Colombia’s agriculture exports have fallen by 4.2% since the beginning of the year as farmers across the country demand more economic support from the government.
Data published in Colombia government agency DANE showed an 11.2% decrease of exports from the food and agriculture sector in July compared to the same month in 2012.
Talks between the government and farmers, who have been on strike in three regions across Colombia for the past 3 weeks, have so far settled on a deal that intends to halt food imports from other Latin American countries, freeze a condition that prevents farmers from saving their seeds after harvest, and provide subsidies for keeping costs of production low.
Farmers, truck drivers, students and other protesters from the countryside to urban centers like Bogota and Medellin have denounced President Juan Manuel Santos’ economic policies, saying that Colombia’s free trade agreements are hurting farmers.
“We’re broke,” potato grower Benjamin Morales told Colombia Reports in an interview. “We’re facing high prices in everything from fertilizers, fungicides, to pesticides… These products have too many taxes, too many tariffs.”
“And about the FTAs… we’re importing a lot of milk while domestic production has fallen,” added Morales.
“It’s the same as [the problem coffee farmers are facing]: fertilizers and pesticides are too expensive, and when we go to harvest, the price is too low. And we don’t receive any kind of subsidy. Coffee growers do. But we don’t.”
But why Colombia’s exports are falling and its farmers are hurting is not because of free trade policies, according to Mauricio Reina, a researcher at Fedesarrollo. Fedesarrollo is a Bogota-based non-partisan think tank that develops research and analysis on economic and social policy in Colombia.
Reina claims that protectionism is actually the culprit.
“The Colombian agricultural sector has historically been very isolated from the international market by a protectionist policy.”
In Colombia, only few sectors are oriented for export, like coffee and sugarcane. They receive subsidies and get access to credit. But most others, like cattle farming, according to Reina, are not oriented for export. The owners have sought protectionist policies that help large, landed estates, but hold back small farmers.
Referring to owners of the large estates, Reina says there are some “who look for protectionist schemes. They’re powerful on a local level. They’re powerful on a political level. And they guarantee that competition from outside doesn’t enter.”
The help with subsidies that Morales says is absent is the same support that many developing countries give their agriculture sector. Most of Colombia’s agriculture is oriented toward domestic consumption, says Reina. Not toward export.
But it doesn’t have to be that way for small farmers, according to Reina.
“Colombia’s agrarian politics have listened to the large landed estates about protecting their economies,” he says. “But they don’t bother with promoting small farmers’ crops. And those crops [like tropical fruits] in many cases, are crops that Colombia could export.”
Whether or not President Juan Manuel Santos can keep a deal with farmers who see themselves as victims of his administration’s neo-liberal economic policy, while at the same time upping competitiveness is the most immediate challenge ahead for the President and the agriculture sector.
Colombia’s Finance Ministry has reportedly said it will expand the size of the 2014 budget to fund the agriculture sector.
Reina claims that a half century of conflict and bad road infrastructure are the other ingredients that make up the feast of troubles that Colombia is trying to eat its way through.
“We’ve created a closed economy with bad infrastructure,” says Reina, “and nowadays, those are the problems that we are suffering from.”
- Exportaciones, Julio 2013 Colombia (DANE)
- Interview with Benjamin Morales, Potato Farmer (Agriculture sector)
- Interview with Mauricio Reina, Researcher (Fedesarrollo)
- Farmers reach agreement with farmers to end protest (Reuters)