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Farm Bill moves forward after arduous debate

From the print edition

Heriberto Víquez has been a farmer for more than 40 years, growing coffee and cocoa, raising cattle, and recently venturing into organic farming with his son Carlos.

Carlos and his brother Joaquín represent the fourth generation in their family to work the land in Costa Rica.

“We love agriculture, we live agriculture and we are not going to leave this way of life,” said Heriberto Víquez, who owns a 321-acre plot of land near San Carlos in north-central Costa Rica. “We hope that our grandchildren continue our legacy.”

Some 1.9 million hectares of land in Costa Rica are utilized for agricultural purposes. Seventy percent of that territory is used for cattle farming and 30 percent for growing crops.

Bill 18,070, which could assist many small and medium-sized agricultural producers like the Víquez family is currently in the Legislative Assembly. After three weeks of discussion by farming representatives, municipal officials and lawmakers, the bill passed a first round of debate Monday night.

“We achieved a great deal. We are satisfied with the [bill’s] first approval, and we await its passage next month,” said Álvaro Sáenz, president of the National Agroindustry Chamber. 

Sáenz said the sector wanted legislators to approve at least one of their two demands. First, that an 80 percent tax decrease on land used for agricultural purposes be granted to producers regardless of their size, which was ultimately cut out of the final version of the bill.

Second, producers were requesting that land used for agricultural purposes be completely eliminated from the current standard that measures property value under the same classification as urban and tourist development. 

“We are happy because the current standard will not be used any longer to rate land used for agricultural and cattle farming,” Sáenz said, after the second measure was approved. 

If the bill passes a second debate, owners of farmland valued under the older system could ask municipal officials to re-evaluate properties with the goal of lowering land value to a “historical” value, plus an additional 20 percent.

On July 31, about 15,000 agricultural producers from all regions of the country traveled to the nation’s capital to protest a 2007 property tax law that farmers said was drowning them in debt. Since then, lawmakers opposed reforming the law because they said it also would unfairly benefit big companies. 

“The main disagreement [was] that a majority of lawmakers wanted to grant a tax benefit to all producers in the agricultural sector,” legislator José María Villalta, from the Broad Front Party, said last week. “There are other lawmakers, like myself, who think there only should be a tax [reduction] for small and medium-sized producers.”

However, lawmakers could not agree on how to define a small, medium or big agricultural producer, complicating the process.

“That standard does not exist today,” Sáenz said. “We have been waiting for one for 30 years.”

The final version of the bill moving forward proposes the establishment of such a standard, where land use and production, among others parameters, will be considered in determining a producer’s size. 

The responsibility of creating this standard will fall on the Agriculture and Livestock Ministry, which will carry out a census for up to four years.

The current version of the bill also drew support from the National Union of Local Governments (UNGL), which heavily opposed the 80 percent tax decrease originally included in the bill.

“We feel satisfied that we were able to reach an agreement that benefits all sides,” said UNGL Director Karen Porras, who represents some 71 municipalities. “We feel that the producers will feel more at ease with the proposal to create a standard.” 

Last week, agricultural-sector leaders announced additional major rallies across the country if lawmakers failed to vote on the bill. This week’s vote seems to have suspended those actions. 

In coming weeks, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court will review the version of the bill passed by lawmakers, and a second round of congressional debate could take place in September.


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