A persistent lack of development in rural areas continues to be a major impediment for Colombia as it seeks to reach its potential for growth in the agricultural sector and achieve its human development goals in the countryside. This reality only underscores the urgent necessity of structural agrarian reform in Colombia, an initiative which no recent government has had the appetite nor the political capital to attempt. As the official commencement of the 2022 electoral campaign grows nearer, rural issues are likely to become even more central to the Colombian political discourse. Will real change finally follow?
Although the majority of Colombian economic activity is concentrated in urban areas, and while such urban development has become the country’s leading driver of economic growth, rural areas and their inhabitants remain a vital component of Colombian society. Colombia’s vast rural areas—which cover two-thirds of Colombia’s 32 departments and 80 percent of Colombia’s total national territory, and are home to a quarter of the country’s population of over 50 million—account for the large gaps in productivity, competitiveness, and violence that continue to plague the country. Statistics suggest that high rates of poverty, inequality, and an acute lack of economic opportunities in rural areas continue to drive massive migration to urban areas. Counterintuitively, however, throughout the course of 2020, agriculture—the dominant industry in most of the Colombian countryside, oriented around the production of beef, coffee, fruits, vegetables, cut flowers, and rice—proved to be one of the most resilient sectors in an economy that has been battered by the COVID-19 pandemic, demonstrating its enormous economic potential (both domestically and with respect of the diversification of Colombia’s foreign export portfolio). The agricultural sector has continued to function at full capacity over the duration of the pandemic, as the demand for foodstuffs and other basic necessities has remained constant (or even increased, as lockdowns and social distancing measures have forced people to spend more time at home). From the perspective of Colombia’s agricultural stakeholders—the private sector, local governments, farmers, and rural residents alike—the societal changes wrought by COVID-19 represent a historic opportunity for sectoral transformation.
Nevertheless, Colombia continues to be a country characterized by both enormous agricultural potential and a great deal of social complexity. It is well known that the Colombian agricultural sector faces significant barriers in access to financing and international markets, due in part to ineffective public policy, mismanagement by local and regional governments, and corruption. These barriers will take years, and perhaps decades, to comprehensively resolve. Nevertheless, some obstacles to rural reform in Colombia are more immediate: namely, entrenched rural interests, possessing a strong presence in the Congress of the Republic, that are deeply invested in preventing major changes to the country’s agricultural ordainment, and specifically the implementation of the comprehensive rural development provisions of the 2016 peace agreement. Although the government has made some progress with respect to the rural cadaster, according to the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, which independently monitors the implementation of the peace agreement, the government has fully met only four percent of its rural development commitments, intermediately completed 13 percent, minimally completed 64 percent, and not yet begun 18 percent (making the rural reform chapter of the peace agreement the section with the lowest rate of implementation).
Although the peace agreement’s comprehensive plan for rural reform aims to transform living conditions throughout all of Colombia’s rural areas, it also establishes that priority should be given to those territories most effected by the internal conflict, which in turn suffer from the highest rates of poverty and extreme poverty, are plagued by the lack of a presence of state institutions, and tend to have economies characterized by the cultivation of illicit crops (namely coca). (In particular, campesinos in the conflict-ravaged southwestern departments of Putumayo and Caquetá; the Pacific corridor of Chocó, Cauca, and Nariño; the Magdalena Medio region, which spans parts of the departments of Antioquia, Bolívar, Boyacá, Cesar, and Santander in north-central Colombia; and the Catatumbo region, along Colombia’s border with Venezuela in the department of Norte de Santander, remain disconnected from national economic circuits and agricultural production value chains.) The implementation of the Programas de Desarrollo con Enfoque Territorial (PDETs), with their focus on the 170 municipalities most affected by conflict and emphasis on tax incentives and agricultural sector royalty programs, represent useful tools that the national government and its local counterparts should take advantage of in order to address the rural-urban development gap. Against this backdrop, the business sector must transcend its current role as a mere source of investment and establish a stable, beneficial presence in these municipalities. Technical support will likely be needed for these projects to achieve longevity, a fact that both the government and the private sector will need to keep in mind with respect to their short and medium-term roadmaps.
The COVID-19 pandemic has opened the door to long-term changes in the structure of international trade, from the reorganization of global value chains, significant changes in the nature of the trade relationship between the United States and China, and the boost to e-commerce. Over the past year, Colombia’s agricultural sector has shown that it is well positioned to take advantage of this shifting trade environment. In 2020, agricultural exports soared to a historic high of USD $7.873 million—a figure that represented a 6.9 percent increase over 2019 totals—even as sales of products increased by extractive industries saw a decrease of 39.5 percent compared to the previous year. Much of this growth is owed to Colombia’s increasing presence in the growing markets of the Middle East and Asia, which represent immense potential for further sectoral growth. Expansion beyond Colombia’s key historic trading partners in the U.S., Europe, and Latin America will encourage the agricultural sector to grow in such already established markets, develop differentiated products, and combat informality in the rural, agricultural labor force. With the successful technification of agricultural production processes, Colombia is well within reach of establishing itself as one of the major breadbaskets of the world.
International and multinational companies will be vital in this respect. They must view the agricultural sector not only as a destination for investment and a source of profit, but also become proactive and responsible partners in its sustainable development: demanding improvements from the state in terms of increasing agricultural productivity and fighting corruption, but also promoting social inclusion and environmental stewardship. Within the domestic and international business community, there exists the capacity for profound institutional changes that could dramatically improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the Colombian agricultural sector. However, the national government will ultimately have to take matters into its own hands to do so. Going forward, businesses must build upon their existing relationships with the Colombian state to achieve common medium and long-term objectives aimed at accelerating productivity growth. The experience of the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that the state has a vital role to play with regards to public investment, regulation, and remedying market failures, while the private sector—and more specifically, Colombia’s powerful agricultural production federations (including the Federación Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia (Fedecafé, the coffee-growers’ production association), the Federación Nacional de Cacaoteros (Fedecacao, the association of cacao producers), or the Federación Nacional de Cultivadores de Palma de Aceite (Fedepalma, the palm oil producers’ association))—can focus its attention on growth, entrepreneurial vision, and the development of guidelines and guidance for companies that require additional support to increase their productivity and general contributions to Colombian agriculture.
None of the above, however, may be accomplished without the full and prompt implementation of the peace agreement’s provisions on rural development and reform.
The issue of rural reform will likely play a fundamental role in the forthcoming presidential campaign, not only because it has already entered into the forefront of the national consciousness with the recent paro nacional and through longstanding criticisms of the Iván Duque administration’s laggardly implementation of the peace agreement, but also because it seems increasingly likely that Colombian voters—especially economically insecure young people and struggling rural farmers—will be demanding profound changes at the polls in May 2022. While the entrenched power of Colombia’s landowning elite will inevitably constitute a fundamental obstacle to efforts at agrarian and agricultural reform, Duque’s successor will also be forced to navigate the network of multilateral institutions and international donors that continue to play a leading role in determining how rural development policy in Colombia is funded, designed, and implemented. While future governments must take steps to ensure that such international collaboration facilitates progress toward meeting its commitments to rural areas under the peace agreement, and does not jeopardize recent growth in the agricultural sector, such funding could very conceivably be translated into infrastructure and other structural improvements in Colombia’s most conflict-ravaged regions. The discussion on the peaceful and sustainable development of the Colombian countryside is only just beginning; for the sake of all interested stakeholders, a structural rural reform program—one that accounts for the demands of smallholding farmers, Indigenous communities, rural workers, and people displaced by conflict, and not only for those of the large landowners who have historically blocked reforms that democratize power and wealth in Colombia—is urgently needed.
Sergio Guzmán is the Director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a political risk consulting firm based in Bogotá. Follow him on Twitter @SergioGuzmanE and @ColombiaRisk.
Nathaly Vergara is a Research Intern at Colombia Risk Analysis and a current undergraduate at Universidad del Rosario. Follow her on Twitter @nathalyvc_.
All opinions and content are solely the opinion of the authors and do not represent the viewpoints of Global Americans.