Challenges for sustainable agriculture: using participatory tools to study cocoa and livestock production systems in Caquetá, Colombia

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By Juliana Buitrago Rueda and Javier Álvarez Ramírez, Pontificia Universidad Javeriana.

“People here, on many farms, plant non-timber crops, take care of and reforest rivers and springs on their farms, but for this to be effective and for mitigation to occur, large projects and financial support are needed” (Participatory rural appraisal workshop participant, Belén de los Andaquíes, Caquetá, Colombia).  

Participatory rural appraisal (PRA) is a technique for qualitative participatory research that has its origins in the participatory action-research, and which facilitates the dialogue between academic actors and communities, to identify the problems, challenges, and possibilities for rural development. During the PRA workshops implemented during 2023 in the municipalities of Montañita and Belén de Los Andaquíes in the department of Caquetá, Colombia, in the Low-Emissions Food Systems Initiative, the reflections of participants revolved around key themes: from household well-beingwhich includes the ability to grow crops to ensure food security and obtain income to gaining access and knowledge to implement sustainable production practices through technical advice. To increase this potential, the participants identified a need for crop diversification, promotion of biodiversity, public policies that support farmers and investment in systems that respond to current environmental conditions. The difficulties identified in achieving sustainable food systems included lack of knowledge, limited attention to women’s interests, lack of food security and limited technical assistance, among other challenges. They also demand greater attention from the state and policies and programs to improve their social, economic, and environmental well-being. The visibility and valuation of the work and contributions of women and youth to production systems and conservation is also a pending task.  

Photo: Juliana Buitrago. Belén de los Andaquíes, Caquetá, Colombia.

Challenges in conservation 

Conservation problems are related to the increasing pressure and threats to natural resources, especially in conservation areas. Despite the efforts made, the expansion of the agricultural frontier, illegal land occupation and the expansion of livestock activities are generating increasing pressure on conservation areas. This pressure is aggravated by climate variability, with important changes in temperature and extreme weather events such as frosts, which were uncommon in previous decades. Deforestation also stands out as a persistent problem, linked to historical dynamics such as the absence of real agrarian reform, the planting of crops for illicit purposes, and the expansion of agricultural frontiers. These threats to natural resources represent a significant challenge to sustainability and conservation in the region.

Limited attention to women’s interests

From a gender perspective, while in cocoa production systems women have greater control in the different stages of production than in livestock production systems, women’s decision-making, and control over the production cycle of cash crops (such as cocoa and milk) is low. Nevertheless, we identified an important role of women in the processing stage (e.g., milk into dairy), even organizations lead by women devoted to these activities. Also, women are crucial in ensuring food security to households and for that reason they have control over the production decisions regarding self-consumption and subsistence activities (e.g., orchards, subsistence crops, poultry). Men, women, and youth have access to productive resources; however, it is more evident that men have greater control over them. Likewise, these productive systems contribute to meet the basic needs of families, but in the absence of transformations in the visible roles (reproductive, productive and community), the strategic interests of women are still not equitable. We observe an evident knowledge gap regarding the effective access and control of women to land, capital, and technologies (including quantitative measures) as well as on incentives for youth to participate in agri-food production system. 

PRA workshop, July 2023. La Montañita, Caquetá, Colombia.

Lack of commercialization of food production 

Another problem is the difficulty in commercializing agricultural and livestock products in the rural areas of Belén de los Andaquíes and La Montañita. Although participants are engaged in a variety of activities, with an emphasis on cocoa, livestock, sacha-inchi and plantain, the sale of these products, both at local and departmental scale, is affected by factors such as distance and limited access to roads in the mountainous areas. Despite the diversification of supply, the lack of infrastructure and the absence of efficient marketing networks are important obstacles that affect the economic viability of rural producers in these areas. 

Climate risk and vulnerability on food production systems 

It is important to highlight the vulnerability of production systems in the cocoa and livestock sector in Belén de los Andaquíes and Montañita. Workshop participants identified several threats, including climate variability, soil erosion, windstorms, increased input costs, farmer emigration, and the incidence of pests and diseases in crops, among others. 

In the case of Belén de los Andaquíes, there is a big concern about the deterioration of soil quality related to previous coca leaf cultivation and fumigation, as well as climate variability. They also highlight the scarcity of labor due to the migration of young people and the high cost of wages. The lack of technical assistance complicates adaptation to climate change and proper crop management. In Montañita, on the other hand, the incidence of pests and diseases, together with climate change and inadequate land use, are identified as the main vulnerabilities in cocoa, while in livestock, climate variability, pasture pests and soil pH alteration are identified as critical threats. 

Damages caused by those factors affect producers’ incomes, generating challenges in terms of food security, increased poverty, and emigration. Poor technical assistance and scarce water resources contribute to the overall vulnerability of production systems. Although the availability of labor does not stand out as a major threat in Montañita, there are concerns about the safety of young people due to forced recruitment. In conclusion, vulnerability is manifested through environmental, socioeconomic, and climatic threats, affecting critical resources, and generating negative impacts on local communities.  

Collective action and sustainable practices  

There are individual and collective conservation efforts and attempts to improve the sustainability of production systems. Among these activities, the participants identified: environmental education and promotion, protection of riparian forests, reforestation and restauration of forest, land sparing for forest conservation, organic production, biodiversity monitoring, among others. Some of these activities are implemented at the farm level while others are realized at the community level; social organizations such as Agrosolidaria and the community radio in Belén de los Andaquíes (Radio Andaquí) have been central in promoting such activities.  

It is clear from the workshops that there is a desire from the producers to explore new methodologies and practices; however, this does not imply that concrete mitigation measures are being applied. Despite the projects and the intervention in the region, the strategies are mainly limited to the improvement of existing practices or adaptation, without focusing on measures that help mitigate the effects of climate change. Overcoming these barriers is important to move towards a more sustainable and resilient agriculture. 


This blog has been written based on the work carried out on the frame of the WP3 of the One CGIAR initiative Low-Emission Food Systems. See more information on the CGIAR Initiative on Low-Emission Food Systems. 

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