FERTILE THINKING

Colombia 2018 | AGRICULTURE | REVIEW

Systemic problems are being addressed in post-conflict Colombia to make sure sustainable agriculture takes root.

Acursory flyover of Colombia's agricultural sector reveals that the Andean nation remains the world's second-largest coffee producer, with 20% of total cultivated land allocated to mild Arabica beans, predominantly for export. Almost 25% of agricultural workers work to provide the world's daily caffeine fix. Yet this cash crop is at risk from climate change and the vagaries of local weather.

While not dwelling on Colombia's lingering illicit yields, suffice to say that the challenge today is to transform the crisis-era's coca crops into something the GDP can appreciate. Yet in the classic irony of an impoverished sector, while the soil cries out for diversification into high-value crops such as cacao, poorer farmers have shunned coffee for less labor intensive, but more profitable livestock and plantains. Colombia also ranks as the world's second-largest exporter of cut flowers after the Netherlands and boasts an industry valued annually at around USD1 billion. To this we may add the export staple of bananas, while sugarcane yields roughly 2 million metric tons annually, primarily for bioethanol production. And then there's rice, maize, cotton, beans, oil palm (biodiesel, too), as well as tobacco and diverse local fruits. In livestock, aside from cattle, Colombia rears guinea pigs and capybaras, chiefly for export, while shrimp farming has potential in a largely undeveloped seafood industry.

Problems

Colombia's agricultural sector delivers some tough numbers that demand attention. According to New Agriculturalist, around 1 million landless rural workers till the soil. Meanwhile, approximately 35% percent of its agricultural land is in use. Massively telling, a recent Oxfam report reveals that today, the main 1% of Colombian farms claim 81% of the land. This inequality explains the incursion of the poor into rainforests and the pursuit of short-term gains over sustainability. Unchecked livestock rearing and contraband crops have eroded much of Colombia's forests, while overuse of pesticide and the mass burning of sugarcane fields is a source of pollution.

Solutions

Here's a choking fact: Forest degradation releases carbon stored in trees into the atmosphere, whereby deforestation accounts for 10-15% of global carbon emissions. Colombia aims at zero net deforestation by 2020 and a full end to the loss of natural forestation by 2030. The state has recently added 8 million ha to protected zones, raising the total to almost 40 million ha, while indigenous tribes are to be empowered to allocate financial resources as they see fit.

Sustainable Agriculture

Norway is poised to extend its emission reduction agreement with Colombia to 2030, wherein it pledges annual payments for the verified meeting of deforestation reduction targets. Colombia stands to bag around USD50 million per year. Welcome sustainability projects have arisen. The so-called “Organic Agriculture Production Chain” bridges various schemes to promote organic farming, as well as state oversight and the private farmer. The Federacíon Orgánicos de Colombia (FOC), a cooperative comprising producers, exporters, logistics businesses, and certification experts, is a key player. Farmers have planted Amazonian cayenne pepper in place of coca crops, having met the FOC's 40% replacement goal in 2016. Elsewhere, cutting-edge sensors have been deployed since 2016 to maximize banana yield by monitoring vital environmental variables. And elsewhere still, a novel five-year agro-forestry project has been promoting the planting of trees with food crops to commercially improve soil quality. Historically, Colombia has allocated roughly 80% of agricultural land to grazing cattle, which has degraded soil quality. This project works to reverse land erosion from overgrazing.
The potential is there for post-conflict Colombia to generate a vibrant agricultural industry that makes use of improved land quality and management, as well as export products that make use of its plentiful water resources.