(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

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The post-conflict will be marked by protests both in the country and in the cities. Are social movements ready to stand up for their rights in a game of demographics? And will the government be open to dialog?

By Absalón Machado Cartagena

Agrarian strike or rural protest?

The so-called “agrarian strike” is not over. On the contrary, it continues while we wait for the government to carry out the agreements that were signed in 2013.

But for the moment the campesinos have in fact abandoned the highways, including the occupation of the Pan-American Highway. In the meantime, the talks between the Agrarian Summit and the authorities to find solutions to rural problems are continuing. The Agrarian, Campesino, Ethnic and Popular Summit began in March 2013 and was recognized officially by means of Decree 870 as a political entity with a formal sphere to negotiate its grievances with the government.

It should be said that this strike, strictly, is not agrarian because it didn’t include the participation of the most important campesino farm labor organizations, such as the Colombian Farmer Dignity organization, which is not part of the Agrarian Summit.

What happened between the end of May and the beginning of June was rather a rural protest reflecting a rising social movement that has a very diverse group of participants. In this case, the presence of indigenous people from the southern part of the country and of the Afro-Colombians from the Pacific area is especially notable.

The reasons

There are a number of reasons (but no new ones) that brought on this protest. Among others, the following stand out:

• The increasing discontent of rural inhabitants, especially in the campesino, indigenous, and Afro-Colombian communities, with the absence of the government and with the violence of all kinds that they suffer. There is also the shortage of public assets and services; the difficulty of obtaining components of production; the repeated failures of the government to keep its promises (or keeping them only in part); the precarious living conditions out in the country and the increasing inequality of income, well being and opportunity between rural and urban dwellers.
• The lack of alternative mechanisms to resolve conflicts in rural areas, because right now it appears that participatory democracy is a fiction there.
• The desire of rural residents and organizations to take part in designing public policies, in carrying them out, and in evaluation and follow-up. This is accompanied by a justified criticism of the centralized government, which is ignoring regional, territorial, and local realities, leading it to make wrong decisions.
• The failure to recognize fundamental human rights, not just by public institutions but also by private actors that ride roughshod over the people in order to maintain their privileges and give free rein to their efforts to control land and resources.
• The damage that is being done to the primary sources of rural life, such as food production, because of the growth of plantations, the chemical contamination of water, and the destruction caused by indiscriminate mining. Not to mention the growth in importation of food, leaving many farmers out of the economic system and seriously threatening their survival.
• In addition to the foregoing are the demands for justice, safety, political participation, equality, social integration, and conservation of the environment and other aspects of rural life.

In summary, these protests are the manifestation of society’s and the government’s social and political debt to the rural sector. It demands a solution through full participation by these people in the decisions that relate to the use of the country’s resources.

Problems that are well known

These are problems that have already been dealt with extensively in the National Human Development Report by the United Nations Development Program, not only in 2003, but also in 2011 and more recently by the Mission for the Transformation of the Countryside. Ultimately, what we have is a great dissatisfaction with the development model that has ruled the destinies of the Colombian countryside.

These problems are also in the center of the agendas, programs, and lists of demands of the Agrarian Summit and of the Farmer Dignity organization, and also part of the proposals of the social organizations and of the traditional farm groups such as the National Association of Campesino Users (ANUC is the Spanish acronym.). the National Agricultural Workers Union (Fensuagro) and the Colombia Truckers Association.

It’s enough to review the conclusions of the Agricultural Forum published in December of 2012 as part of the Havana peace conversations, where all of the actors in the Colombian countryside (except Fedegan, the cattle ranchers group) were present, to realize that we are facing a resurgence in the countryside, which is being expressed in these strikes and protests.

If anyone is surprised by these phenomena and attributes it to manipulations by the insurgents, they have not lived in this country, or their ideological blindness has not allowed them to see the reality in which this country is living.

All of this, of course, does not justify the things being done as a means of protest in a society that calls itself “democratic” because those things affect mobility, access to medications and food, and free movement for many people.

Learning how to protest

The misnamed “agrarian strike” is the prelude to a social struggle that will increase in the post-conflict, not only in rural areas, but also in the cities (even though they will be more accentuated in the first because the countryside lags behind). These social conflicts have already outlined their content, but other factors may appear, such as water and the environment.

Recently, perhaps for the first time, the government recognized the legitimacy of the campesino protest, opening the way for dialog and the abandonment of the roadblocks. This points to possibilities for getting together to find solutions to the problems, rather than prolonging them or calming them with promises that can’t be kept.

These mobilizations and the way they have been carried out show that both parties have much to learn about managing social protest so that they, being legitimate, do not result in harm to others and can be carried out by democratic methods.

We can’t forget that the campesino movement needs the support of urban society if it is to consolidate its legitimacy and assure a prompt response from the government. And methods such as blocking highways have been shown not to be the best instrument to gain the support of urban society.

Because of that, the parties need to innovate in carrying out their protests in order to be more effective in achieving their goals. What we are seeing is a learning process where there are still some notorious failures of leadership, of skill building, and of analyzing the context, such as the persistence of outdated visions on the management of social processes.

But we have been learning that negotiations with the campesino movement and its different expressions cannot be carried out with second-level officials who don’t know or don’t understand (or don’t want to understand) what is going on in the countryside.

The Agricultural Summit and the Farmers’ Dignity Organization are a great opportunity for the government to change its attitude of disparagement toward social organizations and recognize their dignity and legitimacy, thus also ending the stigmatization of social movements.

However, the weakness of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development continues to be notorious. If this institution and its attached entities are not strengthened immediately, the management of the post-conflict will leave much to be desired and the frustrations will increase. This Ministry ought to be ahead of the protests, but that has not been among the priorities of recent administrations of this office.

There is also a need for more unity in the campesino movement and more skill building among its members. These are historic shortcomings that have not yet been rectified and that will require time and maturity. But current circumstances point to some serious reflection on the subject.

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