Chocó: Landscape, Context, and Church
Chocó. It is one of the Republic of Colombia's 32 departements - the only one with both Pacific and Atlantic Ocean coasts. Chocó connects the North and South continents, despite having no road infrastructure for such purpose. It is also one of the most bio-diverse and rainy regions of the world, with precipitation that can reach 10,000 mm per year. The thick, green carpet formed by its tropical forests are irrigated by the river basins of the Atrato, San Juan and Baudó rivers, which divide the department into its three regions. Baudó has the densest forest and is the most inaccessible; the Atrato is home to the department capital, Quibdó, and bounded on the north by the Caribbean Sea; and San Juan, which extends South and whose principal city and main center is Istmina. It is important to highlight that these rivers are, also, the principle points of mobility because along their banks are located the majority of towns. The department has two main roads that go to the interior of the country (Antioquia and Risaralda) and one internal highway (Istmina-Quibdó), the latter two paved only in parts. All other roads that lead between towns are unpaved and in bad condition.
Istimna is, in all practical purposes, the capital of the San Juan region and an important commercial area for the entire department. Located 75 kilometers to the South of Quibdó, its name comes from the fusion of istmo (isthmus) and mina (mine), being positioned along the banks of the San Juan River and the San Pablo ravine, which historically has been a mining zone. The network of rivers in this region also includes the Condoto, Tamaná, Iró, Sipí, and Suruco rivers, each with populations that have the same names respectively.
A sociopolitical and economic viewpoint
In the San Juan region the majority of the population is Afro-descendent due to the slave trade in past centuries for the exploitation of mining; even Palenques (groups of rebel slaves who escaped from the Spaniards) exist, such as that of Tadó. However, it is also characterized by a strong presence of outsiders entering from the department of Antioquia, whom are called “paisas.” For this reason, anyone of light complexion in the region is called the same, no matter their place of origin. Lastly, there is an indigenous population, which mostly lives in communities far from the urban centers and comes to Istmina only for necessary purchases. This population has been decimated over the years and, despite having greater recognition from the government, is much excluded from the life of the region.
Businesses (clothing, appliance, and grocery stores) are administrated almost exclusively by “paisas” and attended by afro-Colombians. A significant portion of the Choco population works in “barequeo”, an artisanal technique for mining gold, which currently is being threatened by national laws and exploitation at the hands of multinational businesses such as Aluviones of Colombia.
In recent decades, since the beginning of Plan Colombia and as a response to the eradication carried out in the southeast of the country, illegal armed groups sought to establish new areas to grow illicit crops. One of these areas was Chocó, especially in the Baudó and San Juan regions, generating a source of quick income and provoking false economic growth where a certain number of people can sell and buy in a market with surprising inflation rates, while the rest of the population lives in misery. It is clear that the presence of illicit crops, sponsored by illegal groups, has generated sociopolitical, economic and ecological degradation. Farming communities have stopped growing traditional crops to feed their families, importing from the interior of the country what before was easily produced in the region; illegal armed groups have multiplied, both paramilitaries and guerrillas, causing displacement in a number of communities because of turf wars, selective assassinations, child recruitment, and disappearances of the civilian population. At the same time, the presence of these actors and their money has brought prostitution, unwanted pregnancies, and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.
In 2009, the government began to implement an initiative of manual eradication in Chocó, an action that had terrible results because the people sent to carry out the task died at the hands of armed groups connected to coca production. In the third week of September of 2011, a new strategy was implemented: aerial fumigation. This act generated huge damage to the few local crops of food that exist in the region, besides the confusion and insecurity regarding the possibly harmful consequences of the herbicide (contamination of water sources and of food, such as fish and fruit). This is a different reality, compared to 2009, since the population was obligated, under threat by armed groups, to mobilize against the fumigations. They blocked the roads around Istmina, impeding the mobility of people, food, and other goods for almost a full week until the use of alternative mechanisms by the government was negotiated. However, the problem remains, as the agreements were ambiguous and the fumigations have continued, so the possibility of an armed strike persists.
The Mennonite Brethren Church – Chocó Region and Social Ministry
The Mennonite Brethren (MB) Church arrived in Colombia and Chocó in July of 1946 and based on agreements with the Missionary Union, they established themselves in the San Juan region, while the MU decided to work in the Atrato. Currently, the MB regional office is located in Istmina, led by pastor José Rutilio Rivas Domínguez. En total there are ten established churches: Sinaí in Boca de Suruco; The Divine Redeemer in Basurú, New Life in Quibdó, Peniel in Condoto, The Reedemer in Andagoya, The New Jerusalam in Pie de Pepé, Emmanuel in Bebedó, Jerusalmen in Istmina, Rivers of Living Water in Paitó, and Jesus is the Master in Rio Iró. They are working with church plants in Unión Panamericana (Zion), Cértegui (Jesus, the Bread of Life), Nóvita, Almendró, Pereira (Embassadors of the kingdom) and Opogodó (Center of Worship and Praise). The church Hope of Berecui is currently in Pie de Pepé, due to their forced displacement in 2010.
Historically, the MB church has done social projects in the region, such as installing medical clinics and two primary schools, even though these have all disappeared due to a shortage of resources and sustainability. In 2010, the Regional Social Ministry was created to integrate different projects from local congregations (community soup kitchens, accompaniment to displaced populations, and productive projects) and focus the external support from organizations such as Mencoldes, Justapaz, MCC, Cedecol and World Food Plan, among others.
In response to the problems mentioned above, the church has become interested in responding to the needs of the population in the area of health, through the realization of workshops about the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies, family planning, first aid, and infant development and growth. Furthermore, to create alternatives for the monoculture crop of coca, there are initiatives of rice, yucca and cocoa production in local communities, looking to generate food security and other sources of income. They are also supporting small business initiatives proposed by members of churches, such as raising chickens, design and fabrication of clothing, preparation and distribution of food, and more.
Recently there has been a growing interest in political advocacy, as well, which leads to exploring ways to work together with other social organizations in the area and facilitate trainings in topics such as peace building, nonviolence, and conscientious objection.
This article has a second part, which is a photo gallery. This can be found by looking here.
 Bonet, J. (2007). ¿Por qué es pobre el Chocó? Documentos de trabajo sobre economía regional. No 90. Taken on October 28, 2001 from www.banrep.gov.co/documentos/publicaciones/.../DTSER-90.pdf
Taken on October 28, 2011 from http://www.istmina-choco.gov.co/nuestromunicipio.shtml?apc=mIxx-1-&m=f
 Taken on October 28, 2011 from http://axe-cali.tripod.com/cepac/hispafrocol/12.htm
 A program of the United States that gives military and economic support to combat drug traffiking in Colombia, which began in 1999. One of its components has been the erradication of illicit crops, initially directed at the Southwest area of the country.