Cargill accused of using '36 shell companies' to acquire nearly 130,000 acres of farmland in Colombia, evading that nation's limits on land ownership; Cargill spokeswoman says acquisitions fully legal

ST. PAUL, Minnesota , September 30, 2013 () – Social justice charity Oxfam is accusing agribusiness giant Cargill of using "36 shell companies" to acquire nearly 130,000 acres of farmland in Colombia, evading that nation's limits on land ownership.

In a report issued Friday, called "Divide and Purchase," Oxfam says that a Cargill subsidiary between 2010 and 2012 moved quietly to buy huge tracts of farmland in Colombia's Altillanura region.

Cargill spokeswoman Lori Johnson said Friday that it's true that one of its subsidiaries made sizeable purchases of Colombian cropland, but the Wayzata-based agribusiness giant believes the acquisitions were fully legal.

"There are parcels that have been set aside for family farms," Johnson said Friday. "We did not buy any parcels that had those restrictions. ... All of the actions taken were above-board and fully in tune with the laws of Colombia."

Land ownership in Colombia is highly concentrated, and in the past few decades the South American country has adopted policies to sell state-owned land to small-scale farmers and farm workers, the report said.

Oxfam argues that those policies limit how much land a single entity can acquire, but says Cargill has acquired 30 times the legal amount. Each of Cargill's 39 adjoining tracts share the same address, same board member and same economic activity -- growing corn, soybeans and other crops.

Oxfam's report says that the move by Cargill "exacerbates social inequality and conflict and worsen the country's existing problem of concentrated land ownership."

Johnson said that Cargill bought land in a poor region with little of the infrastructure that allows a small farmer to be successful. She said it has invested an average of $2 million per farm to create roads, improve the soil and build grain storage -- vital infrastructure that will benefit everyone in the region.

"As a company that works in agriculture and works in agriculture systems all over the world, there's no farmer of any size that can be successful unless there is that basic infrastructure in place," Johnson said.

She said the critical report reveals a "fundamental difference in approach between Cargill and Oxfam, on what it takes to spur responsible agriculture investment. Colombia is a country that has enormous agricultural potential, but a long history of underinvestment."

Tom Webb can be reached at 651-228-5428. Follow him at twitter.com/TomWebbMN.

LINK TO THE REPORT: http://www.oxfamamerica.org/files/rr-divide-and-purchase-land-concentration-colombia-270913-en_0.pdf

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