We Have an Historic Mission: To Defend Our Territory
By Laura Lorenzi
June 29, 2009
In the dispute that exists in Colombia over land, the peasants of the Southern Bolivar region, united in the Committee for a Dignified Life, reaffirm their commitment to defend the territory, and their right to possession and use of the land.
The Committee for a Dignified Life, which met in the village of Villanueva in San Pablo from June 26 to 28, is a participatory democracy that provides the opportunity for delegates from the Community Action Committee that make up the Peasant Association of the Cimitarra River Valley to meet periodically and reach an agreement regarding the type of development they advocate for their region. The delegates are campesinos who are aware of the importance of being active participants in shaping the future of their land and their lives. "We have an historic mission: to defend our territory," say the representatives of the rural communities.
The meeting, attended by 16 villages and various national and international groups involved in organizational activities in the region, addressed 3 topics: the Peasant Reservation Area, the human rights and humanitarian crisis, and the cultivation of illicit crops and their replacement.
Peasant delegates recalled the most important stages of the organizational process that led them to unite and form a peasant organization that defends their interests in the region. These include the march of ‘96 and the peasant exodus of ‘98 - massive actions that actually achieved important results thanks to the dialogue with the governments of Samper and Pastrana.
Among these processes, the creation of the Peasant Reservation Area stands out. This legal entity was made possible through Law 160 of 1994, which entails land titling and implementation of a development plan drafted by local communities, prevents the expansion of large agricultural estates, and promotes dignified development that is respectful of the environment, the economy, and of peasant organizations.
This entity is particularly important in a country like Colombia, which ranks third in the world in terms of level of land concentration, and where the level of national sovereignty is worryingly low. One of the government’s priorities is to generate development by inviting in multinationals and foreign investors that, according to president Álvaro Uribe Vélez, generate employment opportunities and an increase in the living standards of poor Colombians. As the neoliberal formula of a trickle down economy describes: in a pyramid of glasses where water falls from the top, water drains into the glasses on the lower levels until all are full.
The reality is quite different in Colombia and in the world. The entry of multinationals and large foreign investors has not meant development for the communities of Southern Bolivar. Instead, it only has coincided with rising levels of violence in the population, armed repression and indiscriminate exploitation of natural resources. The repression has been manifested mainly in two ways: on the one hand, in the use of force by the army and the paramilitaries that terrorize and abuse the civilian population and, on the other hand, laws such as the Code of Mines, the Informants Law, and programs like Families in Action and Forest Rangers, through which rural development is hampered and the civilian population become involved in the armed conflict.
These two forms of repression that, together, have been set into motion by the government, seek to displace farmers from their farms in order to free up the rural areas for the entry of multinationals. The humanitarian crisis generated as a result of institutionalized violence in the service of this type of economic model has historically been acute in Southern Bolivar and throughout Magdalena Medio--laboratories for the implementation of the paramilitary strategy that were then progressively extended to other regions of the country. Constant reports tell of the systematic human rights violations, injuries and deaths caused by the armed conflict and the generalized violence in rural areas where civilians live in fear and anxiety for their lives. According to the Vice President of the Republic, in the month of May alone, 17 people were killed by violence in the municipality of San Pablo.
In this context of rights violations and an absence of a functioning government, there is an economic crisis exacerbated by fumigations that, in the month of March, forced farmers to stop cultivating their crops. Under the pretext of ending the cultivation of illicit crops, the Colombian government resorted to indiscriminate aerial spraying of glyphosate, destroying food crops eaten by the civilian population. In Southern Bolivar, for the last three decades coca crops have been grown because of the difficulty in selling other products and, despite the dismal state of roadways, became the principal means of livelihood for local people.
Through aerial spraying, a coercive measure carried out by the national government since 1976 and funded, since 1999, by Plan Colombia, the government aims to achieve two results: eradicating illicit crops and putting an end to the insurgency that, according to the government, is principally funded by coca. Governmental attempts have so far met with little success because the guerrillas, who were born long before the rise of the cocaine trade, continue their armed struggle and the illicit crops, far from being eradicated, continue to exist in Colombia. These crops have generated a black market economy from which many sectors of society greatly benefit.
The biggest concern comes from a clause in the Strategy for Strengthening Democracy and Social Development 2007-2013 (EFDDS), better known as Phase II of Plan Colombia, that stipulates if illicit crops are not cut by 50% by 2013, the Colombian government may consider seeking the direct entry of U.S. forces into Colombia to address the issue, further emphasizing the lack of Colombian national sovereignty.
The proposal put forth by the peasants of Southern Bolivar and many other regions has remained the same for many years: that there be a concerted effort to replace illicit crops with alternatives permitting decent livelihoods for the civilian population and social investment in marginalized areas of Colombia. However, the State's response has always been the same—a response announced by the noise of helicopters and planes carrying destruction and despair.
Despite this bleak picture, they have not succeeded in stopping the civil resistance that rural communities have engaged in for decades. As in Swift’s story of Lilliput, the small inhabitants unite against the giant enemy that seems invincible. Today, more than ever, rural inhabitants reaffirm the importance of grassroots organizations as a means of defending their territory and the rights of sovereign people in their own land. They are not willing to accept the devastating plan that the government has prepared for them.