Luis Fernando Alvarez looks more like a rapper than a farmer. “El AKA” as he is known in Medellin, Colombia’s second-largest city, has brought his two passions together with the initiative Agro Arte – agricultural art.
San Javier is a slum of mountainous Medellin, and one of the city’s poorest and most violent. But Agro Arte has turned its ragged patches of wasteland and roadside verges into fertile land.
El AKA and his band of local residents – young and old – grow carrots, greens, cauliflowers and herbs. In the late afternoons and evenings, once the plants have been taken care of, the group makes music together.
Hip-hop and agriculture might seem like a strange mix. But El AKA believes it’s the perfect partnership to unite the community. Hip-hop attracts young people, and agriculture the older ones. Once a week, residents meet to plant flowers and food crops.
San Javier’s memories are often painful. In 2002, the neighborhood was the scene of a military offensive that left San Javier in the hands of paramilitary gangs.
It was in the aftermath that El AKA launched Agro Arte. El AKA’s plan was to bring the community together again and make the streets and squares that had see so much violence bloom.
Fast forward 15 years, and San Javier residents still meet every Saturday to work the land together. Agro Arte is an active community project. El AKA describes how a man in his 50s once tried to donate seeds. He was asked to sow them himself.
“The people need to plant themselves. This is how we generate dialogue,” El AKA says, speaking as fast and rhythmically as he raps.
“The residents grow their own food. And when something doesn’t work they can say ‘Look, my salad died. How’s yours doing?’ And there you have the start of a conversation.”
In the beginning, residents were skeptical of a gangster rapper wanting to plant carrots and onions in their neighborhood.
Over the years, residents have changed their perception of rap, too. In the evenings, when the young hip-hop artists perform new songs, the entire neighborhood gets together – regardless of age.
Youth unemployment remains high in San Javier. Employers are wary of hiring young people from the infamous barrio. Teenagers in San Javier have a lot of time on their hands, and few opportunities.
For some, drugs and gangs seem like the only option. But Agro Arte offers something else.
Growing food takes time and care. Plants must be watered regularly, crops harvested. Agro Arte doesn’t provide jobs. But it does give young people structure, purpose and self-esteem.
Resolution still seems a way off. But in San Javier, the seeds of peace have been planted.