Colombian Army Promotes Programs to Enhance Country’s Agriculture

Colombian Army Promotes Programs to Enhance Country’s Agriculture

By Marcos Ommati / Diálogo
May 13, 2016

Colombia’s National Army and the Ministry of Agriculture have joined forces to develop programs to support the agricultural sector in the country’s most vulnerable rural regions.

Colombia’s Army and the Ministry of Agriculture have joined forces to develop programs supporting the agricultural sector in the country’s most vulnerable rural regions. Upon signing an Interadministrative Cooperation Agreement in April, they pledged to design an Integrated Rural Development Strategy.

The Ministry of Agriculture provides specialized programs and economic resources, while the Army provides logistical and human resources to ensure the programs reach farmers in the municipalities where the Ministry has little to no presence.

“Traditionally, Colombia has been an agricultural country,” said Colonel Giovanni Alarcón, the Army’s director of Consolidation of Integrated Action and liaison with the Ministry of Agriculture. “However, due to the history of conflict and the geographical location of many populations, the only state entity that has constant presence throughout the territory is the National Army. Articulation between the two institutions is crucial to achieving tangible support for the rural sector.”

The agreement began to take shape in early 2015 to revive agricultural activities and train and empower farmers, as well as boost agriculture in a sustainable manner. The agreement aims to coordinate efforts to restore agriculture as an attractive profession nationwide. Therefore, it supports all initiatives aligned with this goal, especially those that come directly from rural farmers.

Pioneering work in Cauca

The department of Cauca, which has suffered from the heavy presence of illegal armed groups and has been one of the main areas of illegal coca cultivation, has pioneered the recovery of farming work. Local farmers have regained an interest in recovering agricultural activity in a legal manner, especially given the massive eradication of illicit crops in the department in recent years, said Army Major Andrés Peñaranda, an official with the Productive Projects program.

The Fe en Colombia
(Faith in Colombia) project, which began in 2015, is a strategy developed by the federal government to support the interest of farmers to make a living by growing legal crops. This initiative seeks to guide efforts to improve the living conditions of the most vulnerable populations as part of the comprehensive security framework.

“The initiatives of the farmers in the departments of Cauca, Valle del Cauca, and Nariño were welcomed by Fe en Colombia
,” Maj. Peñaranda added .
“Now, under the cooperation agreement between the Ministry of Agriculture and the Army, they will have greater viability and sustainability.”

The agreement between the Army and the Ministry of Agriculture is embodied in four programs: Productive Projects, Business Roundtables, Rural Social Housing, and Agricultural Credit for Army Troops. The first two are focused directly on farmers from the most vulnerable and remote areas. The latter two seek to benefit Soldiers and their families, taking into account that they are an integral part of the national rural farming population.

Productive projects

Through this program, a municipality’s communities are organized to develop agriculture-related microenterprises, which stimulate job creation, improve residents’ quality of life, and promote a connection to their land through the efficient use of natural resources. These productive projects focus on growing all kinds of fruits and vegetables, raising livestock, poultry, and fish, and producing and processing dairy and honey, among others.

The Ministry of Agriculture gives technical and financial resources to provide personalized guidance for all productive projects. In 2015, the Ministry directly financed 79 productive projects with an investment of $1.8 million. So far in 2016, there have been an additional 48 productive projects, with an investment of $5.8 million.

“Each community is managing its own projects,” Col. Alarcón stated. “Each microenterprise idea is studied and endorsed by experts from the Ministry of Agriculture. With personalized and comprehensive adjustments and guidance, the projects begin to generate results in a matter of weeks. We always have the doors open to new initiatives, with personnel in all of the battalions across the country trained to receive applications.”

“The support of the government and the Army has been very important because they provide us with the proper training at exactly the right moment,” said farmer Idalí Mejía, a community leader in Caloto, Cauca, a highly vulnerable municipality that has been seriously impacted by violence through the years. “We have 250 families developing agricultural projects in their homes. These are experiences in which the whole family participates and that encourage a sense of identity.”

In addition, Caloto has 495 young entrepreneurs who graduated from the National Apprenticeship Service (SENA) and are creating companies, not solely in agriculture but also involving the processing of products. In all, 800 families have been benefited by the different programs in Caloto alone, according to Mejía. “After the training, families are saving approximately $68 monthly in expenses with household staples because food grows in their gardens and they can now go sell it.”

Business Roundtable

The Business Roundtable is a full-day meeting that brings together all of a department’s communities. It allows companies to establish direct links, conduct market studies at reduced costs, access new markets, generate new business opportunities, and create associative relationships.

The event also creates an atmosphere that’s conducive for transactions among rural farming organizations and major marketers of products, such as chain stores, retail trading companies, regional suppliers and, mainly, the Corporación de Abastos de Bogotá – a public/private entity that provides food to 12 million people daily as the country’s primary food market.

“The Business Roundtables are ideal for determining the capacity and potential of each production project, allowing rural farmers to develop their products according to the specific requirements of buyers,” Col. Alarcón explained. “The Business Roundtables eliminate intermediaries from transactions so the farmers can sell their products at a fair price.”

In 2015, three Business Roundtables were conducted in cities with significant agricultural activity. So far in 2016, the first Business Roundtable was held in Mocoa, which is the capital of the department of Putumayo. Authorities estimate that trade worth nearly $3.3 million has resulted from the first four roundtables, with another four – in Tame (Arauca), Barranquilla (Atlántico), Fusagasuga (Cundinamarca), and San José del Guaviare (Guaviare) – scheduled to occur by the end of the year.

“This year we decided to visit departments that have suffered a greater impact from the armed conflict through the years, and for that reason their communities require more support,” Col. Alarcón said.

Juan Camilo Velásquez, Advisor to the Directorate of Consolidation of the Office of Integrated Action, praised the Business Roundtables. “It has been a very positive experience every time. The rural farmers are very excited about the new opportunity to do better business and the buyers are satisfied with the idea of getting the products they would in the markets of the cities. The success has been such that they are already requesting a second Roundtable in the places where they have already been held. It is something we are considering, but we are going to give priority to other regions.”

The Ministry of Agriculture is supporting Soldiers by offering to grant 500 homes worth $11,000 each to those who have served their country, specifically Military members who were wounded in combat or to the families who lost a loved one while on duty. So far, 217 families have benefited.

“We know that Colombian Soldiers come from the rural areas,” Velásquez said. “This point of the agreement seeks to solve the housing problem for Soldiers in the rural sector.”

Agricultural credit program for Troops

The Ministry also supports rural families by providing soft loans through Banco Agrario, which it oversees. The bank grants loans with low interest rates to Soldiers so that they can support their families through agricultural projects.

“This is another point that is emphasized among the Soldiers from rural farming families,” Col. Alarcón explained. “We know that the Soldiers spend most of their time working, separated from their loved ones. We want the family to have the ability to access benefits that allow them to continue to participate in the country’s agricultural sector.”

This program includes personalized advice from Banco Agrario to determine which type of farming or animal breeding would be most profitable for the family. The money could also come as a home loan or free investment with a Fixed Term Deposit rate that carries the market’s lowest interest rate.

This credit program, which is offered in all of the country’s 32 Army Brigades, will benefit an estimated 80 percent of participants, allowing retired Soldiers and their families to maintain an optimal quality of life without having to move to cities to find employment.

“This program seeks to generate a healthy environment in the households of the Troops,” Col. Alarcón said. “Every professional Soldier serves for a maximum period of 20 years. When they are reintegrated into civilian life, we want them to have an optimal life project in their home region, which has already been initiated by members of his family.”
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