Alex in Colombia

Publication date: 
November 20, 2016

Author: Alex Liebman

CowsThe past few days I have had the opportunity to spend time with a group of small farmers and agroecology researchers from Universidad de la Amazonia in the agricultural area near Florencia, Caquetá. Caquetá is one of the agricultural frontier regions of Colombia - the Andes descend into vast plains full of cattle, barbed wire, men with lightweight ponchos, cowboy hats, and rubber boots. Remnant patches of dense Amazonian forest remain along rivers, around houses. Secondary stands emerge where the land, after decades of extensive grazing upon acidic, weather soils can no longer support production. Yet - the region is dominated by grass - monoculture stands of Brachiaria hybrids, fields displaying red gulleys of ancient soils, cows wandering in between shady patches. Dusty towns, swelter in mid-day heat, signs on small tiendas advertise cold beer and upcoming cockfights.

Amidst these expansive grazing lands are small farmers who fundamentally challenge hacienda-style production through a mix of home gardens (yucca, cacao, sugar cane, bananas) and small dairy operations. The farmers I was lucky to meet had fascinating, tragic, and quite complex stories of colonization, territorial dispossession, recolonization, and bio-physical and socio-political production pressures. Many had been small-scale coca farmers and were re-located from the southern Colombia province of Putamayo as an attempt by the government to simultaneously reduce domestic production of cocaine and establish indigenous resguardos. Yet, for many of the farmers, their arrival in the region coincided with U.S.- backed Plan Colombia, a period of intense militarization focused on eradicating the FARC. Ironically, many of the farmers stayed on their farms throughout helicopter raids and ground patrols, yet were forced to flee their farms as paramilitaries descended into the region in 2003 *AFTER* the official period of Plan Colombia. Hundreds of paramilitary forces occupied farms and small hamlets, in this time, small farmers, town officials, teachers, any folks with "Communist" ties could be tortured, killed, or expelled. Thus, recently, since ~ 2012, many of the small farmers have now re-colonized their farms, re-building a mixture of dual-purpose cattle production and subsistence farming after living in nearby cities. They are challenged, among other things, by little state support, distance from markets, and quite degraded soils (low PH, little available P, high Al toxicity).

Amidst the histories of violence and dispossession, howeverm I think there is a quite hopeful possibility that these small farmers can fundamentally challenge the logic of extensive cattle grazing and its associated ecological havoc and dispossession. Folks at UNIAMAZONAS are working with groups of small farmers on reforestation, agroecological production, and strengthening producer organizations. Of course, this is balanced by the forces of rampant land speculation and rising land values driving by narco-trafficking money laundering (these absentee "farmers" of course, having little interest in the forest dynamics, soils, local communities. Many farmers spoke of the isolation the face amidst ever-expanding haciendas and of the temptation to sell their land. However, on other farms, teenagers spoke eagerly of silvopasture plans and the technicalities of implementation with the group of university students.

I think there are a slew of interesting questions such as: 
In a post-conflict Colombia what role can small farmer organizations play in fundamentally contesting "the restructuring of agriculture that follows the current processes of globalization and liberalization" and the Colombian, domestic processes of rural violence, dispossession, and land degradation.

Can small farmers play a dynamic, active role in reforestation of the Colombian Amazonian-agriculture frontier?

As I try to understand the dynamic of colonization/recolonization, forest transition, and the gradients across subsistence, entrepreneurial, and large-scale agri-business (and their interactions with the broader political-economic transitions that have taken place), have been finding van der Ploeg's work very helpful (e.g. http://www.jandouwevanderploeg.com/EN/the-new-peasantries/): "There are undoubtedly empirical correlations between size and scale of farming and the different modes of farming. The point is, though, that the essence of the difference resides somewhere else (i.e. in the different ways in which the social and the material are patterned). Peasants, for instance, create fields and breeds of cows that differ from those created by entrepreneurs and corporate farmers."

Alex with farmerAs my first phase of research in Colombia begins to wind down, I am excited for the possibilities of combining bio-physical plant soil studies with small farmer movements taking place throughout Colombia (and around the globe) tying political empowerment, sovereignty, and ecological food production.

Until next time,

Alex