THE FRUIT OF PEACE

Colombia 2014 | AGRICULTURE | REVIEW: AGRICULTURE

The mix of government support, membership of various free trade pacts, and the prospect of peace are combining to make Colombia's established agriculture sector more efficient and productive.

The Colombian economy continues to grow–JP Morgan in June 2014 raised its growth projections for 2014 to 5% from 4.6% following sizzling first-quarter GDP growth of 6.4%–and the agricultural sector is supporting that growth, benefitting from the effects of a ceasefire and possible end to the decades-long guerrilla conflict. Colombian farmers and landowners are working to catch up with their international peers.

Colombia is approximately twice the size of France and is one of the world's mega-diverse countries, hosting nearly 14% of the planet's biodiversity. It is South America's fourth-largest country with total area of 1.14 million square kilometres. Even if nearly half the land is covered by forest, that leaves a significant area of cultivable land on which to produce food.

Colombia's farmers organised two strikes in August and September 2013, protesting high fertilizer costs and the lack of promised benefits from the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) made in 2012. Colombia's main cash crops are coffee, cocoa, flowers, palm oil, and sugar. It is also a livestock-intensive country, with more than one animal for every two people. The World Bank reports the total value of Colombia's agriculture sector, including fisheries and forestry production, as averaging 6% of GDP from 2009 to 2013.

The country is the world's fourth-largest producer of palm oil and number one in Latin America. Jens Mesa-Dishington, Executive President of Fedepalma, the association of palm oil producers, told TBY; “Colombia currently produces over 1 million tons of palm oil (exporting 10%). We started producing biodiesel eight years ago, and today we have an installed capacity of 500,000 tons per year. There are several types of biodiesel, but when it comes to biodiesel from palm oil, Colombia is the leading actor in the region."

Promoters of the FTA promised increasing exports to the US by 6%, but those exports actually declined by 15.5% in 2013. In a July 2014 meeting with the US Ambassador to discuss issues related to the agreement, Minister of Agriculture Ruben Dario Lizarralde stated that Colombia needs to improve its agricultural sector to reduce poverty, that some 70% of agricultural land is misused, and that boosting agro exports would be a way to both help farmers and eradicate illicit crops.

HARD DATA

Stymied by the rebel conflict, Colombia has not performed a national survey of its agriculture sector since 1970, so comprehensive statistics are difficult to come by. A 2010 World Bank study on climate change reported 900,000 hectares under irrigation in Colombia, representing 16.3% of total cultivated land, which amounted to 5.52 million hectares.

The UN Food & Agriculture Organization, (FAO), estimated the total cultivable land area in Colombia at 7.4 million hectares and reported that 60% of the irrigated land was developed by the private sector. The FAO report said irrigated agriculture in Colombia includes a wide range of technologies, with the private sector using advanced technology while most public irrigation systems are gravity-flow schemes with relatively few pump systems.

A tropical country, Colombia produces some 95 different types of fruit, famous in the region for their exceptional colour and flavor. The country ranks third in Latin America in terms of land area allocated to fruit production and fifth in production: Colombia produces 7.5 million tons of fruit on 748,604 hectares, or about 10% of cultivable land. FAO statistics rank Colombia number seven regionally in vegetable production, with cultivated area of 107,694 hectares producing 1.7 million tons of vegetables. The general improvement in agriculture was shown by the fruit and vegetables sector, whose exports increased by 27.1% from January to April 2014 compared to the same period in 2013.

FAIR DISTRIBUTION

Rural land ownership is highly concentrated in Colombia, with more than half of all registered land holdings by area belonging to just 1% of landholders, according to the Department of Social Prosperity. Title deed registration is also largely informal, which makes it easier for corporations to displace people from land. Government administration is increasingly local, at the municipal level, with 1,119 municipalities in the 32 departments or states–though policy is largely set at the federal level.

The US Agency for International Development, USAID, reported in 2010 that the struggle over land and the concentration of ownership over time were key drivers of the internal armed conflict–that the forced displacement was most intense in areas with the highest informality of landholding, which also pushed deforestation as people moved deeper into the jungle to find new land. The government has a $50 billion transport infrastructure program underway, which should help farmers and producers get their goods to market, but the results of this will not be seen for some time. One port, Buenaventura, handles half of all Colombia's maritime trade, and naturally is a focus of Colombia's participation in the Pacific Alliance, a free-trade pact with Mexico, Chile, and Peru.

CHAIN OF VALUE

According to the Colombian Society of Agriculturalists, the sector accounts for 21% of exports, and 19% of all jobs in Colombia, as well as an impressive 66% of jobs in rural areas. Colombia has over 27 million head of cattle and also boasts the world's highest productivity for sugar cultivation per hectare at 4.6 tons per year. Biodiversity also covers marine life, as the Caribbean coast provides excellent shrimp farming conditions, and Ceniacua is one of the most advanced shrimp industry research centres anywhere. Colombia's agricultural development agency, the International Colombian Corporation, works with similar bodies in South America to develop agro-industrial projects and market opportunities.

The country has many agricultural research centres and organizations, such as the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture in Cali and Solar Ciencia Agrícola. In the private sector, the German company Bayer Life Sciences runs an agrochemical production facility in Barranquilla from which it services not only the Colombian market, but also the Andes region and even the markets of Brazil and Argentina. Colombia imports around 90% to 95% of the supplies for its poultry industry. Some 80% of the production cost derives from chicken feed, 60% to 70% of which is corn. Luis Fernando Tascón, General Manager of poultry and egg producer Santa Anita Napoles S.A., told TBY that in 2013, “The chicken industry grew by 14%, and the egg industry by approximately 5.5%. For the first time we are driving the per capita consumption of both. In Colombia, per capita consumption of chicken reached 25 kilograms over 2013. For comparison, in Venezuela it is perhaps at 50 kilograms, while in the US it is around 80 to 90 kilograms."

Private companies are also getting creative in using Colombia's rich biodiversity. The Financial Times reported in 2014 that “Colombia's Quala surpassed energy drink Red Bull with its Vive100% mix of tea and Amazonian fruit guarana," and that a company called InBiotech processes native plants as special ingredients for shampoo and cosmetics. According to ProExport Colombia, the major markets for Colombian exports continue to be the US (33%), the EU (24%), and Venezuela (15%), which account for a combined 72% of Colombian agricultural and livestock sales abroad. With peace at home for the first time in two generations, Colombia's agricultural sector looks set to expand quickly in the coming years.