Colombians differentiate between the Tierra Fría, the ‘Cold Country,’ which is made up of three long cordilleras of the Andes and includes the capital city Bogotá, and the Tierra Caliente, the ‘Hot Country’ at the foot of the mountains, stretching west towards the Pacific and north towards the Caribbean. In the north, close to the Caribbean, just inland from Cartagena, the great colonial port of Colombia, or New Grenada as it was then called, are the Montes de María (the Hills of Maria). The Montes de María is lush fertile country with steep verdant hills. Perfect for agriculture, easily accessible from the coast and crossed by the main highway north from Medellín to Cartagena, this ought to be one of the richest parts of Colombia. It isn’t. While the proportion of people in poverty nationally is 28%, in the Montes de María it is 68%. Nationally 8% of the population is illiterate, 27% in the Montes de María. Instead, the Montes de María is famous for violence and massacres.
The hills of Montes de Maria
At the heart is the municipality of El Carmen de Bolívar where an astonishing 93% of the population is below the poverty line. Maybe this is just a consequence of endemic violence in this part of the country, fueled by guerillas and paramilitaries. This certainly does not help, but it is not the fundamental reason why El Carmen is so poor. The main reason is politics.
El Carmen de Bolivar
Last August Jim was doing fieldwork in El Carmen and asking about how the local economy worked. One farmer told him “look, there are three sorts of jobs here, working for the mayor, selling fried food (“vende frito”) and selling the lottery (“vende chance”)”. On every street corner in El Carmen are “chanceros” who allow people to bet on the last few digits of the departmental lottery numbers. Bets start for as little as 500 pesos, about 25 US cents. Apart from these jobs the only alternative is subsistence farming. But El Carmen has potential so, the farmer explained: big national companies like Nacional de Chocolates, which makes the most popular brands of chocolate in Colombia, and Alpina, which makes dairy products, proposed moving in and setting up processing plants. They would have offered local farmers contracts to grow and provide cocoa or keep dairy cows for the milk. Great for the local people, bad for the politicians who drove the companies out.
You might think that in such a poor place local politicians would value having big companies to extort money from. Not really. In this part of Colombia the major source of income for municipalities is transfers from the central state. And more or less all of this money, in theory supposed to be used to improve the lives of the people in El Carmen, vanishes. In the last few years US$12.5 million has been allocated to build acqueducts, but still the town has no running water (read this story in last weekend’s Colombian press). As jailed former national Senator Juan Carlos Martínez put it (see here),
“politics is a better business than drug-dealing,… the money you make after a mayorship cannot be made after a shipment (of drugs)”
Unfortunately the logic of blocking development is simple (and all-too-familiar as we have seen in the Nepal case). If your only alternatives are working for the mayor or the informal sector selling friend food or lottery tickets, then you will be dependent on the politicians. This means they can tell you who to vote for and they do, and they can pocket all of the resources of the area and the task force from the central government. A politician in Sincelejo, the nearby capital of the department of Sucre, estimated that 75% of people in Sucre sell their votes at election time, with a price which can range from 10,000 ($5) to 20,000 ($10) pesos. A lot of money if your only source of income is selling fried plantain on the street. Alpina and Nacional de Chocolates would have provided a reliable and much better income, severing people’s dependence on the politicians. That had to be stopped. And stopped it was.