What You Grow Is What You Are

Post by Camila Osorio- MA Candidate at CLACS/Global Journalism at NYU


For the past month and a half I have been conducting research in Colombia on land displacement. Colombia is considered the country with the highest number of internal refugees after Syria: around six million people. Many of these are peasants, indigenous or afrocolombians in rural communities who now live in poverty in the outskirts of small or big cities around the country. And many are claiming their land back after the Colombian Government approved a law to restitute land to all of those who were forcibly displaced since 1991. The Government also agreed to an agrarian reform in La Habana if a peace treaty is signed with the FARC guerrillas.

I have been interviewing groups of peasants displaced by violence, and businessmen, in two regions of the Colombia Caribbean for the past weeks: the Urabá region and Montes de María. These two regions are symbolic of the armed conflict because of the high intensity of violence there between paramilitaries, guerrilla groups and the State army.

In Urabá, a lot of the land is now in the hands of cattle ranchers (ganaderos) or banana businessmen that export the fruit to Europe and the United States. In Montes de María, a lot of the land claimed by peasants is now planted with palm oil or teak, a kind of wood that takes 30 years to grow.

There are many complexities on how the land restitution process is happening. But one aspect that I found interesting in this dispute is how peasants talk about what they produce, what the other produces, or what they want to produce. Divisions are not as simple as landowner/peasant, or between those who own the means of production and those who only have their labor to offer. Agricultural products are very much related to identity and the ‘others’ identity.

For example, take the Urabá region. Many of the peasants who were forcibly displaced used to cultivate plantain to sell, and some fruit or yucca for their own consumption. The big plantain trees look very similar to the banana trees, but the two are cultivated in very different ways. Bananas need more pesticides, special bags to put the banana clusters, a special irrigation system, and many workers. This is why there is a big division between bananeros and plataneros. To be named bananero means 1) the person has the money to make a big investment; 2) they don’t grow yucca or fruit on the side. To be named  platanero is synonym of not using pesticides, having less land and less money, and cultivating for the family’s consumption as well.

Osorio– Colombia –Banana
Inside one of the largest banana plantations in Urabá, Colombia

In the Montes de María region there is a similar division happening. The big landowners are two actors: one cultivating teak in large areas is a Cement Company, and one cultivating palm oil that is from a former Minister of Agriculture. For small peasants, these two actors represent agricultural products that are both harming the environment (because of the large amounts of water they require), and not useful for the family economy since these enterprises don’t grow food on the side. In other words: those who grow teak and palm oil can only be businessmen, who don’t need to cultivate fruits, yucca or corn to survive.

Most of the teak is exported to India

Another big difference is between the peasants who cultivated black tobacco, and those who are cultivating blonde tobacco now. The first tobacco –used to do cigars- used to be cultivated by peasants, many of them displaced by the armed conflict during the nineties. Black tobacco needed less pesticides and was less work intensive than blonde tobacco, used to do cigarettes. Now, many of the remaining peasants in Montes de María (or some that have returned) are growing blonde tobacco for Coltabaco –an affiliate of the Philipp Morris company in Colombia- which has not been as profitable or easy to grow as black tobacco given the amount of chemicals and work it requires. In that sense, when peasants talk about black tobacco there are not just talking about any agricultural product, but one that is a symbol of the time when the armed conflict had not changed their lives as peasants.

Osorio – Colombia – BlackTabacco
Abandoned bodega for black tobacco growers

Published by Camila Osorio

Camila Osorio is a journalist from Colombia. She studied Political Science in Bogotá and an MA in Sociology at The New School. She is now a student in the Journalism and Latin American Studies program at NYU and has done reporting in Colombia, South Africa and New York.

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