Towards a greener, fairer and more productive land use sector in Colombia

A challenging reality

With 40 million hectares of land suitable for agriculture, Colombia has great potential to develop its rural sector and become one of the leading food providers in the world. The current reality of Colombia’s rural sector reflects the necessity to undertake structural changes to address the challenges that limit this potential and hinder sustainable development.

Colombia’s agricultural sector faces many challenges; agricultural growth has stagnated, productivity is low, and farmers lack access to productive assets such as land, technical assistance, technology, and infrastructure. As a result, almost half of the 10 million Colombians that live in rural areas are poor. The rate of poverty in rural areas can be up to three times higher than in urban areas, particularly amongst indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities. The above is fuelled by an armed conflict that has lasted over 60 years, deeply impacting rural areas and shredding the country´s social fabric.

The land use sector is the largest source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the country. Together, agriculture, forestry and other land uses emit 129.51 Mt CO2-eq annually, 55 percent of Colombia’s total GHG emissions. Deforestation amounts to the largest share of these emissions, largely due to land grabbing, extensive cattle ranching, and illegal crop production and wood extraction.

At the end of 2020, Colombia submitted its updated Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. This latest NDC has an ambitious mitigation target to reduce 51 percent of emissions by 2030 from a 2015 baseline. Given that the land use sector is responsible for the bulk of the country’s GHG emissions, reorienting public finance in this sector can contribute to the achievement of the NDC´s goals.

That said, there is more than just adopting a new rural subsidy scheme. Firstly, the Colombian government must further the implementation of the Peace Agreement signed with the demobilized guerrilla FARC-EP, especially the first point on an integral rural reform. The commitments signed on the agreement on land distribution and tenure formalization are far from being successfully implemented. Solving land conflicts will certainly be a step towards promoting sustainable agriculture – not to mention fairer and inclusive.

Agricultural policies should also aim at reducing poverty and inequality by promoting higher investment in public goods and services for the sector, as well as gender equality. Rural women are the poorest demographic and have suffered the deep consequences of the armed conflict, as well as institutional abandonment. They are also a great asset for a fairer and greener land use sector in Colombia, which would be tapped into, by promoting women’s empowerment and their economic independence in rural areas.

Land use financing policies must include meaningful participation spaces for local communities and further efforts to protect environmental community leaders. Sustainable change is built upon the trust of governmental entities and community participation. Therefore, it is vital to redesign land use financing policies to ensure that they include provisions to protect local communities and ensure safe conditions for environmental leadership. Since 2016, over 400 social leaders have been murdered. This worrisome figure highlights why it is important to promote a more bottom-up approach when dealing with land-use matters.

An opportunity for rural green growth 

The agricultural sector receives significant public financial support. According to OECD data, between 2017-19 the sector received the equivalent of USD 3.65 billion per year. Many of the policies through which this finance is channeled support activities that lead to high GHG emissions, including influencing whether to bring land into production, how to farm, and what to farm. There is a risk that public support is incentivizing land expansion, soil degradation, and causing deforestation.

For example, in Colombia fertilizers are subsidized. The country has one of the highest rates of fertilizer overuse in the region with as much as 70 percent of the applied nitrogen going to waste. Fertilizer subsidies are provided without technical assistance to train farmers on how to apply them to avoid wastage. Overusing fertilizers affects farmers’ income and contributes GHG emissions that can be easily prevented. Subsidies linked to specific commodities can also influence farmers´ decisions on which commodities to produce. In Colombia, much of the agricultural support provided is linked to specific GHG-intensive commodities such as meat and dairy, resulting in higher GHG emissions from the sector.

There is an opportunity to shift agricultural public support towards more sustainable land use in Colombia. Finance should be flowing towards promoting the more efficient use of land, the adoption of low-emission practices, and payments for forest protection and restoration.  Reorienting public finance is also an opportunity to support rural families in overcoming poverty, increasing productivity and promoting sustainable development of the agricultural sector.

Tapping into the potential to shift public finance

A first step for reorienting public finance can be to condition support for compliance with environmental safeguards. For instance, by making the reception of support conditional on farmers producing only within Colombia´s agricultural frontier, as established by law. This can prevent public support from financing activities that contribute to deforestation. Colombia can also introduce subsidies for farmers to adopt climate-smart agricultural practices and improve access to low-emission inputs. Such as, further technical training programs on efficient use of fertilizers or promotion of sustainable intensification of livestock farming could result in important changes for the sector.

In our recent report ‘Shifting finance towards sustainable land use: A case study from Colombia’ we explore how to reorient public policies to support a fair transition to a greener agricultural sector in Colombia. In our study, we asked questions such as: What is the impact of the USD 3.6 billion annually disbursed for the land use sector? How to influence farmers into producing in a more sustainable way? And to what extent investing in public goods and services can contribute to a more profitable and sustainable sector?

In any case, redirecting any type of public support to agriculture will be no easy task. Policy redesign needs to account for the diverse interests the sector holds and challenge current power dynamics. It must also include the consultation and close involvement of local communities in the policy-making processes.

Shifting finance towards sustainable land use: A case study from Colombia’, builds upon the work undertaken by Climate Focus, SDSN and ODI in ‘Shifting finance towards sustainable land use: Aligning public incentives with the goals of the Paris Agreement’.