CAJAMARCA — Reaching the Vargas family home, on the Bellavista estate in the pine-covered mountains of Cajamarca, is no easy task. After driving for a good half-hour along a dusty, unpaved road, visitors then have to leave their car with the neighbors and walk a few more kilometers up a track leading from the road to the mountain-top homes of hundreds of peasants.

But it's well worth the trek. Hidden in the department of Tolima, the area is like an agricultural Eden. The banks of the Anaime river are banana trees and coffee shrubs, purple-leaf acacia and orchids. A few meters further up there are vines of beans, peas and passionfruit. And in the highest parts of the mountain range, at 2,500 meters above sea level, potatoes, passion flower, blackberries and a variety of edible roots, such as arracacha. Scientists and farmers agree that over time, ash from the nearby Machín volcano enriched the local soil and made it one of the continent's most fertile areas.

For the past seven months, the Vargas family — Berlain, Martal and their three children — have been selling arracacha directly to Colombian restaurant chain Crepes and Waffles. They are one of several areas families to do so.

Normally, a 125-kilogram load is worth between 100,000 or 120,000 pesos [28 to 34 euros roughly], according to Berlain. "But Crepes pays 300,000 pesos for it and it's changing our lives," he says. "We were able to bring home a washing machine. You don't know that means. Marta saves an hour or two every day washing clothes, and spends that time doing what she likes: weeding, pruning and caring for her vegetable patch and bushes."

The alliance with Crepes came months after the district decided, in a landmark vote, to ban metals mining in the area. The vote prompted the South African mining company AngloGold Ashanti — which had been engaged in exploratory work there for nearly 15 years — to pull up stakes and leave.

With Crepes and other food providers, area farmers are showing that there is an economic alternative to open-air gold minng. The head of sustainability at Crepes, Felipe Macía Fernández, says the determination of people in Cajamarca to safeguard local food production and their landscape has become a "source of inspiration for innovations in cuisine, art exhibitions and the exploration of new markets that promote conservation."

For Berlain and other member families of the Association of Andean Seed Producers, or ASPROSAN — with whom Crepes signed a deal last year — the experience so far has been extremely positive. "Things here aren't like how the mayor, Pedro Pablo Marín, made it seem in the media. The town isn't in crisis and we don't regret saying no to mining in our territory. On the contrary, we are more and more convinced that Cajamarca's future is in tourism and farming."

The comments referred to a recent article in the business and finance newspaper Portafolio, in which the municipal government depicts the anti-mining vote as economically disastrous. The mayor, his planning secretary, and certain employees or beneficiaries of AngloGold Ashanti say the company's departure caused a cash crisis that is impacting local health, education and housing programs.
But residents in Cajamarca paint a different picture. AngloGold's departure showed that the local economy depends not on mining, but on its farmers. Alfonso Arias, a co-founder of the Association of Anaime River Basin Ecological Farmers (APACRA), says that farmers — who represent about 70% of the district population — have found new and profitable opportunities in recent months.
"Since the vote we've seen the arrival of big marketing and exporting firms investing in passionfruit, poro poro and Hass avocados," Arias says.
This business model is taking off across the country, and maybe a key to improving living standards among local farmers. Figures from the export promotion agency Procolombia show that Hass avocados were the country's second-most exported fruit in 2017 after bananas, and that poro poro exports reached nearly $26 million that year. If the government decides to back the Cajamarca vote, the district could become an important fruit export hub.
In the meantime, people in the district have taken it upon themselves to seek help elsewhere — from European NGOs such as Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung and Catapa, which applaud the community's determination to protecting its water resources against one of the world's big mining firms.
Nature is what we have to show
Another agency, the Norwegian-Swedish Cooperation Fund with Colombian Civil Society (FOSCOL), is offering grants for organic farming projects involving women. Róbinson Mejía, a local environmentalist and promoter of the no vote, says FOSCOL wants to empower female farmers and strengthen the defense of this territory.
"There is a consensus in Cajamarca on the right to life and the importance of water," he says Mejía. "People don't want AngloGold to return for any reason whatsoever and are ready to ensure the decision they took is respected. If there is another referendum, we'll win again and with more votes."
Locals are also keen to tap into the area's tourism potential. Luz Ángela Jiménez, the founder of the tourism promotion and environmental agency Cajantour, says natural attractions like the Tochecito palm forest — home to 80% of the world's wax palm trees, — or the Nevados national park are already boosting the local economy.
"We want people to come, discover and enjoy the marvels of Cajamarca," she says. "We live in a very privileged ecosystem. Cajamarca is green. Nature is what we have to show. There are parrots, pumas, ocelots, sloths and armadillos.... all of this is more profitable [in the long term] than gold."
The locals are optimistic, she adds, and with good reason. "Above all, we want to be clear in telling the country that we, the farmers of Cajamarca, do not regret our decision," Jiménez says.


See more from Food / Travel here