Colombia is a vibrant and beautiful country with a diverse set of landscapes inhabited by a warm and welcoming people. Despite this, many foreigners are wary of visiting the country due to its bad reputation related to conflict and drug cartels. Many tourists to Colombia often skip visiting Cali, the city where I live, due to its status as Colombia’s most dangerous city. This reputation though is slowly but surely changing. Cali is the “World Capital of Salsa” and as this moniker suggests, it is full of life and has a charming rhythm to all its commotion. Cali is a great place to live and though there are clear disparities between rich and poor, the Caleños are proud of their city. After all they’ve endured to transform the city to the burgeoning must-experience destination it is now, they have all the reason to be.
Though development in Colombia has been stymied by almost over 50 years of conflict, the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla movement have worked on the cessation of hostilities. In July 2016, the two groups will sign a peace deal marking an end to Latin America’s longest running conflict. Now, more than ever, the role of agriculture in development is under the spotlight in Colombia as many farmers and other victims of violence in the countryside now have a chance at a new start.
My work in Colombia is to research and document the adoption of improved cassava varieties by farmers in the Cauca Department, one of country’s most disadvantaged and conflict-afflicted regions. Native to the Americas, cassava has unique characteristics that allow it to grow in marginally poor soil with irregular or limited rainfall. As such, it has become a globally important crop for food security and remains a critical part of the diet for the poor in Colombia. Despite this, cassava locally known as “yuca” remained an “orphan” or neglected crop by many governments and agriculture research centers for many years. Conversely, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) based just outside of Cali has the world’s leading cassava research and breeding program with a gene bank of 6,000 germplasm accessions. I am currently working with a small team of economists and geneticists that are pioneering the use of DNA fingerprinting in identifying cassava varieties for agriculture economics studies. Together, we are trying to understand the factors that influence farmer decisions on whether to adopt improved varieties or not. Since the use of improved varieties often leads to higher yields and consequently higher income for farmers, we hope that our work will aid policymakers and agriculture services in decision making and crafting cassava-specific development programs.
In my second month, I had the opportunity to visit Cauca to speak with a few farmers about their experiences growing cassava. We traveled for about three hours south from Cali passing by several army checkpoints to the small towns of Timbío, Popayán, and Piendamó where we had the chance to talk to farmers and experience what it is like on the steep slopes of the cassava farms. Though I have visited rural farms before, the soil and slope conditions in Cauca are incredibly challenging. Now, more than ever, I appreciate the importance of the crop we are researching and the determination of farmers to cultivate the land that many of them have experienced violence over.
Within the next month, we will be visiting Cauca once again to speak with more farmers and I will be finishing my term as a visiting researcher at CIAT. By that time, I hope to gain more insight into the lives of the Caucano cassava farmers and Colombian agriculture.