In a bid to rehabilitate former guerrillas, the Colombian government has turned to Israel to help build a network of kibbutzim in Colombia.

They have called on Israeli Juan Gomez, 49, a former Colombian, to help. Gomez is a member of Kibbutz Grofit in the Arava Desert, which is known for its dates, fish farms in the Red Sea, and its plastic’s factory. He was in Colombia last month for introductory talks, and this weekend four officials from Colombia will come to Israel to learn more.

“They think that the [Israeli] kibbutz system, through the changes of the last years, is a good system for them. They want to copy the new kibbutz idea,” Gomez, the manager of the date plantations at Grofit, told ISRAEL21c.

Gomez first came to Israel 20 years ago, and has lived and worked on the kibbutz south of Beersheva for the past 15 years. The married father of three girls, who is not Jewish, thinks that the kibbutz model can help rehabilitate the land and people of Colombia.

“The kibbutz is entering a new era,” he says. “It is an old-fashioned system, but [the world] is entering a renewal of social democracy. We can give a chance to Colombia.”

Israel’s kibbutz movement began at the start of the 20th century. Forced by the harsh conditions of Israel in its early days into communal life, and inspired by socialism and Zionism, the early kibbutzim developed a communal model of living that attracted worldwide interest.

Over the years, however, the kibbutzim ran into both financial and ideological problems. Loaded with debt, many kibbutzim have now been privatized, while in others kibbutz members have begun earning their own salaries in accordance with the work they carry out. Most have been forced to adapt in one way or another to a new reality.

The change, however, appears to be good. In the past year, kibbutzim have seen a revival, and an influx of volunteers is signing up to participate in the kibbutz experience.

This may be a good model for Colombia to follow. Over the past four decades guerrilla warfare has terrorized Colombians in rural regions. There has been in-fighting in jungles and an alarming amount of civilian massacres in marginal communities.

Over recent years the violence has crept into major cities. And although the government recently negotiated with thousands of guerrilla fighters by offering them amnesty if they hand over their weapons, there are few work options available to them.

Turning from one evil to another, the former guerillas become Coca farmers, the raw ingredient used in making cocaine. The Colombian government desperately wants to change this trend and has turned to Gomez, originally from the city of Medellin, to help them.

In January, Gomez traveled to Colombia to explore ways in which these former guerillas can learn farming techniques. Gomez visited officials at about 30 sites and addressed people he couldn’t meet through video-conferencing. He also offered advice on which crops could work best in Colombia.

Gomez modestly explains that they are still in the very beginning stages, and if the Israeli kibbutz model were set up in Colombia, it would take at least two to three years to implement.

The idea to adopt the kibbutz model came by way of Colombia’s Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Andres Felipe Arias Leiva, “He is a young minister at 34,” says Gomez. “And a freak of new technology. He is interested in new technology and knows about Israel’s experience, and invited me on that aspect.”

A number of top-tier officials from Israel are also involved, and Gomez is sure that the potential of such cooperation will enhance industry and trade for both countries. Israel offers not only agricultural skills, but high-end technology that can increase crop yields and conserve water.

Israeli organizations involved include Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MASHAV), the United Kibbutz Movement, and IsraAID. A prominent partner on the Colombian side includes the government-owned National Training Service of Colombia (el SENA), which invited Gomez last month to Colombia.

“I was invited by the Government of Colombia to check the possibility of doing something like a kibbutz there – to give legal growers of Colombia the ability to associate and be like kibbutz communities in Israel.”

“The Governor of Colombia wants to improve agriculture. He wants to finish with terror and drugs. We can bring the knowledge and technology,” says Gomez.