Working closely together with the Netherlands on water for agriculture

Colombia has great agricultural potential. The country is the second largest exporter of flowers, for example. And when it comes to coffee, avocados, bananas or palm oil, it is a force to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, poverty, deforestation and water availability are major obstacles to the economic development of the country, says Andrés Santana Bonilla. Santana Bonilla works as an agricultural advisor at the Netherlands Embassy in Bogotá. This article is part of a series on the agricultural advisors who play a key role in the Netherlands Agricultural Network (LAN) worldwide.

At the time of the interview, Andrés Santana Bonilla only has a few weeks to go at the Netherlands Embassy. In March, he will make a fresh start as a climate and forest advisor at the Norwegian Embassy in Bogotá. 'As an agricultural advisor I have been in a unique position,' he says looking back on his years with the LAN. 'Simply because there are not many countries that are represented in Colombia by a LAN team.' 

Agricultural advisor Andrés Santana Bonilla
Andrés Santana Bonilla

What is it that you do as an agricultural advisor?

'In some ways my work goes beyond what you would normally expect of an agricultural advisor. As most of the agricultural advisors, I work on market access negotiations with the local and Dutch authorities to import Dutch agro food products. We also organize trade fairs and support Dutch companies with their activities in Colombia. And in Ecuador and Peru, because we cover those countries as well from this office. But besides these regular tasks, I have written project proposals to seek funding from the Dutch government, as well as accompanying the approved projects from design to evaluation. In our work there are a lot of crossovers with other sectors, such as water management, antimicrobial resistance, agrologistics, land rights, biodiversity conservation... I find that we can learn a lot from these other knowledge areas, and as such these topics make our work in Colombia both different and special. My co-workers and I, being the natural counterpart for the Colombian government, work with the local authorities but we also work closely with private companies, NGOs, knowledge institutes, and so on. In fact, we work hand in hand with the Dutch-Colombian Chamber of Commerce, the Holland House Colombia. Because of this, we are a good example of how the Dutch Diamond Approach should work.'

What is the significance of agriculture in a Colombian context?

'Colombia has great agricultural potential. It is a big player in the agricultural world market. For example, it is the second biggest exporter of flowers, after the Netherlands. Coffee, bananas and avocados are important as well. And let's not forget our most important export product to the Dutch market: palm oil.'
'At the same time, we face a lot of challenges. Colombia is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, and in that respect quite unique. As a result, it is very vulnerable as far as climate change is concerned. El Niño has caused huge drought seasons, for example, which have seriously reduced water availability in various parts of the country.'

What does the agricultural team do to help?

'We have developed three working agendas. The first one is: Circular agriculture. After all, we need sustainable and regenerative agriculture to reduce the effects of climate change. The second one is called Feeding the cities. As in the rest of the world, cities in Colombia are growing rapidly in size and population, which creates a lot of challenges related to food production, productivity, quality, safety, and most importantly, food security. The last and most recent one is called Biodiversity, forests and land issues. In this context we are looking into climate change mitigation and adaptation, biodiversity conservation, deforestation and land rights and administration. With the Dutch Kadaster, for example. We are cooperating with them on the implementation of a multiple purpose cadastre and on land rights formalization for campesino (small farming) and indigenous communities. A prominent topic of the peace agreement signed in 2016 between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrilla.' 

LAN Team in Colombia
From left to right: Salvador Orrego (agricultural advisor in Peru), Léontine Crisson (agricultural counsellor), Andrés Santana Bonilla (agricultural advisor), Nicolás González García (agricultural officer) during the ExpoAgrofuturo Fair in Medellín

Can you give some more examples?

'We closely work together with Dutch companies in a crossover we call “Water for Agriculture”. With Delphy, Solidaridad and Future Water we focus on introducing efficient irrigation techniques for oil palm production. Another project – with Resilience and Acacia Water – involves the development of a Decision Support System. And yet another project with Deltares, IHE Delft and WUR focusses on the introduction of aquifer storage and recovery techniques for banana production in the Magdalena department. Inefficient water use in that region leads to an increase in brackish water, causing the death of thousands of animals, mostly fish, and plants, mangroves for instance. This is a big problem because there are a lot of people dependent on fisheries as their main economic activity.'

What do you need from us?

'The Dutch have proven technology and vast experience on how to manage water efficiently. More importantly, they possess the knowledge that comes with it and that we need in Colombia. Of course, it's not easy to replicate what works in other countries but you have to find a way to adapt the solutions to the local context. That’s the role we play as an embassy: to understand and connect both countries, both cultures and both situations, problems, and solutions.'

What does Colombia have to offer?

'Our relationship is not a one-way street. We are providing a lot of opportunities for Dutch companies as well: knowledge transfer is the most important one. And obviously, there's technology and products that could be replicated in the Colombian context. We have started to dig into the topic of saline agriculture, for example, or how to reduce plastics use in certain industries, such as the flower industry.'
'As far as making a profit is concerned, I'm sad to say there are some limitations. There is a lot of economic inequality in Colombia, and Latin America in general. At least 40 percent of our population lives in monetary poverty and in the rural sector it's even worse. At the same time, Dutch technology is perceived as expensive and agriculture as not very profitable. As a result, people don't like to invest.'

In our work there are a lot of crossovers with other sectors, such as water management, antimicrobial resistance, agrologistics, land rights, and biodiversity conservation.

What does the nearby future bring?

'We will continue to work on the agendas I mentioned earlier. In fact, we just shared our annual plan through an infographic. And we're going to put more effort in the gastronomy schools we started as part of the Hosts for Peace program, an initiative that identifies gastronomy and hospitality as an opportunity to generate legal economic options for young people in vulnerable situations. As far as land administration is concerned, we'll carry through with the multiple purpose cadastre and land rights formalization. And with RVO we will be organizing dialogue sessions and round tables about biodiversity conservation and deforestation.' 
'Especially deforestation is going to need our attention, in light of EU legislation on deforestation-free value chains that is coming up soon. That is going to hit Colombian and Latin American producers hard because implementing accurate and reliable traceability systems poses huge challenges.'

Anything else you want to add?

'Sometimes, it can be challenging to draw the attention to this region. Traditionally, there is a lot of focus on Africa and Asia.  Yet, there are many opportunities here for the Dutch agricultural sector and the LAN-offices in the region are more than eager to support Dutch companies exploring them. In other words, we still have a lot of work to do.'


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Or follow the LAN-team in Colombia on Twitter: @AgriColombiaNL.