Business & Economy

Minister: Powerful political forces have blocked land reform in Colombia

By Jaime Ortega Carrascal

Bogota, Dec 13 (EFE).- Colombia’s inequitable land distribution is a problem as old as the country itself and has persisted due to the efforts of powerful political forces to maintain the status quo, Agriculture and Rural Development Minister Cecilia Lopez Montaño said in an interview with Efe in this capital.

She added that leftist President Gustavo Petro’s administration is now seeking to redress these wrongs by carrying out an ambitious agrarian reform program.

“The Colombian countryside has not managed to resolve its serious problems since (the country’s origins), since even before then, since the Conquest … Many of the problems we have are the same ones as always,” Lopez said.

“There’s political power (over) the land that prevents it from being distributed,” and that has been the cause of violence and backwardness in the countryside, a key sector for the nation’s economy.

The degree of land concentration in Colombia is “shameful,” the minister said, noting that the country’s GINI coefficient, a globally accepted yardstick that ranges between 0 and 1, stands at 0.87.

“And remember that 1.0 is when one person has all the land,” she lamented.

In a bid to remedy this chronic inequality, Petro’s administration is determined to push through an agrarian reform that has been postponed for decades and was the first item of the historic peace deal signed in 2016 between Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas and the Colombian government.

That reform includes land titling because “there’s a large amount of land in Colombia … held by people active in the countryside who don’t have title to their property,” Lopez explained. “That removes all possibility of their having access to loans” and other benefits.

“Seven million hectares (27,027 square miles) are to be titled under the (terms of) the peace agreement, which provides a framework for this agrarian reform,” she said. “We’ve titled 800,000 (hectares) in three months.”

Those lands will come from different sources, including those under the administration of the Society of Special Assets (SAE), which manages assets seized from drug traffickers; and others from an agreement with the National Federation of Cattle Breeders (Fedegan), which is expected to sell 3 million hectares to the government.

“They’re going to offer (lands) individually, but they’ll be delivered collectively and have to pass through a series of tests, including (ensuring) that they were acquired completely transparently, are not associated with the conflict … are productive and aren’t flood-prone,” the minister said.

“The process isn’t simple” because rural farmers not only need high-quality land but also facilities, such as access to credit, “so they can generate income and increase their offering of agricultural products in the country,” Lopez said.

Through the agrarian reform initiative, which is estimated to cost 60 trillion pesos (roughly $12.4 billion), the government aims to not only deactivate the armed conflict in the countryside but also transform an agricultural sector that has fallen into decline.

The farm sector once accounted for “20 or 25 percent of Colombia’s gross domestic product but now represents just 6 percent” and is losing competitiveness with practically the entire world.

“The decline of the Colombia countryside has been painful,” she said, recalling that with the economic opening of the early 1990s “the rural sector and agricultural production was marginalized.”

Due to those lags, and the violence stemming from the armed conflict, young people no longer want to work the land but instead choose to emigrate to the cities, leaving mostly older people residing in rural areas, the minister said.

She added that it is now time to “make the countryside a global food power” and “give it the attractiveness it deserves, in line with its great potential.”

Lopez recalled that the last agricultural breakthrough in Colombia was its transformation into one of world’s leading flower producers and exporters.

That was nearly 50 years ago though and came at the initiative of the private sector, the minister said, noting that in recent years efforts have been made to promote Haas avocados and Persian limes.

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