International relief and development organization Oxfam America urged the Colombian government to close the loopholes that allowed Cargill, the world's largest agricultural commodity trader, to acquire over 124,000 acres of land in Colombia's Altillanura region through 36 shell companies between 2010 and 2012.
In a new report released today, Oxfam outlines how Cargill may have managed to evade Colombia's legal restriction on acquiring previously state-owned land destined for family farming through a method of fragmented purchases, exceeding the maximum size of such land permitted by law for a single owner by more than 30 times.
"In a country where land ownership is already extremely concentrated, the further concentration of vast tracts in areas destined for small-scale agriculture only exacerbates inequality and social conflict," said Chris Jochnick, director of private sector engagement with Oxfam America. "The case of Cargill's investment in Colombia will test a government cornered between national protests over rural issues and large scale international investments."
Oxfam's report comes at a significant moment for agrarian issues in Colombia in political, economic and social terms. The national agrarian strike, which began in August 2013 and mobilized civil society at large, is without recent precedent in the country and exemplifies the importance of rural development in Colombia. A new Rural Development Bill is currently under discussion, along with various current legislative proposals that aim to regulate large-scale land purchases by foreign entities. Most importantly, rural reform is the key item on the agenda of the peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC in Havana.
"Colombia's extreme inequality in land distribution is both cause and a consequence of the internal armed conflict that has ravaged the country for more than half a century, current government policies are also to blame," said Jochnick.
The Colombia government argues that only large companies are capable of developing the productive potential of the Altillanura region, and therefore seeks to establish incentives and legal reforms that will pave the way for domestic and foreign investment. But the small farming sector has been shown to be as, if not more efficient, particularly if its contribution to food security, employment and poverty reduction is taken into account.
"Public investment in smallholder agriculture and ensuring land tenure of small holder producers is necessary in Colombia," said Aida Pesquera, Oxfam country director in Colombia. "Private investment is also useful but this must respect existing rights and legislation relating to land use, and include comprehensive assessments of social and environmental impacts at local and national levels."