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Planting the seeds of change in rural Colombia

At the border of the decades-long conflict between armed groups and the government, the town of Corinto aims to change its lot by using computers to create better-educated farmers.

CORINTO, Colombia--The small rural town of Corinto is trying to stake out a new role for itself, but the challenges are significant.

At the crossroads of guerrilla-held territory and with a budget a quarter of the size of what it needs, the town is still known best for the quality of its marijuana. It is a place that the armed groups see as sympathetic to the army and government, and that mainstream Colombia thinks of as in the hands of the armed groups. But by investing in its local school, the city hopes to change both reality and perception.

Click here to read all of the stories in The Borders of Computing series.
Click here to read all of the stories in The Borders of Computing series.

The school works hand in hand with a program called Vallenpaz that aims to offer those in rural communities enough hope and opportunity that they don't see the need to either move to a city or join with a rebel group.

During the 10th and 11th grades, students at Instituto Educativa Nucleo Escolar Rural-Corinto work on a specific project aimed at demonstrating the power of growing the right crops in the right way. Students use computers to research crops like red beans and tomatoes, to learn about organic fertilizers, and to study ways to combat insects. They plan a schedule for their crops and make reports on their progress.

And they do this all on a handful of HP and IBM computers that, in some cases, are only a few years younger than they are. The school gets its limited Internet access through a program sponsored by the national ministry of education. The government has been gradually cutting the amount of Internet access it gives to the school, first from 24 hours a day to eight hours a day. At this point, the school gets just two hours a day--and even that is scheduled to go away in October.

Instituto Educativa Nucleo Escolar Rural-Corinto students work in the computer lab.

The computers themselves are obsolete by U.S. standards, many donated by a government program that provides refurbished computers to the country's schools. Of the 14 computers from that program, only nine still work. The city has just one technician to serve the entire municipality.

"The model of sustainability has not been established," said Orlando Ayala, senior vice president of Microsoft's Unlimited Potential program, which provides software and training to various efforts around the globe, including the computer lab here.

To compound the technical challenges, the lone server at the school is broken, meaning that the majority of the computers in the lab--and the only ones from this decade--lack Word and the rest of the Office suite that Microsoft has donated. Instead, students using those computers write their documents in WordPad.

"The school has taught me how to grow a crop and to handle a computer."
--Diana, an 11th grader in Corinto

Nor is it the case that this school is at the bottom of the pyramid when it comes to technology.

"You can go a few kilometers and find one with even less infrastructure," Ayala said. Indeed, the principal of another school in the region said his school lacks Internet access entirely, with kids forced to walk two hours to get to the nearest Internet cafe that charges $2 an hour and then walk two hours back.

The need for technology here is huge. In this rural agricultural community, technology can make the difference between barely making a living and improving one's life. More importantly, for those youths that don't see a future, there are two bad options: move to a city or join with the guerrillas.

Students outside their school, the Instituto Educativa Nucleo Escolar Rural-Corinto.

The local education secretary noted that just 10 percent to 20 percent of students graduate, leaving a whole lot to turn to illicit actions.

Leaders in this community say more resources are badly needed. The cornerstone of their education is the project for the 10th and 11th graders in which they study their particular crop and its challenges and then grow and market it. But because they don't have enough land, the exercise is just a demonstration. If the school could acquire a nearby farm it could turn its effort into a profitable operation that could improve the lives of many of the area's families.

The effort to have the students research and grow crops is tied to a broader program by Vallenpaz to a help those in Corinto make their crops more profitable. By greater planning and working in collectives, farmers can see a return several times than what they might otherwise get. The students at the school are seeing firsthand the role computers and the Internet can play in aiding that.

On the computer front, school officials dream of a one-to-one computing project, or at least more computers in the lab to give students more access to the PCs. When Ayala went to talk with one of the students, she was less than eager to chat. She gets only one hour a week in the lab and had a handwritten report she needed to finish typing. "She was like, 'Go away'," Ayala said.

And of course, better Internet access is also needed. Although Corinto is just 50 kilometers from Cali, the school's limited Internet access is pokey even by dial-up standards. It can take 10 or 20 minutes to load a single page.

But to many of the students that attend this school, even a modest chance to use computers is a great opportunity.

Diana, an 11th grader, noted that her two brothers were not able to finish school, while she has had the opportunity to learn much about growing crops. "It was a dream to study in this (school)," she said. "The school has taught me how to grow a crop and to handle a computer."

While one brother cares for a family of his own and another carries sacks of coffee on his back, Diana feels she has an opportunity to bring a better life to her family. "My family, they are giving me all the support to develop myself. I want to show them they have not lost their investment and they can count on me. "