How Big Agriculture Runs Colombia's Rivers Dry
In northern Colombia, large-scale banana and palm oil estates have long used their clout to control land and water resources and leave peasant farmers high and dry.
BOGOTÁ — On Aug. 25, 1939, Alejandro Calderón, a Colombian citizen, farmer and resident of the northern town of Ciénaga de Oro sent a letter to then President Enrique Olaya Herrera and his ministers of the interior, industry and foreign affairs. In it, he complained that the United Fruit Company was the only entity established in the region buying and exporting bananas, and had thus come to entirely dominate its economy.
The company generated great profits classifying and buying fruit at very low prices, Calderón wrote. "It is most evidently true that in this trade or industry, only United Fruit, as the buying entity, earns profits that reach fabulous sums while the peasant-producer of the fruit suffers the ruinous consequences of a bad business," the farmer argued.
By the 1930s, Colombian authorities had received numerous letters and complaints asking for greater regulation of labor issues, the creation of a farming or savings bank, and that they persuade United to buy fruit at better prices. All apparently to no avail.
Because there is no farming without water, the monopoly went beyond soil to include water.
The multinational firm, as Calderón pointed out, sought to "obtain the largest possible profits, exploit the peasantry that produces bananas' and "pursue its commercial activities free of all competition, resorting to all types of moves to monopolize this soil." And because there is no farming without water, the monopoly went beyond soil to include water.
Nearly 80 years later, the same areas in northern Colombia continue to suffer the consequences of that inescapable record of land grabbing and water control by large-scale farming interests, a record that also includes generous use of state and paramilitary violence to suppress union, peasant and environmental justice activities.
Professor Sandra Vilardy of the University of Magdalena notes, for example, that the marshland system of Ciénaga Grande de Santa Marta is today receiving less water than it needs because of a lack of water in tributary rivers like Fundación, Aracataca and Tucurinca. "They don't flow with sufficient pressure, especially in dry periods, due to the installation of barriers designed to deviate their courses and illegally capture their waters for banana and palm oil estates, which use them to irrigate crops," she argues.
In Zona Bananera, residents have denounced those who deviate waters from their land — Photo: Jerrys Ricardo Arrieta Rodriguez
Another expert on the region, journalist Paola Benjumea Brito, has documented conflicts over water use in the Zona Bananera district where peasants have denounced large landowners in upland areas for deviating waters from the Frío, Sevilla and Tucurinca rivers "toward outlets and reservoirs built on their lands to store water."
As such, there is an abundance of water for some, and a serious lack for many others. While smallholders and residents of less prosperous neighborhoods in towns suffer shortages, others are irrigating and expanding their agro-industrial projects without compunction. Zona Bananera, for example, has three irrigation districts administered by associations of users and tasked with distributing water between small, medium and large-scale producers. But on a day-to-day basis, the biggest estates have the biggest say in these bodies, while some employ private security and armed men "at the gates of irrigation canals to prevent water running toward smaller plots."
There is an abundance of water for some, and a serious lack for many others.
In the coming weeks, there will be a good many newspaper headlines announcing water cuts in the Magdalena department as part of the El Niño phenomenon. It should be noted, though, that the shortages are not generalized.
Indeed, this seasonal phenomenon, rather than being a stand-alone explanation, serves to highlight a social and historical situation. To appreciate the times and places where water is scarce, one must understand where it comes from and how it moves through the big estates.