Moving on from Coca in Images, Part I: Subsistence Agriculture

7 December 2020

Alex Diamond

Haz cliq aquí para leer la versión en español

Other installments: Part II: Coffee; Part III: Livestock

For nearly two decades, the economy of Briceño, an isolated rural village in northern Colombia, was based on the cultivation of coca. While the vast majority of profits went to the drug traffickers who satisfy the demands of cocaine users around the world, coca also provided clear advantages for Briceño’s rural farmers: a harvest every two to three months, guaranteed and nearby buyers in the armed groups who controlled the territory, and prices that were high enough to support their families and offer the possibility for upward mobility. However, coca also turned the area into a war zone, as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) battled with rightwing paramilitaries (themselves often supported by the Colombian military) for control of the region and its coca economy. In 2017, a coca substitution program, negotiated as part of the state’s landmark peace agreement with the FARC, came to Briceño. Overnight, the coca economy disappeared as farmers pulled out their illicit crops based on government promises of productive projects designed to help them shift to legal agriculture. In this multi-installment photo essay, I use images to explore what this transition has meant for local families.

Suso and his son Adrian dig up cassava root (in Spanish, yuca), a tuber similar to potato.

This first set of photos explores subsistence agricultural practices. While Briceño’s farmers were long accustomed to growing nearly all the food they ate, coca’s profits both gave them the means to buy food products and diverted their energy from subsistence farming. With the disappearance of the coca economy, many farmers have turned back to subsistence agriculture out of necessity, growing traditional crops like beans, plantains, cassava root, corn, and a variety of vegetables. While these crops ensure their family’s sustenance, Briceño’s farmers have found it increasingly difficult to sell them. Not only are their neighbors no longer buying food crops with cash from coca, but changing national economic policy regimes, beginning with Colombia’s neoliberal economic opening in 1990 and culminating with the country’s 2012 free trade agreement with the United States, have caused prices to plummet. Many farmers have even found to their dismay that market prices set by imported crops like beans and corn actually fall below their cost of production.

Briceño has fertile earth and abundant water sources, conditions that mean fruit trees like this mandarin orange thrive with little to no human intervention. Farmers like Fabio, however, lament that transporting these fruits from his isolated farm to market would cost more than their sale price. He and his wife eat what they can, but during the yearly harvest, a large portion of the fruit from their dozen trees ends up falling to the ground and rotting.

Mauricio picks avocadoes on his farm. The international market has driven production of the hardier, smaller, and blacker Hass variety that most western consumers are accustomed to. Most domestic consumption, however, is of greener varieties like the Lorena avocadoes pictured here, which can grow to the size of a football.

Peas grow on a vine stretching away from a family’s home.

Framed by a corn plant, Eugenia tends to the green onions and kale of her family’s small vegetable garden.
Fabio disentangles vines of Colombian yam to re-plant in the ground.

As opposed to the large flat corn farms in midwestern US states, corn (like everything else in Briceño) grows on steep hills that limit yield and complicate both picking and harvesting. The result is that Briceño’s corn farmers have no chance of competing with the US corn industry, which benefits from both mechanized production and federal subsidies.

Due to free market reforms, the sun may have already set on smallholding Colombian corn producers. In the first four years of Colombia’s Free Trade Agreement with the US, American food exports to Colombia increased fivefold, including traditional Colombian products like corn, beans, and rice.

With little possibility of commercialization, the corn grown in Briceño is mostly fed to chickens (here mixed with rice) or consumed by local families. In the background lie freshly harvested cacao fruits.
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Little is more traditional in Colombia than handmade arepas from freshly ground corn. These customary food practices, however, are slowly being replaced by more convenient—and flavorless—consumer goods.

Coming next: Moving on from Coca in Images, Part II: Coffee

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