Cargill and the Colombian Government: Of land and inequality

When two very unequal guys are fighting, an old Colombian saying tells us that we have a fight between “a free tiger and a tied donkey.”

When I received the report from Oxfam, “Divide and Purchase”, this happened at the same time that my friend Rosa Emilia sent me a video on Facebook about the Poncho Revolution. This revolution began in August 2013 and mobilized smallholders, Afro-descendant and indigenous peoples. I asked myself if the report and the strike were related. I will now explain how they are indeed strongly related and require a wise response.

Initially the government considered that the ‘Poncho Revolution’ was small and irrelevant on real agrarian problems. In the following days, the ‘Poncho revolution’ developed in Boyacá, Huila, Cundinamarca and Nariño, and across many cities. It was the biggest and longest strike that Colombia has experienced during the last 40 years. We started to ask, who is the free tiger and who is the tied donkey?

Of land and inequality

The fight happens when the country is in the peace process with the FARC guerrillas and makes full reparations to victims, restitution of land they were either forced to abandon due to violence or which was taken from them. This is of top relevance because access to land is at the center of discussions at the peace talks.

Concentration of land in Colombia is the second highest in Latin America, after Paraguay. Inequality is dominant and growing, and the attempts to reverse it have been unsuccessful. The principal instrument was the award of state land, baldíos, to small-scale farmers and agricultural workers. Since 1994, Act 160 established the ‘Family Agriculture Unit - UAF’ –amount of land necessary for a family to obtain a decent livelihood.

Colombia signed Free Trade Agreements with the USA and with Europe, and Colombians are learning what it means to be on the weaker side of the agreements. People started to understand that their products are more expensive than subsidized products coming from Europe or the United States.

Within this context, the Colombian government tries to reproduce the Brazilian ‘cerrado’ in the Colombian Altillanura, by accepting for Cargill to concentrate land from agrarian reform beneficiaries.

Synergies: 1+1 = 3?

Between 2010 and 2012, Cargill created 36 different shell companies in order to buy 52,576 hectares of land in the Province Department of Vichada for the production of corn and soy. These 36 properties exceed the maximum size of a UAF by more than 30 times!

Though the existing law favors smallholders, the government argues that only large companies are capable of developing the productive potential of the Altillanura region. But we know well that the smallholders sector has shown to be more efficient, contributing to food security, employment and poverty reduction. When we see things through the lens of climate change, we see that the big investment is wrong. The Altillanura contains the highest diversity of birds in the world, the greatest reserves of freshwater fish, and a variety of ecosystems.

The context clearly represents that of a “fight of a free tiger against a tied donkey.” The smallholders demonstrated to be a strong political actor. They demonstrated that investments like those intended by Cargill are not responding to any development model.  Through the ‘Poncho Revolution’ the social movements demonstrated that the attempts to reverse the concentration of land tenure in Colombia have been ineffective.

Development and land rights

The case is testing what is the real policy and coherence of the Colombian government. In a case like this we recommend:

  • Colombians are living the terrible impacts of the neoliberal model: the state being replaced by the market, which is supposed to allow free competition to happen. This is contrary to the concept of development. The state has to resolve cases where the law may have been violated. If land that was distributed to small-scale farmers and agricultural workers are now concentrated in the hands of the largest agricultural commodity trader in the world, how to understand Colombian social development and the fight against inequality and poverty?
  • Rural development is one of the most controversial points in the peace talks held in Havana. In light of the ‘Poncho Revolution’ not having a recent precedent in the country, the results from the agreement gain prominence.
  • As the report indicates, “The return of awarded baldíos to the domain of the nation when there is proof of violation of the rules and breach of the conditions and obligations under which the award was made, or when the property is not used for the intended objectives.”
  • The facts show that the state failed in its duty to preserve the social and environmental function of land distributed through the agrarian reform process.

As one of the leaders of the ‘Poncho Revolution’ said, “I always use the poncho when it’s cold.” Now I will grab my poncho and go home. A sound analysis indicates clearly the identities of the tiger and the donkey in the case launched by Cargill in the Colombian Altillanura.

Read the report: Divide and Purchase: How land ownership is being concentrated in Colombia

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