Colombia Accompaniment Report: An Endangered Agrarian Way of Life

Received 2nd September 2013 from Barranquilla-based August accompaniers Lora Burge and Sergio Centeno. (Lora writing.)

I sat in on a meeting the other day at the Presbiterio de la Costa’s office.  There were some visitors in for a week from Venezuela and this was a general introduction to the presbytery, the Presbyterian Church of Colombia, and the local context.  Since I was around, I was invited to sit in on the meeting and add in any additional thoughts I had.

A hot topic right now nationwide is the paro de agricultores—or the agricultural workers’ strike.  This strike officially began on August 19th.   Participation and intensity of the strike depends on the region.  In the two weeks of strike, the government and police forces have shown quite a variety of responses.  Limited recognition of the national government to listen to the unions and their leaders has not produced results so far. 

A national strike in Colombia means blocking the roads with rocks, trees and other large objects and then amassing a large crowd of people to further prevent any traffic or commerce to go through.  Why would agricultural workers suspend labor and harvest as well as transportation that would take their crops to market?  Because they desperately need the government to pay attention to their situation and where it is headed if there is no intervention. 

 As I was sitting in on the meeting at the presbytery the other day, we were talking about how the Free Trade Agreement and the strikes are very much related.  The Free Trade Agreement has been in effect long enough that results and impact on everyday people is now easily recognizable.  Land displacement has long been an issue because of more than 50 years of violent internal conflict.  Upwards of 6 million people within the country are displaced.   The Free Trade Agreement and arrival of large multinational corporations only worsens the issue of displacement in Colombia.

The thought I had was this: “If you take land away from a campesino (word used to refer to a person who lives in the country and is a farmer or works the land in some way), you take away their whole way of life.”  Most campesinos have always worked the land and their parents and grandparents have always worked the land.  They live by cycles of growing and harvesting.  Land for campesinos is more than the place where their house is located; it involves purpose, identity, family heritage and history, their livelihood and their community. 

The Free Trade Agreement has a number of clauses that are crucial in this conversation.  One imposes strict rules on the kinds of seeds and fertilizers that can be used for commercial production, criminalizing the historic practice of keeping the best seeds for the next planting.   Other issues such as the rapid expansion of multinational corporations (agricultural and industrial), severe changes in import/export trends in Colombia and global market prices are making it increasingly hard if not impossible to survive as a Colombian campesino.  If one is not displaced by agrobusiness, international mining corporations, or FTA/FTC regulations, then the campesino way of life itself is endangered.  Global economics, the current government’s push for economic development, and personal and community frustrations are all stacked against the campesinos at this point.

As I leave Colombia, there’s no talk of the strike being over.  Various other national labor unions have joined in solidarity with the striking agricultural unions.  Each day brings a new set of headlines about which highways and towns are currently blocked and where there was violent confrontation between strikers and police and government forces.  

In the meanwhile, we pray:

God, Creator of the Earth:  We pray especially for the campesinos who work the land in Colombia.  While they don’t want to leave their land dormant, they are watching their lives threatened by new policies and market trends. We pray for the government that has supported the policies and economic agreements that have drastically changed the countryside.  May they remember that they are obligated to protect and provide for all Colombians. We hope that conversation and dialogue will be favored over conflict.  Most of all, we hope for a Colombia built of healthy communities and a healthy environment.   In your mercy, Lord, hear our prayer.  Amen.