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by Hilary Hamm, Social Impact Coordinator, Concordia

Now that a peace deal is signed, Colombia has the opportunity to address many of the associated symptoms that have plagued the country during its 52-year long conflict. Inequality, natural resource devastation, and illicit drug trade are just a few of the widespread effects that will be felt for decades to come. Despite the obvious disparities, these legacies are connected through one distinguishing link: food. A post-conflict transformation of the food system not only has the power to mitigate these negative externalities, but also to position Colombia as a sustainable food production hub.

Decades of armed conflict have drastically changed the composition of Colombia. The exodus of over six million people from their homes, the highest number of internally displaced people alongside Syria, has transformed Colombia’s countryside. Caught in the crossfire between leftist rebels and far-right militias, many poor farmers were forced off their land to avoid violence. Since 1985, over 16 million acres of farmland have either been illegally seized or abandoned. Based off 2014 Colombian cereal yields, that’s enough land to produce over 21 billion kilograms of cereals and feed more than the entire population of Colombia for an entire year.

As farmers and rural workers were displaced from their homes, Colombia became home to the most unequal distribution of land in the world, with one percent of farms and estates controlling more than half of the region’s productive land.

Minimizing risk from the conflict also meant forfeiting productivity, efficiency, profitability, and environmental biodiversity. Quick growing, easy to sell crops offering multiple harvests a year were historically favored over permanent crops requiring increased investment and time to yield a harvest. Lucrative, illicit crops and land intensive cattle-raising largely replaced cocoa, coffee, and high investment crops. Unfortunately, these short-term fixes have, in many ways, contributed to the longer term challenges that the country and the region will face.

This conflict-induced change in Colombia’s agricultural landscape left a large carbon footprint on one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. Occupying 80 percent of agricultural area in Colombia, cattle have contributed to deforestation, soil degradation, and increased methane emissions. Ultimately, raising cattle for human food is an intrinsically inefficient process, as the resources needed to produce food from cattle are exponentially higher than those needed to produce food from plants. However, lack of capital, modern farming techniques, and machinery are limiting factors that constrain small farmers from switching to more sustainable food production methods.

Public-Private Partnerships and Peace

As President Santos’ land restitution campaign continues, partnerships between the public and private sector are more important than ever. Unequal land rights, abandoned farmland, and inefficient crop allocation have come to define Colombia’s agricultural sector over the course of the past half-century.

The peace agreement provides public and private sector stakeholders, including small farmers and guerrilla fighters, with an unprecedented opportunity to sustainably transform food production while simultaneously tackling post-conflict fallout.

Agricultural reform is a win-win for government and business. From a government perspective, the fragile peace depends upon reintegration of the rural displaced. A lack of economic alternatives coupled with deep social inequality helped spark the creation of the FARC in the first place, so providing ample employment opportunities for rural Colombians is a priority for the public sector. The Santos Government has demonstrated a commitment to land restitution, working to give millions of acres of land back to displaced farmers.

But jobs can be created outside of the fields, as well. There are multiple points in the food supply chain where an influx of workers would add value. Chef Juan Manuel Barrientos, a leading restaurateur, uses his El Cielo kitchens to train former rebels in the art of culinary mastery. From farm to table, the peace deal can catalyze the country’s new relationship with sustainable farming.

Shifting away from agricultural subsistence to sustainability is impossible without collaborative assistance from the private sector. The intensely complicated and arduous task of land restitution will ultimately result in the re-emergence of a smallholding farmer class. The abundance of labor, potential for diversification into high-value crops, and vast amounts of unused arable land provide overwhelming economic incentive for established companies to play a role in the reformation of Colombia’s agricultural sector.

Where revitalization of the agricultural sector is essential to ensuring a lasting peace, public-private partnerships provide a cohesive framework for developing sustainable agricultural practices. Leveraging the resources and expertise of both the public and private sector will ensure the long-term stability and growth of food production in Colombia.