Beginning on Monday, August 19th, broad sectors of Colombian society rose up together in a national strike. The strike, which is now taking place in cities and rural areas across the country, includes coffee growers’ unions, truck drivers, small-scale miners, students, teachers, health workers, farmers, and fishermen. CPT has had a presence at the strikes and roadblocks taking place in Segovia and Remedios, in northeastern Antioquia. What follows is a short primer on why Colombians are striking, the historical context of these demonstrations, and what the demonstrators have demanded from the State.
A Historical Debt
Colombia is a country deeply divided by economic inequality. This is especially stark when one travels between a city center and a rural area: 64% of the country’s rural population lives in poverty, as compared to 39% in the cities. Almost half of all rural Colombians live in extreme poverty, defined as subsisting on less than $1.00 a day. All told, more than 15 million Colombians live in poverty, most of them in the countryside.
Colombia is also home to five million internally displaced people, a number on par globally only with the Sudan. That adds up to one in ten Colombians, all displaced within the last twelve years to refugee camps, shantytowns, and temporary shelters. Women, Afro-descendants, and indigenous peoples are more likely than any others to be displaced.
But Colombia is also a nation of great wealth and a growing GDP. Unfortunately, the poor have not seen the benefits of that growth. The country is the second-most unequal in the Western Hemisphere, following close on the heels of Haiti. It is the 8th most unequal nation on the planet. In the rural areas, this inequality manifests itself most obscenely in rates of land ownership: 0.4% of landowners own 61% of rural land, and that concentration is increasing even further with the skyrocketing foreign investment that Colombia has seen in the last fifteen years.
The recent spate of Free Trade Agreements has only worsened the situation. Oxfam and others estimated that the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, which went into effect in 2012, would mean that small farmers in rural areas would lose up to 70% of their income. The rate of displacement has already increased since the Free Trade Agreement went into effect.
As strike organizers wrote on the first day of the demonstrations, there is
“…a historical debt that the Colombian State has with the rural sector. The laws that have been passed based on our claims end up being dead on arrival, unfunded based on the pretext of budget deficits. All the while, the economic sector reports record earnings, which are never reflected in our incomes or our local quality of life.
On top of that, the government has applied a legislative package that regulates agricultural production, mining, energy production, housing, and public services in a way that favors the interests of capital and runs counter to the interests of the people. One third of the rural population lives in extreme poverty… 75.5% of Colombian municipalities are rural, and 31.6% of the population lives in them.
In our lives, this historical social debt is reflected in territorial dispossession; in the State’s refusal to award or allocate land; in their refusal to pay attention to our communities; in the failure of State policies to strengthen local agriculture and fisheries; in mining policies that favor multinationals over local communities, small-scale and artisanal miners; and in the absence of the State in terms of social investment programs in education, health, housing, infrastructure, roads, and public services.
Article 65 of the Colombian constitution states that “food production shall enjoy the special protection of the State.” However, agricultural policy has not resolved the issue of food insecurity, malnutrition, and hunger… 58.3% of rural households experience some degree of food insecurity. 20% of children under 5 suffer chronic malnutrition, and 1.3% suffers acute malnutrition. According to the Human Rights Ombudsman, 40.8% of the country’s total population experiences food insecurity. In the face of these lived injustices, we have sent letters, held meetings and hearings, we have made use of our legitimate right to protest, come to agreements with various municipal, state, and even the federal government, in order to come up with a solution to these problems in the rural sector, which affect the whole of Colombian society. Every one of these agreements has been systematically violated by the State and its various institutions.”
Profits of Gold Mining
Foreign investment by extractive industries in Colombia has skyrocketed over the past fifteen years, due in part to a much-touted reduction in guerrilla activity which makes mining more profitable and less risky for multinationals. Owing to those changes, and responding to a hike in gold prices during the global financial crisis, gold production in the country has tripled since 2006. But despite the vast expansion of mining in the country, most gold mining projects are still only in the exploratory stage, with multinationals lining up for concessions in rural areas. In the words of one U.S.-based financial analyst, Colombia “has been underexplored for decades due to guerrilla warfare and other problems. Because of that, I believe there is a lot more opportunity there [than in other gold‐producing regions].”
This frenzy has amounted to a 640% increase in multinational mining investment in Colombia since 1999. The government’s spending on infrastructure development is highly concentrated in areas under exploration by multinationals, and up to a reported forty percent of the nation’s rural land is now open for multinationals to apply for concessions. These statistics, combined with the recently updated federal mining code (parts of which were rumored to have been written by South African mining giant AngloGold Ashanti) that eases restrictions on mining for multinationals, paint a clear picture of a rentier State that is paving an airstrip for foreign capital to swoop in and make off with its national patrimony, while current and displaced residents of gold-rich zones live without roads, sanitation, or social infrastructure. (See Pierre Shantz’s reflection here, which discusses gold profits in Segovia, Antioquia.)
Moreover, the current economic conjuncture takes place within the context of an armed conflict, which, contrary to the national narrative, has not ended. Rural residents in particular continue to be affected by the predations of legal and illegal armed groups, as organizers in Antioquia explain:
“[We live in] regions forgotten by the Colombian State, where the social and armed conflict has been experienced more intensely, leaving hundreds of families without land, dispossessed and uprooted from their territories, invaded by militarism and plans for territorial consolidation, alongside a high presence of transnational and multinational corporations that make possible the actions of paramilitary and delinquent groups in the Colombian countryside, and which have subjected the rural and urban population to a humanitarian crisis for decades.
Extrajudicial executions, stigmatization and false accusations against social movement leaders, blockages of economic and health aid, and shootings and indiscriminate bombings by the Armed Forces are other forms of violence which small farmers in the region have had to endure. This violence has been the only evidence of any State presence in the rural areas.”
Social Movement Demands
In sum, while Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) continues to rise in Colombia, especially in the gold mining sector, local communities—many of whom have been making their living mining small amounts of gold by hand for centuries—have seen none of the benefits of that influx of capital, and instead have suffered further violence, displacement, and impoverishment as foreign multinationals and local elites line their increasingly heavy pockets. The Santos administration has refused to put foreign investment or the free trade economic model on the table during its current negotiations with the FARC-EP. In response, organizers of the National Strike yesterday released a list of six specific demands of the government. These include:
- We demand the implementation of measures and actions to confront the crisis of production in the agricultural and fishing sectors.
- We demand access to property ownership and land titling.
- We demand recognition of peasant land reserves.
- We demand the effective participation of local communities and small-scale and traditional miners in the formulation and development of federal mining policy.
- We demand that the State adopt measures, and comply with them, to guarantee the exercise of the rural population’s political rights.
- We demand social investment in the rural and urban sectors in the areas of education, health, housing, public services, and roadways.
The organizers conclude: “On our behalf, our national spokespeople are initiating a dialogue and the formation of the Roundtable for Dialogue and Agreement (MIA), which we propose as the setting for the popular sector and the government to address this list of demands and come to an agreement about them.”
To continue to follow unfolding developments in the National Strike, check out our Storify page, where we will continue to post the latest news.