Rice peasants and rice research in Colombia

P.A.N.M. Spijkers

    Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


    Rice has been grown as a food crop in Latin America from early colonial times. In Colombia rice became a prominent subsistence crop especially on the north coast where it has been grown since the 17th century, sometimes also as a commercial crop. During the last twenty years there has been a sharp increase in rice production, especially in the irrigated sector. This increase can be attributed largely to the work of three organizations: the government-sponsored rice re search program of the Instituto Colombiano Agropecuario (ICA); the internationally-sponsored rice program of the Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical (CIAT); and an efficient and politically well-supported organization of Colombian rice growers, Fedearroz. In order to sustain rice production in Colombia it is necessary for these institutions to keep ahead of one major technical problem, susceptibility of rice varieties to the fungal disease rice blast (pyricularia). Every two or three years a new variety which is resistant or moderately resistant has to be introduced. Thus farmers, especially those who have adopted the new rice technology, have become increasingly dependent on these institutions.<p/>Increasingly decisions regarding criteria for improvement of tropical foodcrops are taken on institutional levels far beyond the control of the cultivators concerned. Programs aiming at increasing yield potentials also contribute to social change in the farmer's lives.<p/>In this study relationships between crop characteristics and the social contexts in which crops are produced have been explored. The main objectives were:<br/>- to investigate the relationships between peasant systems of rice cultivation as part of the agricultural system and of the wider social and economic structure of north coast community;<br/>- to investigate the social consequences for the farmer and the community of new systems of rice cultivation in this area.<p/>Historically, rice has played a specific role in the process of incorporating virgin land into the cattle economy of the region. Costeño peasants distinguish two types of rice varieties with corresponding cultivation systems: arroz criollo (dryland rice grown with rain water only); and arroz forastero (rice which is transplanted to floodable areas). Dryland rice varieties are grown espe cially by colonos who clear small patches of woodland, plant rice as a first crop, and after one or two cropping seasons sow the land with pasture. Sowing with pasture's is a land rent if the colono leases the land from a large land-owner. If the colono cultivates public domain land, he may claim a legal title, and sell the rights and the improvements made to the land. This use of criollo rice varieties which generally preceded the forastero rice varieties in time, forms part of the more general pattern of transforming virgin land into pasture in tropical lowlands not only in Colombia but also in other regions of the continent. Thus improvements to criollo rice cultivation would not only benefit colonizing farmers in these lowland areas, but accrue to cattle ranchers who ultimately become the owners of these lands.<p/>Apart from a limited number of farmers on small plots in the irrigation districts developed in the INCORA-sponsored land reform programs, mechanized irrigated rice cultivation has been adopted mainly by wealthy farmers with access to large areas of land, sometimes up to several hundred hectares.<p/>It has been shown that the importance of the peasant rice farming sector in northern Colombia is grossly underestimated, partly because of the way official statistics on rice in Colombia are organized.<p/>It has also been shown that traditional rice cultivation on the north coast of Colombia is highly diversified and adapted to the local situation. There are more than hundred varieties known, often with characteristics which are significant for the farmer and his community.<p/>Several social institutions have evolved around peasant rice cultivation, as for example the widespread custom of farmers inviting friends and relatives to harvest their rice crops and the social pressure for farmers to pay harvesters with rice. Traditionally, rice has been harvested on the north coast by cutting the rice stalks individually and tying them together to form a puño. Rice can be easily dried and stored in these puños until it is actually threshed, dehusked and consumed. The system of paying a fixed share of puños to the invited harvester, often somebody without a rice crop himself although not necessarily so, functions as a distribution system on the local level providing cheap rice for others than the owner.<p/>Traditional systems of rice cultivation were studied in detail in the north coast village of Los Monos. Rice is the most important crop grown in this village and in the last twenty years more than 20 varieties of criollo and forastero rice have been grown.<p/>The social structure of the village is intimately related to rice cultivation, especially so with regard to local credit structure and labour patterns. Farmers regard rice as a subsistence crop, and endeavour to keep it outside the monetary economy. They grow rice for domestic consumption and are only willing to sell if they have a surplus.<p/>In the last 20 years, there has been a gradual change in Los Monos from criollo to forastero rice cultivation. This change is related to demographic pressures in the village, which meant that the swampland in the cienaga had to be cultivated. Previously, most of the land in the cienaga was used by large land-owners in the dry season for cattle grazing, but recently pressure has been building up among landless in Los Monos to use these lands for crop cultivation, especially forastero rice. A recently introduced variety, Galillón, which is more resistant to floodings, is being grown increasingly, especially by landless share-croppers.<p/>The comparison of land-owners and share-croppers in Los Monos has revealed other significant characteristics with respect to rice farming. Share-croppers tend to invest more in social relations with other villagers as in the case of inviting others to assist with the rice harvest and the distribution of rice in payment of labour. Sharecroppers also cultivated more of their land with rice than did landowners and participated more in the local practice of exchanging labour on a non-monetary basis.<p/>The study of rice farmers in Los Monos has shown that without the intervention of government or other institutions traditional agricultural systems are not necessarily stagnant.<p/>It could be deduced from this study that improvements in forastero rice cultivation would benefit the poorer farmers (in this case Sharecroppers), and that greater economic gains could be made with this system of rice cultivation. A further advantage of extending this system of forastero rice cultivation would be that it does not compete for land with other local crops. If regulation of land tenure on swamplands on the north coast of Colombia were to favour smallscale farmers, then forastero rice cultivation would be an ideal target for research on peasant rice cultivation in Colombia, and possibly in lowlands elsewhere in Latin America.<p/>The consequences of the introduction of new rice technology on a rural community were investigated in a detailed study of the village of La Doctrina. In this village, irrigation and new rice varieties have been made available as part of a land reform program. Agriculture in La Doctrina is dominated by the irrigation district, on which the most important crop grown at present is rice. on average, farmers in La Doctrina cultivate considerably larger areas of rice than do farmers in Los Monos. However, within the regional context, rice farmers in La Doctrina can be considered to be small producers.<p/>As rice farming in the irrigation district is mechanized it is not as labour-intensive as rice cultivation in Los Monos. Both yield per hectare and total production have increased considerably. Rice farmers are largely dependent on the assistance of several government institutions including credit institutions, and those providing irrigation water.<p/>Production costs for rice in La Doctrina are low in comparison to national averages. However, when rice prices are low, the increased yields do not guarantee reasonable profits to a majority of the rice farmers. In 1976, more than 30% of rice farmers suffered a net loss. Many farmers of La Doctrina became entangled in debts with government credit agencies, and as a consequence a part of the irrigation district has remained unused.<p/>Comparison between La Doctrina inhabitants and Los Monos rice farmers revealed the following social consequences of the introduction of new rice varieties and corresponding cultivation practices. In La Doctrina the traditional latifundio-minifundio structure has altered with the emergence of a new class of agricultural entrepreneurs and an increasing number of landless labourors. From a village dominated by vertical social relationships between absentee landlords and a mass of colonos and share-croppers, a number of vertical relationships have evolved between a few relatively wealthy rice farmers, and subsistence farmers together with an increasing group of landless labourers. Status differentiation within the former internally equalitarian situation has emerged. A select group of successful rice farmers has been able to earn incomes previously unknown of in the village. New status symbols have appeared, including cement built houses, and the material goods of modern urban life such as television and luxury furniture. A few successful farmers have acquired more land and cattle outside the irrigation district.<p/>There is evidence to suggest that the households of farmers in La Doctrina have increased in size in recent years. The birth rate is higher and more adopted children are included in households of rice farmers in La Doctrina as compared to Los Monos. Stated opinions on the "ideal number of children" for a family by both Los Monos and La Doctrina male heads of households support this evidence.<p/>Possibly, Costeño rural households pass through a phase in which relations between households become weaker when higher levels of material wellbeing are reached, and at the same time households as units of social organization become stronger. This phenomenon becomes clearer by comparing the socio-economic classes of Los Monos to the La Doctrina rice farmer's households. The poorer households of Los Monos showed more signs of "shared poverty" than the class of landowners: the former invested more in social relations than the latter. The La Doctrina group of farmer's households may represent a further case of an atomization process, as sharing mechanisms such as sharing rice during the harvest, exchanging labour without direct monetary renumeration are absent. Further evidence supporting this process of increasing atomization is the fact that the households of sharecroppers in Los Monos included on the average fewer non-nuclear family members than the households of land-owners, which in turn included fewer than households in La Doctrina.<p/>The construction of the infrastructure for the irrigation district and the scale of cultivation has increased employment opportunities for the inhabitants of La Doctrina and has attracted many outsiders to settle in the village. Although the cultivation of mechanized rice requires fewer mandays per hectare, the larger area under cultivation has increased employment opportunities.<p/>In general, La Doctrina farmers expressed higher expectations for the future than rice farmers in Los Monos. However, more farmers in La Doctrina thought that their sons would have non- agricultural occupations, and indeed expressed the wish that they preferred their sons not to become farmers.<p/>Social changes in La Doctrina as related directly to the characteristics of the new rice technology and the new rice varieties in cluded the following. Firstly, consumption of rice, the most impor tant local food item, is presently less diversified as it was before and as it still is the case in other Costeño villages.<p/>Further, the social custom of inviting relatives and friends to participate in the harvest and of paying them in kind (rice) has largely disappeared in La Doctrina. Most of the new dwarf rice is harvested mechanically. It is difficult to harvest these varieties in the traditional way, the short stems cannot be cut easily with a knife and put together to form puños If the rice is not harvested mechanically, a sickle is used. Many farmers attribute the disappear ance of the system of paying rice harvesters in kind puños to the introduction of the new dwarf varieties. The system of payment in kind has virtually disappeared in La Doctrina and in other villages on the north coast where the dwarf varieties were harvested manually. The disappearance of this system of sharing the rice harvest with fellow villagers has had a serious negative effect on the distribu tion of rice to poorer households on the north coast.<p/>It has been demonstrated that irrigated rice cultivation for far mers in La Doctrina is a rather hazardous affair. This is directly related to the fact that the new rice technology involves high production costs in order to realize the high-yielding potential of the new rice varieties.<p/>From the results of this study it can be deduced that future agricultural research on rice in Colombia can lead to a further un equal distribution of the benefits between farmers. If future research would be directed not only to those who have access to irrigated land, it is recommended that research should focuss on the improvement of forastero rice systems. Advantages are: - it is a crop which is grown by poor farmers, who might thus par ticipate in benefits of rice research<br/>- forastero land usually has less opportunity costs; it is less suited for other crops<br/>- forastero rice varieties seem to have higher yield potentials than criollo rice varieties<br/>- forastero rice improvement may contribute to a more intensive use of the fertile and promising parts of the North Colombian coastal plains<br/>- if research would focuss on criollo rice, at least a part of the benefits would accrue to the future owners of the land; often large land-owners, who are more interested in cattle raising and very often possess land for reasons of capital investment.<p/>The study also shows that more adequate criteria are indicated for the organization of rice statistics, than those presently used. Further it can be concluded (see Chapter 4) that the study of motives and possibilities of colono farming in fronteer zones of tropical Latin America would be useful for the process of agricultural development of these regions.<p/>It is important to make more use of the social sciences in the process of agricultural research. A useful perspective for social scientists may be the "crop sociology" approach, as explained in Chapter 1. Pragmatic considerations indicate that social scientists should start with the study of those characteristics of crops which might be expected to be malleable by agricultural researchers. In that way it will be possible to take into account possible technological alternatives, from the first stages of research.
    Original languageEnglish
    QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
    Awarding Institution
    • van Lier, R.A.J., Promotor, External person
    Award date8 Jun 1983
    Place of PublicationWageningen
    Publication statusPublished - 1983


    • colombia
    • farmers
    • oryza sativa
    • peasant workers
    • peasantry
    • research
    • rice
    • small farms

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