Helping small farmers get a better deal in Colombia

May 14, 2010

     By Duncan Green     

I’m on a panel at the Harvard Kennedy School tomorrow, pulling together some of the lessons from on the ground success in development programming. I’ve already posted on some of the stories, but here’s an interesting one from Colombia, where small scale farmers find it hard to sell into urban areas at a decent price. Partly it’s because they cannot achieve sufficient quality and scale to sell directly into supply chains of large buyers (e.g. wholesale markets or national and municipal institutions) and they get bad prices from middle men. Women smallholders are particularly excluded – a progressive Law for Rural Women was passed in 2002 but not implemented.

But it’s also about attitudes – government officials have long seen peasant agriculture as destined for the scrapheap – state investment incolombia-nov-2006-1032 smallscale farming collapsed after the 1980s. While national government was largely unsympathetic, city authorities, in particular in Bogotá, were in some cases more open to dialogue.

So working with local partners such as ILSA, (Instituto Latinoamericano de Servicios Legales alternativos) and CICC (Comité de Interlocución Campesino Communa), and with funding from DFID and the EU, Oxfam funded a project to: 

1. Support small producers to lobby Bogotá’s Mayoral Office and other municipal institutions and large private sector buyers for access to markets

2. Help the setting up of a network of women’s organizations to press for implementation of the rural women’s law

The organizers sought out ‘non usual suspects’ as allies – political parties, local governments in producer communities, private sector traders. They also gave support to producer organizations to build capacity, especially of women members. All this was backed up with a public campaign through the media and farmers’ markets to change negative urban attitudes towards the peasantry.

What happened? When a new and progressive city authority drew up the ‘Bogotá Food Supply Plan 2007-15’, it recognized the importance of small-scale agriculture, and included a ‘fair price’ principle for its products. It also allocated $700,000 in municipal funds to help small farmers enter supply chains. Two farmers’ association representatives were included on the plan’s oversight board. Another major city, Cali, is now following suit and the Mayor of Bogotá is championing the initiative with colleagues from other Colombian towns.

As of December 2009, some 2,000 small producers were benefiting, seeing higher farmgate prices for their products and (interestingly and unexpectedly) lower prices at the farmers’ markets for poor urban consumers (due to shorter supply chains, cutting out middlemen etc).

small farmers ColombiaThe lobby of Congress led two national public entities to implement the law, helping rural women get identity documents and access to social protection systems. The Ministry of Agriculture set up a round table with rural women. Peasant and women’s organizations have now established a permanent coordination body on rural women’s rights to take forward the work. Interviews with women farmers suggest they now feel more confident about marketing their products.

Learning Points?

Good power analysis at the outset is essential to identify potential allies (Mayors, Congress) and blockers (national government).

You need to target attitudes as well as institutions – establishing the potential of smallscale agriculture in the minds of public, buyers and officials was crucial.

Lobbying for implementation of existing legislation is often easier/more effective than demanding new laws.

NGOs are often most effective when facilitating/coordinating to build trust between between polarized constituencies, eg farmers and local officials, rather than doing it themselves.

Marketing is often a bigger barrier for smallholders than production.

Organization is key and (as in the case of the rural women’s network) often takes wing and goes far beyond the aims of the initial project.

[And I never used the awful word ‘livelihoods’ once!]

May 14, 2010
Duncan Green