By María Camila Ramírez Cañon, EL ESPECTADOR, July 28, 2022
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
The transformation of the countryside is the essential part of this country that is in the thoughts of the President-Elect. And part of that agenda includes agrarian reform, as well as increasing agricultural productivity. How can they achieve these objectives? Cecilia López, the designated Minister of Agriculture, is interviewed.
The Ministry of Agriculture will be in charge of bringing about many of the promises made to rural people by the incoming administration. Perhaps one of the most important is the increase in productivity, to the point where Colombia could be a world power in food production.
To achieve that, they talk of agrarian reform and an integrated policy of rural development that will involve modification of the agricultural credit system and facilitate access to land ownership for women. Cecilia López has been designated as the next Minister of Agriculture. She is speaking about the challenges and the stakes that Gustavo Petro’s administration will be dealing with, and she complains about the low budget that the Ministry has been receiving.
What will be the priority for the Colombian countryside that the administration will be working on?
The mandate of the President-Elect has been very clear: Colombia is to be a world power in food production. To do that, we need a series of elements that are framed in the first point of the Havana Agreement. It clearly talks about tremendous rural reform. And it talks in terms of contributing to a productive transformation of this country, to peace, to food security, and to sustainable development. It’s an absolutely ambitious goal that can be summed up as putting the countryside on the agenda again.
With all of those elements called for in the first point of the Peace Agreement, which one would be the central focus of this reform?
The President has stated clearly that there should be no underused productive land in this country. That is the central point of agrarian reform. He’s not just seeking to have Colombia produce at the levels that would do that, because it has the water, the land, and a campesino population. Colombia has all of the characteristics needed to be a power in food production, and one of the results of that would be the closing of the breach between rural and urban living.
In the history of this country there have been many attempts at reform that also sought to redistribute the land, but none have been effective. What would be the key strategy to achieve that this time?
The first one would be to frame it in the Havana Agreement, as that is a constitutional mandate, and that would give it very strong political power. In the second place, it’s a commitment of the administration that we will do that. In addition, the people that allowed us to win this political plan were the rural people, indigenous, Afro-Colombian, who voted on the Caribbean and the Pacific coasts, and in the south, now have political power and the land is a fundamental element of that.
The cost of not having implemented point one of the Peace Agreement was suffered by the rural sector, because it has not been a priority, and for the Agriculture Ministry, that’s shown by the minimal amount of funds and executive capacity employed during those four years. Now we have a greater possibility of having a country that’s not so unjust and is more productive. We are looking at a new country.
As the reform starts from the Agreement, do you expect that it will mean gathering together all of the elements proposed there, or are there additional elements that will be taken into account?
There are a lot of new elements. The first one is that we have the diagnosis of what has to be done in the rural sector. We also have to establish regulations for the dialog and the peace from the different actors, the agricultural, industrial, traditional politics, and the people that are counting on the new administration.
Have you projected, more or less, how long this reform is going to take?
Colombia has instruments that allow us to start developing this agricultural reform, but they lack elements. Those are the ones to work on with the Congress to create the policy of Integrated Rural Development, with a territorial and sustainable focus. That includes much more than the distribution of the land by means of capitalistic mechanisms like land markets, technical assistance, credit, all of which go together to attain productivity.
Of the legal instruments that we have now, we have to see which of them will allow us to get going with what we need. We want to have quick results. We aren’t completely in position yet, and we still have to put the administration together and make joint decisions. Achieving that is a long process; we have to get started and we are just seeing the light to know we’re on the right path, with results that we can go ahead and show. The reality of the countryside isn’t going to change in eight days.
Are you also going ahead with the land market?
Of course. The President-Elect said two things. The first is that it’s about capitalism, and getting rid of the feudalism that still exists in rural areas. That has to do with the type of land distribution that we want to have. First we have to distribute productive land, and not just the wastelands.
The second is that this will be done through the land market. That requires developing and speeding up the multipurpose cadaster (land registry), especially in rural areas, so as to make the value of rural land closer to its commercial price, because in Colombia, land is undervalued and making that value closer to its commercial value, that will cause property taxes to rise. That will stimulate productivity because owners of vast tracts of land will have to pay higher taxes, or else make the land more productive or put it on the market, and there, either the private sector or the government will buy it. If the government buys it, it would be to distribute it among families that own less than one hectare. That means, they have micro-plots that don’t guarantee even a minimal income.
In this connection, would the identification of the unproductive properties be through the cadaster?
Yes. The cadaster lets us know that and determine if the land is being used productively. That depends on the extent of the property and the region. We have all of the criteria to do this in a rigorous and scientific manner.
What’s the first thing you will do when you become Minister of Agriculture?
The first thing is to put the team together and set up the general guidelines of the transition process, so as to establish priorities, see what we can do with what we have. We also have to articulate with other Ministers, because the reform has to do with other areas. We have gaps in connectivity, rural education, access to health care, and the quality of services.
One piece of good news is that we are going to revive the neighborhood trails. One of the tragedies of the rural areas is that they have no way to take their products to market because there are no roads. That’s a commitment that belongs to another Ministry, but it’s something we have to insist on.
What have you said to Gustavo Petro about the funds that will be available for the countryside?
Here there are two challenges. First, the Ministry has serious physical problems with its infrastructure. Besides that, I don’t think the Ministry has ever been beaten up physically as badly as this administration is doing. It’s just inconceivable. They took away half of its funding. It’s as if they intended that the poor Ministry continue in crisis without any way of recovering.
The fiscal effort that we have to do is going to be extensive. Everything depends on how we come out in the tax reform legislation. All of what we want to do has to be expressed in an appropriation of funds by the Colombian government.
How are going to make the countryside more productive?
The first thing is good land management. Second, the technical assistance has to reach the campesinos, the indigenous peoples that live in the rural areas, and the Afro-Colombians. It’s a very complete package and it goes beyond modern agriculture; it’s cattle ranching, fishing. We can’t go on depending on just the mining and energy sector; the country has a future in agricultural production. The FAO (U.N. Food and Agriculture Agency) said that we are one of the seven countries that could respond most rapidly to the demand for food. And there is also potential for agro-industry. This will not just help us substitute importations, especially of food and raw materials, but at the same time it will allow us to generate currency and export products.
What will be your posture with regard to tariffs? Will some food products no longer have tariffs?
Right now I can’t say what’s going to happen with tariffs; those have to be determined with foreign commerce. But what is evident is that there is a very negative policy with regard to food security.
For example, in the case of corn there has been no stimulus for the country to produce corn in a manner that would compete with imports. There has to be a much more effective policy, and we have to understand why production has stagnated, what’s holding that up. The same thing is going on with soy. We import those two foods and we could substitute them, but it’s a process, and we have to know how much time it will take.
Are you going to try to use tariffs to mitigate the extra cost and elevated prices of agricultural supplies?
We have to make an effort to reactivate the production of supplies, and compensate a little for the sky-rocketing prices of the supplies where we aren’t able to produce any. Like the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the inflation, the sky-high dollar, and international prices going up. It’s a very complicated picture, but that doesn’t mean that we sit and wait until prices go down. That’s why we have to aim for food security and restore the agricultural sector. That implies political and funding decisions.
How is the Ministry of Agriculture being received by the outgoing administration?
You can’t imagine the pitiful funding of the rural sector. They are giving us an absolutely minimal budget for the agricultural and rural production sector. It has been falling for a long time because it wasn’t their priority.
What are the Colombian products that you are going to push for production and exportation?
We can’t forget that some activities have a good position, like the flowers. We can’t forget the cattle-raising and meat exports. We need them to be more efficient and not take up so much land that could be dedicated to agriculture.
Growing avocados is very interesting, as well as the cacao. There is potential in fruit and in many other sectors. But what’s important is that in this process we don’t leave out poor people, nor abandon the activities that do have a dynamic.
What different policies will you use to close the gender gap in the countryside, especially as it’s related to the economy of caregiving? You are a specialist in this area.
The gender gap in Colombia is immense, but in the rural areas, it’s dramatic. Only 25% of all titled properties belong to women. The rural woman is on the bottom floor of the social pyramid. We have an immense debt. I will continue with the subject of the economy of caregiving.
As long as no one recognizes the time that women have to dedicate to the work of caregiving, there is no possibility for them to have economic autonomy. Nor can they be free from sexual violence, poverty, or connect themselves with activities that would generate economic autonomy. This is much more serious in rural areas. The fact that there are no complete school days takes away half of their day, because they have to take care of the children. How could she have a job? Nobody has taken this on.
Caring for a home has to be recognized as a productive activity, because it furnishes 20% of the Gross Domestic Product and nobody gives it any value. So it’s time to construct what I call the pillars of caregiving, where the government and the market take part in caregiving so that the women have free time and can be autonomous.
The idea that a rural woman can be a driving force cannot be postponed. I am impressed by the efforts of rural women to obtain an education.
What ideas will they have to improve the environmental impact of the economic activities of agriculture and cattle raising? They are the activities that produce the most greenhouse gases in Colombia.
Agriculture has to become a fundamental part of environmental sustainability. We can’t ignore that we have a subject that we have to work on. Systems that are more sustainable and less contaminating have already been invented; we just need to have public policies and stimulants to use them. We also have to curtail deforestation, which is often associated with extensive cattle ranching.
What modifications will be made to the agricultural credit system? What will be their focus?
This is one of the critical areas where there will be important changes. The Agrarian Bank and Finagro (Fund for the Financing of Agriculture), during this administration, went from the agricultural sector to the Ministry of Finance, and there it lost the vocation it had. The first decision is that the two entities leave Finance and return to this Ministry.
Besides that, we will look for mechanisms so that credit goes to the small producers and facilitates the financing of the modern productive sectors that also need credit. In the area of financing and credit, there is a big change that is being discussed and that the President-Elect will announce when it’s ready. It won’t be for small agriculture alone, but also for small industries and other sectors that have not had access to credit.
How would you sum up what the new administration is trying to do in rural areas?
There are two things: the time of the Colombian countryside has come and it will be another country; the sectors that have been marginalized will have political power and the possibility of building a different Colombia.
Tell me in one phrase what the target of agrarian reform will be.
I think that Gustavo Petro has said it: turn Colombia into a world power in food production. But the other phrase is that there won’t be unproductive land in Colombia. It will be in the hands of those that are developing it in reality.