Farmers from Medellín’s rural outskirts are gearing up for a chance to help put planes in the sky and space shuttles into orbit, and all they need are a few beans.
This September, farmers from villages surrounding the town of Girardota in the Colombian department of Antioquia met with Colombian alternative energy startup Bioalianza to consider joining a program offering a monthly salary for growing castor, a plant involved in production of over 700 industrial products from lipstick to aircraft lubricants.
“Bioalianza makes its priority the development of the Colombian countryside; how we can ensure greater equality for its habitants,” claims Bioalianza president David Marchesini while presenting his project, which emphasizes environmental and community sustainability, to the crowd of curious campesinos.
It’s a lofty goal to be sure, especially given the nation’s long history of exploiting its poorest citizens and squandering its abundant natural resources. Nonetheless, most local families remain optimistic.
“We hope that it brings change,” says María Caños Zapata, a local resident. “There is so much land to work here.”
According to Bioalianza’s estimate, up to 70% of the community’s arable land lies dormant. It’s a shocking amount given the area’s reliance on agriculture. Most locals are subsistence farmers.
“How can we be poor in the middle of such richness?” asks Fernando Córdoba, candidate for the mayor of Girardota, while drumming up electoral support from the crowd. “That’s where Bioalianza comes in.”
Job security would undoubtedly be a boon to the community. Despite proximity to Medellín, Colombia’s second largest city, rural areas near Girardota received electricity and telephone service only within the last 20 years.
“People are very interested,” remarks Manuel Rincón Valencia, who signed up to participate in the program. “This will improve quality of life and provide a steady income; it could be the push that we need to bring development.”
Some are skeptical that enough of the money will go to the families that earn it. Corruption in both the public and private sectors is rampant throughout Colombia.
“We’re not that close to the city, so money destined for our communities always end up somewhere else,” argues Fernando Castillón Hoyos, noting that the dirt roads that connect farming communities with Girardota are paved according to public funding records.
Nonetheless, Bioalianza’s offer tempts compared to the alternative. Current staple crops like potatoes, onions and beans barely provide enough food and income for some families to survive.
“They pay us very little for what we grow now,” said Jorge Luís Carmona, who plans to sell the majority of his land for castor production. “People have to grow enough to sell and enough to feed their families.”
Therein lies the historical risk of bio-fuel production. When farmers dedicate too much of their land to inedible crops, the local food supply suffers.
Marchesini brushes off the suggestion that residents might go hungry, noting that Bioalianza discourages participants from growing only castor.
“Besides,” he says, “the first thing that we will provide is help with basic necessities. Then, true sustainability becomes a possibility.”
Bioalianza guarantees technical assistance for participating families to ensure sustainable castor production and avoid the havoc wreaked on the Colombian countryside by haphazard subsistence farming.
However, the feasibility of castor as a cash crop seems somewhat questionable considering that a byproduct of refined castor oil, ricin, is extremely toxic. Ricin also has a history of use in terrorist attacks, a potential concern for a country embroiled in seemingly perpetual civil war.
Carlos Palacios, Bioalianza’s technical and agronomical advisor, tries to allay any fears, noting that toxic leftovers from the oil extraction process can be converted into potent herbicides or cooked to denature poisonous proteins.
Besides, most concerns pale in comparison to castor’s value as both an economic driver and an alternative energy source. Castor oil shows incredible potential as a clean and efficient combustible- even as a potential substitute for jet and rocket fuel.
“We have so much land and we want to grow something that’s truly worth growing,” notes Rincón Valencia. “All we’re missing is an opportunity.”
Sunlight fades on farming families signing up to join Bioalianza’s ambitious project as Girardota, a proxy for rapidly modernizing Colombia, finds itself at the crossroads between an agrarian lifestyle as old as civilization and a bold entry into the space age