The Rice Growers of San Jorge and La Mojana: In the pot with water up to their necks.
By Carnelo Chamorro Espriella
Sincelejo, November 2010
(Translated by Elaine Fuller, a CSN Volunteer Translator. Edited by Teresa Welsh, CSN's Volunteer Editor)
They call themselves the Bankrupt Farmers Association because, in effect, that's what they are, given that they are suffering the consequences of the government's neoliberal agricultural policies in addition to the harsh rainy seaon weather that destroys their crops. They even went to the Office of the Agricultural Minister in order to expose the ruinous situation they endure on account of rice imports and smuggling as well as low buying prices that are arbitrarily fixed by millers who take the lion's share of business, hoarding their harvest and speculating on the market. There is also a lack of cheap and convenient credit from commercial banks, thus obliging farmers, most of the time, to resort to private credit from millers and others charging usurious rates of interest and who eventually end up acquiring the land in exchange for unpaid debts. The farmers must then lease back the land and this adds to their cost of production.
To confront these calamities, the producers and workers guild of San Jorge called an assembly that took place in San Marcos on October 14. The main speakers were Aurelio Suarez Montoya, coordinator of the Movement to Save National Farming and of its coffee growers section; and Oscar Gutierrez Reyes, national coordinator of the League of Public Service Users.
About 150 leaders of guilds, civic organizations and political groups gathered for this assembly. The president of the San Jorge Farmers' Association who is also president of the state assembly in the State of Sucre was in charge and, after the inevitable greetings, presented the results of the meeting with the Minister of Agriculture which can be summed up as follows: the government will not commit to curbing imports of grain or put up protections against smuggling. Nor will they undertake serious solutions to the flooding of the Cauca and the San Jorge rivers.
This thread of exposing the agricultural problems of the Sucre area continued in statements by Councilman Jose Monterroza, also legal representative for the Cooperative of Rice Growers; by representatives of the milk sector, Roberto Villegas, Miguel Suarez and Mildred Ramos, the former mayor; and Senators Gustavo Quiceno and Wilson Lambraño, both members of the Union of Representatives of Fishers Associations. In addition to these speakers, there was Jesus Zuleta de la Ossa, a small merchant, Santiago Mosquera, a teacher, and several others. They all referred to the following realities: the bankruptcy of rice growers; the depletion of fish in swamp areas and in the San Jorge River; the prohibition on selling milk in local pubs, all of which threaten to ruin hundreds of families who make a living with these activities. There is something paradoxical in this tragedy since the World Bank characterizes the San Jorge and La Mojana region as the best land in Colombia for agricultural production.
In response to the problems revealed by these civic and guild leaders, Aurelio Suarez Montoya then pointed out the real causes that generated this disastrous situation. He was referring to the free market (policies known as the Economic Opening and transnational corporations) and the crisis of the agricultural sector inherited from previous governments as well as the continuation of the same neo-liberal policies by the Santos government. In his contribution, Suarez Montoya emphasized the following points: first, from 1990 Colombia introduced the slogan "Welcome to the Future" as the theme of the Opening. To the country, it said the following, "If we open the doors of our economy to the entry of foreign products, foreign markets will receive our products and we will all have great business growth."
What has happened after 20 years of free trade in Colombian agriculture? The great national tragedy is that Colombia lost its food sovereignty and security. It imports 95% of it's wheat consumption, 100% of barley, 75% of corn, one third of beans, nine out of every ten tons of sorghum and soy, all garbanzo beans, lentils and dry peas; that is to say, a country that after 20 years is fed from outside.
The only cereal grain that remains Colombian is rice. When one adds up all the cereal grains that Colombians consume, half come from other countries; the other half is rice. Thus, the defense of rice turns into a crucial aspect of our call for national food security and sovereignty. This country at this given moment cannot become a country that produces hunger as a result of not being able to produce the basic foods for its inhabitants.
Second, the rice system in San Jorge is somewhat isolated from primary trade and production of rice in the country. Four out of five plates of rice that Colombians eat are produced in Casanare, Meta, Tolima, Huila and a few areas in the Chocó where there are many rice producers. There are also some areas in Norte de Santander and in Santander where rice is produced outside the major trade routes and, of course, this has advantages and disadvantages, more of the latter than the former. In general, in Colombia the average size of a rice growing enterprise is ten hectares and the majority are leased. Rice is at the center of the free market outlook in this country. May it be known everywhere that the uncompromising free market threatens this crop.
The third thing: we have an extremely complex situation at the national commercial level. Of each 100 kilos of rice that Colombians consume, 50% is sold by the Roa Rice Group, 20% by the Diana Group, 10% by the Ruiz Group, and the remaining 20% by small millers, merchants and packagers who participate in local markets such as areas in Sucre, Bajo Cauca and Córdoba. There is no doubt that many people have lost their land in the extremely negative commercial conditions in local markets. These local markets are threatened by the great octopus of these large commercial groups controlling rice in Colombia. It may better be said that they are a gigantic beast over all else.
These large controlling groups have two negative characteristics. First, they have been sanctioned for forming a buying and selling cartel and there is agreement on how the big three groups trade among with each other in order to raise the price to the consumer. Furthermore, they are importers of rice when they bring it in legally and when they smuggle it in. This matter of contraband affects more than the coastal regions. In a thousand ways that the government has not paid attention to, contraband slowly and surely enters from Venezuela and Ecuador.
The cost of production in San Marcos is 2.5 million pesos per hectare. This is lower than production costs in the interior of the country where leasing costs play a role but the lower prices set by the large companies to buy the harvest means that San Marcos growers cannot take advantage of this relatively favorable factor.
The same tragedy exists in the milk market where the production of milk is threatened by multinationals of Europe and the United States. The fishing sector is another that has been hit by international free trade and smuggling without even taking account of pollution in swamps, riverbeds and seas because of strip mining and other contamination caused by toxic waste from the multinationals.
What do we do then? This brings to mind the struggle of the associated guilds within the Movement to Save National Agriculture to organize, to mobilize and to fight to defend their interests. This is the road.
Recommendations and Proposals
1. Form a resistance front to defend rice growers and millers in Cauca, San Jorge and Cordoba.
2. Call forth a hue and cry in the National Council of Rice Growers to advertise the problems in San Jorge and La Mojana.
3. Call for the Comisión Quinta (one of the Commissions of the Colombian Senate) in the senate now in session to publicize the crisis and achieve an effective solution with the participation of the Ministry of Agriculture and organizations charged with financing the agricultural sector.
4. Join with the Movement for the Dignity of Rice Growers.
5. Participate in the National Dairy Encounter.
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