Republic of Colombia
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Contributor: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
Contact: Jean Bonnal

Republic of Colombia

( The terms and data used in this publication are in no way an indication of the authors' position regarding the legal status of the countries, territories, cities or zones mentioned, or of their authorities or borders.

A. General Country Data

Surface Area1,141,748 sq. km
Population (millions)35.5
Population Growth1.7%
Urban Population72.7%
Density (1995)31 inh/sq. km
GDP (1994) Billions US $ 64.37
GDP per Capita US $ 1,813
Currency Colombian Peso
National Budget8% of GDP
Human Development Indicator0.813
HDI Ranking (out of 174 countries)50

Borders, Topography and Climate

Colombia is bordered by Panama and the Caribbean Sea on the north, Venezuela and Brazil on the east, Equador and Peru on the south, and the Pacific Ocean on the west. Colombia's topography is characterized by the Andean Cordillera range, situated in the west-central part of the country, and which stretches from north to south, almost along the whole length of the country. The Andes are composed of three parallel ranges : the Eastern Cordillera, the Central Cordillera, and the Western Cordillera. Between the Cordilleras there are high plateaus and fertile valleys which are crossed by the country's major river systems.

Colombia is situated almost entirely in the arid zone between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. However, the climate varies with the altitude. The low regions and valleys are arid, with average annual temperatures ranging from 24 degrees C to 27degrees C. Between roughly 455 m and 2,285 m in altitude, the climate is subtropical, and 2,285 m and 3,048 m, the climate is temperate. In the capital, Bogota, the annual average temperature reaches 14 degrees C. The areas above 3,048 m are the cold climate zone, and temperatures range from minus eighteen degrees C to thirteen degrees C. All year long, and for periods of three months, the rainy season alternates with the dry season. There is much rain along the Pacific Coast. At Bogota, annual precipitation reaches 1,015 mm on the average.

Characteristics, and Recent Developments of the Political System

The Republic of Colombia has a presidential system of government. The extant constitution dates back to 1991. It opened the way for the reform of a highly centralized system of government. The president of the republic, elected by universal suffrage for a non-renewable term of four years, is the chief executive. He appoints the government, which has to be approved by the Congress. Legislative power is vested in the House of Representatives (163 members) and the Senate (102 members). Colombia is divided into 31 departments and a district. The governors of the departments are elected by direct suffrage.

Since independence the two major political parties have been the Conservative Party, which is now the Social Conservative Party of Colombia (PSC) , which favors a strong central government, and the Liberal Party, which is federalist in outlook. The former guerrillas of the Movement of 19 April (M-19) have also won recognition on the political scene.

Agriculture in Colombia

Colombian agriculture contributes 16.1% to the GDP. Nearly 29% of the work force is employed in Agriculture (including forestry and fishing), but this proportion has tended to decrease in the last few years, in favor of the secondary and tertiary sectors. The agricultural sector is divided into two types of activities : food crop farming and export-oriented farming, carried out on large estates. Two thirds of agricultural production is farming and one third is livestock rearing. The climate and soil are conducive to the growing of a variety of products such as coffee (Colombia is the second largest producer in the world, and this is a vital crop due to the amount of farming land it takes up, and the income it generates). Other crops are : rice, tobacco, cassava, corn, sugar cane (10th largest producer in the world), cocoa (9th largest producer), oilseeds, vegetables. Cattle is also raised.

Forest products are becoming more and more important. As a matter of fact, practically all of Colombia is covered with humid tropical forest containing one of the richest biological reserves in the world. Mangrove and coconut trees adorn the coasts of the Caribbean Sea, but the commercialized trees (mahogany, oak, walnut, cedar, pine, and many varieties of balsam) grow in the Amazon Forest, and at medium altitude, in the Cordillera. Only 8% of the country is protected within reserves and national parks, but surveillance of certain areas of the country is made difficult by the presence of drug traffickers. Nevertheless only 3% of Colombian forests have been destroyed, which is little when compared to the amount of Brazilian forests destroyed (28%).

Current Economic Situation

The economic recovery started since 1993 due to an increase in agricultural and industrial production. While exports reached a ceiling because of low coffee prices, imports picked up due to the economic expansion, the strengthening of the peso, and the liberalization of the economy. In 1994, the victory of the Liberal Party candidate at the presidential elections led to the adoption of a government program with a strong social component, which did not have a negative impact on the Colombian economy. Work on new oil deposits offers a favorable outlook in the medium term, and oil is increasingly replacing coffee as the major revenue earner; it now represents nearly half of the country's export earnings. Nevertheless, the first signs of an economic recession appear starting in 1996. This also illustrates the end of the effects of the economic liberalization launched in in 1990. Growth slows down and unemployment and inflation rise.

B. On-going Decentralization Process

Background, Objectives, and Legal Framework

Colombia formally launched its decentralization process in the 1960s, but in reality the government remained highly centralized until the 1990s. The economic importance of some regions and cities and their political influence are due more to their geography and the country's turbulent history rather than to decentralization policy. The most significant advances of decentralization are thus relatively recent and are within the context of the municipalization of rural development that is taking place in many Latin American countries. The current decentralization process started with the decision of the Colombian government to revise the constitution in 1991. This was the high point of a process started in 1986 by the passing of a decentralization law making local autonomy a highly important part of the institutional landscape of the country. It was thus decided that mayors of municipalities would be elected, and that new mechanisms for community participation be created. The objective of decentralization was mainly political because the intent was to give mayors and citizens the means to deal with the presence of guerrillas and drug traffickers in their localities.

Functions, Resources, and Autonomy of Decentralized Entities

The decentralization law of 1986 and the constitutional reform law of 1991assigned to different levels of government (departments and municipalities) new functions in matters relating to consultation and decision-making, implementation, control and financing. Though efforts were made to give the departments and municipalities extra resources to accomplish their new tasks, it appears on the one hand, that these resources have not been sufficient, and on the other, that the decentralized entities have only limited autonomy in the use of these resources.

C. Decentralization and Rural Development

Forms of Decentralization, Agricultural and Rural Development Policy Formulation

The process of decentralization in Colombia, more than in other countries, was geared toward rural development. In 1987 the municipalities were assigned responsibility for essential public services, and as far as the agricultural sector is concerned, it was decided that the municipalities should provided direct technical assistance to small producers. To do this the municipalities were required to create Agricultural Technical Assistance Units (UMATA). Recently (1993) the creation of Rural Development Municipal Councils were approved, and they are formally open to peasant participation. As a result of the restructuring of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, the deconcentration of state services were significant, but the delegation and devolution of powers to other actors in development were limited.

Unlike what one observes in other Latin American countries, in Colombia, the process of decentralization radically modified the modalities of rural development planning, which is currently a regional prerogative, with authority flowing upward. However, this did not result in modification of national policies to take into account the specific characteristics of departments, but rather modification of policies to adapt to type of production, and by new forms of coordination. For example, financing and decision-making concerning rural infrastructure are assigned to the national level, and control, monitoring, and evaluation are local level responsibility.

Decentralization and Agricultural Support Services

Other forms of coordination exist regarding the major agricultural support services, especially in training and extension. Policy determination for training is national responsibility but financing is the joint responsibility of both the national and local levels. Policy determination for extension is the joint responsibility of departments and municipalities, while financing is shared by the national level and municipalities. Financing and policy determination for research, credit, inputs, and irrigation are national level responsibility.

It is interesting to note that the configuration of the roles of actors in the delivery of the major agricultural services is more balanced than in other Latin American countries. With the exception of credit and inputs, for which the dominant actors are respectively, the public sector and the private sector, there are for all services two or even three actors sharing the dominant role : public sector and NGOs for training; the last two and producer organizations for extension; and the public and private sectors for research and irrigation.

Support Policies, Constraints and Evaluation of the Decentralization Process

The support policies put into effect (information on the decentralization process, and training on the new assignments), were much more far-reaching than those in other countries in the region. Specifically, training programs on the new assignments wee directed toward not only technical services, but also toward subnational jurisdictions and citizens at large. It is unfortunate that the same extensive effort was not made with regard to support for producer organizations.

Though the current responsibilities and resources of the intermediate and local levels of government do not seem to be a major constraint on the process of decentralization, the same cannot be said of civil society organizations whose lack of capacity is a real burden on the carrying out and deepening of the process. Even more important, the absence of modalities for coordination between different levels of government, and a framework for consultations between actors seem to be one the causes of the lack of positive impacts of the decentralization process on the different areas of rural development : agricultural support services, anti-poverty programs, social and production infrastructure,citizen participation,and environmental protection.


To make the positive impact of decentralization more visible, it will be necessary to provide institutional support for local actors, and continuity in policies, as well as the strengthening of grassroots organizations, and support for local democracy. This will enable citizens to thwart the tendencies for local Úlite to capture decentralization, without speaking of the necessity to fight paramilitary groups, guerrillas, and drug traffickers. To summarize, the principal challenge for decentralization in Colombia is the general state of violence : in 1994, illegal forces had a major presence in 569 of the 1,074 municipalities, especially in the coffee-producing and Andes regions.