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Just 25 years ago, the people of Colombia were caught in a vise of poverty and terror. Powerful drug organizations like Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel and southern Colombia’s Cali Cartel battled for control of the country’s finances, politics and people. As much as half of the country’s economy came from the cocaine trade, and that product had surpassed even coffee as Colombia’s leading export. In the struggle for control, thousands were killed and honest citizens found they had no means of support.

Today, Colombia is a much different country. The last of the cartel members were routed in 1993.Turbana-2Fundauniban makes education a priority. These students are part of the foundation’s One Laptop Per Child program. (Photo courtesy of Fundauniban) Exports and trade have soared. By 2050 Colombia is projected by British multinational banking and financial services giant HSCB to be a pivotal player in the world economy.

Leading the way out of the troubled past have been companies like Turbana Corp., one of the world’s larger suppliers of bananas.

Four decades ago, several growers in Colombia’s Uraba region came together as a cooperative called Uniban. In 1970, they created Turbana — named for Uraba’s port town of Turbo and, of course, bananas — to export fruit directly to the United States. Today the co-op farms almost 60,000 acres.

But Uniban and Turbana have built much more than just a business along the way. This year marks the 25th anniversary of Fundauniban, the co-op’s social foundation, a collection of programs and hand-ups based in Uraba that has revolutionized the lives of thousands of Colombians and helped erase the scars left behind by the drug wars.

Since 1987, Turbana growers have donated a fixed amount of revenue per box of bananas exported to support Fundauniban, which has helped build housing, hospitals and schools and elevate the standard of living for more than 25,000 people.

Over 25 years, Fundauniban has created over 5,000 housing solutions and 3,128 community equipment projects that have improved sanitary conditions, created 15 educational institutions and upgraded healthcare — including funding for 776 surgeries for children and teenagers who suffered from cleft lip and split palate deformities.

At first, though, the people of Uraba were suspicious of Fundauniban efforts to help, Marion Tabard, director of communications, told The Produce News in a recent interview. After years of strife, they had come to believe that anything that sounded too good to be true probably was. The promise of jobs, help with housing and an assist in building a community of their own was hard to swallow for people who had spent years living in turmoil.

The cooperative needed a steady supply of labor to grow, harvest and ship its bananas. The people of Uraba needed — well, almost everything. It was a perfect match and a world-class example of enlightened self-interest, yet the Urabans at first would have nothing to do with the foundation’s representatives.

“We never saw what we were doing as charity. We wanted to support the people of Colombia by teaching them how to live sustainable and productive lifestyles,” Ms. Tabard said. “For our growers to export their fruit on a weekly basis, it was a necessity to ensure that the area was stable. That area was very much affected by the violence; it was a challenging area. You had a lot of displaced people because of the violence.”

As the co-op sought more labor for its growing program, workers starting showing up and “they didn’t arrive by themselves, they arrived with their wives and children and there was nowhere for them to live. They would sleep at the farms but obviously that was not a long-term solution,” Ms. Tabard said. “So even before Fundauniban, the company said, ‘We need to find a way to help these people get housing.’ It did not go as you would expect. We thought, ‘We are here to help, so obviously everybody welcomes us.’ Not at all. The community would not even look at the foundation’s representatives, say hi to them. They would look down and in the beginning it was really a challenge to establish a dialogue,” Ms. Tabard said.

The workers needed housing; Fundauniban was offering housing. But the community would not accept any assistance from the outsiders.

“We said, ‘OK, there’s something wrong.’ And we realized we first needed to establish a dialogue,” Ms. Tabard said.

Realizing a simplistic approach was best, Fundauniban representatives started showing up at farms with soccer balls and music. “The guys loved soccer and the girls loved dancing — now when they finished the work day, the guys started playing soccer and the girls started dancing. Through music and soccer, we started to get closer to the community and started to establish a dialogue. Instead of offering people a house, we started asking, ‘How could your life be better? What would you like? We’re not going to give it to you, but we’ll help you get it.’ Fundauniban doesn’t give fish, it teaches people how to fish — and does it in a sustainable way to make sure there will be fish for future generations,” Ms. Tabard said.

The community that arose from Fundauniban’s efforts is now basically self-sufficient. Whether they work for Turbana or not, everyone in Uraba is part of and contributes to what has been built over the last quarter-century. Disputes are resolved internally by civic-minded mediators rather than lawyers. The people still do not have much by U.S. standards — but what they have is theirs, and they are proud of it.

“They’ve become empowered,” Ms. Tabard said. “It’s come full circle.” “