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What's Missing is the Vichada

Leticia Forero Briceño and Rubén Darío Romero

Writing Llano 7 days

A vast plain that begins in Puerto López (Meta) and extends for about six million hectares is emerging as the new agricultural frontier of Colombia. Furthermore, various experts believe that in the not-so-distant future this region will guarantee the nutritional security, the self-sufficiency of the food industry, and the generation of bio-energy for the nation.

Because it is a flat territory that is easily operated upon with machinery, the Altillanura (the high plains), as it is called, is already attracting national and foreign investors interested in developing large-scale industrial projects.

The first steps to turning those thousands of acres of acidic soil, full of salt and aluminum, into fertile land began 40 years ago. The urgency for good pasture for cattle feed improved and accelerated scientific research. It was then that the experts from the Colombian Agricultural Institute (ICA) and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) began in Carimagua a series of experiments with grasses for tropical regions.

After a decade of work, they managed to develop the Brachiaria decumbres, a grass that not only increased the yield per hectare from one to six animals but also helps to improve the soil.

With African Grasses

This "miracle" was achieved by evaluating hundreds of varieties of grasses, mostly brought from Africa but, most importantly, by the application of modifications to the land, explains Jaime Triana Restrepo, the regional director of Corpoica.

The application of quicklime eliminated the acidity and the high levels of aluminum in the land, both of which made any planting of crops unfeasible due to their high toxicity. But these soils, poor in organic matter and low in phosphorus, were also enriched with gypsum and rock phosphate. This was coupled with a proper crop rotation. "That is how we developed the soils," Triana says with pride.

Thanks to this, today, enormous savannas appear like giants green 'seas' where great quantities of corn, soybeans, rice, and grasses are produced on a large scale.

"The ICA focused on the scientific tasks and on the grasses. Corpoica worked on soybeans, corn, and systems for minimal and zero tillage, and this generated the appropriate systems for the preparation of the soils, thus preventing further soil movement and leading to the incorporation of biomass in the soil," says Triana.

Thus, the old notion that the LLano was only good for landscapes was being left behind.

The private sector did not take long to get involved and provide cutting-edge technology, especially Brazilian technology.

And thanks to this process, today there is a fertile and well-formed soil, with all the indicators of good nutrition and sufficient phosphorus, in the highlands of the Meta region (the "Altillanura"), says Samuel Caicedo, a researcher with Corpoica; this allows for better crop response. For example, in Puerto López are found crops of corn with a productivity of 5 to 6 tons per hectare, whereas only 5 years ago productively would barely reach 3 tons. Furthermore, each half-year sees the cultivation of soybeans and upland rice.

Today there is foreign investment

Today, between Puerto López and Puerto Gaitán, there are more than 100,000 hectares with modified soil. In many of these there are abundant crops of corn, soybean, rubber, sugar cane, forestry (pine, teak, eucalyptus), palm, and upland rice; furthermore, for investment projects there are at least another 37,000 hectares available for farming.

"This shows that the alliance between the productive sector and that of science and technology can transform sterile and unproductive lands into fertile soil," says Triana.

What is most striking about the transformation of the Altillanura, says the researcher Caicedo, is the yield of sugar cane and rubber, due to their great development, but there are also others such as soybean and corn, which although intended for feeding pigs and poultry, are ultimately in the service of obtaining meat for human consumption.

And this green revolution is just beginning, as the technicians involved say that there is still much left to learn in terms of what other crops could be viable in this region; nonetheless, in the Vichada there is still much to do.

The enormous potential of the Altillanura, which has been overseen by a handful of Colombian investors who now operate a region of 50,000 hectares, is also being sought by investors from Argentina, Bolivia, the United States, and Brazil, who, along with the locals are working today on the "construction" of more land in this extensive region of the country.

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What's Missing is the Vichada

While the Altillanura of the Meta region has begun to develop quite well, in the Vichada there is still much to do.

"Only for the powerful': a critical view

Eudoro Álvarez Cohecha, professor at the University of the LLanos and ex-candidate for governor of Meta, believes that this ambitious project has the fatal flaw of leaving out small farmers. "They are not able to invest in the recovery of land or wait for its productivity and/or recovery. This is only for those who have much money," he affirms.

He adds that these "powerful people” not only gained the appreciation in value of the land –which originally cost 500,00 pesos per hectare but is now valued at 3 million – but also had access to government subsidies.

Corn and soybeans are major crops which are basically used as feed for animals. Nonetheless, the possibilities are enormous with other products, such as pineapples, for example.

"The Fazenda," a case of success

At kilometer 93 on the road between Puerto López and Puerto Gaitán, one's gaze is lost in a "sea" of soybeans and corn. A small sign, no more than 50 cm by 50 cm, identified with the name of "The Fazenda" ("the plantation"), marks the home of an industrial complex of five farms totaling 32,000 hectares. “The Fazenda” was born 7 years ago at the hands of 28 industrialists who dreamed of having a farm self-sufficient in the production of soybean and corn for the purpose of feeding pigs and supplying the domestic market. And now, "the Fazenda" raises more than 400,000 pigs per year, whose lean meat is described by connoisseurs as exquisite and highly nutritious.

Only this complex today has 5,200 sows and currently has in the design phase the most modern refrigeration unit for pigs in South America, valued at 25 million dollars and including units for slaughterhouses, cutting, sausages, and flour from the by-products. And in the near future this facility hopes to develop lines of poultry and livestock.

It is known by the name of "Altillanura"; these are 6 million hectares between Meta and Vichada and would be the new great national pantry.