By Colombian journalist Sandra Ramírez
Colombia seems to be a country divided into two realities: one in the cities, and the one in the country side. The second has been the setting of violence, poverty, inequality and social injustice for decades. However, as the Colombian economy continues to grow, and as new free trade agreements come into effect, the long marginalized peasants are forcing their voices to be heard. Over the last week or so, thousands of peasants from all different sectors of production (milk, potatoes, onion, fruit, and coffee, for example) have decided to go on strike, demanding a rather basic right: dignity.
Today, Thursday August 29, the protests are expected to reverberate around the country. Fruit stands in Bogotá remain empty, while skirmishes spark in villages, and road blocks shut down inter-regional traffic.
Peasants in Colombia produce at least 70 percent of the country’s food, but slim margins mean little profit. For instance, according to Cesar Pachón, leader of the potatoe growers, producing 100 kilos of potatoes costs $75,000 Colombian pesos (about US$30), and that same quantity sells for $20,000 pesos (about US$10).
Peasants says that the enforcement of the 2012 Free Trade Agreement between the United States and Colombia, ratified under former president Álvaro Uribe, created market conditions in which they cannot compete. Supplies such as fertilizer in Colombia are the most expensive in Latin America, costing upwards of 40 percent of the production of food, making it impossible for Colombian peasants to offer a better price than foreign producers. Furthermore, peasants argue that the government has no plan to protect small farmers, and that it has failed to fulfill a commitment to subsidize agrarian production.
Despite the magnitude of the protests, currently active in 11 of 32 regions in the country, President Juan Manuel Santos stated that “there was no such a thing like an agrarian strike” (“el tal paró nacional agrario no existe”). This statement created a worse atmosphere as it inspired other sectors to support the peasantry.
While farmers started blocking the main roads of transportation, the riot control police (ESMAD) violently attacked the protesters. Videos and photographs taken by the peasants have been distributed on the internet demonstrating the abuse of authority.
What started in the countryside…
…has spread to the city…
As in Brazil, this excessive use of force led more people to take to the streets in support of the protesters. Since last Monday more people have joined to support the peasants in main urban centers. This Monday, President Santos accepted the peasants proposal to negotiate measures that would improve their production capabilities .
Two days have passed since Santos arrived in Boyacá (a region where protests have been particularly intense). The government has proposed reduced fertilizer tariffs, technical assistance, and credit refinancing, but the strikes continue and the roads remain blocked. Today they are expected expand.
What has been called an agrarian strike now includes students, unionists, health sector workers, and others.
President Santos and his government need to answer to the demands of the peasants in a comprehensive manner. People want solutions. They want to be heard and they want to be taken seriously. Perhaps the biggest mistake Santos committed was to diminish the impact of the agrarian strike, attributing the uprisings only to anger over police brutality. The peasants have been clear that this time they want real solutions with immediate effects. Perhaps that is why they are taking time to figure out their options, and they are not accepting the first deal on the table, instead allowing the protests to grow.
In the meantime, still no fruit in Bogotá.
Sandra Ramírez is a Colombian journalist with an MA in Development Studies, specialized in Human Rights, Development and Social Justice from the International Institute of Social Studies of the Erasmus University of Rotterdam.
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