SAN JUAN NEPOMUCENO — In what was once the setting of civil war and gangland murder, peasants in northern Colombia's Montes de María region are using sustainable farming practices to rebuild a degraded environment. It may be a ticket to their future.

The innovative approaches include protecting the dry tropical forest of the Caribbean coast, using efficient cooking techniques to burn much less wood and growing food in small vegetable patches.

This was "a very violent zone, where people used to flee their lands empty-handed just to avoid their sons being kidnapped and their daughters raped," an old man with a moustache says as he chews green mango in San Juan Nepomuceno's main park. "These villages are practically entirely inhabited by victims of violence. But why don't you ask them about how we feel now and how we are being forced out again. Not by war this time but by drought, which is killing us.

This region last made headlines for the February 2000 massacre in nearby El Salado, when paramilitaries tortured and hanged 66 locals to the sound of tropical music. Four thousand people had already fled their homes. Between 1999 and 2001, some 354 people were killed in 42 massacres in and around El Salado, a town near the frontier of the departments of Bolívar and Sucre, while several localities were turned into ghost towns as entire populations fled for their lives.

This used to be rich agricultural land that produced corn, yucca and tobacco, among other crops. These days, it's mostly just dirt that crackles underfoot. Few crops could survive today's intense heat and lack of rain. Not a single drop has moistened its sandy soils in five months, as animals die of thirst and streams evaporate.

The area is surrounded by dry tropical forests, one of the country's most fragile and damaged ecosystems. From a distance, the Montes de María landscape now looks like useless shrubland, thanks to deforestation, open-pit mining, infrastructure work, livestock farming and urban sprawl. Sections are turning into desert. Yet the remains of the former forest are home today to more than 2,600 plant and 230 bird species, and at least 60 types of mammals.

The state began to protect this area in 2011 through the Natural Heritage Fund, with help from USAID. Its Conservation Landscapes program aims to assure the food security of local residents with sustainable practices, especially in the exceptional current drought brought on by El Niño.

More trees, less smoke

"God is giving us a lesson right now with all this heat," local farmer and mother of four Silvia Carmona says. "Our only option is to find new solutions, or we'll die of hunger and thirst."

She is among those who had to leave her home and also one of two million Colombians who habitually burn firewood and suffer the consequences of inhaling smoke. Silvia and six others decided to use their traditional knowledge to create a more efficient cooking facility called Prima, which uses 60% less wood and emits 90% less smoke.

Patrimonio Natural is helping locals earn an income with these ovens, and curbing carbon emissions in the process. It is also aiding locals with other sustainable initiatives such as replanting trees and weaning farmers off pesticides, and helping to market local produce in places like Bogotá.

One beneficiary is Erasmo Torres, who grows red beans that find their way into salads sold at the Crepes and Waffles chain in Bogotá. Torres was a victim of the civil war that once dominated this region: three of his sons were shot dead one day 16 years ago while picking crops on their land. Torres found their rotting bodies in the countryside three days after they'd disappeared,

"I don't like talking about what happened," he says, pointing at the horizon from his new farm as his voice falters. Still, he wakes up every day to try to plant a small and sustainable piece of the future for his country, and the world.