Share Facebook Twitter Google + LinkedIn Pinterest Being hired to write an analysis report for an international bank is more adventurous than it sounds. At least that was my experience in June, when the International Finance Corporation (IFC), one of the operating divisions of the World Bank, sent me to Colombia to tour several dairy farms and consult with dairy industry personnel. My overall mission, which I accepted, was to assess the current state of the industry and share in a report my findings and recommendations on opportunities to improve the economic health and productivity of the country’s dairy herds. The IFC wanted my input on how they could best put their financing resources to work.In my travels across the country, I was accompanied by an international bank representative from Australia, a translator, and Jordan, a Colombian dairy technician from the local dairy cooperative. Jordan served as our driver.As I’ll share in this and next month’s column, we experienced a land of extremes and adventure on the way to creating my report. Initially, we visited farms near Colombia’s capital, Bogota. They had ready-access to a large milk processing plant. Typically, these farms had milking parlors, modern dairy equipment and Holstein or Jersey cattle, with a few Simmental or Normandy cattle mixed in.As it was winter in the Southern Hemisphere, temperatures in north central Colombia ranged from 45to 75 degrees. And it rained nearly every day. The southern part of Colombia is about 10 degrees warmer and was rainy until we got into the mountains. In the mountains, at 12,000 feet, it was downright chilly, requiring a warm jacket. I was surprised to find that many hectares of potatoes were growing in plateaus on the mountains.The country is beautiful, but dairymen in southern Colombia face lots of adversity, as I will describe. I first met the team in Bogota, a modern city of 10 million people and traffic jams that make the congestion of New York and LA look like a Sunday afternoon drive. From 4 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. on weekdays, traffic is restricted. Only vehicles with even numbered license plates are permitted on the city’s streets and freeways during these hours on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Vehicles with odd numbered plates are permitted on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. This schedule alternates each week.Drivers who disregard these restrictions risk arrest. However, on their off days, motorists start lining up their cars along the streets about 6:30 p.m., poised to reclaim freedom on the freeways at 7:30.Traffic, however, is one of the least of Colombia’s worries. A few months before my trip, the Colombian government signed a peace treaty with the rebel group FARC. FARC has a 20-plus-year history of producing and trafficking cocaine while flouting the police and intimidating the Colombian army and citizenry. Plus, they have supplemented their income with other nefarious activities like kidnapping and extortion. Supposedly, the treaty will make it safe to drive and work in southern Colombia.Long before the treaty, FARC ran the army out of southern Colombia and imposed their own rules on the citizenry. Citizens not affiliated with FARC kept their heads down. Many moved away. Those who remained were tied to the land by cattle ranches, small dairy operations, and food and retail businesses.FARC and the cocaine industry permeated all parts of society. My driver, Jordan, shared through our interpreter that his neighbor was a FARC general. His and the general’s children went to school together. By his harsh, guttural tone, I understood without the interpreter Jordan’s feelings for the general.Since kidnappings were a big income generator for FARC, wealthy citizens maintained private security forces. I saw this in action on a previous trip I made a year and a half ago with my wife, Kris. That time, I presented a program at a large agricultural expo similar to our Farm Science Review.On that trip, several security personnel armed with automatic rifles followed us everywhere. When we had lunch in a restaurant with a dairyman with a large herd, the security team sat in the back, watching the front entrance, which was an open-air patio.On this latest trip, I learned that four years ago a paramilitary group of ex-military troopers organized independently to challenge FARC. Their standard policy when someone from FARC stepped out of line was murder. And they buried land mines in some areas. There are no records or reliable recollections of where the mines were placed. As a result, people occasionally lose a limb or their life.The recently signed treaty called for:FARC and the paramilitary to turn in their weapons and restore ownership of private propertyThe government to grant amnesty to outlaw groups, except for capital crimes (maximum sentences for murder were set at only three years), and provide FARC members job training for lawful careers such as farming and dairy management.Progress with the peace treaty has been slow. The FARC and the paramilitary didn’t turn in their weapons until a few days ago, which was way past the deadline. Job training programs for FARC members, however, have begun. Money and land, for the most part, have yet to be returned to local citizens. As Jordan pointed out, “It is crazy to think FARC will give people their money back.”A third group of thugs, small-time hoods called dissidents, continue extorting citizens. They were not included in treaty negotiations. Apparently, the government thought of them as part of FARC. In some places, dissidents tax local citizens 30 pesos a day (2,900 pesos equal one U.S. dollar). Obviously, it isn’t much money. But as Jordan said, shrugging, “When you live next door to a FARC general and on the other side, a dissident guy, and their kids and your kids go to school together, what are you to do?” I gathered that meant he was paying the tariff.I got my own personal wakeup call to the troubles of Colombia as we headed toward the southern part of the country. Our driver handed me what I assumed was a pager, which I just stuck in my pocket. Our translator instructed that whenever I felt my life was in imminent danger, to press the button on the device and authorities would rescue me immediately.I didn’t really take it that seriously until our driver got a phone call from the security group. They demanded that I turn the device on — now!Join me back here next month, when I continue my adventures in Colombia, including a story about crossing a river as wide and mighty as the Ohio River — in a truck, without a bridge!