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In Colombia social and regional inequality has become evident, coupled with more than 50 years of armed conflict. Photo: Brandon Pinto – Unimedios.

The hunger pandemic in Colombia

The unchecked growth of the COVID-19 pandemic in Latin America is tearing apart the socio-economic fabric of the countrieslocated in that continent. One manifestation of this socio-economic rupture is the emergence of what David Beasley, the Executive Director of UN World Food Programme (WFP), has called a “hunger pandemic”. According to WFP, “The socio-economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in Latin America and the Caribbean could potentially leave around 14 millionvulnerable people in severe food insecurity this year”. Moreover, a UN report entitled “Preventing the COVID-19 crisis from becoming a food crisis: Urgent measures against hunger in Latin America and the Caribbean” states that the “The global economic recession will increase poverty and hunger and other forms of food insecurity, especially in countries with weak social safety nets. ECLAC [Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean] expects the GDP of Latin America and the Caribbean to contract by at least 5.3% in 2020.”

Miguel Barreto, the Regional Director of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) for Latin America and the Caribbean, told that “Our projection paints a stark picture. Our region already has problems related to economic and climate shocks, as well as insecurity and displacement.” In Latin America specifically, it is estimated “that if the effects of COVID-19 lead the economically active population to lose 5% of their income, poverty could increase by 3.5 percentage points, while extreme poverty is expected to rise by 2.3 percentage points, equivalent to 13.5% of the region’s population, the highest incidence in the last two decades. This means that 15.9 million more people could fall into extreme poverty, bringing the total to 83.4 million people in 2020”.

Colombia, the second-most unequal country in Latin America after Honduras, is certainly not insulated from the ongoing hunger pandemic and is experiencing the severe repercussions of neoliberalization. Ivan Duque Marquez’s government implemented a lockdown without providing Colombian informal workers with a temporary relief income. This was a disastrous approach because informal workers represent 62.4 percent of the total employed population and constitute one of the largest informal economies in Latin America. With little or no money to buy food supplies, Colombians took to the streets to protest against hunger and according to a protestor named Sandra Patricia Hurtado, “We are dying not from the virus but from hunger.” The anti-hunger mobilizations were soon quelled through the imposition of curfew which opened the flow of police and anti-riot forces.

The basis for the present-day hunger pandemic in Colombia was laid through the neoliberal policies of César Gaviria’s government known as Apertura (opening-up). Beginning from 1991, Gaviria unleashed a policy package which attempted to pry open and capitalistically crack the Colombian economy through neoliberal measures. These neoliberal policies included the calibrated collapse of social safety net, an aggressive pursuit of an export-oriented economic policy and the ceaseless efforts to attract FDI (Foreign Direct Investment). This neoliberal policy paradigm heralded an agrarian age wherein crops for domestic consumption like barley, soybeans, corn and wheat were replaced by export-oriented crops such as palm oil, fruit and sugarcane. In 1991-2005 period, food imports increased by 424 percent and agro- exports rose by 66 percent. This signifies that “In addition to deepening the insertion of Colombian agriculture into world markets as a supplier of commodity crops and a net food importer, the neoliberalization of the rural landscape raised food prices, affecting Colombian consumers and having adverse impacts on the livelihoods of small farmers engaged in the production of transitional crops”. The cultivation of agro-export crops (and the subsequent inception of food insecurity) has been cloaked in the banner of “productive alliances” under which “large agri-business enterprises establish processing plants, credit schemes and transport and infrastructure facilities, whilst making arrangements with local smallholders to convert their plots from production of traditional foodstuffs to agro-export crops such as palm, cocoa or rubber”.

The export-oriented crop production of Colombia was supplemented by the economic entrenchment of a rentier agrarian economy which engendered a shift from production to speculation in land use. Through a strategy of accumulation by dispossession, the system of share-cropping, small-holder farming and subsistence farming was slowly colonized by the new logic of rentier-speculative land system. The proletarianization and dispossession of small farmers also included the systematic dismantling of the communal lands of Afro-Colombians in regions such as Chocó and Valle del Cauca. Instead of using the appropriated lands for productive activities such as agricultural food production, the Colombian capitalist class used it for speculative purposes. In order to avoid taxation and legal prosecution for under-using or keeping the land idle, capitalists adopted cattle ranching as a viable method. The Colombian state had carved cattle ranching as a haven for speculation through “government policies such as easing of credit, subsidies, and low taxation on land properties and cattle.” These legal-governmental initiatives “provided the institutional contours for the development of rentier rural capital by favoring large cattle ranchers, thus permitting them to use land properties as a hedge against inflation and to evade taxation.”

Along with the traditional land oligarchy, the narcobourgeoisie was another major player in the rentier agrarian economy of Colombia. The narcobourgeoisie found land in the rural areas as a convenient method to facilitate “the transformation of illicit capital into land holdings and their legal incorporation into formal land markets through the acquisition of titles”. In addition, the flexibility and unenforcement of rural property rights “made it much easier for drug traffickers to launder through acquiring lands than through the financial system, urban real estate, or other businesses, as the state’s monitoring and anti money-laundering mechanisms became stronger during the 1990s”.The lucrativeness of land speculation was increased by cattle ranching which served as a veneer for unproductive land ownership and promised “low risk, low tax, and high resale value.” All the economic benefits associated with rural land acquisition and cattle ranching led the narcobourgeoisie to own 6 million hectares of land in 1998.

Through the augmentation of rentier agrarian economy, the land devoted to food production significantly decreased, the land for cattle ranching exponentially increased, land concentration reached unprecedented heights and the dispossession of small and subsistence farmers intensified. Land dedicated to food production decreased “from 4.6 million hectares in 1987 to 3.9 million hectares in 1999, and even further to 3.7 million hectares in 2004.”This decline in land devoted to food production was accompanied by an increase in the land dedicated to cattle ranching “from 12.1 million hectares in 1950 to 17.5 million by 1970, 20.5 million in 1978, 40.1 million in 1987, and 41.2 million hectares in 1999.” Land accumulation for speculation and cattle ranching was coupled with a simultaneous process of dispossession in which 5.5 million hectares or 10.8% of agricultural land was appropriated between 1998 and 2008. In the 1980-2010 period, 6.6 million hectares of land were abandoned as a result of displacement. Within the contemporaneous period of 2005 to 2008, “food inflation in the lowest income groups was found to exceed national inflation levels.” and “the price of the canasta basica de nutricion (basic food basket) increased between 80% and 90% between the years of 2007–2008”, indicating an increase in food insecurity.

With the help of accumulation by dispossession, land ownership was increasingly concentrated in fewer hands and in 1984 ten million hectares of land were in landholdings of more than 500 hectares each and were owned by 12,000 landowners who were predominantly cattle barons. More recently, extreme land concentration was indicated by the National Census of Agriculture in which it was found that 1% of the population owned 81% of Colombian territory. Further, “69.5% of farmers have less than 5 hectares of land. In all, their farms cover just 5.2% of the country’s cultivable land. At the opposite end of the scale, 0.2% of farmers have more than 1000 hectares of land, accounting for 32.8% of all agricultural land”.

Through the cumulative effects of rentier economy and export-oriented agribusiness crop production, Colombia witnessed the emergence of food insecurity. Food insecurity in Colombia is closely intertwined with the violent processes of displacement and campesino resistance wherein displaced small farmers are ever-exploited by MNCs, agri-business companies and narco-trafficker. All these mutually reinforcing processes of capital accumulation contributed to the immiseration and displacement of Colombians, thus increasing food insecurity. With the introduction of Apertura in the 1990s, “foreign direct investment in Colombia actually grew at an annual average of 55 percent, well above the average growth of the 1980s.” This heralded the aggressive economic solidification of predatory MNCs which were later found to be “violating human rights, contributing to the existence of armed actors, contributing to the assassination of trade union leaders, suppressing their workers, clearing people from their lands in order to make room for new operations, or a combination of these”.

Colombian Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with other countries such as USA and Canada are also examples of strategically orchestrated attempts to economically impoverish peasants and workers and keep them in a perpetual state of displacement. According to a report produced by Oxfam on the US-Colombia FTA, USA benefitted unfairly from the FTA because it did not weaken its domestic support for production and instead, coerced Colombia into dismantling its Andean Price Band System and Colombian quota administration mechanism which had guaranteed the purchase of crops. In a nutshell, “Colombia guaranteed unconditional access to its domestic market for principal U.S. export products such as rice, corn (maize), wheat, barley, soybeans, beans, oil seeds, chicken, pork, high quality beef, dried milk, and whey, among others. However, in contrast, the United States conditioned the entry of an important Colombian product, sugar, to a duty free quota, and did not guarantee the elimination of non-tariff barriers. “

Similarly, the Canada-Colombia FTA also underscored the undue benefits that the nations of the capitalist core accrue through their imperial power. As per a report produced by Report of the Standing Committee on International Trade, “The overlap between [conflict and natural resources] is sobering. Colombian regions that are rich in minerals and oils have been marked by violence. They are the source of 87% of forced displacements, 82% of violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, and 83% of assassinations of trade union leaders in the country… given the violent way commerce is undertaken, profit is extracted, and exports are generated, that Canadian investment in trade would be complicit in that violence.” Mark Rowlinson, a member of the Canadian Association of Labor Lawyers, said that “Preferential trade agreements have not generally provided any real mechanism in our submission to ensure that labor rights are protected when implemented by contracting parties….there’s no basis to believe that the insertion of labor provisions into a proposed trade agreement between Canada and Colombia will have any positive effect on the labor rights climate in Colombia.”

Neoliberal globalization, manifested through FTAs, MNCs and FDI, adversely impacted Colombians by additionally oppressing them in mining, oil and agri-business sectors. Therefore, the domestic displacement of Afro-indigenous communities and small-scale Colombian farmers was complemented by the external exploitation of these classes in other economic sectors. Many a times, the most appropriate choice for a poor Colombian squeezed and suppressed between the increasing non-profitability of food crops and economic exploitation of mining, oil and agribusiness sectors, is to cultivate coca leaves. Apart from the declining prosperity in other occupations, coca cultivation is also attractive because it is more adaptable and less demanding than alternative crops; requires lower inputs than other crops and does not need special skills on the part of the farmer for successful cultivation. But these features of coca cultivation don’t directly translate into increased profitability for the farmers.

The Colombian government has been engaged in a bellicose programme to forcibly eradicate coca cultivation through regressive techniques such as aerial fumigation. Colombian efforts to forcibly eradicate Coca plants have been supported by USA through the Plan Colombia programme through which USA has provided more than $10 billion to Colombia. Aerial fumigation is a purely destructive technique due to its inherent tendency to chaotically, coercively and catastrophically confront coca cultivation: “the effects of aerial eradication on coca appear to derive not directly from the fumigation of the plant itself, but rather from the associated side effects of fumigation, namely, violence and indiscriminate disruption of agriculture in coca growing regions. …The human and economic costs of displacement due to aerial eradication may only perpetuate the poverty and underdevelopment common to agricultural regions already most likely to grow coca, creating an on-going cycle and pattern of transient coca cultivation.”

This pattern of transient coca cultivation has been proved by the replanting of half of the destroyed crops in Colombia in 2019 and the increase of 8% in the 2019 Colombian cocaine production, reaching an all-time high. Coca cultivation has snowballed due to Donald Trump’s insistence on aerial fumigation, reflected in his dialogue with Ivan Duque Marquez to whom he said that “you’re going to have to spray. If you don’t spray, you’re not going to get rid of them. So you have to spray, with regard to the drugs in Colombia,”.

In circumstances like these, politically perforated by corruption, economically penetrated by MNCs and FTAs and disrupted by punctual counter-narcotics operations, the number of internally displaced persons (ICPs) skyrocketed to approximately 9 million, more than Syria’s 6.2 million people. According to a book by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)on Colombia, there is a direct correlation between displacement and food insecurity. For example, “the average food calorie consumption of displaced people was 1752 kcal per day, which is less than the minimum requirement of 2100 kcal per person per day. Additionally, displaced people had higher indices of chronic and acute malnutrition than the host population”. Importantly, food insecurity “affects the most vulnerable groups, who were already suffering from food insecurity in their places of origin: children, the elderly, women and indigenous populations and those of African descent. These account for the bulk of the displaced population, 72 percent of total victims.”

Despite the entire history of food insecurity in Colombia, it seems that the government is uninterested in this issue. Ivan Duque is continuing to increase food exports with shipments to the U.S. and the Netherlands rising by 6.9% and 31.7%. Consequently, imports reached $1.68 billion between January and March 2019, a 3.5% y-o-y rise. This reflects the growing costs which Colombia has to bear by unequally trading with the Global North. In the agribusiness sector, banana production rose by 2.52% in 2018 and palm oil production “increased by 42% in 2017 to reach 1.6bn tonnes and a total value of over $3.3bn.” An interesting development has been the synchronized increase in cattle ranching and narco-dollars. In 2017-18, deforestation, driven by cattle ranching and land grabbing, increased in lockstep with a booming speculative land market. A year after this cycle of deforestation and land speculation cocaine production reached “historic highs”. Land grabbing and speculation has been dotted with the killing of more than 77 ex-guerrillas in 2019 (making 2019 the “deadliest year” for ex-FARC combatants) and the simultaneous murder of 120 activists. Through systematic killings of social activists and ex-FARC guerrillas, Ivan Duque Marquez is advancing his agenda which refuses to recognize the hunger pandemic of Colombia.

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