Colombian farmers’ organizations on Sunday called for a day of protests in the national capital, Bogota, the following day, half a year after previous agro-protests prompted a deadly response from public security forces.
Some 4,000 farmers gathered on Saturday and Sunday in Colombia’s capital for the so-called Agrarian Summit, an independently held meeting of social and labor groups from the Colombian countryside, many of the same organizations that led a nationwide strike movement last August protesting the dire socio-economic circumstances for the country’s rural population.
The groups met to iron out a new list of grievances, after the negotiations that ended last year’s strike efforts bore little in the way of long-term solutions to what President Juan Manuel Santos acknowledged, at the time, to be the “crisis” facing the Colombian countryside.
Colombia’s rural poor, long since caught in the crossfire of an ongoing war between drug-trafficking guerrillas groups, neo-paramilitary armies, and the Colombian Armed Forces, are also suffering from the financial ruin of the agricultural industry, brought on by what the farmers feel is the neglect of a distant Bogota government.
Long road ahead of violent protests
According to farm leaders, conditions have either stagnated or worsened since last summer’s nationwide protests.
With poor returns on monoculture farming, high cost of fertilizer and oil, rising debt on loans taken against a weak Colombian peso, and increased competition brought on by free trade economic policy, Colombian farmers find themselves incapable of harvesting their crops at a profit.
Following countrywide violent protests in August last year to demand attention to the situation in the countryside, the farmers and the government agreed to acknowledge that rural communities have been neglected by the state for decades. Agreements were then signed to alleviate the farmers’ economic problems in both the short and the long term.
Curiously, days before the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos signed a pact with the farmers’ organizations, the government organized an Agrarian Pact summit which was never attended by the farmers, but by municipal governments and public-private federations close to the government.
“The Agrarian Pact is for those wearing ties,” rural leaders were quoted saying by Spanish news agency EFE.
Additionally, the government closed an undisclosed deal with rebel group FARC over agrarian reform as part of ongoing peace talks, but also in these talks the farmers were not engaged.
|“They took” $2.94 billon “from the banks to give it the farmers, but are keeping half themselves.”|
“Emergency budget cut in half”
Since then, the farmers said, the government has halved the funds for a promised $2.94B emergency bailout.
“The ‘four per 1000′ tax is that every time you make a bank transaction, they take four of every 1000 pesos, so this way more or less they collect six trillion pesos a year which for twelve years had been for the banks,” Cesar Pachon, one of the farmers’ leaders, told Colombia Reports.
“This was a measure that was taken to get us out of the crisis. It turns out that they aren’t going to give us the four, but two,” said Pachon.
“But what about the rest? Then we won’t be able to help everyone and this money belongs to the people. They took it from the banks to give it to the farmers, but are keeping half themselves,” said the farmers’ leader.
Now that the government unilaterally decided to keep half of the emergency budget, the farmers are left with half the debt that has been accumulated as the sector went downward.
“The debts are not the fault of them, but of those of politics in Colombia.”
Trade pacts conflict vs rural stimulation deals
Additionally, the farmers are angry that Colombia signed a trade pact with the regional Pacific Alliance bloc after signing agreements with the farmers to protect local consumption markets from foreign competition, signed after the violence that killed twelve and caused major riots in Bogota when urban and minority organizations decided to join the farmers in their protests.
In protest of the government’s actions, the farmers decided to meet in Bogota’s Sport Palace to jointly draft a proposal focused on a wide range of subjects and demands.
In the document, the farmers demand land reform, a renegotiation of the trade agreement signed with the United States.
Farmers and sympathizers announce immediate march
In order to make sure the compromises are honored, the farmers called on their supporters and sympathizing organizations to march on Monday from the El Campin stadium to the central Bolivar Square, where both Congress and the Presidential Palace are located.
The farming protests are supported by dismissed socialist Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro, who has been calling on his political supporters to seek the annulment of his 15-year ban from politics, which is expected to take effect after a ruling by the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights.
The last time Petro and the farmers took to the street massive violence broke out as both police units and rioters among the protesters incited violence, which led to an immediate end to the Bogota protests, the militarization of the city and promises of more fierce responses to rural blockades.
As violence escalated, farmers called off road blocks and sat down with the government — months after initially announcing the protests and the apparent inaction of the Santos administration, which the farmers claim continues to be the main issue.
Santos — who is increasingly occupied by an election race culminating on May 25, when he hopes to be re-elected — said Sunday that “we are honoring the compromises obtained by the farmers.”