Truxton, NY to Cajibio, Colombia

by Colleen Kattau

n 1976, visionary and social activist Hank Strunk used a personal inheritance to purchase 432 acres of land on the south slope of Morgan Hill in Truxton, NY with the aim of making land accessible for the development of a community committed to ecological land stewardship. Today there are 12 households at Common Place Land Cooperative (CPLC) working to live out that vision.

As CPLC celebrates its 30th year, it is proud to announce the first use of its "Land Liberation Fund," a $10,000 donation to assist the Small Farmer's Movement of Cajibio, Colombia. The money will support young people in their quest to remain on the land and to secure it for future generations.

CPLC, which developed out of Syracuse's New Environment Association, was formally established in 1982, along with its parent corporation "Share Earth." Both were created to foster care of the land, with Share Earth serving as a think tank and economic supporter of the community land trust movement, while CPLC was the first cooperative to occupy and utilize the land provided by Share Earth. CPLC leases the land in perpetuity "on ecologically sound and economically nonspeculative" terms. The core ideals of both entities revolve principally around ecological sustainability, balance with nature and cooperative community.

Equally important as making space for this first community was the establishment of a Land Acquisition Fund (nicknamed "the Land Liberation Fund") to which all residents of Common Place contribute. It was envisioned that a relatively small donation to the fund by all members (in lieu of a mortgage for the land) would keep the gift of free land moving forward, and over time would be significant enough to purchase more land for newly forming land trusts. The fund would facilitate the "liberation" of land away from market forces and privatized ownership, and towards collective ecological stewardship.

The Cajibio Connection
In 1990 the Small Farmer's Movement of Cajibio (MCC) emerged as a collective organization which united nine rural communities in a commitment to develop alternatives and strategies against multinational incursion and its accompanying state and paramilitary violence. In 2002 several Central New York activists traveled to Colombia with Witness for Peace and met Marylen Serna Salinas, one of the leaders of the MCC. That meeting was the seed out of which a sister-city partnership between Syracuse, Cortland, Ithaca, and Cajibio emerged. Since that time two more delegations have visited Colombia and representatives of the MCC have come to this area.

As contact between the partners increased, we recognized that the theoretical underpinnings informing the MCC's concrete goals were very much aligned to those of Share Earth and CPLC. The land stewardship principle that CPLC adheres to parallels the idea of Territory that underlies MCC's existence - both concepts embrace the right to inhabit and utilize land and the responsibility to share and safeguard it for future generations.

In stark contrast to the pressures of US and transnational models of economic development, the campesinos (small farmers) have always looked to the land itself, without which they cannot survive. Not only in an economic sense, but culturally and spiritually their lives are inextricably tied to, as they call it, their "territory." MCC members pursue land recovery not just to reverse the legacy of lands stolen by European invaders, but also for the opportunity to steward the land and protect it from commercial purposes and concentrated profit.

Lack of access to land has been a major obstacle for the MCC. Despite that, they have made tremendous strides amidst adverse conditions of poverty and militarized conflict. A 2004 sister-city delegation, for instance, visited one of the small family farms participating in the MCC. The farm was an exciting demonstration of ecological recuperation, nutritional sovereignty*and permaculture - an example of what they envision for the rest of the community.

A Mutually Beneficial Proposal
n spring 2005, while the Central New York half of the sister-partnership explored the possibility of providing funding to Cajibio for land purchase, the Small Farmers Movement had been meeting with the young people of their organization who wanted to participate in the land recovery work. They needed land for a small youth center for cultural and educational activities and to grow organic crops for local consumption. They would also teach the younger children about organic farming. It was a perfect time to propose using the Land Liberation Fund to support this project.

All CPLC decisions are made by consensus, rarely quickly or easily. In the case of the Cajibio proposal, a series of potlucks and presentations were held to familiarize Common Place members with the MCC's mission and accomplishments. It took time to work through the idea that the fund could indeed be used in all the Americas, not just the US. It was also interesting to realize that while CPLC had the privilege to intentionally start and maintain a land trust as part of the back to the land movement, the people of Cajibio have been struggling to remain on the land - a struggle that has continued for 500 years. In May of this year CPLC finally reached consensus to donate money for land purchase to the MCC.

Through its deliberations, CPLC was reconnected to its founding document that states "it is one finite Earth in this Infinite universe which must be shared amongst all." The donation was also a way to honor Hank's deep commitment to the people of Latin America.

The MCC and CPLC have much to learn from each other. It is our hope that young people from both communities have the chance to visit each other soon and that we can support the collectivist expression so central to MCC's success while learning from them how to temper our own disproportionate individualism.

Colleen is a singer/songwriter and Spanish Professor at SUNY Cortland. She is a member of both CPLC and the Central NY/ Cajibio sister-partnership and visited Cajibio in 2004.

*"Nutritional sovereignty"is the MCC phrase used to describe self-sufficiency of food production and autonomy in making decisions about how and what to grow, in contrast to the dependency fostered by multinationals like Mosanto who constantly pressure them to purchase seeds, pesticides, etc.