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.1
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.”