4th September 2013
The length and breadth of Colombia has seen over the past two and a half weeks multiple protests by Colombian peasant farmers (campesinos) with widespread popular support in the towns and cities of a country whose population is easily 50% rural and whose roots is almost entirely campesino.
The struggle for recognition of the basic rights of the rural population, which has been subject to an endless stream of persecutions and massacres in a long succession of civil conflicts ever since independence was won from Spanish rule almost 200 years ago, has reached what could be a point of no return as the consequences of recent free trade agreements signed by the Colombian government with the USA, Europe and South Korea among others, take their toll.
The situation, that at the best of times has been difficult but not impossible due to the resilience and characteristic innovation of the Colombian people, has become untenable. The costs of cultivation, harvest and transport coupled with the flooding of the Colombian market with cheap GM foods, imported as part of the free trade agreements, have meant that all but the biggest and richest landowners are cultivating their crops at a loss. Crops are left to rot due to the fact that it costs more to transport them to a town than the price they can be sold for and this has lead, understandably, to increasing discontent and inconformity among large swathes of the population. Roads have been blocked throughout the country by angry campesinos willing to leave their lands, homes and families to sit it out at the roadsides living under plastic sheets, eating what they can get together between them from their farms whilst suffering the attacks of the ESMAD ("robocop" style riot police) in running battles for control of the roads.
In many areas the country is at a complete standstill. Colombian President, Juan Manuel Santos, exacerbated the ire of the people when, at the end of the first week of the strike, he commented in a speech that the "so called agricultural strike doesn't exist" the response to which was that more people came out in protest, not only in the rural areas but in the towns and cities staging night time "cacerolasos" in which the protesters gather in the town squares to bang pots and pans, meetings that have transformed into festivals of music, colour and Colombian campesino culture in the manner and spirit of the Colombian people and their ability to transform protest into celebration and celebration into protest.
The governments response has been to agree to talks but in typical style their plan has been to negotiate with selected groups, trying to divide the protest, by appealing to certain sectors but refusing to open a countrywide dialogue with the agricultural sector as a whole. In this respect the strategy is to work the richer farmers by catering for their select interests whilst turning a blind eye to the petitions of the majorities who are subsistence farmers, owners of small family farms and not aligned to one particular sector. The media speak of the coffee growers, the cocoa bean growers, the rice farmers, the potato farmers etc but in reality those that dedicate to one particular crop at a significant level of production are relatively few.
Speaking to the people that are camped out by the roadsides and spending time with them one quickly understands that the people are there out of necessity and are not being obliged by the guerrilla forces as the government trumpets in the media at every available opportunity. The people simply cannot make ends meet and given the history of violent repression in Colombia people do not expose themselves to more of the same without good reason. The Colombians know enough of their own history to know how the authorities treat inconformity here.
The lack of information in the marginalized rural areas is such that many do not actually know in any great detail the ins and outs of the international negotiations the government makes, or indeed, about such issues as genetically modified crops.
Only now are they discovering that in Colombia the costs of fuel and agricultural products are at least double that of the neighbouring countries, Venezuela and Ecuador whose leaders, they have been constantly told by the government and capitalist run media, are dictators.
Grass roots leaders and organisers are being vilified and persecuted for supporting the people and bringing their needs to national attention whilst the protests are criticised for "affecting the human rights of the rest of the population" but little or no voice is given to the fact that the free trade agreements and economic/political structures by their very nature affect the basic human rights of the campesinos. To come out onto the countries main roads is literally the only option for the impoverished campesinos even though this leads to the familiar accusations that they are all terrorists and members of the FARC, the largest guerrilla force in Colombia who have been, ironically, in a protracted series of peace talks with the Colombian government in Havana, Cuba.
At ground level, in the valleys, planes and mountains of this incredibly diverse country, rich in natural resources, plant life, rivers, climates, and ecosystems there is little sign of meaningful peace for the long suffering population.
The current and previous governments have made a policy of selling off those natural resources to a host of multi-national companies in sham contracts that literally give permission for the wholesale sacking of minerals, the construction of hydroelectric dam projects, the appropriation of the rights to fresh water supplies, genetic material and the flooding of the country with GM seed whilst criminalising the traditional campesino practice of the saving and planting of ancestral varieties of corn, rice, potatoes, barley, wheat etc. (see video documentary 970 available in youtube).
Within these contracts there are little or no guarantees for the local populations not even of reliable work. On the River Magdalena where no less than 33 dams are being planned we have been told that one of the biggest investors, Hydrochina, will bring in their own workers. Employment, of course, would be scant compensation for the damages that will occur to the unique eco-system of the “Maciso Colombiano” a highland area where the two longest rivers in Colombia, The Magdalena and The Cauca have their sources. This majestic landscape with its canyons, rivers, “paramos” (a highland eco-system practically unique to Colombia) and archaeological heritage is a patrimony of humanity recognised UNESCO but no-one wants to explain why the government and UNESCO persecute the Indigenous Yanaconas for wanting a short road of 100 metres or so to give direct access to their community “because this is damaging to the heritage site” whilst readily entering into agreements with Chinese and Spanish multi-national companies whose hydroelectric projects will completely destroy this ancient landscape.
As one campesino told me, whilst he washed off the sweat, after a day spent avoiding the tear gas of the riot police, in one of Colombia's beautiful free flowing rivers; "this is sacred and this is what we are fighting for…" and he went on to explain briefly and cheerfully that really his people are not poor whilst they still have that freedom to enjoy the natural environment, to swim in those rivers and that the struggle to live in peace on their farms and to be able to eek out a living with all the hard work that that entails holds no fears for them. They do not want to live like rich men in cities, he said, they just want to be able to live in dignity, to see their children grow and to have their basic rights respected. “My daughter was murdered by government forces when she was 16” he told me, “she was very beautiful.” he added whilst looking steadily and calmly at the waters of the passing river.
Other campesinos told me "We are not asking for something impossible, something that is out of reach. Colombia has all we need to live happy and in peace. We are only asking for the basic human necessities to be respected, for education, health and some decent public services with the possibility to grow and sell our crops."
Upon visiting the camps of the protesters I have been received with an understandable curiosity but also with an overwhelming kindness, a sense of appreciation and hospitality from a people more than ready, even in such difficult circumstances, to share their undying sense of humour and natural joy of life.
The camaraderie and acceptance towards any stranger willing and open to hear their stories and share their struggle is given easily and without pretension.
Truly we have much to learn and admire of such people and they deserve our support and solidarity in their fight against an inhuman treatment from the authorities.
The decision of people like this to fight for their rights is irrevocable for them for they have no option, it is their very survival as a people that is at stake. The campesino way of life is a way of life as old as humanity, it is the life of the country people, it is a natural way of life and it is those people that assure the survival of humanity for they are the ones that know how to cultivate the food we eat even if the machines that we have invented stop and the fuels that we extract from the entrails of Mother Earth run out. For this reason, as a whole, we ignore and forget about these people at our peril for they are the lifeblood of humanity and in a country like Colombia the wholesome and fresh produce that they produce cannot be replaced by any amount of cheap industrially farmed and genetically altered food imported from Europe or the USA. The Colombian people know this and are proud of their campesino heritage. Maybe this strike will not achieve even a small percentage of the needs and demands of those people but it is kindling an awakening in the forgotten corners of this marvellous country and sooner or later the corrupt oligarchy will have to give way.