Fincas and the FARC

 'Finca Santa Clara', 'Finca La Gloria', 'Finca La Montaña': Colombia is full of fincas. A 'finca' is, to translate simply, a house in the countryside. But a finca is so much more than just that. Owning a finca is a source of pride, but it represents something more than a chalet in the Alps, or a cottage in Cornwall. Most Colombians dream of having a finca to call their own, a place to do-up ready for retirement, and also a spot to spend the weekends in away from the bustle of the city. The finca is often the home of the 'abuelos' (grandparents) in the village where many members of the family grew up, but many are investments, and their up-keep a hobby.

We met Julian, legs dangling over the side of a wall, in San Antonio park, which overlooks the city of Cali sprawling into the distance. "I love this city", he mused. "I love the people, I love the atmosphere." A musician who studied in the States from the age of 10, Julian has been falling back in love with Cali for a year now, whilst recovering his health. "In Miami, everyone rushes. Here people just take their time with things."

"But what I love most is getting into the mountains. It's so relaxing up there. The air is so pure. We - me and my cousins - always go to my grandparents' house in the country at the weekends. They're not just my family - they're my best friends too."

Roberto is another 'caleño' (as the people from Cali are known) who moved away. Having owned a house in Salento for 25 years, 12 years ago he moved there for good. Hunched up in a poncho, with a hood tucked snugly under his baseball cap, he rubbed his wrinkled face laboriously while telling his story.

"Hace trienta, cuarenta años" -"30, 40 years ago, Cali was a friendly city, una ciudad tranquila. Now it has 7, 9 million inhabitants, and it's unsafe, busy." Roberto retired to the country to run a hostel in his house. It has been more or less unchanged for "ciento, ciento veinte años" (100, 120 years), with its wooden porch wrapped around the second floor, adorned with hanging flower baskets, overlooking the town church. "Many Colombians buy a finca to have somewhere to go in their old age", he explained. Some are mansions, others little more than a bedroom and a living room; some have extensive flower gardens, others rows of sugar cane, or corn, or orange trees. But "una finca finca", emphasised Roberto, "a real finca", has 10, 20 hectares of land. 

"Some use their finca 'de paseo'; for weekend trips, holidays." The hills above Cali, on the road down to Buenaventura on the Pacific coast, are dotted with beautiful houses, as are those surrounding Salento; fincas for the most part. Further north, in the hills east of Medellín, is Guatapé - a pretty colonial village with unusually decorated zócalos (a sort of giant skirting board painted on the outside of the house). And surrounding Guatapé is an enormous, artificial lake - the Embalse de Guatapé - created originally to supply Antioquia province with water, but rediscovered as a holidaying heaven. Speedboats whizz across the freezing cold water, and the terracotta tiles of luxurious fincas on their own private islands gleam in the sun. "Pablo Escobar had his finca over there", gestured Mike, our friend from Medellín, from the viewpoint. "He even had a submarine to escape in if the government came to get him." I didn´t believe him. "No, it´s true", confirmed Diana. "Él era loco, demasiado loco. That man was crazy, too crazy."

Fincas aren't all fun though. "Para algunos, la finca es su vivencia", noted Roberto. "Some make their living from the finca." It was these people who were hit hardest by the FARC in their heyday. "The FARC would arrive and take over the finca. The farmers had no option but to let them."

This is one of the reasons for high number of displaced people in Colombia. "Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela - no tienen este problema; they don't have the same problem." Campesinos, forced to leave their homes behind, moved to the cities, without work, family, a place to live. Aside from the FARC, the country people also suffered from poor political manoeuvring. Successive governments made deals abroad; "we'll sell you this, if you give us this... we'll send you this, if you export this" - as Roberto explained the situation. They bought in crops which the Colombian farmers also produced, outpricing them. Their crops were almost worthless. So their children began planting coca, marijuana, knowing that there was more money to be made in drugs than choclo.

"The government has never helped the campesinos",  said an animated Roberto. But there are some positive initiatives in place now. Aside from stricter laws to crack down on coca farmers - "they can be dispossessed of their farms" - the EU, supported by the Colombian government, offers financial help to farmers who are willing to replace coca plants with crops the EU is interested in buying.


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