Farming provides a livelihood for roughly one-fourth of the working population. Manufacturing and commerce have made tremendous gains since the 1950's and have greatly reduced the country's dependence on farming. Mining, too, is a major industry and is increasing in importance. Particularly important are the mining of coal and the production of petroleum.
Colombia has a sizable illicit economy based on the processing of the coca leaf, the source of cocaine. Much of the world's supply of this drug originates in Colombia.
Because of the wide range of climatic conditions, there is great diversity in the kinds of crops grown. The farms range from modern plantations for large-scale commercial production to small plots where farmers eke out a bare subsistence.
Coffee has long been Colombia's leading legal commercial crop and export. It is noted for its mild flavor, sells at premium prices, and accounts for much of Colombia's total export earnings. In annual production, the country ranks second only to Brazil as the world's largest coffee producer. Most of the crop is grown in the Cordillera Central.
Bananas are the second most important export crop. Other crops, grown commercially and partly for export, include cotton, sugarcane, tobacco, and cacao. Plantains, potatoes, cassava, rice, and corn are among the staple foods grown.
Cattle, the most numerous kind of livestock, are raised mainly in the Caribbean lowlands and the llanos, primarily for the domestic market. Dairying is concentrated around Bogotá and other large urban areas. Hogs and sheep are also raised. Horses, donkeys, and mules are widely used as draft and pack animals.
Colombia's industries produce a variety of consumer goods, such as processed foods, beverages, textiles, shoes, clothing, and household items. Most manufacturing is located in or near the largest cities, particularly Bogotá, Medellín, Cali, and Barranquilla. The textile industry, which mainly produces cotton goods, is especially well developed and centers in Medellín and Bogotá. There is also a sizable production of industrial goods, including metal products, chemicals, machinery, paper, and cement. Heavy industry is poorly developed but growing steadily, especially the iron and steel industry.
Since Spanish colonial times, when gold and silver accounted for much of Colombia's wealth, mining has been important. Today, precious metals are still among the more valuable products. By value, however, fossil fuels make up the leading group. Coal has become increasingly important since the mid-1980's, when one of the world's largest and most productive coal mines opened on the Guajira Peninsula. There is a sizable output of crude petroleum from oil fields in the north and in the southwest, near the Ecuadorean border. Natural gas is also produced.
Colombia normally accounts for more than 90 per cent of the world's annual output of gem emeralds, production of which is a state monopoly. Copper, iron, and nickel are among other minerals produced.
Colombia's rugged terrain has hindered the development of road and rail transportation routes. Except for those connecting the major cities, few roads are paved. Cities in the interior, including Bogotá, Medellín, and Cali, are linked by railway with Santa Maria on the Caribbean coast and Buenaventura on the Pacific.
Airplanes are a common means of transportation in Colombia. There are 11 international airports; many smaller airports are located throughout the country. Colombia's main national airline, Avianca, established in 1919, was the first airline in South America.
Almost all inland waterway traffic, including passengers as well as cargo, is carried on the Magdalena River. Along its valley are also a major railway and a highway. Principal seaports are Buenaventura, Cartagena, Barranquilla, Santa Marta, and Tumaco.