University of Notre Dame Students and Colombian ex-combatants share lessons for business and peace-building

Faculty and students from the Meyer Business on the Frontlines program at the University of Notre Dame recently visited COOMPAZCOL, a cooperative working with PASO Colombia in the ERA of Fonseca. During their visit they exchanged valuable lessons on the power of cooperation to create sustainable economic development in areas affected by armed conflict.

Faculty and students from the Meyer Business on the Frontlines program at the University of Notre Dame recently visited COOMPAZCOL, a cooperative working with PASO Colombia, a program of One earth Future, in the Rural Alternative School (ERA) of Fonseca, La Guajira, near the Colombian-Venezuelan border. During their two weeks visit, they learned several valuable lessons about the power of cooperation in creating sustainable economic development in conflict-affected areas. They also shared recommendations to improve the cooperative’s work further.

COOMPAZCOL was created by former combatants of the FARC guerrilla group, who signed a peace agreement with the Colombian government in 2016. It currently has 160 active members, collaborating with 805 campesinos (rural farmers) from the region, that work together to produce over a million eggs a year, as well as textiles, honey, livestock, and other agricultural goods. Their work aroused the interest of the World Food Program, which has supported this venture with resources. 

“Given my last 20 years of experience, if you would have told me these  ex-combatants would come out of the countryside and build such a profitable, successful, vibrant business, I would have been skeptical.” Said Viva Bartkus, faculty director of Business of the Frontlines.

Notre Dame Faculty and Students highlighted how COOMPAZCOL has successfully integrated with the surrounding communities, promoting solidarity and cooperation. During the COVID-19 pandemic, when many families struggled to make ends meet, COOMPAZCOL took the initiative to provide eggs at affordable prices to the local communities. They achieved this by reducing their profit margins and selling the eggs at cost, ensuring that the local families had access to fresh and nutritious food when it was needed the most.

“The easy answer during COVID would have been to protect your community, go back to kinship, and go back to those whom you've lived and fought with for together for 20 years. And what they said at the time was “we will not be wealthier than our neighbors”. The leadership of this cooperative made, I think, a really noble decision. I now have a personal story of what the moral imagination looks like and what kind of leadership it really takes to transform conflicts towards peace” stated Viva. This gesture strengthened the collaboration of the cooperative with campesinos, which has evolved into a network of integrated business efforts.

“The experience was very heartwarming. No matter where we engage or where we went, the culture is just built around relationships, teamwork, around figuring out things together. And I think that gave our team a lot of hope when we were creating our recommendations, knowing that we are going to provide this to a community that is eager and willing to take this and work as a team to continue to grow” said Josh Deane, one of the students. 

The recommendations shared with the members of COOMPAZCOL aimed to provide financial, marketing, and operational advice to improve their productive projects further, making them independent from external resources, sustainable and scalable. They also highlighted how strengthening the trust relationships they have already built is vital for their success both as a business and as a peace-building experience. To deepen this trust, they encouraged COOMPAZCOL to expand their integrated business efforts with the surrounding communities and to find ways to share knowledge with them. 

Wilfran Martínez, manager of COOMPAZCOL said that “it was very nice to have the opportunity to meet and to share time during the activities we develop.  It has been very useful to facilitate our information to the visiting professionals, we have taken careful note of all the recommendations because we are very willing to enrich our knowledge and develop new skills.”

Roberto Chavarria, director of Impact, Learning and Accountability at One Earth Future, stated about the results of this visit that it “invites us to raise the bar, to go further in what we look for, what we think is possible. To treat data not so much just as analysis from our end, but as something that can be used by cooperatives and individuals doing the work to get a better sense of how things are running for them too.” 

The Business on the Frontlines program has been collaborating with PASO since 2018 and plans to continue to engage in this knowledge-sharing experiences that serve the communities, the students and PASO’s work throughout the country. “Learning from PASO became a transformative experience for our business law and global affairs graduate students as they learn about building trust and peace and rebuilding the fabric of society through trade and commerce.” Said Kelly Rubey, professor of the program.