Photographer: Juan Cristobal Cobo/Bloomberg

Post-Conflict Colombia Seeks to Become Agricultural Powerhouse

  • Nation sees big export potential in avocados, pineapples
  • Country seeks new markets as fossil fuel exports decline

Colombia is seeking to reinvent itself as a major agricultural powerhouse as the demobilization of thousands of guerrilla fighters opens up former war zones for development.

As output of oil, the nation’s biggest export, drops amid dwindling reserves, the country is eyeing Brazilian-style agribusiness projects producing avocados, pineapples and timber, among other cash crops. The Andean nation, which is nearly twice as big as France, is currently using only about a third of its available agricultural land, according to Felipe Fonseca, the head of the Unit for Rural Agricultural Planning or UPRA.

“The post conflict is a great opportunity to think of a productive countryside again,” Fonseca said in an interview in the sidelines of an agricultural event in Bogota. “It doesn’t make any sense that Colombia, with its potential of soils, workforce and weather is importing food that we are able to produce.”

Colombia’s diverse geography includes desert, jungle, grasslands, Andean mountains and Caribbean and Pacific coasts. UPRA is a technical division of the Agriculture Ministry which seeks to boost agricultural efficiency and which employs experts in agronomy, geography and cartography to produce detailed maps showing which crops are best suited for the different soils and climates.

Tropical Savanna

UPRA has identified Colombia’s eastern plains as a region suited to grow corn, beans and barley, of which Colombia is currently a net importer, for domestic consumption. This region shares many characteristics with Brazil’s tropical savanna known as the cerrado, home to much of that country’s high-tech farming, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The warm regions near the Caribbean coast are suitable for export crops including cocoa, rubber, palm oil, avocado, pineapple, mango and strawberries, Fonseca said. Agricultural products account for about 8 percent of Colombia’s $30 billion in annual exports, led by coffee and bananas. Food accounts for about 14 percent of Chile’s exports, and nearly half of Argentina’s.

Colombia also has 26 million hectares of land --an area greater than the U.K.- that could be used to produce timber, he said. Colombia is currently importing wood from Canada and Chile.

Peace Deal

Much of Colombian agriculture is characterized by low levels of technology, as the guerrilla presence deterred investment in isolated farms vulnerable to extortion. The government last year signed a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, ending half a century of fighting. The peace accords include a deal on agrarian reform, to formalize land titles lost during the conflict.

Colombian farmers have also been held back by high transport costs. The government’s $18 billion highway building program, known as 4G, is designed to cut time and costs in the Andean nation, which ranked 126th out of 140 economies for the quality of its roads on the World Economic Forum’s 2015-2016 global competitiveness index.

— With assistance by Charlie Devereux

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