(Translated by Steve Cagan, a CSN Volunteer Translator. Edited by Teresa Welsh, CSN’s Volunteer Editor)
An economy of large-scale planting in the hands of transnationals
The intervention of Senator Jorge Enrique Robledo in the debate with the Minister of Agriculture about the agricultural and cattle-raising policies of the new government. Fifth Commission, September 7, 2010 [Note—the Colombian Senate is divided into seven Commissions that deal with different types of issues and legislation. Each Senator must belong to one Commission—SC]
[Translator’s notes: 1) There are several references to land area in this piece, all given in hectares—a hectare is 10,000 square meters, or about 2.4 acres. 2) Robledo tends to refer to people as “Doctor.” Please note that in Colombia this term is used to refer to anyone in public office or in a position of authority; it is a general term of respect, and does not indicate that the person has a doctoral degree.—SC]
We will lose food security.
Let us conclude with one last commentary. Of the most serious problems that free trade brings is the loss of food security. This was one of my great debates for years with Jorge Humberto Botero. I would say to him, “But Minister, how they are going to flood the country with imported food if we end up being subject to the extortion the transnationals or the producing countries want for us tomorrow.” And he would say, “No Senator Robledo, there is no problem, if we produce coal we are going to be able to import everything. Let’s produce petroleum and we will import whatever.” This is the logic, we might say, that we should not worry about producing food within our national territory, because we can get in abroad. And he would add in these words, “Thanks, a thousand thanks, for the foreign agricultural subsidies, because they allow us to give cheap food to the Colombian people.”
That was the theory of Botero, Minister Restrepo. And the analysts would harass me. Doctor Rudolf Hommes, who is so astute, said about me: “the thing is that Robledo is a friend of the landowners, of the big farmers. He supports inefficiency and he likes the fact that food is very expensive for the poor.” Now they tell us that the issue of the royalties exists because we are corrupt. And what happened, what do the facts, the history of the world, say? First, that in 2008 there was an extremely serious antecedent, and it is [the fact] that foreign food could be very expensive. Today it is again becoming expensive and this is how, with hunger, this will be resolved in Colombia. The prices of wheat and other foods are taking off fast and a famine could be caused [by this]. It was also confirmed in 2008 and is being confirmed again now that the food exporting countries can shut down exports. Today Russia said they will not export wheat at any price. Here we could end up, with bringing in more foreign food all the time—we are up to 10 million, a third of what we Colombians eat every year, but with the FTA we could get up to 60 per cent—that tomorrow although we might have all the petroleum in the world and all the coal in the world, there might not be anyone from whom to buy food, or we might have buy it at prices so high that our people would die of hunger.
In 2008 there were uprisings in Egypt and other countries because of hunger. The people took to the streets because they were unable to pay the prices of food items. So a country like Colombia, that has land in excess, water in excess, producers in excess, how can it be that we have a policy of importing the basic diet of the nation with the tale that we have petroleum and coal? All right, let’s use the coal and the petroleum, but not to destroy our productive structure, as we have been doing in this country, and as the current government wants to continue doing.
The people who live in the urban areas should not have to worry about the fate of agriculture just because of this issue of famine. Bogotá, Medellín or Cali could end up without food, whether it is because of a complicated situation of world war, or a global pandemic, or a volcanic eruption. A thousand things could happen that would suspend the global flow of food. That the international flow of food will be interrupted is not a risk, but an inevitability. What we do not know is when it is going to happen, whether it will be during the next hundred, two hundred or thousand years, but that it will happen, it will happen. So we are obliged to react and to think in a different way. Since every day there are fewer rural dwellers and more urban dwellers, for some people they don’t care a bit about the fate of the friends of the “little guys'” projects. I imagine that for Coca-Cola it would be better that all the poor people be piled up in Ciudad Bolívar, and not to have to take a Coca-Cola to them in Monte de María—even this kind of logic is functioning.
To the people who live in the urban areas, I say: It is not only a problem of food security. If we do not develop our agriculture, it will not be possible to develop the urban areas of a country like Colombia. The country develops everywhere or it does not develop; no other way of doing it is possible. The internal market is vital, as economists have explained ad nauseum. There is no industry where there is no agricultural development. Let us learn from the United States, from France, from Germany. Why do the gringos and the French protect their agriculture? Because they are stupid? No; it is because agriculture is one of the pillars of development.
Santos I is Uribe III
I conclude by sustaining that I see in this Santos I the same as Uribe III, even when the imitation looks different. Second, I insist, what you want to do with the UAF (the Basic Agricultural Unit as defined by the Colombian government) is not good for us. I defend the idea that there must be production for profit in Colombia, but I do not share the idea of extreme concentration of wealth and rural property. We need a two-track agrarian model, with prosperous but not monopolistic businesses as well as prosperous indigenous and mestizo campesinos. To make agriculture into a private reserve of transnationals and monopolistic businessmen, with their peons and servants, seems to me to be a regressive, retarding proposal. And within this logic we have to look at the case of the displaced. We have to bring them into the debate about the question of land ownership by foreigners.
It is probable that the Polo Democratico Alternativo [Senator Robledo’s party—SC] will present a bill for a law prohibiting the sale or rental of agricultural land to foreigners. It is a question of national sovereignty. We have to have relations with the world, yes, but not like this. The idea that in order to do business with the French one would have to get rid of agriculture in Boyacá seems to me to be unheard of. It cannot be like that, we have to say to the Europeans and Gringos, and to their faces: the relationships they are imposing on us are not good for us. And the government of Spain should not think—and this is not a fight with the Spanish—that because they give us a few tens of millions of dollars to confuse us and get us tangled up, that the problem of the Colombian dairy farmers has been resolved. No, it is not with mirages that we are going to build relations. This happened to us 500 years ago, but it cannot happen to us again. We need relations between Colombia and the outside world in which they benefit, and in which we do as well.
We also have to launch, Minister Juan Camilo Restrepo, a policy of food self-sufficiency. Colombia has to make a main objective of its policy not to import the 10 million agricultural products that it is importing; that has to be the central line. Now, we can argue about how to do it, but that has to be the central line. Are we going to produce all or nearly all the food for the Colombians? If the answer is positive, the only way to achieve that is by protecting agriculture, and protecting it with the entire arsenal of economics, macroeconomics and microeconomics. But not lying down, as I see the national government doing, with a tendency that everything be for the monopolies and the transnationals, with the argument that that is the only efficient way and all the rest, as the Finance Minister says, is a question of “little guys.” With this government, everything has become a debate between the “little guys” and the wise men of the universe.
Another day, Doctor Restrepo, we will happily look at what will be proposed for the case of the land of the displaced, but for the moment I insist on calling on the Colombians to take a look at combined agricultural practices. It is not a good idea to look at it as if with the blinders of a coach horse, as if the only topic were that of land for the displaced. No. I call very cordially on the analysts, the university people, the people who write articles in the press, to look at the other side of land policy, to examine the problem of production. The question of land is not sufficient for an agricultural policy. It is necessary, true, but not sufficient. And we have to put this debate together, because if not, the people will end up baptizing Doctor Juan Manuel Santos as Saint Santos, without his having earned this title in any way.
Reply to the Minister’s intervention
I begin by calling on the national government to attend to the case of Segovia. It is an extremely serious problem. Here we heard the leaders of that municipality, and I think that they have reason on their side. It is a question of some mines that the lords of Frontino Gold Mines years back transferred to the workers and pensioners via public documents. And now the national government assumes the right to sell them at a price that the workers do not agree with. Furthermore, Minister, they are throwing all of them out of work and now they want to hook them in under worse working conditions. So it is very clear that they are protesting very fairly. Once again, transnational capital is being privileged by Colombian governments, against our national interest. It is almost inevitable that we remember Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in his famous debate with the banana companies.
About raw milk
In the second place, one issue that I did not mention is that of milk, a sector where fortunately we succeeded: raw milk sales will not be looked at again until February of next year. The problem is still pending and is serious. Half of the milk in Colombia is sold as raw milk. We have done the figures, and there are nearly 50 thousand people who produce cans of milk, people who live by selling raw milk. If the norms that come from the previous government are applied, all of them will leave this business. And there will be no one [else] who will buy half of the milk produced by the Colombian dairy producers, by small campesinos who sell precisely in that sector, let’s not call it the informal, but rather the poor people’s sector, of the dairy economy.
Let us insist that there is a serious problem there—and what is even more serious, Minister, is what CONPES [Consejo Nacional de Política Económica y Social—National Council of Social and Economic Policy—SC] approved, supposedly to confront the transnationals. But it confronts them exactly in reverse, because what we get there is a policy of support for large-scale commercialization. What we get there is dough, in the end, for the big pasteurizing industry, always with an eye to get it, and furthermore doing it badly, from the small milk producers, those who supply raw milk to the poor people of Colombia, milk that let us insist, is boiled, as we Colombians have traditionally done. I imagine that you were brought up drinking boiled raw milk, the same way as I was.
More about AIS
With respect to the case of Agro Ingreso Seguro [The Agricultural Income Insurance program, currently the source of scandals because of the misappropriation of money towards large growers under the previous Ministers—SC], I would like to remind you that in my contribution to the debate I said principally three things, beyond my criticisms. One, resources must not be taken apart, because they are needed in this sector. The management that was applied to them is one thing, and it is quite another thing for the State to abandon agriculture and to take away its support. Second, I affirmed that it was necessary to change the name, and I am pleased that even while that was not the main one, it was one of the ideas that were accepted. Really, the name reminds us of a shameful chapter in the history of Colombia, and it is good that it should disappear.
I also made clear a thesis about which, I am afraid, we are also going to enter into a conflict with this government: that is, that my debate was not against entrepreneurs nor do I believe that we should stop supporting entrepreneurial production. The thing is that we have to give priority to a democratic way of thinking. We will have to look at what types of entrepreneurs we support within the world of business, because the non-monopolistic businessperson is not the same as the monopolistic one; the latter is appearing as a new phenomenon in our national life. What is the debate that we are going to have with the government about? I believe in a two-track model of prosperous indigenous people and [mestizo] campesinos, supported by the State, who develop all their possibilities. And at the same time I believe in non-monopolistic businesspeople, also supported by the State, who would contribute in a positive way to the progress of our country.
I am sorry, because I see that it is going to be like this, that the government would maintain Doctor María Claudia Lacouture as the Director of PROEXPORT [the agency charged with developing non-traditional exports, and well as foreign investment in Colombia—SC]. I think first of all, that she should never have been put into that post, and even less that she should be kept there. It is another case in which Doctor Santos does not do what he says. He leaves in place the Director of the DAS [Departamento Adminsitrativo de Seguridad—the security police—who have been ricked by scandals, especially about tapping the phones of prominent politicians, legislators and even Supreme Court judges—SC], he leaves us Doctor María Claudia Lacouture, and I understand that Doctor Sabas Pretelt will continue in his post not because he, like it or not, works hard at maintaining his grasp on the embassy, but because the head of state is keeping him there.
In truth the Carimagua model goes on
The crucial theme in this debate is that of land [ownership], in which I have used the image of the Carimagua model. [A reference to a scandal in the Uribe government. In 2004, Uribe announced that a huge state-owned hacienda would be broken up and distributed to hundreds of displaced peasant families, but in the end, 3 or 4 years later, the land was instead turned over to large wealthy landowners—SC] I will give my opinion on the topic of land for the displaced when the government presents their bill for a law, when we know what the details will be. It is obvious that for anyone whose land has been robbed, we have to see how to return it to them. But the devil is in the details. And sometimes it is the details that determine whether something works or does not work. So we will soon see what the government is going to present and we will especially see what the Most Holy [“el santismo”—a play on the surname of the president, Santos, which means “saints” or “holy”—SC] actually approves. Because it would not surprise me if the Most Holy were to do one thing at the moment of presenting the proposed law and another at the moment of approving it, and thereby stay on everyone’s good side about his policies. But we will take a look at that at the right time.
I said that there was a second leg of the land model, and I am happy that at least it is being debated. Now we will see what points of view there are, but it is really necessary that this be a national debate that is developed with all seriousness. I further affirmed that the second aspect of the government’s lands policy was what I was calling the Carimagua model. I did not say that to annoy. The Minister tells us that now they are going to do something in the Hacienda Carimagua. But no, I am not referring to that specific business but to the model. What is the Carimagua model? It can be summarized as a model of large-scale planting. In addition, in those days Minister Arias used the image of the Malaysian model, a model of plantations of tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of hectares, that somehow attaches peons and sharecroppers on the side, because the owners have to have a work force, but within the idea of large scale and big plantations. What I explained about the positions of President Uribe—and Santos was a Minister of his—and your responses to the questions, Minister, and what you have just laid out, confirm for me that my idea of what the Carimagua model is, is not bad. I will illustrate a little for the Colombians who at some moment will listen to this. A good part of the issue consists of lands in Vichada that today are empty, and there is an argument about who is going to end up with them, whether it will be campesinos and small and medium entrepreneurs or big entrepreneurs. This is the great recent debate.
The government affirms that the UAF has become an obstacle, and let us remember that the UAF is a campesino economic measure that indicates the amount of land that would produce twice the minimum wage, which in the case of Vichada is 900 hectares—in the coffee-growing area a smaller size—but it is a campesino idea. Here what you are trying to do is to get out of the campesino element and move this into the area of investment. These are two different ways of attending to the issue. The policy is aimed at renting this land, but in very large scale, which is what is opening this debate. What they are going to promote is not a campesino economy, but an entrepreneurial economy. Now, what kind of entrepreneurial economy? It is clear from the responses and from what Doctor Juan Camilo Restrepo said that the idea is large-scale production. The Minister brings in the example of Brazil, an excellent example in this sense, since there agribusiness—as they call it there—dominates. Then, I am not in error about the image when I affirm that what President Santos wants is the Carimagua model, because the Carimagua model is 17 thousand hectares.
Foreigners and large-scale planting
When Doctor Restrepo says further, on the question of land for foreigners, that he in principle would agree because they would not be sold, but rather delivered in some form of rental or concession, he is confirming the idea of large-scale planting, because it is obvious that no transnational is going to come here to take a farm of two hundred or three hundred or five hundred hectares, but only a large-scale plantation. And so I feel confirmed in my idea that one of the policies of the government of Juan Manuel Santos, which comes from the previous government (because I read what Alvaro Uribe said about haciendas of 40, 45 thousand hectares) is that of agricultural monopoly. And I think that this topic has to be discussed. This is neither more nor less than the debate that has to be conducted, and conducted with complete clarity and with complete honesty. What kind of entrepreneur are we going to have in the Llanos Orientales (the Eastern Plains), Senator Maritza, medium entrepreneurs or even large entrepreneurs, or monopolies and transnationals. These are two entirely different paths.
I insist on pointing out that it seems to me to be a catastrophic error to turn Colombian land over, either by sale or by rental, to foreign capital. That idea that you are promoting, that has been promoted in Colombia for some time, that it makes no difference if they are Colombian or foreign, does not stand up to analysis, and pushes the country towards the extremely difficult situation of the loss of national sovereignty that ends up costing us an arm and a leg. Because there is another point here that farmers and cattle raisers have to think about. Resources are not unlimited, as those who affirm that there is land in excess have tried to make us think. First of all, they are not unlimited, and second there is a struggle over resources here. Here a transnational or domestic monopoly is installed in whatever area in the country with a hundred thousand hectares and with a tremendous capacity to soak up domestic credit, of which there is little for others. There is a struggle over resources that is not just a struggle over land. There are even problems with the work force that may crop up, such as what has happened in the Zona Cafetera [the coffee-growing area—SC] which is competing for scarce work force resources with the area of Magdalena Medio, where the plantations of oil palm are.
Putting an elephant into a party of ants, and I say it with lots of affection for the ants, who we Colombians are, is a step that has to be seriously thought out, because it is more complicated than some people have wanted to project, not to talk about national sovereignty. I am among those who continue to think that without national sovereignty a country has nothing. And this policy will snatch it away from us.
You cannot play around with the FTAs
In the topic of free trade, Doctor Restrepo recognizes that things could go from bad to worse, but he adds that in the end in any event we have to stay with treaties that have been signed and policies that have been underwritten. We just have to look at some problems in the fine print. I would add, in the fine print and in the not-so-fine print, because these free trade treaties do away with domestic agriculture and there is no trick that will work to prevent this.
Our national government might be able to stand up to or, as they say, bully more or less small neighboring countries and say to them, “You know what? We are not going to allow your products in here, because we are the big guys in this region.” But are they going to say that to the United States? When the United States puts the FTA into effect, and arrives with their ships to fill Colombia with their rice, is the government of Colombia going to stand up to the government of the United States and say that that rice is not getting in, and invent a theory? When they begin to send mechanically processed, skinless chickens and all the waste products, to ruin Colombian chicken production, is it possible that the government of Colombia will tell them no, that even though this is what the letter of the Treaty consecrates, they are not going to allow the chickens in? Is the same thing going to happen with corn, with every product, with milk? Once the treaties with Europe and the United States are in effect, is the Minister then going to say no, your milk lacks a molecule, a proton, and come up with any pretext to prevent them from entering? No. Doctor Restrepo, it’s going to come in— unless we stop it.
It’s a shame that Doctor Antonio Navarro left, because I was going to propose to him that starting now he should head the organization of dairy producers in Nariño so that he could become a rebel when the treaties go into effect. Because they have already taken wheat from them, they have taken barley; nothing remains in the cold land except milk. Almost all of them are indigenous. What are they going to do? The only possibility that will remain is a nation-wide rebellion.
A sensible government should rather say that those treaties cannot be signed because our national agriculture cannot survive with this policy, and tricks are not going to work. Norms are norms, and they are great powers and have the ability to require that contracted agreements be carried out. This is not going to be resolved with lawyers looking for a clause to be able to say, “Gentlemen, a comma is missing here.” No. These treaties, furthermore were edited by the Gringos and the Europeans, and they are perfect for what they are designed to do. Thinking that a lawyer of ours is going to find a comma in order to sink them, frankly, is unbelievable. Look, Doctor Juan Camilo Restrepo, when I say that this government scores very highly in mimicry, an A in mimicry and an F in politics, I am not exaggerating. We are talking about crucial matters. You give land to a displaced person and afterwards you flood him with imports, so what can he do with the land? I repeat the indigenous phrase: We Indians are not worms; we do not eat earth. We Colombians are not worms; we do not eat earth.
Other things that are lacking
This government has not lifted a finger to control revaluation, and that is mortal for agricultural production, both for those who produce to export and for those who are defending themselves against imports. This is a problem that has not received the attention it deserves, because it can only get that attention if the country gets out of the framework of free trade and neoliberalism. There we have the Chinese example. They export much more than Colombia, they have enormous reserves in dollars and still the phenomenon of revaluation is not seen. But here, there is no political will. Now, against revaluation, if the revaluation is not going to be changed, I would say, tariffs. One sensible policy would be to say that tariffs should rise in the same proportion as the revaluation of our money. The tariff is in the end the great weapon to prevent a country from being flooded with imported products.
The budget of the Ministry of Agriculture, if it should remain in the coming year like it is this year, is not that of a locomotive, but of a Renault 4. You were cordial that day, and said it seemed like that of a delivery truck. OK, I can accept the idea of a delivery truck. I have heard people affirming that it is a budget for a “carro de balineras” [a little cart that runs of little ball-bearing wheels, like roller skate wheels, and is raced in Colombia—SC]. In any event, it is an insufficient budget. Insufficient for everything, because if they give land to a displaced person, are they going to put him on a moving truck and send him off to his property? What is it going to cost to settle the displaced even if they do end up giving them the land? We need money for that. I understand that the problem is political will, but that budget is entirely insufficient.
“Little guy” investors
So, waiting for the rest of the debate, that which relates to the topic of land for the displaced, what I see just confuses me, and how much would I give to have things different from the fact that we are going to continue in the same agricultural drama. A country flooded with imports, an agricultural sector impoverished and filled with the unemployed. But what we will have is a policy of ever increasing concentration of much of Colombia’s land in those monopolies and those strange things that the government wants to create. And watch out, the money from royalties, I mentioned this here in the debate, will be at the service of that policy. It is a capitalism of monopoly, of the transnational, the very concept of globalization, Doctor Juan Camilo Restrepo, you know it. Let us use the phrase of the Treasury Minister: This government does not like a “little guy” economy, and not even “little guy” entrepreneurs, because there already are a few entrepreneurs who are “little guys,” with their little bit of land, with their two hundred hectares, perhaps members of some club, but they also became “little guys,” and they had to create that category. If the club is not in Wall Street, it also does not serve the global economic model they are creating. I believe that it is a model that destroys any possibility that Colombia would have to move forward. Colombia is a country with the possibility of being one of the best in the world, but that cannot happen with this policy. We have been in this for 20 years, and every year they get deeper into, they concentrate more on a plutocratic way of thinking. And with this way of think the facts are these: we have too much land, we have too many people, we have an excess of everything—that is the sad reality we are living through.
Let us have serious study and debate
So I reaffirm my commentaries and I call on the Colombians, especially the people in academe, to examine the entire picture of the national agrarian policy, and to read the documents. For three months we have been hearing talk about the project of land and the displaced, and by now the Ministry should have presented it, but you have to see the panegyrics that you read every day, even from honest and good people, about how wonderful the policy is. And you ask them what is it, and they answer, “That is not known yet, but it is wonderful.” No. The debate is with the fine print, reading every subsection, every article, to see what it is trying to say. Because if not, the debate becomes absurd. I think I am right in what I am saying, but in the end what I propose is at least let us open the debate in the communications media. It is the last straw that the communications media do not say a single word about the topic of the large-scale production that they want to push forward, what I have called the Carimagua model.
So that the country is going to end up sold to foreign investors in the rural areas and no one is going to raise questions about it. All right, if the government is right and this is how it should be, let them say so. Let the editorial writers say so, but let the debate be put on the table. Senators, that is the minimum that we have to accomplish in the Fifth Commission, that there be an informed debate here about the topic of agriculture, as well as about the royalties. And they go on with the story that they are going to be robbed from us, when what exists is a policy of centralizing the royalties, that Bogotá should decide on every expenditure, that there be no money for the “little guy” projects and they tell us that the debate is simply a debate about the themes of corruption and inefficiency. There will be time to discuss the rest of the issues on agricultural policy that are still on the table.
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