He lives in Tumaco, a fairly large town in south-west Colombia. The local reality is that of armed groups, cocaine trafficking, hundreds of violent killings every year. To earn money, he sells soya milk, which he prepares, and lives in a palafitte which he rents like everyone else in the neighbourhood. He is Father Franco Nascinbene, a Comboni Missionary who, with a confrere, lives and works amongst the poorest of this beautiful corner of Colombia.
Most people are of African origin. They were brought here in the XVI century to work in gold mines, and they remained when slavery was abolished. Today the mines are exhausted. People took up fishing, agriculture and building. There is little commerce, and women are usually occupied in collecting mussels and prawns for export. Father Franco has come here after working for ten years in a very similar setting in Ecuador and among clandestine migrants in Italy.
Fr Franco how is the situation on the ground?
At the beginning of the 1960s, various guerrilla groups started as a reaction to the oligarchy controlling Colombia. The higher classes of society, those controlling vast stretches of land, defended themselves by hiring armed men to guard their properties. This informal war is still on today. All armed groups realized they needed a source of financing, and cocaine smuggling became the easy choice. This business became so important that many do not any longer care for political or social issues. They join these movements for economic reasons.
What is the government doing?
The government is official against all this, in reality there is connivance. Here in Tumaco, the whole forest in controlled by the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (Farc). They force farmers to cultivate coca and sell it only to them. Those who refuse are eliminated. The only choice is to leave the rural areas and come to town. Many do find a refuge here in Tumaco. It is easy to clear the mangroves along the coast and build a palafitte. The problem remains that of occupation, many are jobless.
So who fight cocaine smuggling?
There is a international treaty with the USA. The USA have the freedom to come and spray coca plantations with defoliants. In this way they prevent much of the drug to reach their market. However, when these poisons are spread from the air, they fall on everything else. Farmers loose the small coca parcels, but also the manioc, banana, maize, coconut that they grow for a living. These compounds travel, poisoning the land and the rivers. Farmers are in between a rock and a hard place, between the Farc and the anti-drug agencies. This is why they run to the towns, to a life of poverty. They leave behind their land, and sooner or later some large landowner finds the way to grab that land.
How do you work here as a missionary?
We Comboni Missionaries have been here for the past ten years. We have two communities for a total of five missionaries. Three follow the parish work, Father Jose Luis Foncillas and I work in the poorer areas. We live in one palafitte like our neighbours. Every day I prepare soya milk and dedicate the morning to selling it around the town. The people see that we work among them, like them, with the same life-style. We have no telephone, nor computer or other gadgets. This has helped to create a relationship with the people based on mutual trust. To them I am a priest, but also the milk man.
This is an unusual way to do mission work…
Yes, it is. We came here and, for one and a half years, lived here without taling about religion. In the morning we worked to support ourselves, in the afternoon we stayed with the people to understand their way of life. After this time, we started proposing the formation of groups. First we tackle the question of work. We gathered many women without occupation and asked them to reflect on their situation, we proposed to create work opportunities from our own capacity. Many complained they did not have capital. We said it would be enough to share of our poverty, and asked those who wanted to invest the equivalent of two Euros in the venture. Nine women accepted and we formed a cooperative. We started working cocoa to produce chocolate and then sell it. We also ventured in the preparation of bleach.
After this, we proposed the formation of Small Christian Communities. People gather to reflect on social issues, on the problems they encounter every day, and they do it starting from a reflection on the Word of God. The aim of these groups is to make people more aware of who they are, capable of solidarity and able to make choices for the good of the whole community. They also help those who arrive in town with nothing. We help them with documents, supporting them the first weeks, directing them towards job possibilities.
What about the youth?
We are especially interested with the youth. Those who do not find a job join the armed groups. To keep them away from this kind of life we try to create occupation for them. We also organize activities like theatre, dance, and sport. Last September we organized a special football tournament. Each team had to include at least two girls. Goals were not counted until a girl scored – this forced the boys to take girls’ participation seriously. Goals scored by girls were counted as double. Then we played without referee. There was only a coordinator who would help player tackle issues and find a consensus. It worked. People came, many spectators joined in, we found a way to create aggregation and give hope.
How does the Church evaluate your work?
Our bishop, Gustavo Giron Higuita, is a courageous priest. He sees the problems present in the diocese and acts. Every month, he publishes the list of those who have been killed, giving the details and the reasons for each murder. Because of this, he received various death threats, but he goes on nonetheless. Before him, Sister Yolanda Ceron, the pastoral coordinator of the diocese, was preparing the list. She was killed for her commitment.