come from processed and sugary food. So we are focusing on helping schools teach students to think about what they are eating.”

Growing Hope is a complex project, but also urgent, Correa and Rivera note.

  • How do we produce the food we need while protecting the environment? Growing Hope provides an answer.
    Bita Correa
    Acting Director

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