Tens of Thousands of Colombian Farmers On Strike For Their Survival
Farmers and their supporters protesting so called “Free Trade Agreements” that would likely eliminate their livelihoods
OSCAR LEÓN, TRNN PRODUCER: Since Sunday the 18th, a national farmers strike takes place all around rural Colombia in places as far as Boyacá, Cundinamarca, Cauca, Huila, Putumayo, Caldas, and Nariño, blocking more than 40 roads nationwide in 17 regions of the country, where Huila and Caquetá were completely isolated.
Juan Manuel Santos, president of Colombia, while speaking about the strike on Sunday August 24, said:
JUAN MANUEL SANTOS, PRESIDENT OF COLOMBIA (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): The so-called national farmers strike doesn’t even exist.
LEÓN: On its first week, the strike was skillfully politically discredited and brutally repressed by police and military force. This was all but ignored in mainstream media, which only reported the violence in the demonstrations by the demonstrators.
Santos then continued:
SANTOS: There are some people there who have infiltrated the farmers and caused a terrible damage, and against the violent the state will be absolutely devastating. They have infiltrated the strike, trying to take over the protests. They do that to ensure there is no chance to reach an agreement.
LEÓN: However, this affirmations backfired on him rather quickly, when TV newscast and social media network broadcasted and reported images of thousands of people, 50,000 according to El Tiempo, marching in Tunja, Boyacá, making noise with pots and pans in support of the farmers’ strike.
PUBLIC SPEAKER (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): We will continue to resist and fight these policies supported by the government.
LEÓN: In Plaza Bolívar, downtown Bogotá, people demonstrated supporting the strike. However, they were far from Santos’s characterization of political agent provocateurs. These were middle class and young students, mostly people who organized by social media.
According to RCN, by Monday, August 26, a week after it started, the strike has caused so far 5 deaths and around a billion pesos in losses. BBC reported on Thursday that an increase in food prices is starting to be felt by all Colombians at the grocery stores and restaurants, with potatoes and onions all but doubling its price.
CROWD (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): We want our potatoes and corn. Multinational corporations get out of our country.
LEÓN: In Bogotá on the night of the 27, 18,000 people marched, sending a clear message.
The farmers’ demands for a serious dialog around the agricultural sector needs are not new, and they stand into the very roots of many of Colombia’s recent conflicts–globalization and wealth distribution.
Wheat, soy, cotton, and barley where the first products to be open to international markets a few years ago, radically changing local socioeconomic processes, hurting the small and medium farmers. An entire sector endured enormous losses.
On 2010 Colombia had three free trade treaties, one with its neighbors, one with some Central American countries, and one with Chile. By 2013, there are ten free trade agreements, adding not only U.S., Mexico, and Canada, but also some European countries. South Korea and European Union had already been signed, and there are some more with countries as far as Turkey, Israel, and Japan.
So now new products are being incorporated on those international treaties, products like potatoes, legumes, cocoa, sugar, and dairy. This spells doom for small and medium farmers who previously moved to those products to avoid an unfair competition, and now they expect to again endure difficult losses.
FARMER (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): The government is incurring in a serious inconsistency. We are not competitive, not even with our neighbor countries. They have lower prices on their supplies. For an item that we pay 75,000 pesos, they have a tag of 45.000, and with their governments’ subsidies it goes down to 38,000. We can’t compete like that.
LEÓN: Back in Tunja, where 50,000 people have marched in support of the farmers, Juan Manuel Santos was forced to publicly recognize that the crisis of the farming sector was not a consequence of his administrations’ policies, but of an structural problem years in the making. By then, the direct pressure of the farmers in the capital city’s food supply started to prove a powerful lever. Tons of rice, fruits, and legumes had to be buried under the ground because of the producers’ inability to transport them to their markets in the city.
On Friday the 17th, President Santos spoke in National TV. He ordered the military units and police to quell the unrest and exercise maximum force if necessary against any political agent provocateur or violent element. He also offered 5 to 10 million pesos reward to anyone who can help identify those allegedly responsible for wrecking stores and assaulting people. While he mentioned the needs of the agricultural sector, he spent most of his time talking about the violence by the demonstrators and about the same political infiltration by Marcha Patriotica he had mentioned a week earlier.
On Saturday the 31st, most of the roads were open, and cities like Tunja came back to a somehow normal routine. But the strike has not ended, and the farmers’ demands of protection against free trade and U.S.’s big farm have not been addressed.
The Farmers Press Agency published on Friday a statement by the strike organization with the following three points:
“We reject the political characterization of the strike by President Santos, we are a national popular agricultural movement supported by truck and bus drivers, students, community mothers organizations, and farmers in general, with [we] presented a concrete scroll of petitions to the Government”.
Two, “We are more than willing to dialogue and reach any agreement, with the government, it is President Santos who negotiated with local organizations”.
Three, “There is an attempt to criminalize the youth by blaming the violence on them, if you look at the videos carefully you will see that the police and the army are the ones causing the violence; we believe we are under undeclared martial law.”
After being between a rock and a hard place at the beginning of the week, President Santos turned the tables around in a very strategic way. Over the last few days, he negotiated with each local front instead of the national strike board, and without making any major compromises to local leadership, he made them compromise and leave their blockades. Then he sent the army to keep the roads open.
But the “structural problems years on the making,” as the President described them, are far from being resolved.
It is yet to be seen if Colombia’s small farmers will be able to fight and survive the competition with big farm’s genetically modified products and its lower prices.
Reporting for The Real News, this is Oscar León.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.