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COLOMBIA: New Boost for Rural Women

Helda Martínez

BOGOTA, Dec 15 2010 (IPS) - “It sounds nice, but it’ll be tough to implement”; “the most important thing is to translate into reality”: These statements by rural women leaders in Colombia sum up the reaction of activists to the government’s decision to revive and refinance a special fund for projects in the countryside led by women.

Ángela Orozco in her garden, in bad shape due to the unusually long, heavy rainy season. Credit:  Helda Martínez/ IPS

Ángela Orozco in her garden, in bad shape due to the unusually long, heavy rainy season. Credit: Helda Martínez/ IPS

The scepticism has deep roots in a country where the rural population has been devastated by five decades of armed conflict, which has displaced millions of small farmers, and where rural women are marginalised and made invisible by a patriarchal system.

In addition, government projects aimed at supporting farmers have typically ended up benefiting large landowners.

Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Juan Camilo Restrepo announced that the government would allocate 850,000 dollars to rural women’s initiatives in 2011, to begin redressing the neglect they have faced from the state.

The funds will be channeled through the Rural Women’s Development Fund (FOMMUR), which has been left without financing over the last four years.

The funds aimed at bolstering women’s participation in agriculture form part of a number of government initiatives, including the creation or revival of programmes, aimed at developing the rural sector in Colombia.

“The more than eight-year-old Law on Rural Women has not even been codified yet,” Restrepo complained. “Public policies to benefit rural women lack institutional development and there is a lack of coordination among the different state agencies involved,” he added, in an assessment in line with the complaints of associations of small women farmers.

“To make this change a reality, it is important to take into account the fact that rural women face a number of disadvantages characteristic of patriarchal societies,” Yulieth Tamayo, a member of the Colectivo de Mujeres Pazíficas, a group of women activists in the western agricultural province of Valle del Cauca, told IPS.

One reflection of this “patriarchal society” is that land is registered in the names of women’s husbands, fathers or brothers.

Another hurdle that disproportionately affects women is the requirement that farmers wishing to obtain government funds or credit must present a number of documents, for which they must travel to the nearest large city, or “even to Bogota” – – which is especially difficult, if not impossible, for women with young children, Tamayo explained.

To make opportunities for farmers more equally available to women, “projects for cultural and educational changes, as well as mechanisms for oversight of how funds are handled,” are needed, she argued.

“The announcement is fabulous, but they also have to offer support and advice on how to best use the funds,” said Ángela Orozco, a farmer in Usme, a rural area at the southern edge of greater Bogota.

Orozco, who comes from a peasant family displaced from the northwestern province of Antioquia by the armed conflict, puts great stock in preserving the customs and traditional farming methods of her forebears, and combines her work in the countryside with her profession as a schoolteacher.

In the gardens surrounding her house, she grows uchuva fruit (Cape gooseberry), onions, fennel, marigolds, beets, lettuce, cilantro and camomile, for her family’s consumption and for sale in nearby farmers markets.

And in Ciudad Bolívar, a poor neighbourhood strung along the hills on the south side of the Colombian capital that is mainly home to people displaced from rural areas by the civil war, she promotes the cultivation of fresh produce in child care centres and preschools, where children not only learn farming skills but grow food for their own meals.

Orozco believes that peasant farmers, especially women, must be empowered to take on leadership roles, as the only way for them to leave behind their longstanding neglect by the authorities and victimisation by different armed groups.

Over the last half century, the rural population in this South American nation has been largely abandoned by the state and has suffered the effects of an armed conflict that has basically been waged in rural areas, where the state security forces fight left-wing guerrillas.

But even before the emergence of the main insurgent group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), in 1964, the countryside was caught up in the violence between the conservative and liberal parties, and later in the crossfire between not only the insurgents and the army, but also far- right paramilitaries, drug cartels and traffickers of emeralds.

And one of the main objectives of the conflict has been possession of land.

The result: one of the largest and most silent rural exoduses in the recent history of the world. Since 1985, some 3.3 million people in this country of 44 million have been forced off their land and deprived of at least two million hectares.

In 1950, 70 percent of the population lived in rural areas, compared to 26 percent — 11.7 million people — today, according to projections based on the 2005 census.

But although women and girls represent over half of the rural population (51 percent), “their significant contribution to the national economy, and to the country’s food sovereignty in particular,” is ignored, says Infogénero, a local NGO that mobilises women peasant farmers in defence of their rights and against machista and other kinds of violence.

Restrepo, who was named agriculture minister by President Juan Manuel Santos, in office since August, said women must be taken into account because of “their business sense, their sense of austerity, their ability and inclination to save, and the priority they put on the needs of their families.”

He also underlined that women in general are better at paying off loans, and “have a greater sense of community,” which means that protecting their economic and social rights has a valuable multiplier effect.

But on her farm, Orozco, like other farmers, remains sceptical. “Governments don’t care about peasants, which was proven by what happened with the AIS: they left the peasant farmers without funds,” she said.

She was referring to the scandal over the government’s Agro Ingreso Seguro (AIS –”stable farm income”) programme, in which farm subsidies and soft loans for farmers ended up in the hands of wealthy landowners, under right-wing president Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010).

The ongoing investigation of the corruption scandal has found that from 2007 to 2009, government funds allocated to large landowners were 27 times greater than what went to peasant farmers, 70 percent of whom live in poverty.

The beneficiaries of the AIS programme included agribusiness producers of cut flowers, palm oil, bananas and sugar cane, and transnational corporations like Coltabaco, Philip Morris’s affiliate in Colombia, which received 16.5 billion dollars in credit.

“The AIS programme will now be at the service of small and medium-size farmers,” Minister Restrepo promised. “And we are working hard to make micro-credit a tangible reality for the rural sector.”

He also predicted that “the big beneficiaries of this refocusing (of government farm policies) will be young rural entrepreneurs, and women who live and work in the country’s rural areas.” (IPS/LA DV IP AG BO HU WO/TRASP-SW/HM/EG/10)

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