For several weeks Colombia’s countryside has been alive with protests of campesinos, union members, small-scale (artisan) miners and others who have reacted against policies of the government of President Juan Manuel Santos which have harmed them and which threaten their very livelihood. On August 19, 2013 a large number of popular organizations began a general strike, seeking a change in government policies and plans. Among those who joined the protest strike were coffee growers, who have seen their market shrink; growers of potatoes and onions; and small scale milk producers.
Emblematic of these protests is the resistance by campesinos in Huila Department to the confiscation of their rice harvest by members of the government’s ESMAD (Mobile Anti-Disturbance Squadron) police because they had produced their rice from seeds they had saved from the best plants of the previous year’s planting, instead of purchasing new seed registered by ICA, the government’s agricultural agency under requirements set by the infamous so-called “Free Trade Agreement” (FTA) between the United States and Colombia. The FTA protects seed produced by Monsanto and other multinational corporations by establishing registration or licensing standards devised for them which Colombian campesino rice growers do not have the resources to meet. This has nothing to do with the quality of the rice, as campesino rice plantings have been shown to produce equal or better quality rice than the imported multinational rice. This part of the FTA has placed an estimated 400,000 campesino families at risk! This disastrous policy, meekly accepted by the Uribe and Santos governments in negotiations for the FTA, is further advanced by the elimination of import duties on rice produced in the United States, which subsidizes its rice growers. The Colombian government does not, and under the FTA rules, cannot subsidize Colombian rice growers. As a result, Colombia, which used to be self-sufficient in rice production, now imports most—and likely soon to be nearly all—of its rice. (See Victoria Solano’s documentary in Spanish: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kZWAqS-El_g&sns=em
A second area in which protests are occurring is in artisan mining regions. The Santos government came into office promising an economic bonanza through what was termed the “mining locomotive”. The government emphasized large-scale open-pit mining to be carried out by multinational mining companies, providing extremely generous terms to those who invested in these mining projects. With royalty payments to the Colombian government set at just 4% of the value of the gold mined, and with additional credits to the multinational investors, an analysis determined that Colombia would obtain only about 1% of the value of the gold mined.
A Colombia Support Network delegation got a first-hand look at the mining development in the gold-producing town of Marmato, in Caldas Department in January of last year. The Canadian mining company Gran Colombia Gold proposed to construct an open-pit mine on the gold-filled mountain on which Marmato is located. Their plan was to remove all the gold from the mountain in 20 years, blasting out the mountain and razing the old, historic town of Marmato, displacing most of the artisan miners, whose families had worked the small mines in the mountainside for hundreds of years. The miners formed a strong organization to oppose the mining plans, which we were encouraged to see defending their rights and obtaining a promise not to raze the old city. But Gran Colombia Gold, supported by the Santos administration, continues to pursue a plan which would decimate the artisan miners’ homes and livelihood. The miners went on strike to protect their homes and work, and have joined with other protest groups in what is now a national strike entering its third week. Presented by the people’s rejection of the multinational development plan, President Santos singled out for criticism two of the leading opponents of this plan with whom our delegation was privileged to meet: Senator Jorge Enrique Robledo of the Polo Democratico Party and Caldas Departmental Assembly Deputy Oscar Gutierrez. There is no more faithful representative of the best interests of the artisan miners than Oscar Gutierrez, a charismatic, dynamic leader who, having survived a serious attempt upon his life, continues to speak out for those who have been excluded from the economic benefits and political life of the country. And Senator Robledo has accurately analyzed and deftly described how the Santos government’s plans and programs have betrayed the interests of artisan miners, campesinos, and others, and has traveled throughout Colombia in support of the legitimate rights they are being denied. Instead of severely criticizing these two exceptional leaders, President Santos would be well advised to credit their criticisms and work to correct the faults they have identified.
A third component of the current strike is organized labor union membership. Colombia has for many years been the scene of the largest number of murders of union leaders in the whole world. Paramilitary organizations have for many years murdered and threatened union leaders in the mining sector, in banana plantations, and in food industries often tied to multinational corporations, such as the Coca Cola Company. Besides the murders and threats, the protected businesses have frequently failed to provide safe working environments for their employees and have paid them poorly and failed to provide benefits, such as worker’s compensation for those who are injured on the job. Many of these workers have joined the virtually-nationwide strike.
This is a crucial time for campesinos, factory workers, and artisan miners, who have been joined as well by indigenous communities threatened with the loss of their lands and their cultures by the mining and agricultural plans of the Colombian government. We support their efforts to protect their livelihoods, their families and the severely threatened natural resources. It is high time for the Colombian government to provide for the well-being of the Colombian people, rather than delivering the wealth of the country—and effectively its sovereignty—to foreign nations and multinational businesses which have demonstrated their avarice and their contempt for the campesinos, artisan miners, factory workers and indigenous communities. We salute these forgotten and mistreated parts of Colombian society and their courageous leaders. The success of their movements will greatly benefit Colombia itself.
John I. Laun
President, Colombia Support Network
September 2, 2013