On Sunday, August 18th, young men and women from the rural communities of the Segovia and Remedios municipalities of in the department of Antioquia took to the streets armed with frustration, courage, adrenaline, and, yes, sticks and stones. They went out to the streets of Segovia to express their frustration at a system that has abandoned them to live in conditions that no human should be asked to endure.
This action is part of a larger national protest. All over Colombia small farmers, miners, the indigenous, truckers, teachers, healthcare workers, coffee and cacao growers and other agricultural sectors have joined together to cry out that they are tired of the conditions they have been asked – by the Colombian government – to endure in order to join the wider world economy. For Colombia to honor trade agreements with other nations such as the United States, Canada or the European Union, it is asking its own citizens to accept that life (in many places already harder than humanly possible) will get harder. Obviously, the Colombian government doesn’t say it like this. In fact, they say that things will improve, and that Colombia will develop. If you take a close look at what is happening and has already happened for a long time, these improvements are meant only for a certain few and seriously threaten the lives of many.
Since the arrival of the Spanish to the American continent, gold has been a source of conflict. Lusting after the shiny metal, greed pushed human decency to extreme levels of brutality, forcing people into slavery to extract this precious metal for the luxury of a few Kings and Queens in the old country. Gold mining in the region of Segovia and Remedios dates back to the early Spanish colonization in the 1500’s. The department of Antioquia was considered to be the most important gold reserve in Colombia. Thousands of tons of gold have been taken from the mountains and rivers of Antioquia.
Even though Segovia has been mined for centuries, earlier this year Canadian mining company, Gran Colombia Gold reported extracting 2.2 tons in 2012 with a projected increased annual production of 14% for 2013. Locals report a dozen dump trucks leaving the city every night, loaded with unprocessed gold ore escorted by armed guards. As in the past people watch as the wealth is shipped away and they are left with nothing. In a region with so much wealth, people still live in abject poverty. The city hospital is but a large health clinic capable of only handling basic care. Late Sunday night, one demonstrator with a gunshot wound to the leg could not be treated but had to be evacuated to Medellin, five hours away. The city’s streets are potholed, tap water is not potable and its schools are run down.
Roads into the rural communities only reach a certain point, from where most inhabitants then have to walk two or three days to reach their homes in difficult mountainous terrain. In dry conditions these roads are not so bad, but after a few days of rain a 3 hour trip often turns into 15 or 20 hours that can only be made by vehicles that look like they can compete in the Dakar Rally. Imagine what it might be like if you were to become sick and had to evacuate. If you are lucky to live in the community where the road ends, you might be able to catch the truck early next morning to Segovia or Remedios. But if you live in one of the communities beyond the end of the road then you can only hope that neighbors will help you get to the truck and hopefully the road isn’t in too bad a condition so that the constant bumping won’t increase the pain you already feel. And cross your fingers that it will only take 3 hours. In these remote communities there are no public utilities, health centers, schools, or even ways to communicate to the outside.
On August 17th, Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) arrived in Segovia to accompany 2000 small farmers, miners and indigenous peoples all joining the national strike set to start on the 19th. Children, women and men pitched their tents inside the local coliseum creating a tent city determined, despite closed quarters, to remain there till the government agrees to negotiate with them. CPT partner CAHUCOPANA and organizer of the Segovia strike, declared the coliseum as a Humanitarian Refuge. The refuge is an area protected under International Humanitarian Law (IHL) in which no arms are allowed and guarantees the protection of those residing within the area. The principal concern fro the organizers to declare this zone protected was to prevent armed actors, particularly law enforcement, from taking siege of the encampment in order to shut down the demonstrations.
CAHUCOPANA who since 2004 has worked in the rural communities of Segovia and Remedios raising people’s awareness through workshops on human rights and communities’ rights to live on and work the land. These communities and their livelihoods are being threatened by new laws that favor large agricultural and mining projects. Small miners, often called artisanal miners, are now seen in the eyes of the law as criminals. The new 2010 mining code makes it impossible for small scale miners to fulfill all the requirements to legally register their mines. These small scale miners, often called artisanal miners, are now seen in the eyes of the law as criminals. This legal maneuver makes way for large companies such as Gran Colombia Gold to mine all of the gold and take all of the profits.
In the days leading up to the national strike the Colombian government stated they recognized the people’s right to protest, and are willing to dialogue, but not under pressure of violence; by “violence,” they mean they will not accept roadblocks or confrontations. Upfront, these seem like reasonable demands, unless they are looked at through the lens of history. The communities ask: “when will the state violence end?” “When will the agreements negotiated years ago be honored?” Time and time again impoverished communities have raised their voices and demanded their constitutional right to proper infrastructure (roads, electricity, aqueducts), housing, healthcare, education, the right to have their years of working the land recognized through land ownership. They claim their right as citizens not be displaced off their land to make way for foreign companies who receive titles or concessions to exploit the land and its resources.
News coverage of the strikes has mostly focused on the clashes that have broken out between the police and demonstrators. The government uses this as an excuse to stigmatize them, claiming they are infiltrated by the guerrilla groups, to discredit their legitimate demands. And for people who live outside of these contexts, in more comfortable settings, images of masked people throwing stones from behind burning barricades raise levels of fear, often a fear of having one’s privileged lifestyle threatened or disrupted. But we must all ask ourselves: how often can people be pushed around and put down before they rise up? The people of Segovia have seen too much gold leave their community and they are saying, “Enough! It is ours, and we deserve to benefit from it, not foreign companies.”
These miners and farmers, many of whom struggle to make ends meet, are not looking to overthrow the government; they would simply like to be recognized as full citizens and have all of the rights accorded to them by the constitution of the country they so dearly love.