Dr Giuseppe Feola is lecturer in Environment and Development in the Department of Geography and Environmental Science. He writes about an historical window of opportunity for Colombian agriculture to overcome its structural crisis, and the challenges ahead.

Out of the radar of most British and European mass media, Colombia was recently shaken by an historical social mobilization that raised important questions on the future of Colombian peasantry, and exposed the unsustainability of market-based rural development models in the country.

For 21 days thousands of farmers across the country went on strike and took the highways including the vital Ruta Panamericana linking the north and the south. This was the extreme measure adopted by several organizations of smallholders to make their objections and petitions heard by the national Government. The farmers were concerned by the high production costs (e.g. fertilizers and pesticides, transport), and the free trade agreements with the United States of America (USA) and the European Union (EU), which came into force in 2012 and 2013 respectively. These treaties are considered to put smallholder Colombian farmers in open competition with stronger international competitors, for example by reducing or eliminating protectionist barriers, constraining the use of native seeds in favour of certified ones, and facilitating the import of produce at low prices.

The strike had significant effects on the food prices in most of Colombian cities, with produce seeing an increase of up to 150% in the markets of Bogotá, the capital district. The protests were faced with an inconsistent approach by the government. In a 2-week time span, they were first denied, then demeaned, then violently repressed, and, finally, acknowledged with the opening of negotiation talks between representatives of the national Government and of the farmers.

This social mobilization was historical for at least two reasons. Firstly, despite the food price increase, it was widely supported by the urban middle classes. This marked a symbolic convergence between urban and rural areas, which in the last decades have been divided by a growing gap, wealth spreading -albeit unevenly- in urban areas and poverty dominating in rural ones. Secondly, the social mobilization was initiated in regions such as the Andean Department of Boyacá, in which peasant have traditionally known to be characterized by an ethos of passivity, social reserve and scarce aspirations to improve. Moreover, this social mobilization came at a crucial point in the long and sad history of violent conflict in Colombia.

The government of president Santos and the biggest armed group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), are negotiating a peace agreement of which rural development constitutes one of five main axes. If the recent entry into force of the above mentioned free trade agreements, and the current implementation of a governmental sustainable development plan under the slogan ‘Prosperidad para todos‘ (‘Prosperity for all‘), of which agriculture is one of five locomotoras‘ (‘locomotives’), are considered, it is apparent that the current time is a very significant window of opportunity for historic change for Colombian peasantry and Colombian agriculture more broadly.

In fact, the protest and the strike were largely the result of a decades-long crisis, address through  market-based policies that were pursued by several successive governments in substitution of a proper agrarian reform, and accompanied by the demeaning of the social, cultural and economic role that peasants play in the national economy and society. Colombia has one of the most unequal land distributions in the world, land property rights are often informal and uncertain, and 65% of agricultural workers live in poverty conditions.

The liberalization of Colombian agriculture has been promoted on the assumption that the exposure of local markets to competition from regional and global ones would attract foreign investment, promote innovation and efficiency, and thus favour both the productive sector and consumers. Similarly to what observed in other Latin American countries, liberalization policies have favoured the supply of cheap food to the growing urban middle classes, but have been largely based on abstract and oversimplified neoclassical economic models that do not account for the diversity and specificity of local agricultural systems, ignore the social and cultural value -as opposed to the purely economic one- of particular farming systems, and leave little space for practices that are to not compatible with profit maximization in a competitive market.

What was actually at stake, therefore, was much more than the price of agricultural inputs, or the right to use native seeds. The social mobilization put fundamentally into question the type of rural development that Colombia decided to follow: one in which peasants and smallholders are bound to become workforce in those industrialized agricultural firms that will stand international competition, or in urban industry and services, and in which agricultural land will possibly be used to fuel other ‘locomotives‘ such as mining. However, it is not yet clear how radically the negotiations will tackle these issues. While the Minister for Agriculture recently promised an agrarian reform, the fact that grassroots peasant organization decided not to take part in the talks because not satisfied by the agenda on the table, unlike the well organized representation of more industrialized agricultural sectors, is a sign of the limited scope of the reform to come.

Is there a future for Colombian peasantry? Is there a future for small scale food production which is culturally and socially rooted in a territory, in a growingly globalized and liberalized agri-food system? Will the urban middle class be willing to concretize the symbolic support for peasants, for example by paying an extra price for food produced locally and at small scale, but inevitably at higher cost? Will peasant and smallholders, on their hand, manage to develop practices that are socially and culturally meaningful, but more environmentally sustainable and economically efficient? Most importantly, how radically is the Colombian government ready, or able, to discuss current models of rural development? Will peasants and indigenous populations have a say in this process? Colombian agriculture faces transformative pressures, but it is in the hand of the Government and the interested parties to shape the breath, depth and direction of this transformation.