For a long time agriculture was the main source of living for many Colombians. By the year 2000, however, it accounted for roughly 19 percent of GDP, though still employing 30 percent of the population and accounting for 17.4 percent of exports, with coffee the major export. Coffee employs one-fourth of the agricultural labor force, accounts for 20 percent of the cultivated area, and contributes nearly 9 percent to GDP. Production by 1998 was estimated by Colombia's Departamento Administrativo Nacional de Colombia (DANE) at 2,445,224 metric tons.
Colombia has a diversity of other agriculture products, including bananas for export (2,061,992 metric tons), rice (1,818,726 metric tons), potatoes (1,476,869 metric tons), sugarcane (1,061,272 metric tons), cassava (970,951 metric tons), oilseed (378,481 metric tons), and other products like cotton, cocoa beans, and tobacco. There are an estimated 167,000 cattle ranches in the country, of which 40 percent are in the departments of Atlantico, Bolivar, Cordoba, and Magdalena, and 15 percent in Boyaca, Meta, and Arauca.
Of the total land area of Colombia (113,891,400 hectares), an estimated 27 percent is agricultural land, most of it in elevated regions of the temperate zone. Mechanization trends have stagnated in the last twenty years. By 1980 the number of hectares of arable land per tractor was 183, and by 1997 the number rose only slightly to 211 hectares per tractor. Under the traditional system of slash-and-burn agriculture, fields are usually cleared at the beginning of the dry season and the brush from the cleared land is burned. This practice results in soil exhaustion and erosion. Yields are generally low and variable because of the inadequacy of flood control systems and irrigation. Although the country receives adequate rainfall, droughts are common. The U.S. government is working with the Pastrana administration to modernize the agricultural sector and provide incentives for farmers to switch from coca production to other crops.
Colombia ranks high in terms of land concentration and disparities in land ownership. Of the total farmland, 68 percent is owned by 4.3 percent of landowners, and half of Colombia's farms account for less than 2.3 percent of the farmland. Although 69 percent of the farms and 75 percent of the farmland are owned by individual farmers, 62 percent of these farms are too small to provide a living. The number of landless workers is estimated at 1 million, representing close to a third of the population engaged in agriculture. Traditional rural labor markets have virtually disappeared. Migration from traditional agricultural areas to the cities has contributed to more modern hiring and land tenancy systems.
The economic reforms of the 1990s ended most special protective measures for particular sectors, which led to a weakening in the production of some traditional crops like corn, cotton, and cassava. As a member of the Andean Community (formerly Andean Pact), a common trade agreement established during the 1960s and revamped in the 1990s, Colombia still enjoys special protection for many agricultural products. To do this, the "Andean price band system" is employed, which imposes tariffs on certain commodities that vary according to a pre-determined range. Fourteen basic agricultural commodities including wheat, sorghum, corn, rice, barley, milk, and chicken parts are subject to tariffs under the price-band system employed as part of this agreement.
Colombia is also an illicit producer of the drugs coca, opium poppies, and cannabis. According to recent information disclosed by Colombia's Ministry of Defense, the country is the world's leading coca cultivator (coca is used in the production of cocaine). The country was responsible for 67 percent of world supply by 2000, and total land area devoted to coca was approximately 122,500 hectares by the end of 1999, more than a 35 percent increase from 1997, with a refining potential of 710 tons of pure cocaine per year. Cultivation of opium in 1998 remained steady at 6,600 hectares a year.
As of 1999, most small farmers were involved in coca cultivation, largely because of the steady demand from markets in the United States and elsewhere. Coca is harvested from 3 to 6 times a year. Payment is in cash, and this helps farmers maintain a steady source of income. Nevertheless, the U.S. Department of State reports that small coca farmers "barely manage to survive, partially due to the 'protection' fees charged by the guerrilla and paramilitary forces." Small farm plots may account for roughly one-quarter to one-third of coca cultivation, or 30,000 to 40,000 hectares.