Colombia: Popular Agrarian Summit Calls for Strike

A national strike in Colombia — involving groups of indigenous peoples, Afro-Colombians, students, women, small miners, petroleum workers, and campesinos (farmers) — may begin on May 1st.

The decision to strike if the government does not respond by the first week of May was made during the Peasant, Ethnic, and Popular Agrarian Summit,1 held from March 15-17 in Bogotá. Over 4,000 delegates, activists, and leaders from different departments, sectors, and organizations in Colombia converged in the capital to discuss issues facing the agrarian and popular sectors.

For some delegations, this meant traveling 30 hours on a bus, or facing threats and intimidation during their journeys. For example, on the night of March 13, three armed masked men attacked a bus carrying a delegation from the southern department of Nariño on the Pan-American Highway. The attackers fired their guns several times inside the bus, injured the bus driver, and proceeded to threaten and rob the passengers. Despite these challenges, people arrived at the summit energized and ready to participate in this historic moment of social and political organizing.

The summit is part of an ongoing attempt by Colombia’s social organizations to provide space for people to articulate the problems they are facing and to collectively create solutions for a new order in the country. This process was constructed after the agrarian strike in 2013, when campesinos took to the streets and demanded an end to displacements, exploitation of labor, land and resource expropriation by multinational corporations and the government, and international free trade agreements; and a right to a dignified life.

The economic situation for small farmers in Colombia drastically deteriorated in 2011, when the free trade agreement between the United States and Colombia was signed and the free trade agreement with Canada was implemented. Between 2011 and 2013 agricultural imports to Colombia increased by 70%. Colombia now imports large quantities of cheap rice, corn, potatoes, meat, chicken, and milk from the U.S. and Canada (all products of small farmers in Colombia). The free trade agreements have also strengthened the agro-industrial sector within Colombia and encouraged the monoculture of cash crops, such as African palm oil, and trees on large-scale plantations. African palm oil has been at the center of the cash crop boom because it is an agrofuel, but its cultivation has grave impacts on the life of campesinos. First, because it is not a food product it creates dependence on food imports and weakens food sovereignty within Colombia. Second, the cultivation of African palm oil deteriorates the quality of the soil and prevents future use of the soil for other plants. Moreover, the free trade agreements have served to impoverish the local producers of these products and bolster the economies of wealthy North American countries.

The agrarian strike began on August 19, 2013. Campesinos from the petroleum sector, small-mining sector, potato-growing sector, milk-production sector, and coffee-production sector mobilized in 22 departments across the country. Campesinos and their allies participated in a variety of actions, such as long-term roadblocks on highways and marches in Colombia’s major cities. The mobilizations during the strike resulted in 19 dead, 600 injured, and hundreds detained.

The government responded to the strike with the “Pact for Agrarian and Rural Development,” which was essentially a development program for the agro-industrial elites, favoring the industrial monoculture of exportable cash crops while largely ignoring the problems of small subsistence farmers. The minister of agriculture recently proclaimed: “I am not a friend of the poor campesinos who only farm for self-support and no more.” Given that the strike was realized by small farmers whose livelihoods have been threatened by free trade agreements and agro-industrial production, this pact was widely criticized and rejected by social movements.

Thus, on September 12, 2013, agrarian, campesino, indigenous, Afro-Colombian, and popular organizations participated in the Agrarian Summit to discuss and evaluate the different experiences of the strike. One of the major conclusions was the necessity to have a consolidated list of demands during negotiations with the government. On December 13, around 250 leaders from Colombian organizations met in Bogotá for the Agrarian Pre-Summit to analyze the government negotiation tables and to plan for the Popular Agrarian Summit of Campesinos, Indigenous, and Afros in 2014. The grand summit in 2014 was planned as a space where people from across the country could meet and construct a united list of demands and plan the next mobilizations with which to advance them.

The Agrarian Summit was a success by all accounts. 16 different working groups convened to discuss issues that were raised during the strike such as land, collective territories, and territoriality systems; a campesino subsistence economy vs. the model of spoliation; mining and energy; illicit cultivations of coca, marijuana, and opium poppy; political rights, guarantees, victims, and justice; social rights (health care and education); relationship between the city and the countryside; and peace, social justice, and a political solution. Participants wove their own personal and community experiences in with the broader social, economic, and political context to analyze these themes and make sharp critiques.

The discussions after the working groups’ meetings were dedicated to creating plans for future mobilizations. In all of the discussions, unanimous consensus was reached that there must be another national strike. Delegates stressed that this strike cannot just be of the agrarian sector: the next strike will be a national agrarian, civic, popular, and urban strike. The resolutions were used to create a strong united agenda which will be used in future government negotiations.

When the strike commences, thousands will be taking their voices and demands to the streets. Folks in many regions have already started strategizing their mobilizations, choosing key locations for roadblocks of multinational corporations and their operations, or key locations on the inter-country highways used to export and import goods. Stay tuned during this exciting moment in Colombian history!

1  Participating organizations in the summit include, but not limited to, Mesa de Interlocución Agraria (MIA – Roundtable of Agrarian Dialogue), Coordinador Nacional Agrario (CNA – National Agrarian Coordinator), Congreso de los Pueblos (Peoples’ Congress), Proceso de Comunidades Negras (PCN – Process of Black Communities), Mesa de Unidad Agraria (MUA – Agrarian Unity Roundtable), Coalición de Movimientos y Organizaciones Sociales de Colombia (COMOSOC – Coalition of Social Movements and Organizations of Colombia), Organización Nacional Indígena de Colombia (ONIC – National Indigenous Organization of Colombia), Movimiento por la Constituyente Popular (MCP – Movement for the Popular Constituent Assembly), Marcha Patriotica (Patriotic March), Federación Nacional Sindical Unitaria Agropecuaria (FENSUAGRO – National United Agriculture and Livestock Trade Union Federation), Asociación Nacional de Zonas de Reserva Campesina (ANZORC – National Association of Peasant Reserve Zones), and Asociación Campesina Popular (Popular Peasant Association).

Zoe Pepper-Cunningham is a researcher for the McGill Research Group Investigating Canadian Mining Companies in Latin America.