A Scandal Brews as Colombia Subsidizes Millionaire Farmers

In early 2007, around the same time that Colombia’s government awarded thousands of dollars worth of agricultural subsidies to a pair of convicted drug lords, farmers in Boyaca province anxiously awaited their own emergency aid. For Feliciano Zapata, a surprise February frost meant he could harvest nothing from his acres of beans, potatoes and peas. Taking no chances, Zapata hired a camera crew to film the brown and withered crops, keeping the video as evidence of his losses when he and more than 2,200 other affected farmers applied for emergency government support. Four months later, Zapata received about $54. “Even the camera crew cost more than that,” he observed. His wife, who’d also applied for assistance as she’d lost about two acres of her own land, received about $1.50, not enough to cover transportation costs back to the farm.

Elyssa Pachico

In early 2007, around the same time that Colombia’s government awarded thousands of dollars worth of agricultural subsidies to a pair of convicted drug lords, farmers in Boyaca province anxiously awaited their own emergency aid. For Feliciano Zapata, a surprise February frost meant he could harvest nothing from his acres of beans, potatoes and peas. Taking no chances, Zapata hired a camera crew to film the brown and withered crops, keeping the video as evidence of his losses when he and more than 2,200 other affected farmers applied for emergency government support.

Four months later, Zapata received about $54. “Even the camera crew cost more than that,” he observed. His wife, who’d also applied for assistance as she’d lost about two acres of her own land, received about $1.50, not enough to cover transportation costs back to the farm. Another woman trekked down from the mountains to the mayor’s office only to be awarded one 500 peso coin – about 25 cents.

The Boyaca bailouts stood in sharp contrast to the hundreds of millions of pesos of federal subsidies recently granted to Colombia’s most powerful landowning elites, the latest in a series of controversies that has battered President Uribe’s administration. The scandal was unearthed last September when Cambio, a national magazine, published a muckraking piece noting that Agro Ingreso Seguro (AIS), a government agency meant to subsidize struggling farmers like Zapata, was channelling millions into the pockets of the wealthy. The resulting populist fury has sparked a frenzied debate in Congress, and Uribe’s approval rating has dropped to 64%, its lowest level since he was first elected.

The AIS was signed into law in 2006, intended to soothe fretting that a looming free trade treaty with the United States would leave farmers like those in Boyaca destitute. But the press pounced when it turned out that recipients of AIS’s $630 million largesse included Valerie Domínguez, an ex-beauty queen, soap opera star and distant cousin to beloved pop icon Shakira, who received $154,000 in subsides for an “irrigation and drainage” project. A narcotrafficker notorious for smuggling cocaine in cargo boats from Venezuela to the Canary Islands received about $19,000 from AIS, and another mobster currently serving a prison sentence in New Jersey received close to $100,000.

Other beneficiaries included a governor’s son who’d previously tried to extort $6 million from his father by faking his own kidnapping, as well as several agro-businesses with strong ties to Colombia’s paramilitary armies. Even more sensational was the case of the Davila Jimeno family, wealthy aristocrats of Colombia’s banana-growing Caribbean provinces. The Davilas divided their land into six districts so that the family could receive a total of $1.1 million in subsidies.

The current agriculture minister, Andrés Fernández, has tried to pass off the scandal as a series of bureaucratic glitches causing unnecessary stress for the government’s PR department. “Why is everyone paying more attention to these people’s surnames rather than job creation?” he complained during a radio interview. But despite Fernández’s flailing, there is substantial evidence that the AIS affair is more than administrative screw-up. Politicians are increasingly suspicious that the agency’s original intention was not to benefit frost-ridden farmers in Boyaca, but rather to compensate backers of President Uribe’s controversial re-election referendum.

Uribe first changed the constitution in 2006 so that he could serve a second term, and has spent much of this past year pushing a referendum that would allow him to run again. However, in a speech to Congress on October 27, opposition senator Jorge Enrique Obledo cited some startling statistics: over 50 sponsors of Uribe’s campaign to collect signatures for his referendum received millions of dollars worth of AIS subsidies. One family notorious for its pro-Uribe stance was even granted two duty-free zones for its organic food company. All in all, Robledo said, donors who gave a total of 549 million pesos to Uribe’s campaigns received about 34 million in subsidies.

“This agency acted like Robin Hood, but in reverse,” Robledo told Congress during his address. “It took from the poor and gave to the rich.” His fellow Senators responded by chanting so loudly for Fernández’s resignation that the debate had to be suspended. Uribe’s agriculture minister, in response, accused Robledo of lying not once in his speech, but 57 times.

Uribe’s administration has faced charges of corruption before. His sons were enmeshed in a minor insider-trading flap earlier this year, while two of his second cousins have also collected subsidies from AIS. But AIS has been particularly damaging in light of last year’s Carimagua scandal, when major agro-businesses tried to buy land intended for displaced farmers while the government turned a blind eye. With May’s elections fast approaching, Uribe’s opposition now has more than enough fodder to fuel a class war, crying foul over the pro-rich policies of the current administration versus the beleaguered campesinos. “This has been the biggest screw-up that the government possibly could have handed over to the opposition,” one senator has acidly observed.

But both Carimagua and AIS point to other disquieting trends. As a columnist for national newspaper El Espectador put it, “in Alvaro Uribe’s two terms, the largest agrarian counter-reform in the nation’s history has been consolidated.” Although government investment in the agricultural sector has grown 134% over the last nine years, the rural poverty rate has scarcely budged. Neither has Uribe made any efforts at serious land reform. According to a November 2009 report compiled by university professor Ricardo Bonilla González, less than one percent of Colombian landowners still own half of all available rural property.

Colombia has been unsuccessfully trying to pass a land redistribution law since 1936. Unable to find a solution through government institutions, small-scale farmers and rural elites formed self-defence groups that either attacked or defended large landowners. This led to today’s never-ending, bloody conflict between the drug-trafficking leftist army, the FARC, and the drug-trafficking paramilitary groups. Land remains concentrated in the hands of few, and, as Colombia has lacked a proper agricultural census since 1970, nobody really knows for sure who owns what.

With chatter about AIS unlikely to fade, Uribe’s failure to properly address rural development during his terms in office may cost him dearly. Even with an estimated 4.6 million people forced off their land because of violence (a number second only to Sudan), the government’s top priorities have been preparing for the expected U.S. free-trade treaty and supporting export-driven economic growth. Neither of these strategies is reducing social inequality in the countryside. Investment in palm-oil plantations, petroleum drilling and gold mine development have all increased under Uribe, but rural poverty and the number of war refugees remain explosive problems.

“When history looks back on the agricultural policy of this government, their isolation from the majority’s social and economic reality will become all too clear,” liberal senator Cecilia Lopez wrote in a November report about the AIS subsidies. As long as agencies like the AIS only grant a miniscule part of their budget to land redistribution, it will be difficult for Uribe to argue against such accusations. And with the recent Supreme Court ruling against his re-election referendum, it will be even more difficult for him to plead for another chance to make amends.

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Elyssa Pachico is a NACLA Research Associate

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