EL ESPECTADOR, August 25, 2020

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

In one of the most polarized political seasons in a country disposed to be divided, there is one subject that seems to unite legislators from different currents: the countryside needs better financial support.

The question that recurred most frequently this Tuesday in Committee V of the Senate is, “What has happened to the agriculture budget in Colombia?” Unanimously, the Senators in charge of going forward with the debate on political control in this area concluded that the allocation of resources for the agricultural sector in the projected budget for 2021 is not enough, to express it in another way. Other adjectives included disastrous or nonexistent.

The debate on Tuesday lasted more than four hours and, with flat notes and clarifications here and there, the Committee’s unified voice was to reproach the government for its meager funding for the agricultural sector. This, said the Senators, is perceived almost as a cognitive dissonance in the narrative of President Iván Duque’s administration. He admits publicly that this item is one of the highest importance for the reactivation of the economy, but he reduced its funding by more than 7% in his proposed budget for 2121.

Facing repeated questions by the Senators, the Minister of the Treasury, Alberto Carrasquilla, concluded, “the message from the Committee could not be more clear for the government. We are committed along with you to revise that budget line by line.”

The debate got started with an extensive exposition by Senator Alejandro Corrales (Democratic Center Party), who presented an overview that, in essence, demonstrated that nobody was satisfied. “How can you explain that one of the pillars of the economic reactivation in the country will be agriculture, but there is a deficit of 2 trillion pesos (about USD 522 billion) between what was requested and what was allocated?” asked the legislator while demonstrating the differences between the formal requirements of the sector and the amounts that ended up in the proposed budget that the government presented a few weeks ago.

For example, in the Annual Operations Investment Plan, the agriculture sector required 832.84 trillion pesos (just under USD 220,000,000) for the category of social organization and productive use of rural territory; the amount allocated for this item was 184.218 trillion pesos (a little over USD 48,300,000). For agricultural science, technology, and innovation it required 367.777 trillion pesos (about USD 96,500) and 37.244 trillion pesos (about USD 9,800) were allocated in the government’s proposed budget. That’s while the government is talking about increasing exports of goods with added value. Vice President Marta Lucía Ramírez even went so far as to expound the idea that the country could turn into a processed foods powerhouse during the launching of the strategy for the reactivation of industry and tourism.

Altogether, according to Corrales’ statistics, the agricultural sector requested 3.2 trillion pesos (about USD 840,000,000) and received allocations in the budget proposal of 1.1 trillion pesos (about USD 289,000,000).

In his initial introduction Minister Carrasquilla talked about the budgetary difficulties in times of pandemic, causing a reduction of 24 trillion pesos (about USD 6, 300,000,000) in tax revenue, for example, as well as requiring allocation of extra funds to cover the areas of medical attention and health in the midst of the crisis. “We added 26 trillion pesos (about USD 6,915,000,000) to the budgets that were approved by Congress last year. The proposed budget that we presented last year is increasing by 19%,” Carrasquilla explained.

Nevertheless, for Senator Jorge Enrique Robledo (Democratic Pole Party), the pandemic has little to do with the situation of agriculture in Colombia. “These are problems that have come up before and you can’t blame the pandemic. This country has had a policy against agriculture, and it didn’t originate with this government. But President Duque’s campaign promises on improving conditions in the countryside are on record.”

Robledo’s arguments, like those of other Committee members, go to the reductions in investment that the agricultural sector has suffered for two years. According to the Senator, between 2019 and 2020, that budget line received 17% less and the reduction proposed for next year borders on 8%. “The agriculture budget equals .56% of the entire national budget. And agriculture furnishes 7% of the GDP in Colombia,” Robledo concluded.

Robledo’s statistics echo what Corrales, who demonstrated an evolution of allocations to the agricultural sector from 2002 up to today, explained. The progression starts out with $757.91 billion pesos (almost USD 197,000,000) and ends at 1.7 trillion pesos (about USD 445,300,000) proposed in the government’s budget being debated right now. The peak of spending was in 2015, when it reached approximately 4.2 trillion pesos (about USD 1,100,000,000).

“This is a really sad picture because that was the year of the agricultural strike and it can’t be that the highest budget allocation was only to answer a social protest movement,” said Senator Corrales.

For his part Senator Jorge Londoño (Green Party) said that it was terrible that “the government isn’t focusing on the countryside as a macro-policy, nor as a sector that is given resources just for survival.” The Senator called attention to the Rural Agency Development Agency (ADR in Spanish), which is suffering a loss of 35% in the proposed budget; he notes that there is a particular reduction in the allocation for investment, which is reduced by 45%, while its function has increased by 18%.

Of the six official entities that make up the agricultural sector, including the Ministry of Agriculture, the proposed budget shows reductions in five. The most sensitive of these is the ADR budget, followed by the National Fishing and Agricultural Authority (UNAP, which is reduced by 14%). The only entity receiving an increase is the Special   Administrative Unit for Management of the Institution for Despoiled Land, with an increase of 5%.

At her turn, Senator Maritza Martinez (U Party) noted that investment in the agricultural sector has been being reduced drastically and constantly: “Ever since 2018 we have lost one peso of investment for ever three pesos budgeted,” she explained.

Senator Martinez’ statement called attention to rural women, a line item giving special attention to the various ways that the women were marginalized. “Half of the people living in the country are women. The funds that are focused on budget items relating to women are 74 billion pesos (about USD 19,500,000), a ridiculous figure when you consider that women are the people that suffer the most discrimination, and have the highest rates of poverty. What message are we sending to rural women?” demanded the Senator.

During the debate, the Minister of Agriculture, Rodolfo Zea, identified some of the initiatives that his agency is developing, like agriculture by contract, which is one of the projects supported the most by the Duque administration. According to Zea, they expect that by 2022, some 300,000 campesinos will be involved in the project; right now the figure is 60,049; likewise, he explained that they have allocated 20 billion pesos (about USD 5,250,000), distributed among 71,000 producers to develop methods of dealing with the effects of climate change. According to the National Planning Department, as of 2018 there are 8,000 rural women who have title to their property.

The position of the Agriculture Ministry on a possible patent for a method of processing raw sugar.

Last August 20, Congressman Fabián Díaz stated in a video that Riopaila was trying to “patent panela” in the Industry and Commerce agency. However, by means of a communication, the company denied that it was working on that.

The patent is an application by Jorge Enrique González Ulloa, a member of the board of directors and one of the largest stockholders of the Riopaila Agricultural Group. It’s worth mentioning that Ulloa is not seeking a patent for panela, but rather for a method of processing the sugar cane to maximize “the conservation of policosanol[1] during production of a product based on the natural juice of sugar.”

With respect to the patent, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development stated that the agency does not support the possible patent, “because the patent would ignore the existence of traditional processes in making the product and of new developments financed by the Colombian government and other institutions at the national and international level.”

The agency assured, in a communication, that it is working with Fedepanela, [2]Agrosavia,[3] Sena,[4] ICA,[5] and producers to share information about the negative impact that this patent would have on the panela producers, and working to halt the patenting procedures that are also going on in Europe and Australia.. “This agency wants to send a message of support for the 350,000 families that produce panela, recognizing their work and their efforts to carry out this activity which is present in 511 municipalities in the 28 provinces in this country,” emphasized the agency.

[1] A chemical or dietary supplement made from sugar cane.

[2] Fedepanela is a nonprofit trade association representing Colombian producers of panela, raw unrefined cane sugar.

[3] Agrosavia is the Colombian Agricultural Research Corporation, a decentralized public entity with mixed nonprofit, scientific, and technical participation.

[4] Sena is Colombia’s National Training Service, focused on vocational training.

[5] ICA is the Colombia Agricultural Institute, a government agency.

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