Is Colombia at risk of becoming a “hunger hotspot”?
In recent days the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Food Program (WFP) presented the “Hunger Hotspots FAO-WFP early warnings on acute food insecurity” report*. Among a list of 23 countries worldwide that will probably face deterioration of acute food insecurity, Colombia stands out next to four countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. The news, which came as a surprise to the Colombian government, was received with unease and rebutted by government officials.
In a matter of hours, the FAO’s representative in Colombia acknowledged that the report was not properly presented and, thus, was misinterpreted as the real intention was to attract funds to support Venezuelan migrants and host communities. However, as the report title says, it is an early warning, and it should be taken as a call to action. This article presents some of the reasons why this early warning for Colombia should not be ignored.
*WFP and FAO. 2022. Hunger Hotspots. FAO-WFP early warnings on acute food insecurity: February to May 2022 Outlook. Rome. https://doi.org/10.4060/cb8376en
The map of hunger hotspots draws attention to countries where the population is likely to face fast deterioration of acute food insecurity that will put their lives and livelihoods at risk. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics of Colombia (DANE) in December 2021 only 69% of Colombian households consumed three meals per day compared to 85% of households before the lockdowns due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This figure indicates that, indeed, food insecurity has worsened and invites to take a closer look from different perspectives at possible reasons behind it.
Economic externalities and internalities of a potential food crisis
Like the rest of the world, Colombia was also hit by the container shipping crisis. The decreasing containers’ availability, higher costs to produce new containers, skyrocketing freight rates, and production difficulties faced by some exporting countries altogether are translated now in higher prices of agricultural inputs and foodstuffs. And, albeit the economic reactivation has increased consumers’ demand, less people can afford food to satisfy their nourishment needs.
Colombia’s debt was downgraded and its inflation rate in 2021 was 5.62%. The inflation’s main driver was food prices which increased 2,73%. Considering that Colombia imports substantial amounts of agricultural inputs, feed, and foodstuffs to meet its domestic needs, the high levels of the Colombian peso depreciation will continue to cause rising food prices. Higher international and domestic food prices will affect vulnerable households’ access to imported as well as locally produced food. However, higher food prices to consumers are not transferred to higher producers’ income levels and thousands of jobs have been lost in the agricultural/rural sector. Thus, the combination of high currency depreciation levels and food prices inflation, are diminishing people’s purchasing power.
Both inflation and currency depreciation are highly impacting the agricultural producers in Colombia. The recent increase of the interest rate by the Central Bank of Colombia will make access to finance even more difficult for them. According to the United Nations’ report, due to the secondary effects of the pandemic, poverty levels reached 42%, which is higher in rural areas in comparison with cities. This implied that the total number of people at potential risk of losing access to food was 21 million. In consequence, higher production costs and less revenues resulting from agriculture will only make the agricultural sector more attractive for illicit economies such as illegal mining, coca cropping or illegal logging. This in turn may trigger new conflicts in rural areas.
Food demand and supply shocks
Unequal land distribution, land rights’ insecurity and land grabbing are underlying causes of the long-lasting armed conflict in Colombia. Land tenure issues in Colombia hamper State investment on public services’ provision and on infrastructure, private long-term investments – due to reduced access to credit, higher risks of land grabbing/expropriation and an inefficient real estate market – and are intertwined with illicit economies and deforestation.
Besides conflict (and hundreds of casualties) and population impoverishment, these unsolved issues have resulted in higher food demand in cities due to internal displacements which, according to the United Nations’ report, have more than doubled from January to May 2021 compared to the same period in 2020. These issues have reduced food supply due to the abandonment of agricultural land in a country which already uses only around 13% of its potential agricultural land. Consequently, this situation may increase vulnerable communities’ dependence on food assistance.
Likewise, a food demand shock was caused by the increasing numbers of Venezuelan migrants that went up to 1.7 million in 2020. According to the report, 73% of this migrant population was moderately or severely food insecure. In the same year, 3.5 million people were severely food insecure in Colombia. These numbers are likely to increase considering the subsequent deterioration of the economic situation due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the vulnerability due to the informality in the labour market, and the limited access to public services.
Social unrest and political instability
As poverty rates and food insecurity were on the rise, last year the Government of President Iván Duque announced reforms that were detrimental to the livelihoods of the Colombian people. Whilst the third and most severe Covid-19 wave was striking the country, the social unrest – fuelled by unmet promises – restarted the massive demonstrations that began in 2019 last April, 2021. Demonstrations took the form of road blockades, that disrupted the supply and export of (inter)national goods creating shortages of, among others, fuel, feed, and food, which also had an impact on inflation of food prices.
The slow-paced implementation of the peace agreements, of which comprehensive rural reform is the first one, has flared up violence. Without enough governmental support, the institutions belonging to the integrated system of truth, justice, reparation, and non-repetition investigate linkages between paramilitaries and guilds – including agricultural federations – that caused land grabbing and countless displaced people and deaths. Some ex-combatants have re-engaged illicit activities and regrouped and formed new guerrillas while hundreds of social leaders (defenders of the land restitution and coca crop substitution policies among others) are being murdered. With insecurity on the rise, especially in the countryside, access to humanitarian aid is restricted. Moreover, the upcoming presidential elections in May will slow down (even more) the central government’s response capacity until the new administration takes over in August.
Disabling factors for rural development
The traditional problems hampering rural development in Colombia persist until today. Competitiveness of the agricultural sector remains low due to low levels of associativity – impeding economies of scale – and insufficient infrastructure. In fact, while 97% of Colombian cargo (excluding coal and petrol) is moved by trucks, only 6% of the country’s tertiary roads is paved. Not surprisingly, storage and transport account for 69% of the total logistics costs for the agricultural sector. Productivity continues to be affected by insufficient and inadequate irrigation infrastructure, which along with climate change diminishes both water quantity and quality. Deficient provision of technical assistance, education, and financial services; restricted access to technology and information for decision making responding to market dynamics; and little public investment on research and development (e.g., on improved genetic materials more resistant to pests and less intensive on inputs) for agricultural production are the main unattended problems hindering agricultural and rural development.
It must be noted that the United Nations’ report included information until July 2021 and since then the Colombian government has adopted some additional measures next to direct cash transfers and food assistance to the most vulnerable. On the one hand, this year the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development promoted law 2183 to cut agricultural inputs’ duties down to 0% and created a fund to support purchases of agricultural inputs. On the other hand, it also extended the dates for subsidizing interest rates and is promoting agricultural insurances. However, the effectiveness and sustainability of these initiatives seem uncertain considering the higher interest rates and the fact that the agricultural inputs fund was created with 10% of the Agricultural Bank’s utilities in 2021. In conclusion, these ingredients should be more than enough to raise awareness towards the deterioration of food security in Colombia which is already putting lives and livelihoods at stake. Colombia is prone to become a hunger hotspot sooner than later if this early warning is minimised or even ignored as may seem to be the case.
The agricultural team LAN-Andes is working together with local and Dutch partners to address several issues mentioned in this article. For more information, please contact us at BOG-LNV@minbuza.nl
Author: Andrés Santana Bonilla, LAN-Andes in Bogotá