Colombia Table of Contents

Colombia produced a variety of crops for both export and domestic consumption; in the late 1980s, many had yields above regional and international levels because of the technological advances in production. Improvements in fertilizer, seeds, and machinery were particularly effective in enhancing yields for export crops such as coffee, rice, sugarcane, and potatoes.

Many domestically consumed crops did not perform as well as export crops, however, largely because they were produced on small plots using traditional farming techniques and were cultivated without the benefit of modern agricultural inputs. Colombia lacked the market incentives to provide these improved inputs for many consumable crops, a situation that contributed to lower output and a higher agricultural import bill.

Coffee remained Colombia's primary export crop throughout the 1980s. The entire industry, including processing and transporting, accounted for about 8 percent of GDP, contributed 12 percent of government revenues, and generated approximately 50 percent of foreign exchange. Coffee provided a livelihood for more than 300,000 farmers, and over 2 million jobs were linked to some stage of coffee production.

Despite stagnating or slightly declining output during the mid1980s , Colombia ranked second in world production of coffee, surpassed only by Brazil. Known for the mild arabica coffee grown in the temperate central highlands, the Colombian coffee crop often commanded above-average prices in the market place. Because coffee is a tree crop grown on rough, steep terrain, harvesting remained a labor-intensive process, and most coffee farms were still small, occupying an average of fewer than six hectares of land.

Bananas were second to coffee in economic importance. Concentrated on the southern Caribbean coast around the Golfo de Urabá, production took place on both large plantations for export and small plots for domestic consumption. Banana production grew at relatively high rates in the early 1970s, only to slow later because of the reduced competitiveness of Colombian banana prices. Production again rose in the mid-1980s as domestic prices moved toward lower international levels.

Cut flowers, including carnations, chrysanthemums, dahlias, and roses, became a significant export crop in the late 1970s and in 1986 earned US$155 million in revenue. Singled out as the definitive example of Colombia's diversification strategy, the Colombian flower industry became the second largest in the world, surpassed only by that of the Netherlands. The principal markets were the United States, which purchased more than 80 percent of Colombia's flowers, and Western Europe.

In 1987 there were more than 250 farms dedicated to producing cut flowers; the average size was about eight hectares. Because producing cut flowers was a labor-intensive process and amenable to the temperate mountain valley areas surrounding Bogotá and Medellín, the cut flower industry operated year round, providing jobs to more than 70,000 workers. Related industries, such as air transport and packaging, also benefited from the development of cut flower exports.

Other important export crops included sugarcane and cotton. Sugarcane was grown on large estates in valleys and other lowerlying areas, principally in southwestern Colombia's department of Cauca. Production remained relatively steady throughout the 1980s, taking advantage of the area's temperate climate and even pattern of rainfall. The sugarcane industry was regarded as well managed and produced yields well above regional and world standards.

Cotton production developed, among other reasons, to provide the textile industry with raw materials. Both large and small cotton farms were found along the economically expanding Caribbean coast. After a substantial drop in the early 1980s, production surged again in the late 1980s because of increased land cultivation and improved yields. An additional 65,000 hectares of cotton--representing a two-thirds increase in total land cultivation--were sown in 1987 in anticipation of higher international prices.

Food production for domestic consumption represented the other major agricultural endeavor and included staple crops such as rice, beans, cassava, potatoes, barley, corn, and wheat. Although Colombia had long sought self-sufficiency in food production, certain cereals, particularly corn and barley, were produced inefficiently and were not competitive with imports. Despite government intervention to improve the yields of these crops, planners doubted that production inefficiencies could be eliminated by the early 1990s.

Corn, a staple of the Colombian diet and the most widely grown subsistence crop in the 1980s, flourished on steep slopes as well as on level ground. Although wheat and barley were also adaptable to highland areas, production costs often exceeded market prices, causing output to vary greatly from year to year. Other foods grown for consumption included tubers (such as potatoes and cassava) and beans, which were often planted together in subsistence or smallfarm operations. Dietary requirements also were met with numerous types of indigenous fruits.

A discussion of the agricultural sector would be incomplete without mention of illegal crop production. In the late 1980s, cannabis flourished in Colombia's fertile northeastern mountain areas, and coca was grown in the more secluded portions of the Amazon Basin. The production of marijuana and cocaine from these plants had long been associated with the Colombian economy.

The United States Department of State estimated that approximately 13,000 hectares of land were devoted to cannabis production in 1986, an increase of 62 percent over the previous year. The average yield per hectare was 1.1 tons, or potentially 14,100 tons nationwide. Despite government attempts to eradicate marijuana cultivation, growers continued to produce it in vast quantities, moving into areas not traditionally associated with cannabis production, such as Antioquia in central Colombia and areas near the Panamanian border.

Like Bolivia and Peru, Colombia was a major cultivator of coca. Total land area devoted to coca production increased 60 percent from 1983 to 1986, reaching 25,000 hectares. Cultivation occurred largely in secluded areas and employed small quantities of land, usually less than two hectares per parcel, which made detection difficult. Each hectare could produce an estimated 1.6 kilograms of cocaine base. Total annual production in 1986 was estimated at twenty-seven tons.

Colombia's reputation as a global drug center rested primarily on its capacity to process coca into cocaine and distribute it worldwide, rather than on production of the coca leaf itself. In the 1980s, Colombia processed and shipped an estimated 75 percent of all South American cocaine destined for the United States, most of which was transported by ship and airplane from Colombia to Florida.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress