Trade liberalization, rural development, and the future of Colombian peasantry

Dr Giuseppe Feola is lecturer in Environment and Development in the Department of Geography and Environmental Science. He writes about an historical window of opportunity for Colombian agriculture to overcome its structural crisis, and the challenges ahead.

Out of the radar of most British and European mass media, Colombia was recently shaken by an historical social mobilization that raised important questions on the future of Colombian peasantry, and exposed the unsustainability of market-based rural development models in the country.

For 21 days thousands of farmers across the country went on strike and took the highways including the vital Ruta Panamericana linking the north and the south. This was the extreme measure adopted by several organizations of smallholders to make their objections and petitions heard by the national Government. The farmers were concerned by the high production costs (e.g. fertilizers and pesticides, transport), and the free trade agreements with the United States of America (USA) and the European Union (EU), which came into force in 2012 and 2013 respectively. These treaties are considered to put smallholder Colombian farmers in open competition with stronger international competitors, for example by reducing or eliminating protectionist barriers, constraining the use of native seeds in favour of certified ones, and facilitating the import of produce at low prices.

The strike had significant effects on the food prices in most of Colombian cities, with produce seeing an increase of up to 150% in the markets of Bogotá, the capital district. The protests were faced with an inconsistent approach by the government. In a 2-week time span, they were first denied, then demeaned, then violently repressed, and, finally, acknowledged with the opening of negotiation talks between representatives of the national Government and of the farmers.

This social mobilization was historical for at least two reasons. Firstly, despite the food price increase, it was widely supported by the urban middle classes. This marked a symbolic convergence between urban and rural areas, which in the last decades have been divided by a growing gap, wealth spreading -albeit unevenly- in urban areas and poverty dominating in rural ones. Secondly, the social mobilization was initiated in regions such as the Andean Department of Boyacá, in which peasant have traditionally known to be characterized by an ethos of passivity, social reserve and scarce aspirations to improve. Moreover, this social mobilization came at a crucial point in the long and sad history of violent conflict in Colombia.

The government of president Santos and the biggest armed group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), are negotiating a peace agreement of which rural development constitutes one of five main axes. If the recent entry into force of the above mentioned free trade agreements, and the current implementation of a governmental sustainable development plan under the slogan ‘Prosperidad para todos‘ (‘Prosperity for all‘), of which agriculture is one of five locomotoras‘ (‘locomotives’), are considered, it is apparent that the current time is a very significant window of opportunity for historic change for Colombian peasantry and Colombian agriculture more broadly.

In fact, the protest and the strike were largely the result of a decades-long crisis, address through  market-based policies that were pursued by several successive governments in substitution of a proper agrarian reform, and accompanied by the demeaning of the social, cultural and economic role that peasants play in the national economy and society. Colombia has one of the most unequal land distributions in the world, land property rights are often informal and uncertain, and 65% of agricultural workers live in poverty conditions.

The liberalization of Colombian agriculture has been promoted on the assumption that the exposure of local markets to competition from regional and global ones would attract foreign investment, promote innovation and efficiency, and thus favour both the productive sector and consumers. Similarly to what observed in other Latin American countries, liberalization policies have favoured the supply of cheap food to the growing urban middle classes, but have been largely based on abstract and oversimplified neoclassical economic models that do not account for the diversity and specificity of local agricultural systems, ignore the social and cultural value -as opposed to the purely economic one- of particular farming systems, and leave little space for practices that are to not compatible with profit maximization in a competitive market.

What was actually at stake, therefore, was much more than the price of agricultural inputs, or the right to use native seeds. The social mobilization put fundamentally into question the type of rural development that Colombia decided to follow: one in which peasants and smallholders are bound to become workforce in those industrialized agricultural firms that will stand international competition, or in urban industry and services, and in which agricultural land will possibly be used to fuel other ‘locomotives‘ such as mining. However, it is not yet clear how radically the negotiations will tackle these issues. While the Minister for Agriculture recently promised an agrarian reform, the fact that grassroots peasant organization decided not to take part in the talks because not satisfied by the agenda on the table, unlike the well organized representation of more industrialized agricultural sectors, is a sign of the limited scope of the reform to come.

Is there a future for Colombian peasantry? Is there a future for small scale food production which is culturally and socially rooted in a territory, in a growingly globalized and liberalized agri-food system? Will the urban middle class be willing to concretize the symbolic support for peasants, for example by paying an extra price for food produced locally and at small scale, but inevitably at higher cost? Will peasant and smallholders, on their hand, manage to develop practices that are socially and culturally meaningful, but more environmentally sustainable and economically efficient? Most importantly, how radically is the Colombian government ready, or able, to discuss current models of rural development? Will peasants and indigenous populations have a say in this process? Colombian agriculture faces transformative pressures, but it is in the hand of the Government and the interested parties to shape the breath, depth and direction of this transformation.

Measuring the social sustainability of new housing developments


Social sustainability of housing developments (Image provided by Berkeley Group)

Social sustainability of housing developments (Image provided by Berkeley Group)

Professor Tim Dixon from the School of Construction Management and Engineering discusses the importance of investigating the social sustainability of housing developments.In an era dominated by climate change debate and environmentalism there is a real danger that the important ‘social’ pillar of sustainability drops out of our vocabulary. This can happen at a variety of scales from business level through to building and neighbourhood level regeneration and development. Social sustainability should be at the heart of all housing and mixed-use development but for a variety of reasons tends to be frequently underplayed, and the English city riots last year brought this point back sharply into focus. The relationships between people, places and the local economy all matter and this is as true today as it was in the late 19th century when Patrick Geddes, the great pioneering town planner and ecologist, wrote of ‘place-work-folk’.

In the current recession, where house-building has fallen to an all-time low in the UK, it is therefore not only important that we build more homes in the right place but that those homes link and integrate with existing communities. Two key questions stem from this: what exactly is social sustainability and how do we measure it?

One way in which social sustainability can be understood is in terms of an outcome of place-making, or designing places that are attractive to live in. So social sustainability can be seen as being about people’s quality of life now and in the future, and describes the extent to which a neighbourhood supports individual and collective well-being. Social sustainability therefore combines design of the physical environment with a focus on how the people who live in and use a space relate to each other and function as a community. It is enhanced by development which provides the right infrastructure to support a strong social and cultural life, opportunities for people to get involved, and scope for the place and the community to evolve.

However house builders have historically shied away from confronting how to measure what is seen by many as a ‘slippery’ concept.  Despite this, the Berkeley Group recently commissioned research to assess and measure the social sustainability of four of its housing developments using an independently developed framework consisting of three dimensions: ‘infrastructure and social amenities’, ‘voice and influence’ and ‘social and cultural life’, which are underpinned by 13 indicators. Data from 45 questions tied into national datasets were used to underpin the indicators, and primary data was collected from face to face surveys and a site survey on the housing developments.

The research is an honest and independent appraisal of one house builders’ new housing developments. In the four developments (which were all in London and the south east) the research found that whilst people in the developments felt they belonged to the community, talked to neighbours regularly and planned to stay in the community, there were also negative feelings about feeling less like they played an important part in things and are less likely to pull together to improve the neighbourhood. Overall though, the developments scored well on well-being and safety compared with comparable places and national benchmarks.

Recent changes to the National Planning Policy Framework, and the emergence of localism and well-being agendas have started to move social sustainability centre stage, and the next phase of this research is set to examine how new developments impact directly on the communities in which they are located. Long-term stewardship of housing developments is therefore likely to become increasingly important.

 Tim Dixon is professor of sustainable futures in the built environment in the School of Construction Management and Engineering. He also leads the new University of Reading’s Sustainability in the Built Environment (SustBE) research programme and is a research associate of the Walker Institute. His personal research revolves around the interface between the sustainability agenda and its impact on property development, investment and occupation. The research is based on a strong interdisciplinary approach which incorporates policy and practice impacts and futures thinking. The research (carried out by Social Life and University of Reading) on which this blog is based has recently been published by Berkeley Group in their report, ‘Creating Strong Communities’ (