The Long March to Freedom in Colombia

by Kelvin Smith

The first time I met Tom Hargrove he boasted, tongue in cheek, that he had published one of the world’s most successful titles: a rice disease identification manual that had been printed in millions of copies in many languages throughout Asia. At the time he was working for the International Rice Research Insitute (IRRI) in Manila and we met at various times and in various places over a period of more than a decade and talked about publishing, agricultural development and about life. He was one of those people who always felt like a friend.

I remember one conversation in the bar of a New Delhi hotel called The Claridges, when we talked about how often the people we met assumed, because we travelled the world and were often vague or jokey about what we did, that we were connected to the world of intelligence. We laughed, but if the truth be told, Tom’s background in Vietnam made me wonder.

A few years later Tom was working for another agricultural research centre in Colombia called Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical, and the similarity between the acronym CIAT and the CIA may have been a factor in his capture by FARC guerrillas. He was held captive for nearly a year, and the record of the experience – kept as a secret diary during his captivity – was published in 1995 in Long March to Freedom. A film based on Tom’s story, Proof of Life, appeared in 2000.

A few years ago I learnt that Tom had returned to his native Texas, continued his career in international agricultural development and given occasional courses on terrorism analysis for US Joint Services Special Operations University. He died in 2011, but on this day, when we are told the war in Colombia is over, I pause to think of Tom Hargrove, a very special publisher.