In 2013, hundreds of thousands of Colombian farmers engaged in acts of civil disobedience in what is now remembered as one of the most important agrarian strikes the country has faced. Hungry for effective and long-term agricultural public policy, farmers and supporters blocked the country’s main roads for weeks.
38% of Colombian territory is used for agriculture [i], a land area approximately twice the size of The United Kingdom and about the same size as the state of California. For all its magnitude, Colombia is notorious for its lack of agricultural data. Only two agricultural censuses have ever been completed (1960 and 1970) and both of them covered roughly only half of the country. Virtually every report that assesses the Colombian agricultural sector made available by the government or an external agency, highlights the need for better production and distribution of agricultural information. In an article recently published in the journal Global Food Security, the country has been classified with only two other South American countries (Bolivia and Uruguay) in the category high priority for improving cropland maps.
Despite announcing that the results of the third national agricultural census, which was motivated by the 2013 agrarian strike, were going to be publicly available in 2015, no such information can be found online.
Colombia has an impressive agricultural potential due to its topographic characteristics and location, which create a variety of soils and landscapes that can sustain a broad production of known commodities which include coffee, flowers, sugar and a myriad of ecosystem services. With all its biodiversity it could be home to responsible businesses within a blooming agricultural sector. Mining and fossil fuel extraction are not sustainable ways of managing Colombia’s natural resources but these industries thrive because, amongst many other reasons, they have enough data and information to operate and generate an income for the many Colombian families that need it.
Extreme weather events, such as drought and floods, are increasing the country’s agricultural vulnerability. The 2008 – 2011 coffee leaf rust outbreak (roya), most likely weather-driven by increased precipitation, resulted in an estimated loss of 12 million sacks of coffee – roughly the equivalent to the yield of an entire yield. The 2010-2011 flood events are estimated to have caused losses of around $7.8 billion in reconstruction and governmental subsidies costs. In 2014, drought intensified the ongoing food insecurity of indigenous groups in the Northern Guajira Peninsula. All these events have collateral effects beyond agriculture that include reduced newborn health.
These threats, predicted to increase in frequency, call for organised and informed public policy, which has at its core a thorough recognition of the country’s current capabilities through rigorous agricultural data collection. That’s why Colombia must get rich fast, data rich that is.
[i] Total area 1,109,000 square kilometres, agricultural area (421,420 square kilometres)