Strengthening participation in agricultural conversion and stabilisation of the agricultural frontier

The new delimitation of the agricultural frontier

In June 2018, the Government of Colombia, through collaboration with the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MADR), the Rural Agricultural Planning Unit (UPRA) and the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development (MADS), formalised the establishment of the National Agricultural Frontier. The Frontier aims to reduce deforestation caused by the expansion of agricultural activities in the country. With this measure, the Government allocates 35% of Colombia’s land (approximately 40 million hectares) to economic activities linked to various productive sectors. The remaining percentage, located outside the agricultural frontier, is mostly intended for the conservation of natural forests and other strategic ecosystems, such as wetlands and moorland.

The new delimitation of the agricultural frontier, which is part of the Comprehensive Strategy for Deforestation Control and Forest Management, raises various challenges for the agricultural sector. For instance, farmers located outside the agricultural frontier must convert their activities. Those within the frontier face the challenge of increasing their productivity per hectare as they are unable to expand their farm. To identify the best production opportunities and guide land-use planning, UPRA, in collaboration with the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (IDEAM), carried out an extensive study to identify the areas of the country that are best suited for agricultural activities within the agricultural frontier.

To keep existing agricultural activities within the agricultural frontier while accelerating the transition to more suitable production systems, UPRA is developing a series of agricultural conversion master plans for different sectors. These plans will then be linked to other sectoral and territorial instruments, such as the departmental production planning strategies.

2021: a key year for agricultural conversion

One of UPRA’s main objectives for the 2020–2021 period is to produce five conversion plans for the rice sector (corresponding to five producing areas: Bajo Cauca, Llanos, Centro, Costa Norte and Santanderes). In this context, experts from UPRA’s production conversion team, in collaboration with the European Forest Institute (EFI), used the Land-use Planner to generate prospective agricultural conversion scenarios, in a collaborative process involving different actors in the rice sector.

This collaboration between UPRA and EFI resulted in a pilot project covering two administrative areas known as departments: Tolima and Sucre (in the Bajo Cauca and Costa Norte regions, respectively).

Location of Tolima department and the agricultural frontier
Location of Sucre department and the agricultural frontier

The project aimed to provide a comprehensive picture of the potential impacts of land-use changes over time. It also sought to facilitate dialogue between producers and industrialists in the sector, with a view to consensus regarding the future of the rice supply chain in both departments. The analysis included environmental and social criteria not generally taken into account by producers and entrepreneurs, such as greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss, forest cover, job creation and food security. These considerations contributed to the development of a roadmap for rice production in the two departments, as well as technical guidelines for land management. The pilot project also allowed for evaluating the possibility of using the LUP for other conversion master plans and extending the use of the tool to UPRA’s land-use planning team.

Rice production in Tolima and Sucre

In recent years, there has been limited expansion of rice production areas in Tolima and Sucre, although with significant differences in yields between areas in both departments. The producers and entrepreneurs consulted validated the following prospective scenarios:

  • Expansion of rice cultivation in areas with few land-use conflicts, while reducing and replacing rice production in areas with increasing land-use conflicts.
  • Yield improvements in areas where manual or poorly mechanised practices currently persist, but which would benefit from public, private and mixed investment.
  • As alternatives to rice production, soya bean and maize were mainly identified in Tolima, while dual-purpose livestock was identified in Sucre.
  • In the scenario describing current land uses in both departments, the expansion of livestock farming drives deforestation, but strategies to reduce deforestation and protect wetlands (Sucre) and moorland (Tolima) are implemented later.

As the dialogues took place among actors of the same sector, their visions were sufficiently aligned not to require major concessions within the different scenarios. However, three factors generated discussion and reflections that led the group to propose alternatives or reach compromises:

  1. Climate and seasonal changes and the need to adapt to maintain (or increase) yields (investment in mechanisation, irrigation systems improvement, etc.).
  2. In Sucre, the possibility of alternating between rice production and livestock farming every five years to increase producers’ incomes, improve soil productivity and limit the expansion of both uses into wetlands. However, this model has only been implemented in other countries, not in Colombia, and more information is needed to better assess its impacts through the Land-use Planner.
  3. The need to move towards sustainable production systems in both departments, to limit the loss of key ecosystems such as wetlands and moorland.

Future perspectives

Throughout 2021, UPRA will work on formulating conversion master plans for the milk and meat sectors, which both drive deforestation and generate significant land-use conflicts. In this context, the application of the Land-use Planner would demonstrate its full potential as a participatory tool that fosters dialogue. Full adoption and use of the Land-use Planner by UPRA experts will facilitate analyses of different territories and departments, as well as results sharing and dissemination.