By Peter Murphy
SERRANIA DE PERIJA, Colombia, March 10 (Reuters) - After enduring eight hours of machine-gunfire and bombs between leftist rebels and right-wing paramilitaries, Maura Leonor Vega and her husband fled their home of four decades in Colombia's Andes for the shelter of the nearest town.
They joined droves of small-scale farmers who left the Perija mountains from around 2004 as paramilitaries ransacked, burned or occupied their homes while pursuing Marxist FARC guerrillas fighting the government since the mid-1960s.
"We lost farm tools, hens, a donkey and our furniture," said Vega, 60, describing how the couple fled and how the paramilitaries then moved in. "And we lost the coffee harvest."
Coffee has for long been an important source of income for farmers in Perija and it has been crucial in helping Vega and her neighbors rebuild their lives since they began a cautious return in 2007 to an area made safe by the permanent stationing of army troops.
The Perija mountain range, about 50 km (30 miles) from Venezuela, is one of the remote coffee-growing regions hit hardest by the political violence which has uprooted an estimated 5 million people nationwide and claimed about 220,000 lives over five decades.
A mainly foreign-funded project run by Colombia's Coffee Federation has helped 600 Perija families, including now-widowed Vega, fix their homes, replant overgrown fields and boost earnings by imparting the skills needed to produce specialty coffees.
It has deployed agronomists to raise farming standards and social workers to sow the seeds of community in these hills haunted by the memory of violence.
Tackling rural poverty can yield powerful results in Colombia, deterring the cultivation of coca - the raw material for cocaine - and making it less likely young people will join the rebels for lack of opportunity.
The government says the FARC is an important player in drug trafficking, a claim the rebels deny.
STARTING FROM SCRATCH
While the project won't make these small scale farmers wealthy, it has given them a valuable foot-up in rebuilding their livelihoods they had lost.
"Now there's tranquility and peace. We have new coffee trees and the harvest is good," said farmer and project participant Eliecer Vargas, 40, now back with his wife and two children on the 12 hectare farm he grew up on and inherited.
He has repaired his house with the help from the project after "coming home to nothing" and finding donkeys taking shelter inside, entering through doors that had been smashed in. He also renewed his plantation with free seeds from the project.
"Now we're ready to take advantage of the higher coffee price," he said, referring to the near doubling in the price of arabica beans on the international market in just four months as drought and fungus ravage crops in other major coffee countries.
Colombia's right-wing paramilitaries mushroomed out of vigilante groups paid by wealthy landowners to protect them from extortion by guerrillas or the snatching of their land, but like their rebel enemies, they too joined the cocaine trade.
Rights groups say there were army troops among the ranks of the paramilitaries and they committed some of the conflict's most horrific human rights abuses, murdering farmers and other residents on mere suspicion they were rebel sympathisers.
Political violence has uprooted around 5 million people in Colombia, according to the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, by far the highest in the world.
Colombia's Universidad de los Andes and the Université Libre de Bruxelles show that when coffee growing is profitable it makes villager recruitment into the guerrillas less likely and also deters cultivation of coca for cocaine that funds fighting.
About half the farmers participating in the project now earn a premium for their coffee by meeting the social and ecological standards required to earn the 'UTZ Certified' Label from the Dutch-based foundation promoting sustainable farming since 2002.
The government says improving rural livelihoods is critical to foster peace as it enters its second year of negotiations with the FARC in the Cuban capital Havana to develop a five-point peace plan that will be put to referendum if completed.
SAFETY IN NUMBERS
A more than decade-long U.S.-backed military offensive has roughly halved guerrilla ranks and driven them deeper into the jungle. But regular combat with the armed forces and attacks on energy industry infrastructure shows they remain a threat.
The stationing of a permanent army battalion gave farmers enough reassurance to make their nervous return home after struggling to make a living in the nearest town, Codazzi, many as street vendors. Husbands and fathers often went first to make their homes livable before wives and children followed.
Farmers believe the nearest guerrilla presence on the border with Venezuela.
"Getting confidence back ... and getting people to laugh again is very complicated," said Agustin Giraldo, the Coffee Federation's chief representative for Cesar province where Codazzi is located and neighboring La Guajira province.
The project's budget of nearly 4 million euros ($5.41 million) has been provided by the Dutch embassy, Dutch-based Douwe Egberts Foundation, the local government of Cesar province and the growers' Federation.
As well as providing basic materials for the families to establish themselves again, the project's social component has formed bonds and long-absent trust between the hillside dwellers. Many previously avoided contact out of fear the other might be involved with one or the other side in the conflict.
"Before we would live like recluses. The only time we would meet was when the guerrillas brought us all together to tell us how much (protection money) we had to pay them," said Leonardo Rodriguez from the porch of his re-roofed and painted farmhouse.
"Now because I have a solar panel, some people come round to my house to charge up their mobile phones," he said, as children sat in front of a TV in the living room.
Armed with a machine gun and extra ammunition in the pockets of his fatigues, Carlos Yolli, 21, strolled past Rodriguez' farm on patrol during his first of two years' military service, his relaxed demeanor telling of the change in these once war-ravaged mountains.
"We're just starting out so they've sent us to a place that is a bit calmer, a bit less dangerous," he said, as a 19-year-old comrade smirked and nodded in agreement.
($1 = 0.7397 euros) (Editing by Helen Murphy, Kieran Murray and W Simon)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.