Towards Farmer Empowerment and Land Redistribution in Colombia

The South American nation’s new national development plan lays out a shift from extraction and exploitation to sustainable agriculture.

IN MAY, COLOMBIA passed a new national development plan aimed at transforming the country’s economy, shifting it from a model based on extraction and exploitation to one grounded in campesino (farmer) empowerment, land redistribution, sustainable agroecological production, “bioeconomies,” and ending the failed drug war instead.

growing coffee in Colombia

Central to Colombia’s new national development plan is an ambitious agrarian reform effort that would redistribute over 3 million hectares of land to landless farmers and potentially double the country’s agricultural output. ​Photo of a farmer attending to shade-grown coffee in Colombia by UN Women / Ryan Brown.

The plan, entitled “Colombia: A World Power of Life,” is the brainchild of the country’s first progressive administration in over 70 years: that of former revolutionary President Gustavo Petro and his vice president, lifelong environmental and social activist, Francia Marquez.

The most biodiverse country in the world per square foot, Colombia is an ecological wonderland. Unfortunately, it is also scarred by a violent history that has resulted in one of the highest internal displacement levels in the world. Fleeing conflicts between military groups, paramilitary groups, and armed narco-trafficking outfits, nearly 5 million rural Colombians, many of them Indigenous, have been uprooted from their traditional lands and lifestyles since 1985. Those who stay behind to guard their territories often face extreme violence, as Colombia remains the most dangerous place in the world for environmental defenders and community leaders.

The violent situation in Colombia traces back to assassination of left-wing populist president Jorge Gaitan in 1948, which sparked riots across the capital city of Bogota and led to different revolutionary armed groups breaking off and taking over often-vast pieces of territory.

Since then, these revolutionary groups, the state military, private militias (paramilitaries) funded by wealthy landowners, and increasingly powerful drug traffickers have vied for power in the countryside while the official government has been steadily occupied by right wing oligarchs. Colombia is currently rated as among the countries with the highest political corruption on the planet. This all has left Colombian citizens in a state of limbo, as they have watched the unappareled beauty and resources of their nation squandered and exploited to benefit a few elite families and the foreign interests they make deals with.

“The Old Colombia died on April 8, 1948,” writes Colombian poet, philosopher, and novelist William Ospina in the preface to his essay “Para Que Se Acaba La Vaina,” which analyzes the half century of conflict in the country in the context of Latin America’s centuries long fight for independence. “The New Colombia is yet to be born,” he concludes the statement

But buoyed into in the National Palace by the wave of anti-government protests that rocked Colombia during the pandemic, the largest protest movement in decades, the country’s new progressively idealist administration just may be the first sign that a new Colombia is on the horizon.

CENTRAL TO THE “World Power of Life” plan is an ambitious agrarian reform effort that would redistribute over 3 million hectares (7.5 million acres) of land, an area larger than the country of El Salvador, to landless campesinos and Indigenous groups that have been displaced. This is projected to double the agricultural output of the country.

Hand-in-hand with land redistribution is a focus on agroecology, or the application of ecological concepts to farming such as using organic fertilizers instead of chemical ones and tapping into the rich biodiversity found in agroforestry systems and shade grown crops, which also protect soil health. Agroecology has been identified by some experts as keys to feeding the world in the midst of the climate crisis. National investment in sustainable small-scale agriculture based on agroecological principles will not only provide food, but free farmers from the control of a global food system and returns power to the people.

But more land and better techniques are only part of the equation say experts. According to Cindy Alexandra Cordoba, a professor of Agroecology at the University National (UNAL) in Bogota, for any truly sustainable agricultural transformation to take place in Colombia, the state must invest in campesinos, who make up 10 percent of the country’s population.

“For too long campesinos have existed outside of the formal economy,” she said at a recent expert panel on the future of Colombia that I attended at UNAL, adding that “instead, they must be treated like essential workers that society depends on.”

Campesinos have also been undermined for decades from free trade agreements that force Colombia to import products from North America and Europe, including potatoes, a tragic-comic situation seeing that the Andean country is part of the region where these tubers originated and boasts over 60 native varieties.

Petro seems to have his eye on these challenges as well. In his inaugural speech, he promised a massive government investment in new agricultural infrastructure that would “provide irrigation, credits, techniques, improved seeds, and protection” to campesinos, and the mobilization of the national military in order to help build it. And in his pacto con el campo (Pact with the Countryside), which he announced in 2022, Petro promised to renegotiate the country’s international trade agreements, end the importation of “tons of food products that Colombia can produce itself,” and make national food sovereignty the goal instead.

UNDERPINNING THE “Colombia: World Power of Life” plan is the implementation and strengthening of “bioeconomies,” or “economies of life.”

According to the European Union, a bioeconomy is a system in which society optimally uses renewable biological resources, such as those from land, fisheries, and aquaculture environments, to create food, bio-based products, nutrients, and bio-energy. It is based on regional ecosystems and applies sustainable methods instead of exploitative practices.

As Petro sees it, developing a strong bioeconomy is\key to saving the Colombian Amazon — he has pledged to work with other South American leaders, including Brazil’s Lula, to make this happen. And in fact, a recent Brazilian study showed that the economic power of an Amazonian bioeconomy could reach US$8 billion a year, higher than the current yield from industrial agriculture and exploitation.

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Indigenous people have managed their territories for millennia using bioeconomies. According to Felipe Garcia Cardona, the manager of the Center for Biodiversity Economics at the Humboldt Institute in Bogota, their widespread adoption today would, he says, have the power to revitalize different regions of Colombia in different ways, each unique to the eco-systems that those regions contain.

“The bioeconomy already exists in the traditional and regional products of many parts of Colombia, and in many cases is already stopping exploitation or deforestation and providing a local based economy,” he told me over a video interview from his office, emphasizing that “a strong state investment in bioeconomies would allow for really amazing things to happen.”

REGAINING AGRICULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY in Colombia also requires addressing its most infamous product: the coca leaf. Colombia’s current policy, crafted by current US president Joe Biden back in the 1990s as part of the global “War on Drugs,” centers around a militarized national police force. It has escalated conflicts in rural regions, and even supported campaigns that aerially sprayed large swaths of the countryside with Monsanto’s herbicide glyphosate — now known to cause cancer. In doing so, it has harmed rural communities, damaged small-scale agriculture, and wreaked havoc on the environment.

As Petro says, the US-Funded War on Drugs has “failed resoundingly” and resulted in the deaths of over a million Latin Americans and the incarceration of millions of people in the United States, predominantly those from Black and Latino communities.

Petro, who recently signed peace accords with five of the largest armed groups in the country, has promised to end the war on drugs completely. He has said he will allow coca to be grown freely, and is also considering decriminalizing cocaine. This would not only weaken the narco cartels by taking away their main source of income, thereby reducing violence in the countryside, but also be a move away from US control in the country.

Coca leaf itself is a superfood and consciousness raising natural medicine with thousands of years of traditional use in Andean societies. Earlier this year, Colombia joined Bolivia in petitioning the United Nations to remove the leaf from their list of narcotic and prohibited substances and recognize it as a sacred heritage of indigenous cultures in South America.

While popular support for Petro rises and falls, what remains steady is that Colombians are ready for a change. The “World Power of Life” plan is an attempt to break free from a colonial system that has oppressed people and degraded the environment for several centuries. Regional bioeconomies based on agroecological practices would protect Colombia’s diverse ecosystems and provide sustainable, healthy food, as well as jobs, to millions. And after what Colombia has endured, a green and just rebirth is a cause for celebration.

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