Using the Past to Change the Future: Alex Liebman researches Colombian agricultural policy to inform future legislation

December 22, 2017

By Echo Martin

When Applied Plant Sciences master’s student Alex Liebman, co-advised by Nick Jordan and Julie Grossman, traveled to Colombia to work at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), he planned to study how soil carbon changes over time and with the introduction of new plants. While there Liebman found himself asking questions about how Colombia’s landscape had changed, how 60 years of civil war affected local farmers, and the relationship between agricultural policy and institutions like CIAT.

These questions led Liebman to analyze over a decade of policy documents tracing the history of agrarian land conflicts, reform, and counter reform in Colombia. Colombia’s civil war caused huge land disparities in the country. “Most of the land belongs to just a few people,” says Liebman, “but there are a lot of small farmers there that impact their local communities in ways that are often overlooked by the government.” Though the current government claims that agrarian reform was one of its central aims, Liebman’s research shows there has been little evidence pointing to a change. “There’s a new bill now that is using similar language to a 1980’s bill that hurt small farmers,” says Liebman. “The jargon that they’re using sounds good, but that’s not how it’s played out in the past.”

This trip to Colombia lit a spark in Liebman, and now he hopes to work more with policy in the future. “I want to learn more and interface more with activists, organizers, and small farmers who are organizing around an alternative vision for rural areas,” says Liebman. “It’s important to push the dialogue forward, and do what I can to support the work that others are doing.”