Saturday, August 24, 2013

Nationwide agrarian strike in Colombia

For some days now, Colombia has been abroil with an agrarian strike.  It started with small farmers, particularly potato, coffee, and milk producers, that feel they have been short-changed by government policies that leave them receiving low prices for their produce, and paying high prices for inputs like gasoline and pesticides.  Gradually more sectors have joined in the strikes, from students to truck drivers to hospital workers.  The mainstream media has been pretty poor in their coverage of the strikes, focusing on details like which highways have been closed off by demonstrators, or how many injuries have resulted from clashes between peasants and police.  It's like only reporting on the traffic problems caused by a crime scene or a G8 summit, without mentioning what actually happened in the central event!

At any rate, collateral damage has indeed been great.  Our department, Boyaca, is essentially shut off from the rest of Colombia, and even travel within the region is difficult or impossible (and can sometimes get your car burned to flames!).  Food is starting to be scarce in markets, and school was called off yesterday.  Most people are spending days indoors, and there is now a martial curfew at night.  Luckily, my family got a lot of groceries last week, and we are well-equipped to withstand a siege!  This morning I went outside and saw an early morning bustle of people trying to run errands during a brief respite from the constant protests and police violence.  The atmosphere is a bit post-apocalyptic, like Yeats's poem about the widening gyre and the falconer.  As the morning's first march came through, people disappeared into houses, and businesses shut down again, many of their windows adorned with hand-written signs proclaiming their support for the agrarian strike.  This is perhaps mere insurance against the looting that has happened in one town in Boyaca, though I do think that most people sincerely support the peasants' cause.

Indeed, our department is heavily agrarian (with an important presence of primary industry like artisanal coalmining and steelmaking), and even in the cities no one is far removed from a humble farm family.  This must explain why Boyaca, normally a conservative, quiet department that suffers its egalitarian, peasant poverty without much complaint, has converted itself into the explosive center of the nationwide strike. 

As I mentioned, news coverage in Colombia has given very little attention to what the protesters are actually demanding.  Many official farmer unions (often representing larger, more commercial monoculture farmers at the expense of small peasants practicing polycultures) are in fact against the strike, and even sympathetic coverage has mainly discussed the political and economic situations that have led people to take matters into their own hands, without quoting any official statements by participating groups.

So I am providing the small service of translating into English the protesters' official demands (articulated by the MESA NACIONAL AGROPECUARIA Y POPULAR DE INTERLOCUCIÓN Y ACUERDO, which brings together different agrarian groups and worker unions).  I repeat that there has been very little news coverage of this, so I had to get the version I am translating from a non-official website, in fact a news site apparently run by a right-wing party.  That said, I have reason to believe that this is an accurate version.  Lastly, I apologize in advance for any errors or clumsy wording.  I am rushing to get this translated and posted, so as many people can see it as possible.  Anyway, here goes:

The Constitution of Colombia affirms that we are all equal under the law.  Without distinction, all Colombians have the same rights and the same obligations.  Nevertheless, despite appearing in the Constitution, this ideal is not actually followed.  Peasants, indigenous people, Afro-Colombians, and city dwellers have lived amidst injustice and inequality.  Economic and political marginalization have been constant; we are criminalized and persecuted.

We are Colombians that have tried different ways of attaining public policies that might favor our social situation and repay the historic debt that the Colombian State has toward its rural zones.  We have not demanded the impossible, but rather simply a guarantee of our human rights.  Through struggle and organizing we have managed to include our concerns in the government's laws and decrees, but these are in fact dead letters.  Often the unfulfillment of our demands is attributed to a budget deficit, despite the fact that every year economic analysts speak of abundant profits (which are never reflected in our own earnings nor the improvement of our quality of life).  In addition, an entire set of laws and norms have been implemented in the fields of agriculture, mining, energy, housing, and public services, which favor large capital interests and go against the public good.

According to the DANE [Colombia's census agency], the rate of unsatisfied basic needs is higher in rural than in urban zones, but the State has not implemented policies to resolve this situation.  On the contrary, the absence of the States and the violence against country dwellers are constantly on the rise.  As shown in the UNDP's 2011 report on Colombia, a third of the rural populace lives in extreme poverty.  This same report points out that 75.5% of Colombian municipalities (containing 31.6% of the population) are rural; these figures are higher than the rural population recognized by the DANE.  These rural areas represent 94.4% of Colombia's geographic territory, which has historically been excluded from the exercise of power and decisionmaking.  There exists no study that might indicate the magnitude of the social debt that Colombia owes its countryside.  Nevertheless, this debt is today reflected in the violent displacement of peasants from their homes, the paltry processes for titling and giving land to peasants, the lack of familiarity of the State with rural territories, the lack of policies and will to strengthen agricultural production, the mining policies that favor multinationals and go against local communities of small and artesanal miners, and the absence of the State in terms of investments in education, health, housing, roads, and public services.

Faced with this massive social crisis, the current government has taken no measures to respond to these structural problems.  On the contrary, it has applied a pathetic social policy that attempts to soothe the country's acute inequality and social injustice with the equivalent of hot water bags and soothing sponge baths.  Article 65 of Colombia's current 1991 Constitution states:  "Food production will receive special protection from the State."  Despite this, agricultural policy in Colombia has not solved the situation of food insecurity, malnutrition, and hunger of urban and rural dwellers.  58.3% of rural households are in some state of food insecurity, with 20% of [rural] children under 5 years of age chronically malnourished, and 1.3% in a situation of acute malnutrition.  According to the national Public Defense office, 40.8% of the country's total population is in a food insecure condition, and the national report on human development shows that the coefficient of food self sufficiency dropped from 1.04% to 0.95% between 1991 and 2008 [sic, in fact the self-sufficiency ratio has gone from 1.04 in 1991, which indicates that Colombia was a net exporter of food, to 0.95, which indicates that it imports some 5% of total food supplies].

In response to the injustices we have suffered, we have sent letters, held meetings and hearings, we have exercised our legitimate right to protest, arriving at agreements with different local, departmental, and even national government, in order to create solutions to the problems that we live through in our rural zones, and that affect the whole of Colombian society.  Each of these agreements has gone unfulfilled in a systematic manner by the State and its different institutions.

Given such a situation, we deem it necessary to construct an agrarian public policy that is structured by and coherent with the needs of the Colombian people.  The State should play a role in this construction, with the direct and decisive participation of the popular agrarian movement.  This policy should dignify the quality of life for peasants, city dwellers, Afro-Colombians, and indigenous people, and should strengthen and catalyze the ancestral peasant economy as a strategy rung of the national economy.

Investment in social security, education, health, and infrastructure is fundamental to guaranteeing the human rights of rural communities.  This investment should be able to attend to social demands, and should be funded by the nation's General Budget, by the General System of [mining] Royalties, and in particular by the government set-asides for Defense, Health, Education, Housing, Interior, Agriculture, and by State institutions such as INCODER [the rural development institute], National Institute for Roadways, Transport, National Housing Fund, the Administrative Unit for Territorial Consolidation, the National Agency for Overcoming Extreme Poverty, ICBF [the family wellbeing institute], and the Adaptation Fund, in actions coordinated to confront in an integral manner the problems that plague the countryside and the people.

We have just reason to protest and to demand that the government keeps its commitments.  In this respect we have six central demands, each with supporting sub-points.

  1. We demand the implementation of measures and actions to respond to the agricultural crisis.
  2. We demand access to land.
  3. We demand recognition of peasant territories.
  4. We demand the right to effective participation for communities and small, traditional miners in the formulation and execution of mining policies.
  5. We demand that measures be adopted and real guarantees provided for the right to political participation of the rural population.
  6. We demand social investment in the rural and urban populace in the areas of education, health, housing, public services, and roads.
The organizations and communities of the popular agrarian sector present our social, economic, and political demands before President Juan Manuel Santos as Head of State, seeking that through dialogue we may find the best way of resolving the economic, political, and social conflict we face.  From our end, our national spokespeople are ready to initiate dialog and to create a Roundtable for Participation and Agreement on Popular Agrarian Topics, a platform that we propose as the proper place to address our list of demands and to reach agreements.

We announce to the country that we are joining the National Agrarian Strike set for August 19th, given the history of breaches of faith and abandonment by the State.  We offer this general list to social and popular sectors for their consideration, so that through unity, organizing, and mobilization, we may demand with one loud voice that the government fulfills what it owes us.

1.1 We demand that the State fix support prices for peasant production, independent of international prices, so as to guarantee a decent income to producers, as well as accessible prices for consumers.  To this end a national compensation fund should be established that covers the differences existing between production costs and sales price of different products, accompanied by a guaranteed purchase of harvests by the State for small and medium-sized agricultural producers.
1.2 Reduction in the price of fuel and tolls, concerting new rates with transporters and agricultural producers.
1.3 Reduction in the price of fertilizers, insecticides, soil amendments, and other agricultural inputs.
1.4 We demand the modification of the antidrug policies, and we request that an agreement be reached on a gradual, coordinated substitution of crops of coca, marijuana, and poppy, as well as the end of aerial spraying and forced manual erradication.
1.5 A striking down of the regulations that affect agricultural production, transformation, and commercialization for small and mid-sized producers, including laws relating to the management of traditional peasant seeds and the value chains for different products.  Consensus-based legislation for the promotion of small and medium-scale agricultrual production, and effective guarantees for market access.
1.6 A halt to importation of food and other agricultural products, particularly of coffee, cacao, rice, potato, milk, and dairy products.  Suspension and revision of Free Trade Agreements with the US, the EU, China, and other countries.
1.7 Total forgiveness of debts incurred by small and medium agricultural producers with the financial system.  Definition of a policy of soft credit for these producers through a public bank.
1.8 Adoption of harvest insurance for small and medium producers, for problems related to climate and disease conditions, provided directly by the State, without intermediaries from the private financial sector.

2.1 We demand the assignment of lands to peasants, indigenous people, and Afro-Colombians that lack access to land or without title to their lands.  To this end INCODER should directly purchase land in sufficient quantities and of good quality, and immediately grant title to land occupied by peasants that fulfill the appropriate requirements.
2.2 The direct purchase of land by INCODER to be titled collectively to Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities.
2.3 Halt the policy of foreign purchase of land; clarify operations and transactions that have permitted such purchases; reverse these operations and add the affected lands to the fund for assignment of land to those without it.
2.4 Initiate, advance, and finalize within a maximum of one year the foreclosure proceedings against peasants, and grant them title to their lands.
2.5 Halt the reformulation of the permitted size of the Agricultural Family Unit [a size limit that the government puts on a farm in order for it to be eligible for certain tax and other benefits], and in no case decrease the limits that are currently defined.

3.1 The delimitation and immediate creation of Peasant Reserve Zones in territories where all the legal requirements have already been fulfilled for their constitution.
3.2 Initiate and finalize the paperwork for the delimitation and constitution of Peasant Reserve Zones in territories where the community has requested this designation, in a period not exceeding one year from the initial request.
3.3 The financing and execution of sustainable development plans in current and future Peasant Reserve Zones.

4.1 Halt the concession of mining titles and reverse current concessions, until the country's mining policy can be defined in concert with rural communities, and with guarantees of the right of ethnic communities to benefit from concessions and for artisanal miners to continue their livelihood.
4.2 Recognition and formalization of artisanal, small, and medium-scale mining.
4.3 Definition of a new Mining Code in concert with communities and artisanal miners.  Redefine maximum time spans for mining rights, mechanisms to mitigate mining's effects, methods of mining, and national and local involvement in the economic benefits.
4.4 Construction of a new royalties law that redefines national and local receipt of mining's economic benefits.
4.5 Viability studies must be realized for each of the current and future mining projects, as a basis to decide on the continuation or future execution of these projects.  Such studies must be based on environmental and social effects brought on by each project, as well as the prior informed consent of communities.
4.6 Subordination of mining activities to the Sustainable Development Plans of the Peasant Reserve Zones, as well as to participatory Territorial Land Use Plans at the municipal level.
4.7 Opening of a national discussion on subsoil rights.

5.1 Adoption by the Colombian State of the declaration of peasant rights approved in the Human Rights Commission of the UN.
5.2 Effective, decisive participation [of the rural populace] in the leadership of State entities that deal with attention to rural areas.
5.3 Provide the right of prior consultation of peasant communities regarding projects and laws that affect their social, political, environmental, economic, and cultural surroundings.
5.4 Widespread, effective, and binding participation in rural development planning bodies.

6.1 We demand a progressive plan to provide access and full coverage of the rural population in primary, secondary, technical, and higher education.
6.2 We demand the right to select local teachers.
6.3 We demand the reversal of Law 100 and the New Statutory Law, and the concertation with civil society of a new health legislation that fully guarantees this fundamental right, and that contains differentiated provisions for the countryside.
6.4 We demand budget allocations for social investment in infrastructure and equipment for education, health, production, roadways, the electric grid, basic sanitation, water, and sewage.
6.5 We demand a halt to privatization, and a return to municipal management of basic sanitation, water, and sewage services, with a social welfare criteria.
6.6 We demand the forgiveness of debts for users of public services, and the dissolution of liens and suspensions that have been implemented for this reason.
6.7 Return of micro-hydroelectric plants to communities.
6.8 We demand a new rate table for public services that corresponds to real costs and not to speculation.
6.9 We demand that community water lines be managed by communities with a social criterion and without a business-based mentality.
6.10 We demand the provision of resources to improve and construct urban and rural housing.  While this is realized, the government should give the right to squatters to pay monthly rent.


Among the labor, social, and political organizations participating in the national agrarian strike are the following:

Centrales obreras CUT, C.T.C., C.G.T, Anthoc, PCC/MP, Movip-Fundescol, Viviendistas, Integros, Reclame, Fecode, Comosopol, Marcha Patriótica Asolaborales, ADE, Cut Bogotá y Cundinamarca, Polo Democrático Alternativo, Mujeres por la PAZ, CNA, intraHosker, Coalición Democrática de Partidos y Movimientos Políticos, Movice, Coordinadora Agraria Nacional, Organización Nacional de Desplazados, Movimiento Nacional por Constituyente popular MCP, ILSA, Congreso de los Pueblos, OCE, Comosoc, ANSA, ASPU Nacional, Juventud Democrática Popular, Movimiento Comunal, Mesa Ampliada Nacional Estudiantil –MANE-, que aglutina a los estudiantes de las universidades públicas y Sindicato Estudiantil SIES.

So that's the demands from the peasants.  They're a mouthful, and certainly anathema to anyone who believes that wellbeing and economy are best left to the free market and not to the government.  But most of them are commonsense measures, and are little more than the basic guarantees that most prosperous countries like the US or the EU provide to their citizens.

I end with this video from the Archbishop of Tunja, basically stating the Church's support of the peasantry. Today the Minister of Agriculture met with peasant leaders. Let's hope that something good comes of it.

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