Colombia: “It’s Unacceptable that the Actions of a Few Impact the Lives of the Majority”

Sep 3, 2013 | News, Peace and Nonviolence

Colombia: “It's Unacceptable that the Actions of a Few Impact the Lives of the Majority”By Mabel Durán-Sánchez

Since the beginning of the global economic downturn in 2008 governments around the world have faced protests led by popular movements.

Recently there have been mass protests close to home, in Brazil. These protests were initially sparked by a hike in bus fare prices and tensions over preparations for the FIFA World Cup but quickly developed into more complex nationwide movements demanding more government transparency, particularly with regard to public spending; increased investment in social safety-nets, and greater opportunities for political participation.

The Brazilian protests made big news headlines here in the States; the largest such protests in Brazil since the early 1990s. However, while there is worldwide attention to mass uprisings, there has been little U.S. media coverage of a national strike taking place in another nearby country, Colombia. As explained by Dave Johnson from the Campaign for America’s Future:

There is a big strike in Colombia, and you probably don’t know about it. Farmers and others are protesting over a variety of grievances including the devastating effect of free-trade agreements, privatization and inequality-driven poverty. Corporate-owned American media is not covering it… Almost the only American outlet covering this strike is the Miami Herald.

In fact, major news outlets like The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times have not covered the farmers’ national strike in Colombia to date (save for the Post’s running of a 127-word AP blurb on August 30). [Note: The L.A. Times ran a piece on the strike on Sept. 5.] The New York Times has only acknowledged the Colombian farmers’ struggle in an article on the stalled Colombian peace talks from Saturday, August 24 and a 130-word note on August 31. The earlier article mentions the farmers’ struggle in passing:

The rebel group said in its statement that it needed to ‘focus exclusively’ on analyzing Mr. Santos’s proposal, while also criticizing the government’s economic and social policies at a time when protests by farmers, truckers and coffee growers are roiling parts of the country.

Colombian farmers have organized a national strike which has caused major disruptions, with protestors including those cultivating crops like potato, onion, rice, and coffee, as well as dairy and livestock farmers and truck drivers. Protestors reportedly have cut off access to main roads leading to the central province of Boyacá, raising fears of shortages of basic goods like potatoes and milk as well as fuel. These protests have taken place in 11 out of 32 provinces, with Boyacá, Cundinamarca and the southern province of Nariño being the most affected. The BBC reported that most classes were cancelled and businesses remained closed in Boyacá province at the height of the protests. Three deaths were reported associated with the road blockages and street disruptions.

This set of protests began on August 19 with approximately 200,000 farmers and has gained thousands more supporters. The BBC reported that 15,000 people marched through Tunja last Tuesday supporting the farmers and student and trade union groups have backed the protestors, with demonstrations in Bogotá and Cali to show their support.

Colombian farmers are on strike demanding better wages and an end to “free trade” agreements with the United States and the European Union, the first of which came into force last year and the latter this month, respectively. According to the BBC, they argue that these trade agreements have led to an overwhelming flow of cheap imported agricultural products onto the Colombian market; which in addition to the increased cost of fertilizer and transportation makes local farmers unable to compete with the imported products.

Although Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos initially dismissed the national strike as being incapable of having any impact — in fact, he dismissed the premise that it was a national strike at all, and stated that his government would only speak with protestors if they lifted the roadblocks — by Monday, August 26, he seemed to have had a change of heart.  He met with strike leaders in Tunja and expressed determination to “confront the problems and work hand in hand with the farmers.” On Tuesday, August 27, Santos invited strike leaders from the three worst-affected provinces to meet with key ministers, and the Colombian government has offered concessions to small-scale farmers, including better prices for their products, protection from imported products, and more access to loans. Nevertheless, the BBC reports that small-scale farmers have rejected the government’s offer, emphasizing the danger the “free trade” agreements with the European Union and the United States represent, arguing that these arrangements have turned small-scale farming into a loss-making business.

More recently, the Santos administration has decided to deploy troops in the capital city of Bogotá “to assure normality” after a peaceful protest with approximately 30,000 people turned violent after “[c]lashes with police broke out” there on Thursday, leaving two people dead. Nevertheless, farmers continue to urge peaceful protests and have called for all road blockades to be removed, highlighting that the violence in Bogotá is not representative of their movement.

But the national farmers’ strike in Colombia which began eleven days ago is another example of the substantial grievances experienced by peasants in Colombia. Daniel Kovalik, a labor and human rights lawyer and professor of International Human Rights at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, recently returned from the Catatumbo region where he reports that Colombian peasants are fighting for more than just a livelihood; they are waging a “life-and-death struggle.” He writes that

According to the Luis Carlos Pérez Lawyers’ Collective (CALCP), 11,000 peasants have been killed in this region by state and para-state forces, most of them during the 2002-2010 term of President of Alvaro Uribe, and over 100,000 peasants, out of a total of around 300,000, have been forcibly displaced.   At least 32 mass graves containing the bodies of murdered peasant activists have been found in this region in recent years.

Kovalik argues that the violence and displacement taking place in Catatumbo “is being carried out to make way for more oil drilling, African palm cultivation (for biodiesel) and for coal mining by North American companies.”

The devastation experienced by this region is overwhelming, Kovalik writes:

In short, the oil and other extractive companies, beginning with Texaco in the 1930’s, have taken and taken, and left the people with nothing.  Now, the companies want even more, and it is the very existence and presence of the peasants which stands in their way.  And so, quite logically, the companies, with the help of the U.S.-backed military and paramilitaries, are aiming to literally wipe the peasants off the map.  In other words, these forces are engaged in a calculated act of genocide.   Indeed, when a number of us remarked upon how almost everyone we saw and met with in our visit to Catatumbo were no more than teenagers, we were told that this was the result of the fact that their parents had either been murdered or displaced. Left behind are villages populated almost entirely by children.

The Catatumbo protests began in mid-June and have also received nationwide support. The peasant farmers are demanding an end to coca eradication programs as well as a final response to a proposal for a “Peasant Farmer Reserve Zone” in the region. Such a zone would offer “economically viable alternatives to the production of coca” to over 80,000 farmers. As explained by the British NGO Justice for Colombia, “[c]oca cultivation is often the only viable option for peasant farmers in rural Colombia where production costs for food products are extremely high due to a lack of any infrastructure and prices are extremely low due to an abundance of imported goods.”

As Kovalik notes and as this map from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre and the Norwegian Refugee Council illustrates, “Colombia now has the largest internally displaced population in the world at over 5 million” accounting for more than 10 percent of the global internally displaced population. In Colombia, many internally displaced persons are peasant farmers who, as Kovalik notes, have been dispossessed from their lands “in order to facilitate capital accumulation for foreign companies” and others who have been forced off of their lands “by direct physical violence related to the country’s armed conflict – often by the Colombian military and right-wing paramilitary groups serving the interests of multinational corporations.”

So, when President Santos said in a press conference on Friday that it was “unacceptable that the actions of a few impact the lives of the majority,” regarding the unexpected violence in Bogotá, he is undeniably right. But this statement is also applicable to the structural and physical violence experienced everyday by a large sector of Colombia’s population, whether peasant farmers or not; the34.1 percent of Colombians still under the national poverty line; and the 10 percent of internally displaced.

Santos on Friday night declared a new national agricultural pact based on the immediate demands of the protestors from the agricultural sector. This policy is set to take force starting on September 12 of this year and its further development into a longer-term agricultural policy will include the full participation of peasant farmers as well as other entities which promote rural development. The most recent 11 days of protests have the potential to change Colombia forever, perhaps addressing the vast impact “a few” have on a large sector of Colombians, if not the majority.