By Oscar León
The Real News
On Sept. 10 in Colombia, after 21 days of a nationwide strike by thousands of farmers, who were supported by bus and truck drivers, miners, students, and others joining massive demonstrations in cities and towns all around the country in places as far as Boyacá, Cundinamarca, Cauca, Huila, Putumayo, Caldas, Cundinamarca, and Nariño, and blocking more than 40 roads, in an historic moment, protesting farmers forced the Colombian government to negotiate the rejection of a farm bill and the release of detained protesters.
On Sunday, September 8, Vice President Angelino Garzón met with the Strike Negotiating Commission in Popayan and agreed to suspend Law 970, the one that gave control over seeds to the government [which made it illegal for farmers to save seeds, any seeds, forcing them to buy patented ones].
They also were promised the release of the 648 arrested during the strike and the creation of a new mining law.
Under this first and provisional agreement, the government will compensate the farmers for their losses when competing with cheaper products imported under as much as ten free market treaties with countries all around the world. In other cases it will suspend the importation of such products.
The strike was ended and negotiations started to discuss the farmers’ proposals. The process of negotiation, as well as the final agreement and its implementation, will be verified by the United Nations.
In Putumayo in the south of the country, farmers leaders and other actors of Colombian society met with President Santos and other authorities and officially started the negotiations after signing the initial document.
The destruction of the farmers’ rice stock seeds, seeds they were keeping for the following year’s planting time, occurred in Campo Alegre and other towns in 2012. For some these images became the symbol of the farmers’ strike fighting for the right to keep their seeds. Seed control was described by President Santos as having Colombia “tune up to international reality”.
Having the Law 970 suspended is a partial yet symbolic victory for Colombia’s social movement. Not only they got the seed control suspended, but most importantly, they got the Government to recognize their leadership, the Mesa de interlocución agraria, Agricultural Dialogue Table, which was elected by the the Coalition of Colombia’s Social and Political Movements to negotiatie with the government when they were organizing the strike.
The press reported a number attempts by the government to negotiate and extract concessions with various farmer groups. But 13 regions where still on strike, and the government was forced to finally sit down on the farmers’ table and negotiate.
This is a profound contrast with Colombia’s recent past. Human rights groups such as Amnesty International have documented attacks on Colombian farmers and union leaders, who have been kidnapped, tortured, and massacred by paramilitary forces, and sometimes even by the army, according to a number of reports published by Amnesty International.
Index Number: AMR 23/035/2013
One of the towns that initiated the social strife was El Catatumbo, in Tibu, north of Santander in the northwest of Colombia, where local farmers resisted 51 days in street battles like this one in the video.
El Catatumbo’s fight inspired thousand of other farmers who “lost their fear”, and about a month after that, they started a nationwide farmers strike, a strike that 21 days after it began, managed to force the government to suspend law 970 and at least study their other proposals.
To push a resumption of negotiations, the strikers opened the roads they had blockaded. The negotiations are ongoing, and they have to decide over more structural issues.
These are some of their petitions:
- To set the prices for agricultural products independently of the international market, and to set a fund to cover the difference so local farmers can get a fair price and the government can guarantee their crops;
- A reduction in the price of gas and diesel, road tolls, and reduction on the price of fertilizers and other supplies;
- Cancellation of the current agricultural policy, including the control of seeds, but also other policies not favorable to small and medium farms;
- To stop the importation of many products, but most importantly to suspend and review the free trade agreements with United States, European Union, China, and other countries;
- Pardon for small and medium farmers’ debts, and the adoption of “softer credit” for farmers via public banks;
- To stop and reverse the sale of public lands to international owners, and give them back to local farmers.
The mining sector also pledged to the strike and even incorporated its demands, some of which are:
- The participation of traditional and small mining operators when setting policy that regulates the industry;
- To stop and even revert some mining concessions and public contracts until it’s determined if the local communities are affected, if the resources generated in the mines benefit them, and if local small operations are allowed to work as well.
MINER (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): In my town, the big open mines will destroy a way of life we’ve had for 500 years. This fills our hearts with sorrow, because we have historically fought for those lands, for the tradition of artisanal mining.
LEÓN: For the population in general, they demand investment on rural populations and cities to get access to education, health care, public services, and affordable housing. Many of these demands go against the core of the neoliberal policies adopted by previous Colombian administrations.
The strike represented a broader segment of population than first thought. What started as a farmers and miners strike very soon turned into a general strike, with bus drivers, truckers, students, and even general population in the streets claiming for their own demands.
Street battles of all kinds took place, like this one in Bosa, La Libertad, a neighborhood outside Bogotá, where many protesters attempted to take a police station by storm.
The strike organization reported 660 human rights violations that were documented. The police brutality and the negative by president to recognize the farmers’ leadership, as well as the dire economic situation Colombians live every day, with a minimum salary of $291 and a gas price of $4.6 a gallon. All of this created a sort of perfect storm that exploded in August.
Police reported 648 arrested. The farmers’ organization claimed 262 of them were illegally detained. There was 485 wounded and 12 dead on a week marked by protest. And while Santos put up a political fight, at the end of the day, after his popularity went down to an all time record low of 21 percent, his government was forced to admit that it needed to recognize and negotiate with the national strike’s leaders.
We are yet to see if the Santos Administration will concede any more of the farmers demands, especially the more structural ones.
However, just as the peasant strike ended Sept. 10, some 330,000 public school teachers across Colombia opened an indefinite strike, accusing the government of failing to deliver on promises made to pay an estimated $40 billion in back wages. Leaders of the Colombia Federation of Education Workers (FECODE) charged that the government is intentionally bleeding the national school system with the intention of privatizing it. (UPI, Sept. 11; BBC Mundo, Sept. 10)