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COLOMBIA: Women Working Abroad Keep Provincial Economy Alive

Helda Martínez

PEREIRA, Colombia, Jul 30 2008 (IPS) - The so-called Coffee Belt region accounts for 60 percent of Colombians who leave the country, and the majority of those leaving are female. Once they are abroad, these women become the breadwinners of their families, with the resulting impact on household income extending to the provincial economy.

The Coffee Belt, where Colombia’s coffee production is centred, is made up of the departments (provinces) of Quindío, Risaralda and Caldas, the southern section of the department of Antioquia, and the northern regions of Valle and Tolima, all located in the central Colombian highlands.

A recent study undertaken in the region, focusing on one particular area – the Midwestern Metropolitan Area (AMCO), made up of the municipalities of Pereira, Dosquebradas and La Virginia, in the department of Risaralda – found that of all the remittances sent back to the area from Spain, the main destination for Colombian migrants, 54 percent were sent by women.

The study, “Gender and Remittances: Colombian Emigration from AMCO to Spain”, also reported that 14.5 percent of households in this area have a least one member living outside the country. In 2006, a total of 3.89 billion dollars entered the area as remittances from workers abroad, reflecting an increase of 17.4 percent over the previous year.

In the country as a whole, money transfers from abroad now total almost 4.5 billion dollars annually, equivalent to three percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) and almost 62 percent of foreign direct investment, according to figures from the Colombian central bank, Banco de la República.

But in the Coffee Belt, due to the high rates of emigration, remittances now account for 17 percent of local GDP, says William Mejía, director of the Human Mobility Group of the Alma Mater Public University Network, made up of 10 universities.


Mejía directed the field work for the Gender and Remittances study, which was undertaken by the United Nations International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (UN-INSTRAW) and the International Organisation for Migration (OIM), with the support of the Colombian Foreign Ministry and National Statistics Office (DANE).

“Emigration from the region is not a new phenomenon,” Mejía told IPS, adding, “It began half a century ago, during the so-called era of La Violencia (The Violence),” the term popularly used to refer to the bloody decade-long civil conflict unleashed by the assassination of opposition leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in 1948.

In the 1960s, emigration was largely fuelled by the armed conflict between leftist rebels, government troops and right-wing paramilitary forces, while in the 1980s, another exodus was sparked by the rising violence and forced displacement caused by drug trafficking in the region.

Meanwhile, “the latest wave of emigration began with the economic crisis that followed the collapse of the International Coffee Agreement in 1989, which affected the economy of the Coffee Belt in particular and the national economy in general,” the study notes.

The liberalisation of the coffee market led to a steep fall in prices, causing financial ruin for coffee growers around the world.

The situation worsened in the 1990s thanks to “the process of structural adjustment based on neoliberal-style measures promoted by international financial institutions,” resulting in increased unemployment, decreased buying power, cuts in social services and rising violence and insecurity, a situation that prompted growing numbers of people to leave the country.

While the United States was traditionally the preferred destination for Colombian migrants, tougher U.S. immigration laws led to its replacement by Spain, which also offered the benefits of a common language and more favourable government policies at the time.

It is estimated that close to a million people left Colombia during the five-year period between 2000 and 2005 alone.


The number of women leaving the country continued to grow, until by the year 2000, they accounted for roughly 70 percent of Colombians with legal residency status in Spain. Although their share in emigration has decreased in recent years, women continue to have a significant presence in the expatriate community.

The study states that female emigration from the Coffee Belt to Spain has given rise to a process of “progressive empowerment” for women, as both the main source of income for their households, in the case of the female migrants themselves, and as the recipients of remittances, in the case of those still living in the region.

“My daughter Isabel sends me 750,000 pesos (440 dollars) a month, which is enough to cover my medical insurance, taxes and minimum living costs,” Gloria Calderón told IPS in Pereira, the capital of Risaralda.

Calderón lives in an area of Pereira known as Cuba, made up of 150 poor neighbourhoods and shantytowns where 90 percent of the residents were displaced from rural areas by violence and the coffee sector crisis.

“Isabel left nine years ago, because after making a huge effort to study agronomy, she looked everywhere for work for six months, even in other departments, but she couldn’t find anything. A year and a half after she left, they called her from the National Coffee Growers Federation for a job interview, but what good was it then?” remarked Calderón, clearly disappointed.

Her daughter went to Madrid, where she had contacts who helped her out when she first arrived, the most difficult period, because “emigrating is not easy and luckily people are starting to recognise that,” said Mejía.

While people once had an unrealistic view of what emigration entails, “today it is accepted that it is difficult, although it is true that there are also many positive factors involved,” he added.

Though women and men who emigrate send home similar amounts of money, for women it means a greater effort, since they earn lower wages. Women’s remittances also tend to be more regular and frequent, the study found.

Isabel’s first job in Spain was as a caretaker for the elderly, a common occupation for immigrant women. Then she got herself a motorcycle licence and found a job making deliveries for a restaurant. Now she is a taxi driver, and her next goal is to become a helicopter pilot, reported Calderón.

She has also purchased two taxis in Pereira, as well as buying a house there a short while ago with her partner. “They want to pay it off quickly, so that they have a foundation that will let them come back in five years with a solid base of capital. They don’t want to end up like some of her girlfriends, who left, saved a bit of money, came back, and then ran out, and had to go back again just recently,” she explained.


According to the Gender and Remittances study, money transfers from abroad have contributed to the purchase of homes by the recipient families, but are more commonly invested in repairing and renovating existing housing, including homes that are rented out. Remittances are also used to purchase consumer goods, although the lion’s share goes to covering basic living expenses.

While the largest percentages of Colombians living abroad are in the United States (35.4 percent) and Spain (23.3 percent), there are also significant Colombian expatriate communities in Venezuela, Ecuador, Canada and a number of other countries, according to the 2005 census conducted by DANE.

Colombians can easily reach Ecuador by highway. It is less than a 20-hour drive from the Coffee Belt.

Nancy Gallego, a native of Quindío, moved six years ago to the Ecuadorean town of Santo Domingo de los Colorados, which is popularly known as “Santo Domingo de los colombianos” (Santo Domingo of the Colombians).

During a visit to Armenia, the capital of Quindío, she told IPS that “there are a lot of people who go there to work, to send back remittances and money to support their families. In my case, for example, I was able to study nursing, which I could never have done here. And even though I like to come to visit, I don’t feel safe here anymore, in my own city.”

One of the region’s municipalities with the highest rates of emigration is Montenegro, in southern Quindío, home of the theme park known as the Colombian National Coffee Park. Day labourer coffee pickers gather in the town’s central square on Saturdays looking for work, while children chase after tourists, asking for spare change.

“The situation is very tough for farm labourers. There has been no work in the countryside for a long time, and that’s why people, and especially women, are leaving, mostly to go to Spain,” Claudia Aristizábal, head of postal services in Montenegro, told IPS.

“Around Christmas and Mothers Day, we receive a lot of shipments of clothes and toys,” noted Aristizábal, who estimates the average remittance for a family of five to be around 600 dollars.

Women who come home – mothers, daughters, wives – are welcomed with applause at Matecaña International Airport in Pereira. “Even with the enthusiasm typical of wanderers, nostalgia is a feeling that never goes away,” remarked Mejía.

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