Updated 1 year, 11 months ago

Latin Americas rural dream

“I THINK everyone in this country…has a dream hidden away in their heads, the secret dream of land, a small plot of land that makes them feel secure, a hidden reserve against the thousand misfortunes that might happen.” So says Pilar Ángel, one of three siblings who are the narrators of “La Oculta”, a new novel by Héctor Abad Faciolince, one of Colombia’s leading writers.

La Oculta (“The Hideaway”) is the Ángels’ 150-year-old family farm in Antoquia, Colombia’s most entrepreneurial and conservative province. Mr Abad’s finely crafted novel not only expounds its narrators’ contrasting attitudes towards sex, rural life and tradition in a modernising country, but also tells in fictional form the true story of an attempt to create a rural middle class in Colombia. In doing so, it throws an evocative light on the enduring pull of the land in Latin America—and the undercurrent of violence that has gone with it.

Conflict over land is the region’s oldest story, dating to before the Iberian conquest. This installed a uniquely unequal pattern of landholding, sustained by serfdom and slavery. That lies at the root of the region’s inequality, and it made land reform one of the big ideological battles of the 20th century. When it came, reform too often destroyed efficient farms without creating a workable alternative—and was too late to stop poor peasants from flooding into the cities.

But there were exceptions. Mr Abad relates the colonisation of south-western Antioquia, then a remote mountainous tract of nothing but “trees, wild beasts, birds, torrents, thickets, snakes, butterflies, ravines and mosquitoes.” In the 1850s two merchants to whom the government had granted the area in repayment of bonds gathered together young families and offered them plots in return for communal labour. Their pioneering vision was of “a free society of landed proprietors, comfortably off and happy.”

Thanks to the arrival of coffee, it worked. Unlike in Central America or Brazil, most of Colombia’s coffee has been grown by small and medium-sized proprietors. The hills of Antioquia and the provinces to the south are studded with flower-decked, brightly painted farmhouses.

But Arcadia was lost. For the past seven decades rural Colombia has seen persistent violence, partly a battle for land but mainly for plunder and ideology. FARC guerrillas and kidnappers come to La Oculta, and then paramilitaries using chainsaws as murder weapons. Since the 1980s some 5m Colombians have fled the land to escape threats or violence.

It is family disunity that dooms La Oculta. Jon, a black New Yorker who is the partner of Antonio, Pilar’s gay brother, does not share or understand the antioqueño “madness for farms”, “this ancestral, anachronistic attachment to a peasant past”. But most Latin Americans do. For centuries, they drew their identity and only hope of economic security from the land, the still-venerated pachamama (mother earth) of the Incas. If they moved to the cities, it was because they wanted more than subsistence. Many migrants retain ties to their ancestral villages. They keep their family plots and dream of returning to them. One reason for Latin America’s low rate of saving is its people’s preference for land, bricks and mortar.

Farming is rooted in Latin America’s past but it is also part of its future. The region is somewhat less urbanised than is often thought. Although officially 76% of Latin Americans are urbanites, a study by the World Bank in 2005 found that 42% live outside big cities in what could be classed as the countryside.

Blessed with abundant land, Latin America can help feed the world. Many countries have enjoyed agricultural revolutions in the past two decades, applying technology to commercial export farming. There is scope for this to benefit smaller-scale farmers as well as agribusiness. The main things missing are good transport, public services and security in the countryside.

In Peru a burst of rural roadbuilding and the spread of mobile phones are transforming poorer parts of the country. Rural incomes rose by more than 7% a year between 1994 and 2011, according to a study by Richard Webb, a former president of the country’s Central Bank.

Connectivity will itself help to make the countryside more secure. That is also the biggest potential prize from peace talks between Colombia’s government and the FARC. “La Oculta” ends with Pilar clinging on in the farmhouse, having sold the land for weekend homes that take advantage of a planned motorway link to Medellín. One way or another, the rural dream remains alive in Latin America.

The Economist |