Coronavirus and the Colombian Countryside

May 5, 2020
1:12 PM
Originally published at NACLA

Fabio Muñoz cuts weeds away from his sugar cane plants on his farm above the Cauca river in Briceño, Colombia. (Photo by Alex Diamond)

By Alex Diamond

Versión en español aquí.

BRICEÑO, Colombia — Fabio Muñoz is pissed off. In the context of a national fear of coronavirus, he was called a hero on the radio, he says. And it rankles him. “They’re talking about us, about our campesino heroes producing, shut in on their land. Hermano, we can’t live with praise. Where’s the support?”

Though the pandemic has pushed campesino food production to the forefront of national discussion in Colombia, Fabio’s comment points to a deeper issue: a broader economic context that endangers campesino livelihoods. Just a month earlier, his neighbor in the isolated rural hamlet of El Orejón, Porfirio Zabala, had awakened before dawn to load 336 kilograms of freshly harvested beans onto mules. He traveled an hour to catch the twice-daily local transport into the village center of Briceño, two hours away. Unable to find a buyer, he caught a bus to another village. There he sold the beans for $330.

“And how much did you invest in cultivating them?” I ask. Not counting his own significant labor, Porfirio says, he paid 40 jornales —jornal is a wage for a full day’s work— to plant and pick the beans. He sees me writing down the figures and asks for my calculations. At $10 for each jornal, he invested $350 in the beans, plus the transportation costs, another $45.

“You lost $65,” I tell him, “not counting the use of your land and your days of work.”

Porfirio, a man with a broad smile who manages to stay jovial even when complaining, gives a little laugh. “That’s the hard thing about the countryside,” he says. “That you harvest your products, but they’re not worth anything.”

Porfirio’s loss is not unusual in Briceño, though it does stem from a recent economic transformation. From 2000 to 2017, Briceño’s agricultural economy was, like many isolated rural areas of Colombia, sustained by coca. While coca farmers didn’t get rich, the illicit crop at the very least guaranteed a profitable harvest every two to three months. However, when the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) signed a landmark peace agreement with the Colombian government in 2016, Briceño was named the pilot site for a coca substitution program. Campesinos voluntarily pulled out their coca crops and tried to transition to licit agriculture. Government failures to live up to the agreement, primarily major delays in promised aid, have severely limited the development of alternative economic activity. However, even campesinos like Porfirio with productive farms struggle to eke out a living, forced to compete with cheaper, industrially produced crops.

Though these struggles are often overlooked in debates about the peace process and Colombia’s economic future, the coronavirus pandemic started a national discussion about the food Colombians eat and produce, a discussion which places campesinos at the center. Food distribution routes are being disrupted, fearful citizens are hoarding supplies, and the Colombian peso is plummeting in value. As a result, food products are becoming scarcer or more expensive. Radio announcers call campesinos national heroes in the hopes their crops will guarantee Colombia’s food security in an uncertain future. However, as Fabio points out, more than praise, they need support. Coronavirus has opened space for both a rethinking about what this support could mean as well as new local economic practices around food that challenge dominant economic visions of Colombia’s countryside.

Economies of Extraction or Production?

An artisanal miner inspects a gold vein in tunnels deep within Briceño’s hillsides. (Photo by Alex Diamond)

I write this article on the farm Fabio shares with his wife Angélica, where we’ve isolated ourselves for the last month with only a radio to warn us of how the world outside is falling apart. They’ve been planting like crazy—not only are we in the rainy season when crops are most likely to take hold, but with the current uncertainties, they want to ensure continued access to food for themselves and their family. I’m taking advantage of being here to deepen my understanding of rural life as part of research on the interrelated effects of the Colombian Peace Process and megaprojects. Ethnographers are supposed to seek broader meaning in everyday happenstance, and so I do, burning through phone data on slowly loading pages as I try to understand the greater political and economic forces behind Porfirio’s beans.

As we drink organic coffee grown on their farm and sweetened with panela (unrefined cane sugar) produced by another family that lives nearby, I share some of the information that I’ve found.

“Did you know 30 percent of Colombia’s food is imported?” I start off.

Fabio is not surprised. “Does that figure include feed for animals?” He’s referring to the huge quantities of domesticated chickens, fish, pigs, and cattle in the countryside that are fattened with American-made feed and then slaughtered—and count as Colombian food production. Frankly, I don’t know.

“We depend on so many things from outside,” he continues.

“A lot of that dependency,” I respond, “comes from the Free Trade Agreement with the United States in 2012. In its first four years, in fact, U.S. food exports to Colombia increased by a factor of five.” I list a few of the products exported in large quantities that are also produced in Briceño: corn, rice, milk, meat, and even beans.

“For me, it’s the loss of the identity of the countryside,” Fabio says. “That people aren’t interested in planting, that they can go to the store, and buy beans cheaper from other countries.”

Angélica jumps in. “And foreign corn, that transgenic corn with tiny kernels, that they sell for $0.25 a kilo. And here, to make back the production costs, you have to sell it for at least $0.35. And that is without considering you might lose the crop. Because of a drought, or a strong rainfall. Because we don’t have any insurance on our production.”

Three days earlier, I had taken a short walk with Fabio and Angélica to a plot in the hills behind their house, where Fabio had planted corn. An animal had terrorized much of the corn, biting through the tender green seedlings just beginning to come up. Fabio will have to devote another afternoon to replanting.

But if the rural Colombian economy has moved away from smallholding production, what is it oriented towards?

I tell them that the Free Trade Agreement with the United States was promoted by billions of dollars of mostly military aid that came from the United States in Plan Colombia, from 2000 to 2006. And then I share a quote from the U.S. secretary of energy in 1999, when they were launching Plan Colombia: “The United States and its allies will invest millions of dollars in two areas of the Colombian economy, in the areas of mining and energy, and to secure these investments we are tripling military aid to Colombia.”

“Exactly,” says Fabio. “That’s a faithful reflection of what has happened with Hidroituango.”

The largest hydroelectric dam in the history of Colombia, Hidroituango is being built in the Cauca river below their farm. The dam’s construction was preceded by a wave of violence that locals understand as intended to pacify the region to pave the way for the megaproject.

“Case in point,” Fabio says, “they built a military base inside the project, to protect it. That’s how it works. All the megaprojects have been militarized.”

“That didn’t help us campesinos at all,” says Angélica. “That investment favored the owners of those projects, the big capitalists.”

She’s underselling the point. Campesinos in the area still speak reverentially of the Cauca as the patrón de los pobres (the patron of the poor). The river’s contribution to the local economy fit in well with the seasonal rhythms of campesino life, as nearly everyone in the region went down to the river during the dry months just before planting season to fish and pan for gold along the riverbanks. The construction of the dam has cut off local access to the river and most in the region have been denied the compensation to which they are legally entitled.

Amor,” Fabio cuts in, laughing, “didn’t USAID send you groceries?” USAID, the United States Agency for International Development, provided social, economic, and humanitarian aid under the framework of Plan Colombia, and has subsequently directly supported multinational mining projects in Colombia. The two laugh over their memory of the supply of groceries that USAID sent to them around six years ago, including a bottle of cooking oil adorned with an American flag and American-grown beans that Angélica says “could easily kill someone. You could cook them all day, and they would still be hard enough to raise a bump on your head.”

“Look at how they lull the people to sleep with groceries,” Fabio says as their laughter dies down.

Angélica continues imagining the strategy of both national and international elites: “Come, give them that, while we move forward with mining.”

They both know full well that the same gold that they used to find in modest quantities sorting through the sand of the riverbanks of the Cauca river is concentrated in much greater amounts inside the hills around them. Canadian mining company Continental Gold has owned mining concessions in the area for more than 15 years, but the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia has stopped them from extracting the gold. Still, many in the region feel the entrance of large-scale mining is inevitable, especially given the recent acquisition of Continental Gold by Zijin, one of China’s largest mining companies.

I read to them from my phone: “Between 1990 and 2015, the percentage of Colombia’s GDP from agriculture fell from 21.8 to 6.2 percent. And the current National Development Plan focuses on the mining and energy sectors to drive the economy.”

“A country without production, without agriculture, is nothing,” says Fabio, “Because anyone can grab it, can manipulate it. Another country comes and says, ‘Here there’s a lot of wealth, let me take it, let me take the gold.’ If we change agricultural policies…” His voice momentarily trails off. “But if we don’t,” he continues, “we won’t have anything. And even more with coronavirus. We need to change the model. Or, if it continues like this, we’re going to see complete chaos.”

Changing the Model: Local Production and Consumption

Porfirio Zabala weighs out homemade cheese under the watchful eye of Angélica Mazo. Porfirio says the isolation imposed by coronavirus has given him new opportunities to sell and trade products with neighbors. (Photo by Alex Diamond)

One afternoon, as the sun sets over the Cauca river, Angélica and I walk 20 minutes uphill and downriver to Porfirio’s farm. We carry cacao from their trees, which Angélica has toasted and ground by hand and then formed into balls that can be heated and blended with water or milk to make a drink that is traditionally served in rural areas for los tragos—energy-providing pre-breakfast beverages for workers who go into the fields at dawn.

When we arrive, Angélica pulls out the chocolate, packaged in the dried husks of the cacao fruit. This natural packaging, along with agroecological cultivation practices that eschew the use of chemical fertilizers and herbicides, reflects both Fabio and Angélica’s personal philosophy and a broader strategy of production and commercialization. Most producers in Briceño sell unroasted coffee and cacao beans to the National Federations of Coffee and Cacao at low prices that fluctuate according to the whims of the global market. Instead, Fabio and Angélica roast their coffee and chocolate themselves and sell them alongside other products from their farm in campesino markets, a natural foods store in Medellín, and Coffeebri, a café in Briceño’s village center that serves locally-sourced products. This allows them to sell their coffee and chocolate for roughly five times more than those who sell to the Federations, but also requires them to transform and transport their products themselves. During the pandemic, they cannot travel to sell their products. Nevertheless, Fabio says that a break is welcome. Producing, transporting, and selling their products leaves them exhausted. “This coronavirus is almost a blessing in that regard.”

For Porfirio, it has unquestionably been a blessing, at least in economic terms. With one of the most productive farms in the area, he has begun to supply food to needy neighbors who are no longer able to easily go buy food. Just four months ago, Fabio and Angélica had 25 chickens, 15 of which laid eggs on a daily basis. But during one trip to Medellín, they lost 16 to jungle predators. Now they have only four full-grown chickens, three of which are too busy taking care of chicks to lay new eggs. As a result, we’re stuck buying eggs from Porfirio. We compete with another family who returned to El Orejón just before the beginning of the national quarantine. They gave up their chickens when they moved from their farm to Medellín in search of a better education for their four children. They’re happy to be back in the countryside, they say, but once the pandemic passes and school begins anew, they’ll return to the city.

This series of choices —whether to invest in expensive but toxic chemicals that increase production, whether to leave your farm unattended to sell your products, and whether to move to a city to improve your children’s educational chances— constitute the normal dilemmas of rural Colombian life. There is simply not enough public investment in rural infrastructure and education, nor enough protections for smallholding farmers —whether to ensure their access to alternative economies like gold panning or fair prices for their goods— to guarantee a sustainable future for Colombia’s campesinos, no matter how hardworking or productive they are.

On this day, we buy eggs, cheese, and milk from Porfirio and trade him the chocolate for yuca and plantains. Before coronavirus, he says, he didn’t sell to his neighbors in El Orejón. To supplement what they grow for themselves, most community members would buy food in the nearby village of Toledo. But now locals complain about the rise in food prices, and the steep community-built dirt road that people use to get to Toledo has been fenced off as part of the municipality’s measures to prevent the arrival of Coronavirus. As a result, they are turning to each other. Porfirio says that economically speaking, he’s in a much better position. Now his neighbors, us included, trek to his house to buy from him directly.

Local government has also engaged in efforts to promote local production and consumption. Even before the pandemic, the municipality began to hold campesino markets, creating a space in the village’s main square for campesino producers to sell their products directly.

Along the same lines, the coordination of food, commercialization, and entrepreneurship for the Ministry of Agriculture, Tourism, and the Environment, is carrying out a virtual campesino market called “The Countryside Doesn’t Stop.” Alejandra Posada, who proposed and is leading the project, explains that local government will gather products from rural areas, organize them into pre-organized “kits,” set prices that are fair to both producers and consumers, and then promote and sell the kits online to local families. “The point,” she says, “isn’t making a profit. The point is rescuing the culture [of local production and consumption].” Her plan, as well as Porfirio’s sales to his neighbors, provide a stark contrast to free market agricultural models in which smallholders must either compete with cheap—often foreign—industrially-produced goods or find themselves as the least profitable link in broader commodity chains.

A Cure for Infection?

Angélica Mazo cuts open cacao husks. The pods ferment for five days before she toasts and grinds them, producing bitter and strong balls of pure chocolate that she sells at campesino markets. (Photo by Alex Diamond)

In the past few months, coronavirus brought the world to its knees, spreading rapidly through networks of global connection. For much longer, however, the investments, products, and logics of global capital have spread through—and often created—these same networks, penetrating and infecting local communities, markets, and landscapes. Much good has come of this increased global connectivity, including the arrival of useful goods, technologies, and opportunities that in many cases have significantly improved people’s lives. However, at the same time, local producers have been overwhelmed by competition from industrialized and mass-produced goods, local cultures have been permanently changed, and local ecologies have been stripped of untold resources.

Within the logic of competition that underlies this system of global capitalism, Porfirio’s misadventure with his beans is evidence that he can’t compete—not with the cheap yet rock-hard American beans, and even less with the gold that a Chinese mining company seeks to extract from the rock deep below his crops. The outbreak of coronavirus, however, has opened a space to challenge this logic and rethink dominant economic visions. Emerging local practices illustrate the possibility of a rural Colombia oriented towards production rather than extraction. This, even more than producing needed food, may end up constituting the true heroism of campesinos like Fabio, Angélica, and Porfirio.


Alex Diamond is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. His research focuses on the local experience of transformation in rural Colombia associated with the peace accords between the FARC and the Colombian government, mining and energy megaprojects, and their interrelations.