Frank Fierro noticed things had changed in his hometown of Planadas, Colombia, in the four years he was away getting his agricultural engineering degree.
In the Colombian countryside, there was one constant, Fierro said: “tense calm.” The Colombian army was present in local towns and guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, were in the mountains.
But today, young people like Fierro, 24, see a chance to return to their hometowns and build productive careers in agriculture, growing special varieties of coffee, plantains or pineapples.
That is possible because of the training Fierro and others received through La Salle University’s Utopia Project, but also because of the growing potential for peace, culminating in the peace agreement signed with the FARC on September 26.
“If at least 50 percent of the peace accord is implemented, the countryside will change dramatically. There will be opportunities,” Fierro said, speaking through an interpreter.
Growing up in the middle of the Western Hemisphere’s longest conflict, Fierro hadn’t expected to travel to school. But school came to him. The Universidad de La Salle in Bogotá recruited him and other students from areas affected by violence to study in Yopal, Colombia. Brother Carlos Gómez, the president of the university and founder of the Utopia Project, mentored the students.
Fierro became a leader. He was the first student selected for an exchange program through the 100,000 Strong in the Americas initiative, which President Obama launched in 2011 to build bridges between students in the hemisphere. Fierro also got the chance to travel to the U.S. for the first time, staying two weeks in an exchange with New Mexico State University.
A new direction
Fierro returned to Planadas this summer with his degree and new ideas about plantain production. He admits even his own father and neighbors were skeptical.
But after discussions — some were more like arguments — he and his father found a balance between traditional knowledge and Fierro’s new technical skills.
“We’re more open, both of us, to different options,” said Fierro, speaking from his plantain fields.
He’s now consulting with his older neighbors on their plantain crops. “Since the results are starting to be seen, it’s actually the community coming to us now.”
Fierro sees himself and his network of fellow Utopia graduates as a force for peace.
“When people are busy, there is no time for war. There is only time to produce and make the country an agricultural power. If all of these Utopia fellow students keep working toward that direction, the change will be seen.”
He plans to stay in Planadas to build up his business and work with fellow Utopia Project graduates to create a countrywide agricultural information system.
Fierro is two months away from his first harvest.
“We trust in the change. We want peace.”