23 February 2021
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.
Their apparent grass-chewing innocence notwithstanding, cows have long been implicated in Colombian rural conflict. As just one example, the FARC’s 1964 founding was largely a response to the monopolization of rural land in massive dairy- and cattle-farming estates, including the military-sponsored eviction of thousands of farmers. More recent processes of rural conflict and dispossession have been at the behest of economies related to coca, mining and energy megaprojects, and large-scale agriculture like bananas and African palm; nonetheless, cattle remain a significant source of wealth for the rural elite. At the same time, however, cattle and other livestock are crucial to the survival of the rural poor.
In Briceño, cattle (and to a lesser extent chickens and pigs) are an important part of local strategies through which ex-coca farmers seek to develop licit economic activity and avoid a return to violence. The reason for this, according to a local woman from a milk-producing family: “Cattle have the right name. El ganado está ganado”. Her play on words makes sense only in terms of the grammar of rural economies and the vocabulary of Spanish, in which “ganado” can mean either cattle or some combination of won and earned. “Cattle (ganado) is a win (ganado).” In Briceño as in much of the world, cattle farming is a major driver of deforestation, a topic I will address in a future installment on Briceño’s environment. However, when faced with the everyday pressures of providing for their families, most find that cattle’s economic benefits outweigh their costs. Many cattle farmers raise cows for what’s known as a double purpose: the daily income from milk, plus the larger and more sporadic windfalls from selling fattened steers for meat. As distinct from agricultural crops that (as I explored in the two previous installments) may be difficult to sell or subject to prices that drop below the cost of production, locals see cattle as a sure thing, one of the few guaranteed wins in rural economies. This is one of the reasons that when coca took over Briceño’s economy, even as coffee disappeared, people invested their earnings in cows. One farmer explained this to me in simple terms:
A Life Among Livestock
Though I’ve continued living in Briceño during the pandemic, COVID has meant a major reduction in my fieldwork. Still, even a sidelined ethnographer needs to eat. Whenever I buy meat from him, Don Darío, shown here cutting a recently slaughtered pig into usable portions of meat, regales me with stories from a life of struggle for the good of his family and village. My trips to the butcher shop have turned into hourlong events where Darío explains to me how he and other leaders forged alliances with politicians who helped them bring electricity, roads, schools, and sewer systems to Briceño.
Aside from his job as a butcher, Darío’s efforts to provide for his family have long hinged on raising livestock. 47 years ago, it was through selling two cows that he was able to buy the farm he still owns. For years, and until a sharp drop in global prices in the early 2000s forced him to abandon it, he was one of Briceño’s leading coffee producers. At this point, he planted coca, though after seeing its effects on the community, he pulled out his plants two years later. “It doesn’t bring anything but violence,” he says by way of explanation. He converted his farm to pasture and it’s now inhabited by 14 cows, many of which are owned by his children: “Whoever has the money, buys themselves a cow.”
Darío was only able to study one year of elementary school before leaving home at the age of eleven to pick coffee and cut sugar cane to feed himself, his single mother, and seven siblings. Nonetheless, I notice that he’s quick and accurate in calculating his customers’ bills, a mathematical talent that he says he picked up from his first-grade education. “I didn’t go to school to throw rocks like they do today,” he says. He has extended this value on studying to his thirteen children, twelve of whom have achieved some form of post-secondary education. The other tends the family’s cows on their farm, though Darío plans to sell his farm to allow him to study as well.
His children’s education represents a remarkable and highly unusual achievement in poor rural communities. “At the time I raised my children, no one from the countryside finished high school,” Dario says. “They studied elementary school and started working.” Still, it’s a bittersweet accomplishment. Though their earnings as professionals may allow them to invest in cows to stash on the family farm, not one of the twelve has been able to find a job in Briceño. They have left, Darío says, “for a better quality of life. I would love for them to have jobs here. But it’s really hard in such a small village.” Thus, one of the people who has contributed the most to Briceño’s development is unable to share its benefits with most of his family.
A Shuttered Slaughterhouse and Delayed Aid: The Consequences of State Power
Until it was closed in 2016, Briceño’s cows and pigs were brought to this slaughterhouse to be killed under sanitary controls. However, based on stricter enforcement of a 2007 law, the slaughterhouse was shut down because it didn’t meet requirements for solid waste disposal.
The building is now used to store fertilizer. However, with the closest legal slaughterhouse 50 kms away in the neighboring municipality of Yarumal, many farmers take their animals to be killed in informal (and unsupervised) slaughterhouses in the countryside.
Local butchers like Darío are legally required to send pigs and cows to be killed two hours away in Yarumal, then brought back in refrigerated trucks like this one. The costs this generates cut deeply into already thin profit margins. “Here the closing of the slaughterhouse hurt us a lot,” Darío says. “It hurt us as butchers, and it hurt consumers because of the rise in prices.” With their prices inflated due to transportation costs, butchers struggle to compete with unregulated meat from informal slaughterhouses.
Darío’s wife Aracelly with receipts from the family’s debts, incurred in part from the expense of transporting animals from Yarumal. Aracelly, the president of the local association of butchers, says the association is desperately seeking funding for a refrigerated truck that would allow them to cut down their costs.
The closing of the slaughterhouse, however, is not the only way state power has threatened the family’s livelihood. Aracelly is registered as a beneficiary of the coca substitution program but has received only the smallest of three levels of productive projects she was promised more than three years ago (local officials say that out of 2,144 total beneficiaries in Briceño, 1,621 other families are in the same position). In fact, Aracelly says she went into debt buying vaccinations and medicines for their cattle, goods that the program promised to give her in the first place. And, like many in the program, she is still counting on the promised projects to help her “technify” the farm to increase production.
The Technification of Rural Livestock Production: Turning Farm into Factory
“Technifying” rural production can take many forms, but usually involves using machines and calculations to increase efficiency and output. Most cows in Briceño are left to graze free, which requires large extensions of land—up to one hectare per cow. The cows in this photo are instead being fed with pasto de corte (cut grass), tall grass that is farmed, cut, and fed to them in troughs. Aracelly says that properly implementing this on their farm would allow her to feed 17 cows with one hectare, and also more than double their cows’ milk production.
While rural farms traditionally have a few chickens running around who provide eggs and meat for the family’s consumption, this technified chicken coop produces eggs for sale.
Ignacio weighs out the food for his chickens carefully, a necessary measure to ensure he can compete with commercial prices. If his 70 chickens get less than 100 grams of food a day, Ignacio says, their production of eggs will start to drop. Give them any more, however, “and they eat the profits.”
The technification engaged in by farmers like Ignacio will never reach the levels of large-scale commercial producers, which crowd chickens into giant hangars and feed them untold numbers of chemicals. And the difference is notable. The eggs these chickens lay have a richer flavor and yolks of a visibly deeper orange than the commercially produced eggs I’ve eaten my whole life. Even with superior products, however, Briceño’s small-holding farmers are increasingly pushed to compete with massive agro-businesses.
Alex is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. His ethnographic research follows the implementation of Colombia’s landmark peace deal, analyzing how the rural village of Briceño has experienced a broader regional transition driven by related processes of state formation, the development of mining and energy megaprojects, and a coca substitution program.