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Agronomía Colombiana

Print version ISSN 0120-9965

Agron. colomb. vol.28 no.3 Bogotá Sept./Dec. 2010


Territorial perspective of agricultural extension policies in Colombia

Perspectiva territorial de las políticas de asistencia técnica agropecuaria en Colombia

Juan Patricio Molina1

1 Research Group on Rural Management and Development, Faculty of Agronomy, Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Bogotá (Colombia).
Corresponding author:

Fecha de recepción: 18 de febrero de 2010. Aceptado para publicación: 28 de julio de 2010


This article presents a historic perspective of agricultural extension in Colombia and highlights its scope in relationship to regional development. Four periods are identified, which show that policies have evolved towards a territorial and decentralized agricultural extension. However, this trend has not been consolidated in recent years. It is suggested that Colombia should recover an approach of agricultural extension that integrates the productive dimension with a territorial perspective.

Key words: production, region, development, rurality.


El artículo presenta una visión histórica de las políticas de asistencia técnica agropecuaria en Colombia y destaca sus alcances en relación con el desarrollo territorial. Se identifican cuatro periodos que evidencian que los planteamientos de política evolucionaron hacia una visión territorial y descentralizada de la asistencia técnica, sin que esta tendencia se lograra consolidar en los últimos años. Se recomienda que el país recupere el enfoque de una asistencia técnica que integre, además de lo productivo, una perspectiva amplia del territorio en el que se ubican las unidades de producción.

Palabras clave: metodología de sistemas blandos, sistemas complejos adaptables, delimitación de territorios.


During the last 60 years, approaches of agricultural extension in Colombia have varied according to the particularities of the prevailing development model and its policies.

The purpose of this article is to examine, from a historical perspective, the evolution and reach of the technical aid policies from the point of its insertion in processes of territorial development2 .

Even though the traditional approach of technical aid has been the productive process, the importance of its territorial perspective lies in that greater agricultural competitiveness demands understanding productive problems, both of the agricultural exploitation and of the territory serving as its support. Technical aid can contribute for producers to visualize their production unit in a way that is more integrated to their territory and understand that the close relationship between both is decisive for their wellbeing. These affect their decision making, particularly strategic decisions. Regarding the latter, it is convenient for producers, through their organizations, to construct a long-term strategic vision of their productive activity, which must agree with the developmental priorities of their territory.

This is a fundamental input to determine their necessities for technical aid and other complementary needs. Hence, in this process it is indispensable to have the participation from the municipalities and departmental governments, who are undertaking diagnosis and exercises for territorial planning.

Centralized technical aid (1950 – 1968)

This period coincides with the model of importation substitution during its phase of stimulus to the production of industrial raw material for the domestic market.

With the creation of the Colombian-American Technical Agricultural Service (STACA for its name in Spanish) in 1952, a technical aid service was established in Colombia gathering elements from the Land Grant Colleges in the United States, which assumed functions of universities in technological development in their geographical areas of influence. While this was not possible to apply in Colombia, the nation opted for U.S. advice in training personnel from the Ministry of Agriculture via extension (Ocampo et al., 1992). The approach was based on research, education, and extension, which meant that STACA, in addition to con tributing to increased productivity and to the integration to markets of a peasant economy very marginal from these dynamics, it was also concerned with the social problems of the rural families.

In 1961, Legislation 135 of the Agrarian reform introduced the services of technical aid, agricultural credit, and strengthening of markets for agricultural products, promoted under the new property distribution model. To generate a social benefit, aspects like the organization of the producers and improvement of their health and housing conditions were also tended to by the State through the extension service.

In 1959 forceful investment by banks was established to capitalize agricultural credit, without it being tied to technical aid (Brochero et al., 1993), which did occur in 1966, when individuals were empowered to provide this service (Presidency of the Republic of Colombia, 1966) and credit lines were created obligating their use (Bank of the Republic, 1966). For medium and large size producers, technical aid was projected as a specialized service offered by individuals, to meet their strictly productive problems.

Relevant aspects

The State assumed a leading role in technical aid that sought to tend to the productive and social problems of the small producers, through a centralized model in the Ministry of Agriculture, which during the 70s also incorporated the Colombian Institute for Agrarian Reform (INCORA for its name in Spanish) and the Colombian Agricultural Institute (ICA for its name in Spanish).

Two examples evidenced a projection toward processes of territorial development: i) the determination of agrarian reform zones, whose territorial homogeneity by productive lines would only be addressed later with policies of land markets and policies of agrarian reform centers during the 80s and 90s; and ii) the coffee-growing hub in which the Coffee Growers Federation (Federación de Cafeteros) developed the product-region approach and established, since the 30s, its extension service.

Nevertheless, there are indicators suggesting the weakness during this period of integration of technical aid with territorial development. These refer to the separation that existed between technical aid and other relevant policies like rural research, credit, and planning. That separation did not favor the use of mutual interrelations, necessary to strengthen processes of territorial development. The cutoff date for this period was 1968, when the Ministry of Agriculture translated the service of extension to the ICA.

Territorialized technical aid (1968 – 1987)

During this new period the model of import substitution continued prevailing, but more focused on promoting exports, particularly transformed agricultural products. ICA was created in 1962 with research, training, transference, and technical aid duties. Since 1968, it undertook technical aid for medium and large producers (MAC, 1968; Rico, 1980) and, as of 1971, for small producers.

With support from international cooperation, during the 70s, five rural development projects were carried out with decentralized technical aid in Eastern Antioquia, Cáqueza, Santander, Nariño, and Northern Cauca. These projects were located in geographically defined areas. Their functions were: evaluation (diagnosis and monitoring); research (more agricultural than social); disclosure (extension); institutional coordination (offer of services from different institutions in the territory) (MAC, 1980). Upon multiplying these projects, ICA faced difficulties in addressing them and abandoned this option of technical aid that favored a territorial approach.

In 1973, the Fondo Financiero Agropecuario – FFA (Agricultural Financial Fund) was created (5th Legislation) which subsidized, with an active role from ICA, technical aid for small producers (Buenaventura, 1980). This fund, which lasted until 1989, when FINAGRO was constituted, was the main financial source for the sector. The FFA established that a percentage of the credit would finance technical aid, paid for by the user at a rate not exceeding 2% of the loan. Financial institutions and trade associations could provide the service or contract it with third parties.

As of 1976, the technical aid component was included for small producers in the recently created DRI zones (Fondo Desarrollo Rural integral). In its first (1976-1982) and second phases (1983-1990) new players came into the scene (MADR, 2010): in addition to ICA in DRI zones (technical and economic research) and INCORA in agrarian reform zones, there was participation from INDERENA (Instituto Nacional de Recursos Naturales) (issues on forestry, fishing, and soil conservation) and SENA (Servicio Nacional de Aprendizaje) (extension in agricultural organization, marketing, communications, and practices). Some Regional Development Corporations conducted technical aid with international cooperation (Corpourabá and CVC (Corporación Autónoma Regional del Valle del Cauca)).

In 1980, ICA introduced the concept of Comprehensive technical aid, based on a communications model between the technician (represented research and scientific knowledge) and the producer (repository of productive experiences) (Bermudez, 1980). Such stipulated a diagnosis of the zone and of the productive unit; the validation of local technologies; the introduction of production plans; training of producers; planning and examination of the whole production unit, in addition to that corresponding to credit. Led by trade associations, during the 80s, the research center per product (CENIs -Centros Nacionales de Investigación-) gained participation in research and technology transfer (Departamento Nacional de Planeación, 1984).

Relevant aspects:

During this period, a technical aid approach was predominant emphasizing production. Understood as "the transmission to the countryside of the research results developed in universities, as well as in national and international research centers" (Buenaventura, 1980). This had to do with a unidirectional conception of transference, with the producer being a passive receptor (Cardona, 1975). The validation was performed on demonstration plots. Training communications technicians gained importance. But, because it was tied to the planned promotion credit, the technician's work was affected when it was confused with that of credit supervision (Brochero et al., 1983). Others understood technical aid as an additional financial cost and were skeptic of the skills of the technicians. Alternatively, the supervision contributed to decreasing credit deviation risks.

For the medium and big producers, the financial institutions and the trade associations were important players in technical aid. Such was centered on productive and commercial aspects. Thus, came to be the private technical aid different from state technical aid, which subsidized small producers to guarantee its free and obligatory provision as a public service.

Unlike the prior period, research and technical aid were institutionally integrated by ICA; however, without technology transfer as a bridging mechanism. Nonetheless, between the one and the other there were difficulties in articulation: while researchers expected an extension of their service, they did not commit to a sole source of research. The DRI experience revealed increased use of technology and recognition of technical aid as a productivity input (Harker, 1980).

Regarding territorial development, we must highlight the inclusion of zonal diagnostics for the comprehensive technical aid promoted by ICA. In the DRI districts, rural and participative diagnostics were also conducted. The valuable experience of the ICA regional projects and of the DRI zones was the introduction, in the 70s, of the technical aid model applied in geographically defined areas. This meant a significant change against the prior scheme.

This technical aid model headed by ICA, based on centralized- regionalized management, with a dominant role from the public sector, lasted during 20 years until 1987 when the Municipal Units for Agricultural Technical Aid (UMATA for its name in Spanish, Unidad Municipal de Asistencia Técnica Agropecuaria) were created and the model was decentralized, marking a new era for technical aid in Colombia.

Decentralized technical aid (1987 – 2004)

This period covers the new economic aperture model to promote exports and decentralization to strengthen the municipalities. In 1987, as part of the decentralization policy, the municipalities were assigned the task of technical aid through the UMATAs (decree 77 of 1987), which would provide free services to small producers (with less than one Family Agricultural Unit (UAF for its name in Spanish), and paid services to medium and big producers (with two or more UAFs). The expectation was to broaden the coverage and quality of the service. This assumed the transfer of ICA and INCORA functions in this field to the municipalities. Financing of these units would be channeled by the national government through DRI (PRC, 1987).

With this distribution of competencies, with separation of institutional responsibilities between research and technical aid, it was necessary to establish a connection mechanism between both. In 1989, the National System for Agricultural Technology Transfer (SINTAP for its name in Spanish) came into existence (Legislation Decree 1946), whose purpose was to promote the adoption of adequate technologies for local conditions and support the municipalities in the service delivery of technical aid. To strengthen SINTAP, a technology transfer fund operated since 1995 and for eight years. This fund was PRONATTA (Programa Nacional de Transferencia de Tecnología Agropecuaria), which funded through calls for projects that were appropriate for the regional needs (Meneses, 2000). The PRONATTA-UMATA scheme would assume technological adjustment and validation, along with the assessment and dissemination of successful practices through a participative regional structure of prioritization of projects.

This SINTAP-PRONATTA-UMATA structure, with national coordination from the Ministry of Agriculture and regional coordination from the Departmental Secretaries of Agriculture, defined through PRONATTA some scenarios of regional necessities and participated in training and assessment of the UMATAs, who were working with the small producers and NGO's in executing projects. This structure lasted until 2003, when the last PRONATTA stage ended, which meant the elimination of SINTAP support, without which PRONATTA was no longer viable.

With the creation of the National System for Agricultural Credit (Legislation 16 of 1990) in the 90s, FINAGRO (Fondo para el Financiamiento del Sector Agropecuario) was constituted to finance the sector through banks with promotion credit lines, and it is authorized to continue capitalizing the technical aid fund for small producers (decree 1778 of 1990), as was being done by the FFA. Technical aid, overseen by ICA, continued being obligatory to have access to resources offered by FINAGRO. To strengthen technology transfer, in 1990, ICA created 65 Regional Centers for Training, Extension, and Dissemination of Technology (CRECED for their name in Spanish), responsible for identifying regional problems and constituting spaces of knowledge with small producers. This worked through a decentralized program: agriculture, fishing, technology transfer, and production systems.

In 1991, the functions of the sectional commissions on technical aid were stipulated headed by the departmental secretaries of agriculture, as coordination and planning instances (decree 2379 regulatory of decrees 77 of 1987 and 501 of 1989).

Agrarian legislation (101 of 1993) ratified the delivery of technical aid to small producers, acquiescent with decentralization and participation processes. The creation of UMATAs in all the municipalities became obligatory. The Municipal Councils on Rural Development (CMDR for the name in Spanish) were constituted, along with the Municipal Commissions for Technical Aid to guide and oversee the operations of the UMATAs; Para-fiscal Funds were also created with resources for technological development and to strengthen the role of the trade associations in specialized technical aid. Some trade associations like Fedecacao, Fedearroz, and Fedepanela assumed it under the productive chains approach.

ICA, restructured in 1993, focused its responsibilities on areas of vegetable and animal health; while CORPOICA (Corporación Colombiana de Investigación Agropecuaria) was created as a mixed corporation for research and technology transfer.

The National System for Agrarian Reform and Rural Peasant Development (Legislation 160 of 1994) was conformed in 1994, including the subsystem "of research, technical aid, technology transfer, and crop diversification", coordinated by CORPOICA and conformed by ICA, entities of technical aid and agricultural research, UMATAs, and the private entities recognized by the government. Thus, what was sought was to integrate initiatives, bearing in mind the existence of the SINTAP.

Other specific efforts sought to instrumentalize the policy. In 1989, Caja Agraria conducted technical aid for some years for small producers, who were its credit customers, through an approach of Extension Directed to Objectives (EDO), based on the Training and Visit methodology. In 1993, CORPOICA and FEDEPAPA implemented Field Schools for Farmers (ECAS for the name in Spanish), as a model of participative rural extension (Fedepapa, 2006). This continues being successful in terms of territorial development and technological change, with a methodology based on long-term work, focused on zones and with specific producers.

Since 1995, CORPOICA incorporated the Participatory Agricultural Research (IAP for the name in Spanish) through Local Agricultural Research Committees (CIAL for the name in Spanish). These constituted a permanent research service comprised of volunteer farmers to link local and formal research (Sierra, 2002). In addition to evaluating technological alternatives, the CIALs were a channel for communities to influence on the research and extension agendas (Braun et al., 1999). In 1999, their coverage reached 35 municipalities (40 committees) (Corpoica, 1999). Legislation 607 of 2000 modified the operations of the UMATAs and introduced the approach of Rural Direct Technical Aid (ATDR for the name in Spanish). The two big purposes of the legislation were to offer technical aid with an interdisciplinary focus and contemplate broader territorial intervention scales (MADR, 2010). The ATDR had to be consistent with the National System on Agricultural Science and Technology (decree 585 of 1991) and it was conceived as a sub-system of public and private entities seeking to identify technologies to be developed. The service had to be free of cost for small producers and its guidelines had to arise from the Municipal Development Plans and the CMDRs. The municipalities would guarantee the service through the UMATAs or by contracting service provider entities conformed of interdisciplinary teams. CORPOICA and SENA would be the entities in charge of articulating the ATDR with technology validation and adjustment. Monitoring of the ATDR would be done by the departmental secretaries of agriculture and their financing would come from national and departmental sources. Municipal funds would be created for the ATDR, and these would be administrated by the mayors' offices.

To territorially organize the ATDR activities, the General Plan for Direct Rural Technical Aid was introduced. The Municipal Commission on Technical Aid would determine the zones and productive systems to be addressed and would ensure effective service delivery, adhering to CMDR approaches. The ATDR was a condition for competitiveness within the context of regional development (Conpes, 2000). Although since 1987 there was talk of the provision of technical aid by entities of territorial coverage, Decree 3199 of 2002 clarifies the figure of ATDR providing entities, its accreditation by the Departmental Secretaries of Agriculture, and its selection by the CMDRs.

Relevant aspects

In terms of regional development, with the CMDRs and the Municipal Commissions on Technical Aid a space for citizen participation in municipal planning, including technical aid, but it did not manage to generate a culture for such (Villarreal, 2004). Although diagnostics were made in many UMATAs and municipal agricultural plans were formulated as part of the development plan for each municipality, activities of technicians did not always include rigorous planning processes (Secretary of Agriculture and Rural Development of Antioquia). The importance given to the rural development planning activities must be acknowledged.

The UMATA model had the elements to make it sustainable within a regional development scheme. Technology transfer and its financing were vital; therein, the creation of PRONATTA. It expected to create dynamics of technology transfer in the regions, articulated to the generation of technology and to technical aid: SINTAP as process coordinator, UMATAs as the means to reach small producers, and PRONATA (with the UMATAs) as the relationship mechanism with generators of knowledge (universities, CENI's and CORPOICA). Nevertheless, this comprehensive approach was not sufficiently developed; given that with the elimination of SINTAP PRONATTA, the UMATAs were left as disarticulate pieces. Upon the imposition of political interests, distortions appeared detracting from the benefits of the approach. The missionary purposes of the SINTAP were affected by the organizational weakness of the small producers and by their restrictions to formulate their own demands. These did not receive sufficient support from the UMATAs. Hence, SINTAP did not manage to adequately engage technological offer with technology transfer (Benitez, 2002). The technological products were poorly socialized by the UMATAs and adoption levels turned out low. While the UMATAs were conceived as service providers, they would also be channels for the research demands from farmers. Nonetheless, one of the difficulties they encountered was their lack of consultation to identify the type of research to promote (Benítez, 2002). Regarding PRONATTA, its projects did not always interpret the technological necessities of the small farmers.

The SINTAP-PRONATTA connection with the CENIs was accomplished through specific projects, but it was not a structural connection, a detrimental fact, given the leadership reached by the private sector in technical aid, through para-fiscal funds and strengthening of the CENIs. In synthesis, the weaknesses of the research and technological development program consisted in problems accessing the technological offer, disarticulation of universities, incoherence with regional demands, lack of strategic planning, and marked emphasis on production (Benítez, 2002). This period covered the development and elimination of the SINTAP-PRONATTA-UMATA integrating model.

The change of the model takes place with Legislation 607 of 2000 and guideline norms from 2002 and 2004, which introduce the Provincial Councils on Agricultural Business Management (CPGA for the name in Spanish) as alternative UMATA figures.

Technical aid atomized by demand (2004 – 2010)

During this period efforts were made in the furtherance of agricultural modernization to strengthen exports and income-protection policies were introduced for producers affected by distortions in foreign markets.

With the creation of the CPGAs in 2004, as planning and coordination spaces for management of regional rural de velopment (decree 2980 on the association of municipalities to provide ATDR) (MADR, 2004), the mayors of the CPGAassociate municipalities agreed to the gradual elimination of the UMATAs to avoid duplicating operations (López, 2004). The departmental secretaries of agriculture would coordinate the constitution and operation of the CPGAs, incorporating the results of regional planning and competitiveness of production chains, adhering to the consolidation carried out by the Ministry of Agriculture. The responsibility of the municipalities, as ATDR planners and organizers, was circumscribed to their participating in the CPGAs. The ATDR provider companies would assume the service. To access the ATDR, users had to seek association according to potentialities. For the free service to small producers, internships became obligatory in the municipalities by students in the last semester of technical, technological, and university education in agricultural sciences and the like. These practices would be coordinated and certified by the CPGAs, ensuring training by the ATDR provider entities. The CPGAs would support the structuring of agricultural businesses with business management schemes.

The CPGAs had to formulate General Plans for Technical Aid (PGAT for the name in Spanish) per production system or concatenation (Legislation 811 of 2003). Likewise, municipalities not associated to a CPGA, had to formulate their PGAT for review by the Ministry of Agriculture. Articulation of the PGATs with the demands from the farmers and the businessmen, and with the departmental and municipal plans was necessary. As part of the "Agro Ingreso Seguro" program (agriculture sure income), created in 2007 (Legislation 1133), the approach per demand was introduced through the establishment of the Incentive to Productivity to Strengthen Technical Aid (IAT) as a subsidy to the demand for technical aid (up to 80% of its cost, resolution 140). According to AIT guidelines (resolution 0049 of 2010), this incentive would only cover the technical aid provided by an entity certified with the requirements of the Guide for the Implementation of ISO 9001:2000 Quality Management Systems for ATDR Service Provider Entities, issued by ICONTEC in 2007 (MADR, 2010). Likewise, at INCODER the Technological Modernization Fund was structured for the Rural Sector, to grant technical aid subsidies through public announcement to small producers and Indigenous or Afro communities.

The ATDR entities will serve producers tied to production projects on aspects like food quality; soil suitability; selection of activities, and exploitation planning; application of technologies; procedures to access credit; outfitting of the productive infrastructure; markets; business training; animal and vegetable health; transformation processes; forms of business organization; and management of needs for social services supporting rural development.

Relevant aspects

This new model of technical aid sought to construct a regional vision in general plans of technical aid, recognizing the potentials of the territory and the difficulties to overcome. Also, it sought to integrate the productive development to regional dynamics expressed in productive chains. This required technical aid organizations with local, regional, and national perspective (MADR, 2003). The CPGAs sought to overcome the technical aid approach centered on municipal production, to formulate service delivery projects with a broader and more comprehensive view of the territory. Producer association capabilities were also benefited, given that users had to associate according to their potentials and problems as a requirement to having access to technical aid, as well as to other mechanisms of productive leveraging.

Nevertheless, in practice, the CPGAs have encountered difficulties in harmonizing municipal interests and in complying with its missionary purposes, distorted by a lack of financing resources and because of contracts being carried out according to market demands, which were not always pertinent to the nature of these organizations. During this period, policies of innovation were refocused, as they gained importance. The move was from direct financing of research centers and organisms responsible for technology transfer and extension to defining innovation priorities and leading sectors; to providing incentives for the private sector; to the functionality of the system and of the innovation networks by enhancing collaboration among producers, researchers, and commercial agents; and, creating and enhancing the skills of potential innovators (producers, etc.) (Colciencias, 2008).

The final years of this period completed the transition from an approach of technical aid offer by the State to one based on demand, in which producers (small, medium, and big) seek to have access to incentive resources to technical aid. Although the State has always recognized its obligation regarding technical aid, its leading role has been waning by limiting its responsibilities to supplying monetary subsidies within a scenario in which power groups stake claims of said resources, against an incipient organization of small producers to generate a demand for these services. In effect, the IAT results are precarious in terms of placements to small producers, due to the lack of institutional accompaniment to encourage that demand. Furthermore, there is evidence of increasing fragmentation and dispersal of the players and programs, with growing importance of the privately paid, added to progressive deinstitutionalization of technical aid services, which in many instances are not part of a private or public institutional structure.


The trajectory of technical aid policies in Colombia indicates that the progress the country achieved in territorializing and decentralizing technical aid was not consolidated. Indeed, the country went from an extension service of broad geographic coverage to a territorialized service in defined geographical areas, and then advanced toward a decentralized service of national coverage, which in the last five years was replaced by a demand approach characterized by the fragmentation of the service, whose emphasis has been specialized technical aid to solve specific problems, without considering the broader view of the territory and with poor access for small producers.

In the future, it would be convenient to draw a policy on technical aid differentiated by the type of producer, i.e., basic or induction to change, for subsistence farmers and with State leadership; intermediate or of technical business formation, for farmers in the process of business transformation; specialized or of strictly technical solutions, for entrepreneurially consolidated farmers and without State leadership (Perfetti et al., 2009).

This technical aid should influence on territorial development through the construction of local producer networks in which the State participates as a facilitator, but which progress toward absolute autonomy. Commitment with territorial development must be expressed through identifying regional priorities for technical aid; tending to such with a territorial view; coordinating with other players related to technical aid to make network operations more effective; implementing actions coordinated with territorial governments, individuals, providers of complementary goods and services of technical aid; creating networks that formalize joint initiatives among players and among different sectors for the comprehensiveness of the technical aid service and to facilitate their expansion onto other territories. It is also convenient for the policy to be aimed at structuring a technical aid system related with other pertinent systems like: education, information, research and territorial organization.

Thus, technical aid would become part of the dynamics of territorial management, so that the specialization process accompanying development has a strategic vision that includes technical aid as a driving element. The construction of territories assumes the creation of increasingly strong links among its inhabitants; hence, the proposal for management of local networks of producers. Technical aid is not only a leveraging instrument for those processes, but it also depends on them to be successful.

Foot pages

2This article is based on a study by the author for Midas program on technical assistance to small farmers in Colombia. (Molina, 2009).

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