Fellow Since 1996
Fundación Agroculp El Retorno al Campo
This profile was prepared when Libardo Ariza was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1996.
Libardo Ariza, who grew up in the war-torn town of Velez, Colombia, has developed an alternative retirement model that aims to return to the countryside victims displaced by violence. He works with groups of retirees and pre-retirees to help them acquire and manage plots of farming land in their retirement years.
The New Idea
Libardo Ariza has developed a retirement model that prepares pre-pensioners, pensioners, and displaced farmers for a "second life" in rural areas where they manage productive farms and participate in recreational activities. The model is grounded in Libardo's firm belief that older people and displaced farmers may have the unique capacity to begin the slow process of repopulating a countryside wrought by violence for almost 50 years. His goal is to mobilize as many families as possible to return to rural zones in a twofold attempt to foster peace and rebuild a ravaged countryside. Several years before retiring, participants prepare for their post-retirement years by saving a portion of their income, which is then pooled with income from other families to buy a large plot of land after retirement. The land that is subsequently purchased combines space for individual and communal farming, recreational activities, environmental protection, and individually-owned homes on small plots of farmland. The farms also benefit the surrounding community by providing jobs for local community workers, recreational places for the youth, and a boost to the local economy. The model is based on a Program for Productive Recreation in which retirees engage in activities such as farming, agrotourism, and eco-tourism to motivate their return to the countryside. Instead of relying on government support after retirement, the participants find their own solutions and sources of income. Their communally-owned land plots are used commercially to attract tourists to visit and enjoy nature, take part in recreational activities, and learn about alternative methods of crop cultivation.
Colombia has long been plagued by civil war, waged mostly in the countryside, among the numerous paramilitary and guerrilla groups. Many local farmers have abandoned their land and moved to big cities to find safety in numbers and because many are no longer able to make a decent living at farming. Reduced import tariffs and an increasingly open economy have meant that more and more small farmers find themselves unable to compete with imported food, and so they move to the city to find an alternative way of life. The congestion and growth of urban areas have generated belts of misery characterized by violence, alcoholism, and poverty around the major cities. Population censuses illustrate the profound change in rural-urban ratios: thirty years ago, 70 percent of the Colombian population lived in the countryside and 30 percent lived in cities. In 1993 the percentages were reversed, with 70 percent living in urban areas. Without concerted action to moderate the exodus from the countryside, rural communities will continue to disintegrate, and Colombia's agricultural production levels will continue to decrease. Unemployment rates will climb, and once-productive lands could fall into the hands of drug traffickers for illegal crop production. If the country's large cities are not decongested, urban gangs will grow ever more violent-an already stark reality in many Colombian cities. A particularly neglected population, retired and pre-retirees (those five years from retirement) represent approximately 50 percent of the total workforce. Many of these people were displaced from their country villages. No formal programs or policies exist to prepare them for retirement. As a result, many find little to do, become bored or depressed, and turn to drugs or alcohol for solace. Because they are accustomed to life in the city and live in fear of the violence associated with rural life, many do not want to return to their places of birth. Instead they remain in the already over-populated cities.
Libardo's work begins with the search for abandoned farmland which can be transformed into a functioning plot of land. Next, he brings in a team of experts-engineers, architects, and agronomists-who analyze the production possibilities of the land and design the infrastructure. Called Self-Sustainable Community Farms, these large plots of land are divided into four distinct sectors. The first is made up of individual plots, 1000 square meters each. Another sector is to be farmed collectively as a communal zone of production for export or commercialization. A third sector is established as a zone for recreational activities that typically include sports, cultural activities such as arts and crafts and drama, or simply day hikes and picnics. To promote agro- and eco-tourism, this sector includes space for camping, as well as installations of coffee and cacao plant cultivation. The fourth sector is land set aside as a nature reserve, which is managed by the farm's general administrative body, collectively held by the residents, and cannot be used for activities which exploit the land. As they reach five years before retirement, Libardo begins to work with the soon-to-be retired. He visits unions where workers are nominated to become involved in his model. Participants are taught to save their money, typically a small portion of their salaries, in order to be able to buy a large plot of land upon retirement. Together, the retirees pool their savings and borrow four times what they have saved, enabling them to purchase the abandoned farmland. Because part of Libardo's goal is to foster diverse yet integrated communities, subsidies for poorer participants are provided by the wealthier members. Participants also obtain credit for the medium and long term from a cooperative which provides credit to agricultural initiatives and small farmers. To manage this initiative, Libardo founded the Social Committee for Civil Development and Community Defense. The organization assists the retirees in managing and obtaining credit to buy the plots of land. The Committee also provides technical assistance, organizes programs for food production in accordance with agricultural experts integrated with the project, and provides direction for each farm during its first three years, after which complete control and management is turned over to the members. Libardo has set up ten such community farms, reaching more than 1,300 families in rural zones of Tena, La Mesa, Apulo, Viota, and Melgar. He hopes to reach 1,000 additional families over the next five years. To replicate his model, Libardo leads workshops in cities throughout the country and hosts visitors who are interested in studying and potentially implementing his functioning model. At the international level, Libardo has been invited to share his ideas with the International Federation of Workers in Metal Industries, the International Labor Organization, and the International Confederation of Labor Union Leaders, which reaches 140 million workers worldwide. Representatives from these organizations have visited the farms set up by Libardo and have expressed interest in replicating the model in Spain, Ecuador, Peru, and Chile.
As a young child, Libardo experienced firsthand the effects of violence in the countryside. He was born in the very violent war zone of Velez, Santander. His parents were displaced from their land in rural Velez and forced to move to a poor, depressed area of Bogotá when Libardo was just seven years old. He spent his childhood in the mountains around Bogotá where his parents were actively involved in supporting the guerrillas. During the turbulent years of the early sixties, Libardo dropped out of the National University and began working in Acerías Paz del Río as a member of a labor union, reaching the position of union president and negotiator. As leader of this union, Libardo observed that workers who received early retirement had great difficulty adjusting to their new status. Noting that in Paz del Río 95 percent of workers were originally from the countryside, Libardo began to develop the idea of motivating them to return to the countryside and take up agricultural activities after their retirement. After many of his colleagues were killed, Libardo was forced to leave the union and go into hiding. He returned to his community to work with his father who, by then, was retired and living on a state pension. At the relatively young age of 58 his father had a heart attack and died. Libardo's mother attributed his death to inactivity and low self-esteem since her husband had a pension but nothing to occupy his free time. With his other retired friends he had begun drinking heavily, and depression had set in. His father's early death motivated Libardo to begin an investigation on the post-retirement years of pensioned persons, as well as other labor issues. Libardo realized, through his research, that retirement without preparation and without opportunity generates a population of older people with unhealthy spirits as well as bodies. He has been working ever since to redress this reality.