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Country profile - Colombia

colombia

From the rugged moors of the Andean highlands, to the tropical Caribbean lowlands, agriculture in Colombia reflects the diversity of its landscapes and climates.

Rich in natural resources and the second-most biodiverse country in the world, the country's economic fortunes are rapidly improving. But inequality is increasing and rural life is tough: some 57 per cent of farmers own just two per cent of the land, and there are nearly 1 million landless rural workers. This, combined with poor land management and a long-running civil war now closely linked to the drugs trade, has left the country visibly scarred and its rural areas struggling to develop.

Overview

The second-largest coffee producer in the world, some 20 per cent of all cultivated land in Colombia is dedicated to growing mild Arabica beans, mostly for export. Although small scale, with an average farm size of just 1.2 ha, coffee production employs around a quarter of all agricultural labour and is a major source of income in many rural areas.

Colombia is also the world's second-largest exporter of cut flowers after the Netherlands, with an industry worth around US$1 billion per year. Bananas are another major export crop, produced in the country's tropical lowlands.

Sugarcane is a major industrial crop, with around 2 million metric tonnes produced annually, mostly on large plantations in the Cauca Valley. Grown in ten-month cycles without rotation, it is used primarily for bioethanol production. Other major crops include rice, maize, cotton, beans, oil palm (also for biodiesel), tobacco and a range of tropical fruits.

Livestock rearing and illicit crop production have left land in the mid-altitude Andes severely degraded (Neil Palmer/CIAT)
Livestock rearing and illicit crop production have left land in the mid-altitude Andes severely degraded
Neil Palmer/CIAT

Cattle production for meat is widespread, and the country's dairy sector is expanding. Guinea pig production is an important source of income and protein in the high Andes, and capybaras (large rodents) are also reared, but mostly for export to neighbouring Venezuela. Shrimp farming is a growing industry but, despite having large coastlines on the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea, Colombia's marine fisheries are undeveloped.

Challenging times

Deforestation is one of Colombia's greatest environmental challenges. Agriculture, logging, mining, oil exploration and human settlement cause up to 900,000 ha of virgin forest to be cleared each year, resulting in widespread soil erosion and the silting of waterways. Lack of effective soil conservation techniques, livestock rearing and illicit crop production have left land in the mid-altitude Andes severely degraded, threatening the water supply for the entire country.

Some 20 per cent of all cultivated land in Colombia is dedicated to growing mild Arabica coffee (Neil Palmer/CIAT)
Some 20 per cent of all cultivated land in Colombia is dedicated to growing mild Arabica coffee
Neil Palmer/CIAT

The coffee industry is at risk from climate change. Rising temperatures and unpredictable rains are affecting harvests and forcing production uphill. And, while there is great potential for diversification into high-value crops like cacao, many farmers are abandoning coffee altogether, in favour of less labour intensive, though less profitable production of livestock and plantain.

Overuse of pesticides is a major issue for both human and environmental health. And, although outlawed, the habitual burning of large sugarcane fields to remove older leaves prior to harvesting is a major source of air pollution in the Cauca Valley.

Coca production

Colombia produces around 90 per cent of the world's cocaine, and cultivation of coca for cocaine processing is a major industry. An estimated two-thirds of ecosystems in the Colombian Andes have been adversely affected in some way by the coca trade: estimates vary, but between 50,000-300,000 ha of land is cleared for coca production each year and the dumping of toxic chemicals by cocaine processors has resulted in polluted streams and rivers.

The Colombian government claimed to have eradicated over 150,000 hectares in 2008 - roughly half of the country's coca crop - through its controversial programme of aerial spraying of coca fields. As well as concerns about the effect of these herbicides on adjacent vegetation and local water systems, there is mounting evidence that the policy has simply shifted coca production to higher elevations, resulting in still more deforestation.

There is great potential for diversification into high-value crops like cacao (Scott Wallace/World Bank)
There is great potential for diversification into high-value crops like cacao
Scott Wallace/World Bank

The forty year civil war between the government and guerrilla group the FARC, (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), has turned into a struggle between rival armed factions for a share of the multi-billion dollar cocaine trade. Colombia has approximately 3 million displaced people - second only to Sudan - many of whom have fled drug-related rural violence and migrated to urban slums.

Conclusion

With such natural resources at its disposal, Colombia has great potential to further expand its agricultural sector. The planned development of mechanised agriculture in the vast Llanos savannas in the northeast of the country, for example, is both a major source of economic interest, and environmental concern. With its extensive water resources, Colombia also has great potential for increasing its hydroelectric power capacity.

But these projects are unlikely to improve rural life. While tackling environmental issues remains a low political priority, and the formidable drugs trade continues to exert a stranglehold on many rural areas, it seems the growing divide between the urban rich and rural poor in Colombia is set to continue.

Statistical information
  • Country: Republic of Colombia
  • Capital: Bogota
  • Area: 1,138,914 sq km
  • Population: 45,644,203 (July 2009 est.)
  • Population growth rate: 1.4% (2009 est.)
  • Life expectancy: 73 years
  • Ethnic groups: mestizo 58%, white 20%, mulatto 14%, black 4%, mixed black-Amerindian 3%, Amerindian 1%
  • Languages: Spanish
  • Inflation: 7% (2008 est.)
  • GDP purchasing power parity: US$396 billion (2008 est.)
  • GDP per capita: US$9,200 (2008 est.)
  • GDP composition by sector: agriculture: 9%; industry: 38.1%; services: 52.9%
  • Land use: arable land: 2.01%; permanent crops: 1.37%; other: 96.2%
  • Major industries: textiles, food processing, oil, clothing and footwear, beverages, chemicals, cement; gold, coal, emeralds
  • Agricultural products: coffee, cut flowers, bananas, rice, tobacco, maize, sugarcane, cocoa beans, oilseed, vegetables; forest products; shrimp
  • Natural resources: petroleum, natural gas, coal, iron ore, nickel, gold, copper, emeralds, hydropower
  • Export commodities: petroleum, coffee, coal, nickel, emeralds, clothing, bananas, cut flowers
  • Export partners: United States 38%, Venezuela 16.2%, Ecuador 4% (2008)

Date published: January 2010

 

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