Politics of Poverty

Cargill’s unhappy land venture in Colombia

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New Oxfam report urges Colombian government to close “land rush” loopholes.

The global search for arable land has created a “land rush” of startling proportions.  The IMF reports most large scale land deals are happening in poor countries with weak governance. These deals often mean evicting local communities and farmers, and stirring up violent land conflicts (See Oxfam reports, Land and Power and Our Land, Our Lives.) But they also feed into a deeper issue—traditional inequities in land holding.

That issue sits at the heart of a Latin America’s longest standing civil war, the conflict in Colombia that has claimed over 200,000 lives, and created over 5.7million refugees. Eighty percent of Colombia’s land is in the hands of 14% of land owners, the second most skewed ratio in Latin America. Into that mix, one US company’s massive land purchases—equaling more than six times the size of Manhattan—far exceed legal limits and have put the company at the forefront of growing national protests.

Carlos Salgado, Director of Planeta Paz, speaks at the launch event of Oxfam's new report, Divide and Purchase, on September 27th. Photo: Riccardo D'Emidio / Oxfam.
Julio Armando Fuentes, an agrarian leader and representative of la Mesa Nacional Agropecuaria y Popular de Interlocución y Acuerdo, speaks at the launch event of Oxfam’s new report on September 27th in Bogotá. Photo: Riccardo D’Emidio / Oxfam.

In a new report today, Divide and Purchase: How land ownership is being concentrated in Colombia, Oxfam describes how Cargill, the world’s largest agricultural commodity trader, was able to evade Colombia’s legal restrictions on acquiring previously state-owned land destined for family farming. Cargill acquired over 124,000 acres (52,000 hectares) of land in Colombia’s Altillanura region between 2010 and 2012.

The aim of the report is to shed light on traditionally opaque land deals and to push the Colombian government to address practices that can put small-holder production and access to land at risk.

Cargill was quick to refute Oxfam’s research, claiming that their investments did not violate the law, and underscoring their belief that private investment can help speed up rural improvements.

Oxfam does not contend that Cargill or companies like it should not invest in Colombia. On the contrary, we believe that foreign investment plays an important role in development when it is managed in a responsible way, i.e. under an efficient regulatory framework, and respecting rights of the population and existing laws.

But we also strongly believe that companies have to be mindful of how their large acquisitions may exacerbate land inequities and must respect government efforts to address them. Here, Cargill’s investment firm, Black River Asset Management, acquired land using 36 shell companies that cumulatively exceeded government imposed limits by 30 times. The report does not make a legal judgment, but it is clear that the purchases violate the spirit of the law, if not the actual letter.

Cargill is not alone in these practices, but Oxfam hopes that highlighting this emblematic case will help generate pressure to address Colombia’s land concentration issues more systemically.


Watch the launch event for the Divide and Purchase report here (in Spanish).

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