Agriculture has been an important part of the Colombian economy since colonial times. With the establishment of the tobacco and coffee industries in the nineteenth century, agriculture's role in economic development was assured. Since then, agriculture has provided food both for domestic consumption and as a source of export revenue.
Its historical significance notwithstanding, agriculture began to grow more slowly than the rest of the economy by 1960. Although GDP grew at an average annual rate of 5.5 percent from 1960 to 1982, agricultural output increased by only 4.1 percent, indicating, among other things, the increasing importance of manufacturing and service sectors.
Although agricultural production increased only slightly after 1982, the sector continued as the foundation of the economy, accounting for nearly 21 percent of GDP in 1987 and nearly 68 percent of all export revenue in 1986. Numerous factors--including low world commodity prices, increasing input costs, poor weather, inadequate investment, and greater regional competition for export markets--contributed to sluggish agricultural development in the 1980s.
Colombia is known for its mountainous terrain, but the country's diverse topography and climate allow the cultivation of a variety of crops. From the Caribbean lowlands where banana plantations are prominent, to the Andean highlands, which favor coffee production, Colombians have been able to produce a variety of agricultural products. These production efforts, however, required only a small fraction of the total land area available for farming. Of Colombia's nearly 115 million hectares, 13 percent of the total was considered arable, and only 27 percent of that amount was under cultivation. About 20 percent of all cultivated land was dedicated to coffee.
Cattle-raising areas stretched from the Andean highlands into the eastern plains. These areas constituted nearly 17 percent of Colombia's total land. Forty percent of the land on which cattle were raised also supported some type of short-term or subsistence agriculture. Forests covered 68 percent of the country; 15 percent of this land also was considered arable.
Land tenure patterns had remained remarkably unchanged since the initiation of agrarian reform efforts in the 1930s. In 1961 the government created the national land reform agency, Incora. Despite success in retitling land during its first ten years of operation, Incora had a minimal impact on land distribution. Problems such as inadequate provision of investment credit and agricultural inputs further impeded Incora's efforts.
Because of the earnest but unsuccessful efforts of several administrations to implement a comprehensive land reform program, landholding remained highly concentrated. The national agricultural census of 1971--the most recent as of mid-1988--indicated that the largest 10 percent of all farms, including ranches, encompassed 80 percent of the farmland.
Both public and private funds contributed to investments used to provide agricultural infrastructure, inputs, and technology. After 1970 there was a distinct trend toward a gradual reduction of public expenditures and a compensating increase in private investment. The private sector, considered well managed and capable of expanding agricultural output, was responsible for more than 90 percent of current expenditures and assumed most of the responsibility for research, training, credit, processing, and marketing activities.
Producer groups were the major force behind private sector coordination of agricultural policies and programs. The larger producer organizations provided research and statistical support, lobbying programs, and other services to influence agricultural policy. Fedecafe, the largest and most powerful agricultural organization, represented some 300,000 coffee producers in the mid1980s . Fedecafe exceeded normal association boundaries by inviting public officials to hold seats on the board of directors, receiving public funds, and taking on projects normally associated with the public sector, such as developing infrastructure, promoting balanced economic growth, and setting government coffee policies.
Other significant agricultural producer associations included the Federation of Rice Growers (Federación Nacional de Arroceros-- Fedearroz), the National Federation of Oil Palm Growers (Federación de Cultivadores de Palma Africana--Fedepalma), the Colombian Association of Flower Producers (Asociación Colombiana de Productores de Flores--Ascolflores), and the Colombian Association of Seed Producers (Asociación Colombiana de Productores de Semillas--Acosemilla). These organizations individually represented between 55 and 100 percent of their respective constituencies.
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