British Columbia·Feature

Growing opportunity: Colombian fruit firm looks beyond war with some help from Canada

For Lucero Martinez and dozens of other women who've been victimized by Colombia's half-century-long guerrilla war, the production line at Fruandes has become a place of second chances — thanks in part to Canadian investment and appetites.

With peace deal approved, victims of Colombia's 50-year war work to start over

(Chris Corday/CBC)
On the production line at the Fruandes fruit processing plant in southern Bogota, the sound of pineapples being stripped and cored on metal tables is so loud you need earplugs to visit.

Lucero Martinez, originally from Colombia's Choco province on the Pacific coast, is one of more than a dozen women clad in white protective suits doing the sweet-smelling work.

"For me, it's been a marvellous experience. I wouldn't have everything I have right now," she said of her eight years peeling and chopping mangos, pineapples, bananas and other tropical fruits at the factory.
(Chris Corday/CBC)

For Martinez and dozens of other women who've been victimized by Colombia's half-century-long guerrilla war, the production line at Fruandes has become a place of second chances — thanks in part to Canadian investment and appetites.

All of the fruit — 40 tonnes a day — that's cut up and dried here gets packaged and shipped overseas.

More than half of Fruandes' market is in Canada and one of its key partnerships is with Victoria importer Level Ground Trading, whose products can be found at stores like Whole Foods.

Level Ground was one of the initial investors in Fruandes, and decided to do business in Colombia in part to provide jobs for some of those most affected by the conflict.
(Chris Corday/CBC)

Colombia's Senate and Congress recently approved a controversial peace deal negotiated with FARC rebels, formally ending the longest-running war in the Western Hemisphere that killed an estimated 250,000 people and uprooted more than five million others from their homes.

Fruandes started production 14 years ago — in the middle of one of the conflict's most violent phases — with the goal of trying to buy fruit from poor rural farmers to help lift them out of poverty.
(Chris Corday/CBC)

"The civil war started in the countryside," said Jennifer Gonzales, the company's social development manager.

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"There was no presence of the government and the farmers didn't have any opportunities, so now we engage them in our business."
(Chris Corday/CBC)

The factory has hired 43 women, all of whom were uprooted from their rural homes because of the conflict.

Lucero Martinez, a 39-year-old single mother to seven children, and now a grandmother, is hopeful her work at the plant will help her kids find a better future.

(Chris Corday/CBC)
Most of the workers, including Martinez, come from small villages and lacked the kind of advanced skills and training to help them secure work in the city.

"Women are very vulnerable because of the violence," Gonzales said. 

"We want to give them the chance to get a formal job, to have a more stable life."

Martinez and her Fruandes colleague Sureya Morillo live in a Bogota slum called Cazuka, home to more than 60,000 people.
(Chris Corday/CBC)

Martinez's daily return trip from Cazuka to the Fruandes factory is a five-hour odyssey on public transit in constantly snarled traffic. But the $250 US a month she earns is good by local standards.

Most in Cazuka are internal refugees who fled violence in the countryside.

  "They took the village we were living in and they raped a lot of women," Martinez told CBC News of the guerrilla fighters and drug traffickers who terrorized her small, rural community and many others just like it.

Peace deal fragile

The peace agreement calls for FARC fighters turn over their weapons to the army and allows FARC leaders to pursue their goals by running for political office.

The signed deal is contentious because many Colombians continue to feel FARC's leaders deserve jail time for their role in kidnappings and murders.

Bolstering farm businesses

Jennifer Gonzales, Fruandes' social development manager, says it's crucial victims of Colombia's conflict be given opportunities to rebuild their lives.

"It's not only with a signature that's going to change everything. We have many problems. We need to give opportunities to people."

Fruandes is also working with Canadian aid agency Cuso International to help many of the 350 rural farmers who supply the company with fruit.
(Chris Corday/CBC)

Canadian help on the farm

Cuso provides Canadian business and leadership expertise to help farmers in former conflict zones increase their production.

Many of Colombia's fruit producers are in the Ibague region, about a four-hour drive west of Bogota on twisty, mountain roads.

Tatiana Usme, a 28-year-old international development graduate from the University of Ottawa, has been living and working with them as part of Cuso's Canadian-Colombian partnership.
(Chris Corday/CBC)

She, too, was a refugee from the violence in Colombia.

"This is the horror story of my life," she told CBC News. 

"One of my uncles was killed."
(Chris Corday/CBC)

Usme left Colombia when she was a teenager and settled with her family in Gatineau, Que.

"My mom didn't feel safe and didn't want her child to grow up in the country. I took the decision to come back because I feel safe right now."

Usme says she's been working with rural farmers to help make their small plantations operate more like small businesses and hopefully make them more profitable.
(Chris Corday/CBC)
(Chris Corday/CBC)

Farmer Orlando Hernandez is one of Fruandes' top growers. He took CBC News into his coffee and banana fields to show off his crops.

He says with the violence in the countryside on the decline, farmers have been able to reap something of a peace dividend in recent years.

Production is up and so is confidence in the industry, he said.
(Chris Corday/CBC)

"A few years ago, barely anyone could come around these parts, not even Colombians much less any foreigners," Hernandez said.

"They were victims of kidnapping and extortion. Nowadays, people can come and make a business out of our farms."

Hernandez says the peace deal is far from perfect but he supports it — because for Colombia's future generations, it's better than sliding back into war.
(Chris Corday/CBC)