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Colombia’s peasants unified and ready to dig in against government

posted by Steven Cohen
Colombia’s peasants unified and ready to dig in against government

Four days away from what is potentially the first display of nationally organized peasant protests in Colombia’s history, the government has yet to make any inroads toward negotiating a substantive agreement with the organizers behind the core protests set to begin on Monday. 

Despite submitting a formalized list of complaints to the office of President Juan Manuel Santos, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Labor and other relevant government bodies last Thursday, the 10-person team created to represent Colombia’s expansive peasant movement has yet to receive any form of contact from the federal government, one of the team’s members told Colombia Reports.

“Up until now, the government has made no attempt to contact us,” said Francisco Cuadros Castillo, a member of leftist political group Marcha Patriotica and one of the delegates assigned to negotiate on behalf of the peasant movement. “We are waiting for the government to show any will to dialogue with us, but until then, we are preparing for the strike.”

Cuadros, one of ten officials selected to serve on the National Agricultural and Popular Board for Dialogue and Agreement (MIA), spoke about the problems facing Colombia’s sizable rural population and the difficulties of negotiating with the government on behalf of an estimated 30% of Colombia’s population, and all the interests encompassed therein.

“For us this is urgent,” he said, “we are in crisis. This country is in crisis. [The August 19] strike is about being heard. This was never necessary, but if the government does not want dialogue then we have no choice. And we are prepared to do whatever it takes to have the conversation we need.”

Previously, it’s likely that conversation would never have been possible. Peasant demonstrations are nothing new in Colombia, but because of organizational differences and geographic impediments, the larger movement has typically been fragmented along its composite parts.

“We are speaking for many voices,” said Cuadros, “which is a challenge and something we always have to keep in mind.

“Avocado farmers, coffee farmers, sugar cane farmers, banana farmers [...] and the agriculture movement isn’t even just the farmers. It’s the whole rural population of Colombia, which is a third of the country, and all the different groups who live there. And the students, too, in the cities. And the health and transport sector. The education [sector], too. [The strikes] are going to have an effect across the country.”

Since Colombia’s agricultural sector announced the August 19 strike date earlier this summer, other embattled labor groups within the country have steadily joined the cause. But the peasant movement itself is a hardly an uniform group, either.

The National Declaration of Agricultural and Popular Proposals MIA presented to the government last week discusses issues pertaining to miners, afro-Colombians, indigenous peoples, artisan miners, farmers, transport workers, union laborers and victims of armed conflict.

“The study doesn’t exist that is capable of calculating in financial terms the social debt owed to [these groups],” reads the document, “but in our daily reality, the debt is reflected in the theft, and lack of adjudication and dispensation of land, in the lack of territorial recognition, in the want of policy to strengthen agricultural production, in mining policy that works in favor of multinationals and against communities and small and artisanal miners and the absence of state programs investing in education, health care, housing, roadway infrastructure and public services.”

The declaration goes on to outline the long saga of “injustice and inequality” and “economic and political marginalization” Colombia’s rural population  feels it has suffered at the hands of longstanding “policies that favor the interests of capital over the interests of the people,” and it’s clear that many of the problems discussed are both broad in scope and multifaceted.

But in what is an unprecedented development in Colombia’s recent political history, the ethnically and culturally diverse, and geographically isolated, social subgroups embodied under the campesino umbrella have a fixed list of “demands,” as well as a unified representational body authorized to speak for all of them.

As recently as last Friday, Minister of Agriculture Francisco Estupiñan echoed a consistent government claim that the peasants are being “manipulated” by outside forces, including armed militants and organized drug traffickers, when he told reporters,”there is a minority that insists on doing this type of movements [sic] and has been frank on the topic of policymaking, getting to Congress, to the mayor’s offices, to the municipal councils [...] and that is respectable. But we reject that they should use the peasants to make public inroads for a campaign to satisfy their public interests.”

But in a conversation with Colombia Reports on Monday, the Secretary General for the national agricultural workers union (FENSUAGRO), Alirio Garcia, dismissed that notion outright.

“That’s typical,” he said, after being read Estupiñan’s comments, “[the government] always says the same thing. But when [the protests] get going we’re going to see very clearly what the deal is [...] when the people, the peasants themselves, are out in the streets, flesh and blood, protesting [...] what are they going to say then?”

Garcia explained that the MIA is comprised of “70 spokesmen from throughout the country, representing every department [in Colombia], from which 10 were selected to lead the national negotiations,” and confirmed claims made to Colombia Reports by Francisco Cuadros that the national team could effectively make decisions on behalf of the entire movement, saying that any such decisions “would be respected by everyone.”

“For us it was important to present a unified front,” said Cuadros. “That is what this movement is all about. And that is why it’s important that we are being supported by our partners in other sectors.” MIA, he said, has been in contact with the groups organizing the participation of the health, education, coffee, trucking and student sectors, out of which only the coffee workers have been in official negotiations with the government.

Perhaps more important than the organization of the national structure, though, are the concrete “demands” the national negotiating team can present heading into any future deliberations with the government.

According to its official declaration, the peasants’ most pressing concern is food. Studies cited in the document from various government and non-partisan sources report that 40.8% of all Colombian citizens fall under some form of food insecurity, while 20% of children under the age of five are chronically malnourished, 1.3% acutely so. In a cruel twist of irony, the country’s food producers are often the ones hardest hit by the problem, with 58.3% of rural homes classified as food insecure in the National Study on Human Development.

Food, however, is only part of the larger “production crisis” outlined in the document, which itself is only one of the many issues the six formal “demands” seek to address. Reforms pertaining to land ownership, territoriality, the legalization of small and traditional miners, political inclusion and social investment are also detailed as part of the MIA’s effort to put forth a clear, cohesive message to the government and the Colombian public.

Retaliation from neo-paramilitary groups is a concern heading into Monday’s protests for peasants in distant rural areas largely outside of government control, but Cuadros said organizers are equally worried about the government’s response.

“This is a chance for the government to show that it respects human rights and especially the rights we have to live and the rights we have to peaceful protest.”

The movement, he said, has no intention of instigating violence, but it will fall on the government to ensure a diplomatic end to the protests.

“The quicker the government proves it can have a meaningful dialogue and actually fullfil its promises, the sooner we can put an end to the manifestations.”

The government has been widely accused by social organizers of using empty negotiations to end civil unrest, and claims of unhonored agreements have surfaced at the forefront of each of the movements set to participate in Monday’s demonstrations and the ongoing work stoppages that are scheduled to follow. But if the ongoing protests in Catatumbo are a sign, MIA will not settle for anything less than a substantive bargaining table.

“We are not interested in negotiating [...] just to negotiate,” said Cuadros, “we need guarantees on the part of the government and proof that they are willing to negotiate in good faith.

“You have to keep in mind that the workers — the peasants — are the ones who are most going to feel the effects of the strikes. But we can’t continue like this. We need dialogue, and not just to lift the strikes like the government wants. We need real, urgent dialogue to fix the problems facing [Colombia's] peasant population.”

As for the government’s suggestions that Monday’s protests will not have the public impact the farm organizers are expecting, Cuadros seconded Garcia’s sentiment, in what seems to be the tone being adopted by the entire, unified protest movement: “Come Monday, we will see what’s what. We speak for the people, and we are not going away.”

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About the author

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Steven Cohen is an editor at Colombia Reports and contributing writer on the Beacon independent journalism platform. His interests in Colombia pertain mainly to labor, environmental, and human rights issues, though he is also a big fan of coconut rice and Aletico Nacional soccer.

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