After three weeks of strikes, Colombia’s government has agreed to a national dialogue with leaders of Colombia’s rural protest movement. The following is a point-by-point breakdown of the protesters’ demands.
Strike organizers have called for the creation of a new national agricultural policy.
President Juan Manuel Santos was set to release his administration’s proposal addressing the express needs of protesters on Thursday, but strike leaders have almost unanimously rejected it offhand, saying they will not settle for anything less than a dialogue revolving around the points they themselves have outlined.
- Guarantee prices on agricultural goods
- The most basic problem underlying the agricultural crisis is farmers’ inability to sell their produce at a profit. Farmers want to establish a fixed price on their goods independent of market fluctuation. The government would then subsidize any difference between the going market rate and the fixed rate, which would be adjusted periodically for inflation.
- Reduce fuel prices
- The agreement that ended the national truckers strike included a temporary freeze on gas prices, which truckers say are exorbitant, while a joint council of labor leaders and government officials can come up with a lasting solution. The MIA claims to speak for truckers’ interests specifically, but fuel costs also affect the cost of shipping materials like fertilizer, as well as the cost of operating farm equipment.
- Farmers and truckers have complained that Colombia, a relatively fuel-rich country, exports too much of its energy to foreign markets, while costs within the country remain at among the highest levels in Latin America. Both groups say that, without access to a consistent source of cheaper energy, it is financially impossible for them to operate at a profit.
- Reduce the prices of fertilizer, insecticide, compost, and other necessary farm-production materials
- The financial insolvency of Colombia’s small and medium-scale farmers in particular is largely due to unsustainable production costs.
- End anti-drug eradication policy
- Currently, the Colombian government’s anti-narcotics efforts use aerially dispersed herbicides to kill coca, poppy, and marijuana fields. But the process is inexact and indiscriminate, reportedly causing thousands of farmers to lose entire crops, whether they included narcotics-related plants or not, and infecting villages with toxic chemicals.
- Heavy protests earlier this summer in the Catatumbo region revolved specifically around the eradication issue. Farmers managed to win a temporary, selective pause of the policy, arguing that the inviability of other types of farming leaves coca production as the only available option. No such agreement exists on the national level, however.
- Limit importations of foreign agricultural products also grown in Colombia, revise free trade agreements with the United States, China, and Europe, and halt negotiations on any new free trade agreements
- It is unclear to what extent free trade has actually wrecked Colombia’s agricultural economy. Since Colombia signed a free trade agreement with the United States last summer, agricultural imports from the United States have gone up 81%, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, including a 2000% increase in the import of rice, and a 47% increase overall in the import of vegetables. But some economists have pointed out that even with the increases, imports such as frozen potatoes represent a relatively small percent of the total amount consumed in Colombia — not enough to cause the economic collapse farmers have complained of. Still, the long term implications of unrestricted free trade are difficult to ignore. A study by the International Law Students Association, for example, determined that internal prices for crops like corn, which is massively subsidized by the United States government, would drop by as much as 60% in Colombia after the first few years of free trade.
- The Colombian government has indicated it is willing to suspend imports from other Latin American countries, but has avoided mentioning deals with the United States or Europe, which protesters say are the bigger concern.
- Some economists report that contraband smuggling has actually had a more significant impact on food prices in Colombia than free trade, and the government has already said it will work with farmers to ensure better border security.
- Annul debts to finance sector
- Truckers and farmers claim they have fallen victim to predatory loans on lands, trucks, and farming equipment and materials, with inflated rates tied to the American dollar.
Access to land rights
The historically aristocratic structure of Colombian society, and the historically colonial structure of its economy, has left the majority of its rural population without significant land holdings, or indeed, any land holdings at all. This legacy forces agricultural workers in particular into peasant relationships with large landowners, and is at the heart of the rampant poverty and deepening wealth disparity endemic to the Colombian countryside.
- Reparations for land theft
- Over more than 50 years of armed guerrilla conflict, millions of acres of land have been stolen from tens of thousands of rural Colombians. The Colombian government has initiated programs to identify and compensate displacement victims, but protesters say it has not done enough to stop the problem, which they say is ongoing.
- Distribute lands
- According to estimates, nearly 15 million acres of arable land in Colombia are currently lying unused. Protesters are asking for the creation of the program to distribute dormant, farmable land to afro and indigenous communities, who have been historically been deprived of ownership rights, and forcibly removed from lands they have settled.
- Redistribution of foreign titles
- The last few months of the administration of former president Alvaro Uribe saw an astronomical increase in the amount of land awarded in multinational corporate titles. At one point, as much as 40% of territorial Colombia was being petitioned for by foreign companies, primarily in the form of large-scale mining titles. The Santos administration temporarily halted the concession process, but Santos has been a strong advocate of foreign investment in Colombia’s natural resources, and has awarded land and ‘national interest’ titles to various multinational companies. Current legal frameworks allow the government to concede land for over 50 years at a time, charging only nominal taxes and royalty fees on mining activity.
- Multinational mining companies have been linked in many cases to paramilitary activity, and are at the very least indirectly responsible for large-scale land theft. As one prominent environmental activist told Colombia Reports, “Where the mining companies go, human rights violations follow”.
- Environmentalists say large-scale mining projects irrevocably damage local communities and ecosystems. A recent longitudinal study on the open-pit coal mines in northern Colombia, for example, showed that exposure to toxic chemicals has destroyed the genetic fabric of neighboring villages, leading to perpetual sickness, and increased risks of everything from lung disease to cancer.
- Protesters say major mining operations ruin farmland, force local economies to revolve solely on mining activities, pay their workers poorly, and then leave communities economically and ecologically devastated when the resources have been used up.
- Protesters are asking for an immediate halt to all foreign land concessions, and the redistribution of current titles to residents of the Colombian countryside, especially, whenever possible, to former inhabitants of the lands themselves.
Recognition of ‘territoriality’
Provisions in the Colombian constitution establish special rights specifically for afro and indigenous Colombians. No such attention is afforded ‘campesinos,’ a broader term encompassing the various sub-demographics of rural Colombia, and one that goes unmentioned throughout the entirety of the Constitution.
- Create campesino reserves
- In many cases, indigenous populations in Colombia live on protected reserve territories, sovereign mini-states with their own autonomous laws and customs. In light of the history of abuse and neglect on the part of the national government, protesters are asking that similar territories be created for Colombia’s campesinos.
- Invest in sustainable reserve development
- Aside from the territorial concessions themselves, protesters want the government to work with local leaders to provide plans, resources and funding for sustainable development projects in the territories.
Effective participation for traditional and small-scale miners and mining communities in the formation of national mining policy
As an inclusive national platform, the MIA represents small and medium-scale miners as well as farmers. The national miners union (CONALMINERCOL) went on strike more than a month before Colombia’s agricultural sector, and has since worked out its own arrangement with the national government. Still, mining, a traditional part of the rural Colombian culture and economy, still features in the MIA’s demands, which focus on a national mining policy oriented toward small and medium-scale mining as opposed to multinational contracting.
- Halt ongoing mining title process, revise existing titles
- Large-scale mining is not, in and of itself, a bad thing, say protesters, but all major operations should be frozen, until a new mining code can guarantee the participation and input of small miners and mining communities.
- Recognize small and medium-scale, and traditional and artisanal miners
- This was one of the central focuses of the CONAMINERCOL strikes. Currently, aggressive laws combating Colombia’s illegal mining problem do not distinguish between illegal mining operations, like those run by the FARC and ELN rebel groups, and informal community mining, which has been a part of life in the Colombian countryside since before the Spanish arrived. The agreement ending the miners strikes is supposed to create a joint-commission to delineate the distinction in existing laws.
- Create new mining code
- Protesters want miners to take part in crafting national mining reform legislation
- Reforms being suggested include:
- A new, shorter maximum duration for mining titles
- Stronger environmental restrictions and oversight
- Guarantees ensuring a more localized distribution of profits from large-scale mining activities, including a new royalty system
- New revision process for all ongoing and pending mining projects that privileges environmental and local economic concerns and requires local community approval
- Initiate a national dialogue on underground ownership rights
- Water rights are the most pressing environmental question pertaining to Colombia’s mining development. If an underground stream or aquifer supplying drinking water to nearby villages and cities passes through the territory indicated on a mining title, protesters say the rights of local citizens to clean water access should take precedence over mining interests.
- Once open-pit mining, for example, begins in a given location, ownership distinctions became blurred, as mining shafts can stretch great distances underground, exceeding official title boundaries.
Adopt and adhere to measures guaranteeing real political access and rights to rural populations
It could be argued that all of Colombia’s rural populations’ various problems stem from a long-standing exclusion from Colombian democracy. Political and social analysts attribute much of the impetus behind the Colombian guerrilla conflict to a lack of adequate representation in government. And a recurring theme in protests across strike sectors has been a sense of isolation from the political process.
- Open participation
- Protesters want a permanent presence on councils and government bodies overseeing rural affairs.
- Implement approval process
- Protesters want a strong say in the approval of any project or initiative that targets or impacts the Colombian countryside.
- Open planning process
- Protesters want to be consulted on long-term development planning for the country.
Social investment in education, healthcare, housing, public services and roads
Colombia’s national infrastructure is notoriously bad, and geographic isolation plays a strong role in rural poverty and the continuing armer conflict, which takes place primarily in Colombia’s jungles and mountain terrains. The Santos administration has spearheaded unprecedented road-building projects to address these concerns, but protesters complain of corruption in the bidding process, and disagree that multinational mining royalties are needed to pay for the highway projects.
- Extend all levels of education services to rural populations
- Schools are scarce in parts of rural Colombia, especially institutes of higher education.
- Target health code and health rights to rural populations
- In Colombia, many in rural areas die from easily-treated illnesses and maladies due to a lack of access to health services.
- No statutes currently exist protecting rural communities from the impacts of large-scale mining activity, which experts say can be debilitating and even fatal.
- Set aside portions of the national budget for roads, electricity, water and sewage in the Colombian countryside
- End privatization of health, water, sewage, basic utility services
- Private and semi-private entities play a growing role in Colombia’s social services network. Striking workers in the health and education sectors are among the more strongly opposed to this trend, which they say leads to inefficiency and corruption. Rural populations in particular complain that private third parties provide inadequate services, or no services at all, and sap government funds.
- Protesters are asking dominion over basic services and utilities be returned to municipal authorities, so that citizens can keep a closer watch over how funds are being allocated, and have clearer channels to work with in the event of delays or breakdowns.
- Improve housing
- Protesters say the flooding that destroyed homes in much of coastal Colombia exposed the widespread structural deficiency of housing in Colombia, much of which consists of informal shacks, pieced together by salvaged materials. The government has gone about reconstructing homes in areas affected by the storms, but protesters are seeking preventative measures to improve home security in the country.