Huila was dry. Even in the rainy season, there was no rain - El Niño had sucked most of the moisture out of the region, and everything was brown. Brown fields, trees, and cracked, crumbling dirt. But Huila was still lovely. Rolling, folding hills, wrinkling into valleys, small roadside stands, and big clouds dotting mostly clear blue skies.
As we drove from Neiva to Garzón, we passed swaths of land that twenty years ago were full of cocoa. Then they were converted to passion fruit cultivations by narcotraffickers, who used the crop as a legitimate side business. Later, the land was transformed again, mostly into open space.
We passed two reservoirs, established only recently by the government. To build them, the state had to purchase of over eight hundred hectares of land that had been dedicated to cocoa production, and relocate the farmers that produced it. Most of them used the money they made off the sale of their land to buy houses in town, where there weren't many options for making a living. Motorcycle taxis far outweigh demand, and only so many kiosks are necessary in a town of 40,000.
Elena's house was about 40 minutes from Garzón. It was red cinderblock, and had a small, well-tended, vigorously blooming garden in front, along with a gaggle of pets. She stood in the doorway, wearing a hot pink shirt, tight jeans with sparkly pockets, and trekking boots.
Inside felt big and well kept in comparison with many farms I'd visited over the years. Her living area was filled with photographs, figurines, a hanging collection of spices in bottles that she said signified prosperity, and an orange couch supplemended by several fluffy looking but unexpectedly firm chairs. From mine, I peered into her kitchen, which had a large window facing the fermentation and drying areas for her cocoa, and an open, glassless window into the living room, allowing her to tease her guests while she cooked.
Her husband and the father of her three children (20, 11 & 8) had died in 2008, leaving her alone and without resources. It was the second time in her life that she had been left alone, having been raised by a couple who were not her parents on a coffee farm nearby.
After her husband's death, she was lost for a year, with no idea what to do. But early in the second, motivated by her children, she started working with agricultural technicians to get her farm running. It was hard for a woman alone, she said, since initially she wasn't accustomed to the sweaty, exhausting, mosquito filled work demanded by cocoa. But seven years later, she had five thriving hectares, which she managed herself.
The technician I visited with felt that Elena needed more workers, and that the trees were becoming overgrown, making harvesting a challenge. He pointed out that occurrences of disease were just a little bit too high. He was convinced that the increased productivity that would come from a little more attention would more than pay the wages of two more jornaleros. He also wanted Elena to keep records, which she didn't. Without records, there was no way for her to know the impacts of her efforts, the tendencies of her harvests, or where she could save. He noted that Elena had a smartphone - why not come up with a way for her to use that? What if her son did it for her? That would have the secondary effect of getting him involved in cocoa and seeing on his own how to make money producing it. Still, the conditions on Elena's farm were much better than most.
You have to want this kind of work, Elena explained. Nobody's going to get rich producing cocoa. But you can make a good life if you do it well. She said that for some producers, that wasn't terribly motivating, and they felt isolated and left behind in comparison to the highly organized and well supported coffee producers.
After lunch, Elena, convinced I needed a nap, almost forced me into one of her daughters' rooms to rest. I closed my eyes for a bit and enjoyed the breeze from the open window on my face and arms- a breeze quickly augmented by a fan brought in by Elena for my enjoyment- broken, but secured by shoelaces. Outside, a worker puttered around, laying a dirt-colored substance out in the sun to dry. I found out later it was a pesticide. Elena told me she'd learned to make it in a capacity building session, and that it killed ants by targeting their queen. Now, she makes it in large volumes and sells it to her neighbors.
At 3:30, I was beckoned into the kitchen by loud cooing noises, where I found Elena chatting and cuddling with her pet bird.
At 4:30, a large pickup pulled up to the gate, and out hopped her daughter in a clean pressed school uniform.
At 5:30, Elena came outside while I basked in the hammock on the porch, to water her garden and share her thoughts about politics, life, and kids - the two youngest of whom sat inside at the table doing their homework.
At 6:30, Elena dragged everyone out to play while her worker, encased in safety gear and a gas mask, bug-bombed the house. When he was done, he emerged to explain to me his favorite place in Colombia - the salt cathedral near Bogotá, which he'd seen while he was working on a farm in the north for 9 years. Then, he told me about the effect the moon had on farming, as we watched one of the biggest I've seen in awhile rise over the hill across the smal dirt road Elena lived on. Elena, overhearing, told me about how it influenced the the making of kids, telling joke after joke and laughing herself into stitches.
At 7:30, her 20 year old daughter got home from work, grinning and curious about what I was doing in her kitchen, eating a plate of melon and papaya in gym clothes. She excitedly told me about her full time job, which she worked 48 hours a week, for a company in Garzón that adapted trucks so that they could transport more goods. Working from seven until five, forty minutes away by car, she commuted five days a week and studied business administration on Saturdays.
In the kitchen, Elena puttered around with dishes. At 6:30 tomorrow morning, she'd fill them with breakfast before sending her brood out the door, well fed for their Tuesday.