(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
Ancestral practices such as majadeo (sustainable agriculture techniques) survive on the high plain, but strangers who have never set foot in Meta Province are now starting to be landowners.
By: Aida Pesquera and Miguel Mejía August 17, 2016.
More campesinos and indigenous people are living in the High Plain and in the Orinoco Basin than the promoters of the Zidres would like to admit. With this soil, poor and infertile, acid and hard to get to, people grow cacao, coffee and fruit in Arauca, marañon (a fruit) in Puerto Carreño (Vichada Province); there are cattlemen all over the region, growers of corn, yucca, bananas, watermelon, and pineapple, and in Casanare and Guaviare, there are growers of rice, some with diversified plantings that mix in the coca leaf. In La Primavera and Santa Rosalía (Vichada Province) there is an association of more than 300 “vegueros” near the Meta River: “amphibious” campesinos who don’t own land titles but who use the alluvial plain to produce tons of food crops (traditional corn, bananas and yucca) for their own use and for local markets at very high cost.
The more than 400 leaders building their skills at the Itinerant School of Agricultural Policy confirm this. The School is an initiative supported by Oxfam Colombia and the Corporation for the Protection and Development of Rural Territories (Prodeter). Many of the leaders belong to community action committees, councils and to the Piapoco and Sikuani indigenous reservations, to the largest zone reserved for campesinos in the country – Calamar (Guaviare Province), and to producer organizations, cattlemen and social organizations of the second and third levels in the area.
The new neighbors and the new plains dwellers
New neighbors have arrived at these inhospitable lands that are hard to get to and have high production costs. From Arauca to the Guaviare you can hear hundreds of stories about regional and national politicians, local and foreign business owners. All you have to do is visit the towns at the edge of the Meta River, between Puerto Carreño and Puerto Gaitán, to prove the existence of the properties with new owners who have never set foot in that region and now have titles, some with different sorts of straw men: family, friends, employees; properties titled in third parties.
There you will see the large farm belonging to Habib Merheg, for example; more than 40,000 hectares, with a title registered in an irregular manner. (1) But there are also farms belonging to Indupalma, Riopaila, Cargill (Colombia Agro), and the Macondoan mills and silos belonging to Sugranel and Navitel. These last two companies belong to the Santo Domingo group. There are also the farms belonging to national and foreign forestry companies that now have been offered the chance to be part of national protected areas.
This law “express” was designed just for them. To its release ceremony, President Santos invited Mr. Grobo, the “Soy King” from La Argentina, in Orocué (Casanare Province) one of the municipalities at the edge of that same river. The campesinos relate that he was the latest of the invitees. The Santo Domingo group travels around the countryside with foreign investors: Canadians, United States investors, Chinese, Israelis, and Malays, among others, urging them to invest in the properties where they are pushing the “experiments” with crops like industrial corn, palm, soybeans, sorghum and sugar cane, among other crops that they are pushing because they are not part of the daily diet of Colombians.
Laboratories stretch for more than 40,000 hectares, where only 5,000 hectares are being used, and where there are resident engineers and consultants with Brazilian accents (2). They tuned up the latest machinery, tractors and combines that can be driven by satellite. That same project is planning for Navitel, the shipping company on the Meta River, to come in. In its first design, it had an oversized barge for one of the most challenging rivers of the Orinoco Basin. Their business is so good that it’s obvious that there is no need to build the highways they are promising. Even the campesinos tell how this project failed because of the “legal insecurity for the investors”, which insecurity, according to the locals, Senator Robledo generated by denouncing the illegal accumulation of the country’s uncultivated properties.
The Big Fish
The ex-Minister of Agriculture Rubén Darío Lizarralde attended a forum on Zidres that was organized in June by the University of the Andes in La Primavera (Vichada Province). His cynicism or his audacity did not keep him from saying, in front of hundreds of impassive campesinos, that he himself had promoted a law that would benefit him directly and that, in spite of the fact that he didn’t like the final text because it was different from the one he wanted, he had a commitment with President Santos to set up the first Zidres in the country. This episode was so shameless that the Controller’s Office has now determined that Lizarralde’s case is a patrimonial detriment (legal term for loss or damage to the national government). The campesinos of Carreño, for example, are saying that Indupalma treats them like serfs: it subtracts food, shelter and uniforms from their wages, the same way they treat their campesino partners in Magdalena Medio, where they make them pay mortgages on their own property (These mortgages are not to pay for the land, because campesinos already have ownership and rights to their property. The mortgages are forced upon campesinos in order to further profit Indupalma).
As has already happened in other parts of the world, this model of concentration of land holdings is so intimidating that they are actually fencing the properties of those campesinos who have refused to sell, pressuring them so as to absorb them. In this case, we have a recent example of the victimization of a family that did not want to sell its property to a farmer who wanted to do a forestry project. When the owner refused to allow the farmer’s employees to enter his property, they sent an armed gang, “a private army” that is active in this region and in March of this year they attacked the owner’s house and displaced the family. “The gang tried to find the property’s title papers, but they couldn’t find them,” said the victimized owner’s wife.
“Majadeo”: The big fish will eat the little fish, whether the little fish resists or not
In the Agriculture School we learned that for the properties that don’t have titles, the campesinos got tired of requesting land titles and the promised agricultural advisors and modern machinery. The campesinos and the indigenous people need to produce their own food as an act of sovereignty, of resistance, and of survival, because it is not only expensive to harvest the crops, it’s obviously expensive to sell their products without roads. Just like the “vegueros” in the amphibian culture of the Meta River, we adapt to the river’s dynamic so as to get the benefit of the fertility produced by its waters. The campesino ranchers and farmers and indigenous people have developed cultural practices, a reflection of their wisdom and of the ecosystemic symbiosis (the integration between society and nature), an age-old technological innovation, a resource of biocultural memory: in acid and “poor” soil, you enrich fertility by combining cattle ranching and family farming, rotating pastures and mixing organic fertilizer (animal manure), plowing the soil with this “countrified” enrichment. “Here you don’t get anything that you didn’t plant” is what the farmers say. This is “mahadeo”, an authentic labor of adaptation and cultural resilience for growing food, an agro-ecological practice and an indicator of environmental sustainability for family farming.
Oxfam Colombia and Prodeter want to highlight these kinds of practices in campesino family farming that are held back by the false premise of industrial agriculture. It obscures and devalues it as “mistaken intuition” in the words of researcher Berry (3). “We are not against industry nor against business development; what we oppose are the practices that violate our right to market our products and to an unfair and an unequal economy. They cannot build an agricultural development model on a false premise of agro-industrial development that produces supplies for machinery and concentrates to feed animals and, worse yet, violates the land rights of campesinos and indigenous people.” Oxfam Colombia has documented these kinds of cases in various parts of the world, showing that behind the food and land industries, there are victims, and that the model renders invisible the campesino family farming that feeds the world and cools the planet. It’s worth mentioning that in 13 cases of agro-industrial and forestry projects the Controller’s Office has found a patrimonial detriment (legal term for loss or damage to the national government), because of the prohibited accumulation of uncultivated properties and because of providing every company a subsidy of 20 billion pesos (4). What would happen if there were economic justice in Colombia, if there were fair distribution of resources and equality in development? Perhaps peace would come even sooner than the silencing of the guns.
 Aida Pesquera, OXFAM Colombia and Miguel Mejía, PRODETER Corporation (Corporation for the Protection and Development of Rural Territories)