Cargill International, the world’s largest agricultural commodities trader, used a network of shell corporations to take advantage of a program the Colombian government initiated to provide land-rights access to small-scale agro-producers, according to a report released Thursday by the Oxfam International human rights and poverty development group.
The report implies that Cargill may be in violation of Act 160, the law establishing Colombia’s system of land redistribution, in which government lands, baldios, are sold at reduced prices to small-scale farming families. Included in the law are a series of regulations, delineating who can utilize the program, and how much land any one individual purchaser can acquire.
Oxfam does not settle the legal question definitively, but regardless of whether Cargill Intl. is guilt of any crime, the company’s actions, as laid out in the report, are in clear and direct violation of the law’s original intent.
Land reform – Act 160
With over 80% of its land in the hands of 14% of its landowners, Colombia has one of the most skewed distribution of land ownership in the world, a legacy of its traditionally aristocratic social structure.
In 1994, the Colombian Congress passed Act 160, with the express purpose of evening out the longstanding disparity, and providing ownership rights to Colombia’s overwhelmingly impoverished rural population. Large private estates with historic titles have never been touched, however, and government lands made available under Act 160 came primarily from unproductive regions of Colombia, with little to no infrastructure.
Still, the policy has made some improvements in providing employment and combatting food insecurity and poverty in Colombia’s remote rural areas.
Conquering Colombia’s “final agricultural frontier”
According to the Oxfam report, it has also opened the door for the world’s largest multinational land trader to acquire massive tracts of land in what experts have called Colombia’s “final agricultural frontier”.
Between 2010 and 2012, 36 shell companies owned by Cargill International purchased 39 property titles in the Antillanura region of Colombia’s Vichada department, which lies on Venezuela’s border in the east of the country. By spreading its transactions out over a network of privately licensed corporations — which, by law, are not required to disclose purchases, or information regarding ownership, etc. — Cargill was able to acquire 130,000 acres of formerly public land, over 30 times the legal limit, as called for in Act 160.
The land parcels are listed under separate titles, but all of them present the same address, lone board member, legal representation and agricultural vocation, according to the report. Legally, it is unclear whether anything criminal has occurred, but for all practical considerations, Cargill used a law directed toward alleviating rural poverty and historic inequality to create a single, large-scale plantation in the Antillanura, one which the Oxfam report claims will deepen the various economic patterns the Act 160 was ostensibly written to address.
“Land not suitable for growing crops on any scale without significant investment”
Cargill representatives refused to provide comment to Colombia Reports, but a company spokeswoman told Reuters that Cargill disagrees with Oxfam’s “interpretation of the law”, claiming it has not committed any direct violations of existing statutes.
The spokeswoman also echoed the Colombian government’s stated motivation for encouraging incentives and legal reforms that would open the Antillanura region in particular to foreign investment, saying the land purchased by Cargill is “not suitable for growing crops on any scale without significant investment”.
Land reform activists would likely agree with the company’s assessment of the land’s potential, though not with where the “significant investment” should come from.
Agricultural strikes and peace talks
One of the main issues at dispute in ongoing national agricultural strikes is land access, and public investment in the Colombian countryside. Protesters are asking the government to improve land distribution and infrastructure, set aside large territories specifically designated for small-scale production, and allocate resources and funds for sustainable rural development.
Land distribution has also been one of the primary focuses of the Havana peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC, the country’s largest and oldest rebel group. Thus far in negotiations, the FARC have placed a high emphasis on land reform, one of the original impetuses for what was, at the time, an ideologically leftist rebellion.
Several ministries in the Colombian government declined Colombia Reports’ requests for comment on the legal ramifications of the Oxfam report, but Carlos Urrutia, one of the lawyers who oversaw the Cargill purchases, rejected accusations that the multinational had acted outside the law. Urrutia was a partner in the Brigard and Urrutia law firm during the 2010-2012 period in question, and eventually retired from his post as Colombia’s ambassador to the United States amid the initial controversy over the land acquisition scandal.
An estimated 40% of Colombia is allotted in large-scale foreign titles to mining and agricultural multinationals. The United Nations warns that large individual investments in agriculture lead to heightened poverty and food insecurity, as well as an increased risk of human rights violations such as displacement, which has claimed over 1,976,843,051 acres of land in rural Colombia over the course of more than half a century of armed conflict.