Landscape in Colombia. Photo credit: Luis Alejandro Bernal Romero, Aztlek on Flickr

Milk for peace: A conversation with Alqueria’s Jaime Eduardo Gomez Gomez

Dairy despite conflict

WASHINGTON (Landscape News) — In Colombia, recent peace after more than 50 years of war has brought new challenges, including environmental ones.

Once a hide-out for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerillas, Colombia’s forests — one of the world’s most biodiverse landscapes— have seen a land rush in the past few years. Land has been rapidly cleared for cattle ranching, logging, cocoa production, palm oil plantations and illegal mining, causing deforestation to soar by 44 percent between 2016 and 2015.

In response, the Colombian government, nongovernmental organizations and the private sector have worked to promote sustainable social and economic development. For example, under the U.N. 2015 Paris climate accord to keep global warming in check, Colombia agreed to reach zero net deforestation by 2020 and to halt the loss of all natural forest by 2030.

This month Colombia joined the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020 with the goal of helping businesses shift to deforestation-free supply chains. To better understand the role of the private sector in helping Colombia reach these targets and reduce deforestation, Landscape News spoke with Jaime Eduardo Gomez Gomez, chief financial officer – general representative for Alqueria, about the company’s work and commitment to the environment and sustainability. He will speak on a panel at the Global Landscape Forum Investment Case Symposium on financing landscape restoration in Washington on Wednesday.

Q: What is Alqueria and how did the company come to prioritize sustainability?

A: Alqueria is a family company founded 60 years ago by a urologist, who decided to set up a pasteurizer in his recreational farm once he realized that the milk he was selling was later being marketed raw. He used a motto that today is the source of our inspiration, “a bottle of milk, a bottle of health.” Since its origin, Alqueria has always promulgated its long-term sustainability, by being a company that bases its growth on the balance between capital, social and environmental profitability, as well as the growth of its employees.

With a background in finance, I too believe that short-term returns that are not accompanied by innovation, harmony with the environment, and social equity are not sustainable in the long term.

Q: As a dairy company, what are some of the sustainability/environmental challenges Alqueria faces?

A: Challenges include increasing the productivity in Colombia`s dairy farming (today it is less than 2 liters per cow) to help generate greater income for the farmers; better use of the land; decreasing the amount of hectares dedicated to grazing; avoiding deforestation; improving production costs; reducing CO2 emissions; and allowing Colombia to become a dairy products exporter, among many more.

Our environmental goals include reducing energy consumption and reaching energy sustainability, with the help of clean technologies; reducing the consumption of plastic, while increasing the use of biodegradable materials; promoting the consumption of dairy products through the sale of affordable products and donations through food banks. This also helps provide nutrition to Colombians and reduce food insecurity.

Q: I understand addressing extreme poverty and malnutrition are important to the Alqueria mission. What can you tell us about this philosophy?

A: As a company, our mission is framed by the principle of transforming the lives of people, through love, creativity and getting things done. These principles frame our commitment to the poorest in our communities. We target malnutrition and stress education as a basis to generate equity and possibilities for the less favored.

Q: What is the Milk for Peace program?

A: Alqueria employees had a lot of courage when they decided to enter the conflict area of Colombia. There were threats. The guerrillas contacted us requesting payments, however we didn’t back down from the project; we reported to the authorities and refused to be extorted. We chose to believe in the peasants who were torn between two fronts: the FARC guerrillas and a government who often stigmatized the peasants as part of the guerrilla movement.

It was not easy working in a region where the only law recognized and accepted by the population was the one enforced by the guerrillas.

Through a pilot project financed by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Colombian government and Alqueria, the Milk for Peace project launched with a commitment to work with 150 dairy farmers. The farmers provided milk and Alqueria trucks used trails that both the community and the insurgency built to pick up the milk each day, and pay the farmers for it on a biweekly basis. To support this project, Alqueria financed and installed more than 50 cooling tanks and built collection routes.

The project has grown to the point where today, there are 1,500 families that sell milk to Alquería, many of whom used to grow cocoa plants in the past.

Together with the Ministry of Post Conflict, nonprofit entities, and the International Finance Corporation, Alqueria is now concentrating its efforts on replicating this business model. The objective is to buy milk from many more farmers who have showed their interest in the project. Our goal is to raise the number of milk producers to 2,000 or more.

In order to achieve our goal, the next phase consists not only in guaranteeing the purchase of the milk produced by the peasants, but also, with the accompaniment of the government, support them with inputs, train them through the National Apprenticeship Service (SENA) and provide them with adequate bank credits, in order for them to obtain fair profits without having to resort to informal intermediaries.

This represents a new approach in the country. Too often what happens in the agricultural sector in Colombia is that companies promise to buy the product from peasants and then this promise is not kept or fulfilled. Given that we cannot encourage people to produce milk and then not buy it, Alqueria promotes the use of medium-term contracts.

There are 12 million peasants living in poverty in the Colombian countryside. Based on that premise, our dream and proposal is to integrate them to Colombia`s formal productive sector.

Q: What advice you have for other companies aiming to be socially responsible and community-minded?

A: Let’s unite our efforts and work together in seeking the common good. Company sustainability can only be reached by seeking greater levels of equality and by generating opportunities and growth, while always being conscience of the environment.

The Alqueria brand has not only been built with innovative and quality products, but also taking into consideration social and environmental responsibility. That is why we rely not only on the affection of our consumers, but also of all stakeholders: producers, customers, suppliers and financial institutions that support us in our dreams.

 This interview has been edited for length and clarity.



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