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  • Writer's pictureD. Randall Faro

Lessons from Columbia

Life is relatively easy for some. For others it can be difficult. For many it can be hard-to-imagine hard. When finding oneself in the latter category, one can either give in to despair . . . or respond in the fashion of Mercedes Murillo Gutierrez.

Señora Gutierrez is a 55-year-old mother of four who lives in Columbia. She began working as a farmhand at the age of seven. A mother by age 16, Murillo worked a variety of jobs, including 12-hour shifts as a farm laborer. In 1999, three of her four children were about to be forcibly recruited by local guerrillas during the civil war. She took them and fled to a nearby town. When major hostilities ceased in 2005, she was granted land and one cow as part of a government repatriation program.

She established her own ranch and, while not easy, she has built a life that she could never hope for as a girl. Initially, her scrub grass couldn’t support cattle, but when a sustainable cattle-ranching program began in 2012, Murillo attended meetings and learned how to improve her operation. This included keeping a portion of her land in natural vegetation in exchange for financial assistance and technical advice. She received electric fencing to prevent cows from entering streams and to help her rotate them to different pastures before the land became overgrazed. Over the years she has planted thousands of trees and shrubs. Half of her land is now planted with scattered trees and supports as many as 26 cows.

Señora Gutierrez says the energy she feels when on the ranch is her biggest reward for reforesting her land. She describes the ranch in terms of trees and water, and the settled feeling it has given her. “I will plant trees all my life,” she says.

There is a two-fold lesson in this story. First, that the poor cards life sometimes deals us does not mean we have to fold. Second, governments are meant to help enable citizens to live with security and a decent standard of living. In the case of Gutierrez, her new start in life grew out of the helping actions of the Columbian government and a community-based organization teaching silvopastoral sustainable cattle ranching. But the ranch is what it is today due to her seizing the opportunity presented and adding herculean personal effort.

Responsible, caring government is a necessary component of human community. So is personal initiative and good, old fashioned hard work.

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