Colombia: The Triumphant Return of the Peasantry

Colombia sep23Five decades of war made things worse. Landowners bought up more and more land, expelling and expropriating campesinos with force. The agricultural strike that began in August was the “Enough!” of a sector that will not put up with it any longer. 

“We are in the middle of the labor pains of a new creature that has been gestating for 50 years,” writes Alfredo Molano Bravo, a sociologist, writer and one of the most lucid and committed journalists in Colombia.[1] He argues that the mass mobilization in the countryside and cities “is nothing other than demands that have been stemmed, and repressed with bullets, for years.”

Since Aug. 19, the national agricultural strike that mobilized thousands of small farmers across the country came together with truckers, coffee plantation workers, small and medium-scale mineworkers, and a wide range of food producers. They come out of the deep crisis that is forcing them to abandon the land and crops they have toiled to maintain.

This confluence of demands and protests isn”t the only thing that is new. We’re also seeing the articulation of actors through the Roundtable on Agricultural and Popular Sector Dialogue and Agreements (MIA, by its Spanish initials). Sectors that usually don”t have close relationships were able to agree on demands and establish common days of protest.

The initial response of Juan Manuel Santos” government was repression. A statement from the National Agricultural, Peasant, and Popular Sector Summit highlights that the repression resulted in twelve dead, four missing, 660 human rights violations, 262 arbitrary arrests, 485 wounded (21 by firearms), 52 cases of social leaders being harassed and threatened, and 51 indiscriminate attacks on the population.[2]

The persistence of the more than month-long mobilizations and the futility of repression to stop it convinced President Santos of the need to negotiate a “National Pact for Farmland and Rural Development.” Negotiations Sept. 12, but did not include all of the protagonists. Before taking that step, Santos was forced to restructure his cabinet, which revealed the depth of the impact the movements had made–the biggest Colombia has seen in decades.

Everyone against the Free Trade Agreement (TLC)

The journalist traveled by bus along the road from Cali to Popayán, a vast plain saturated with sugarcane. At one point, when passing through the hills where the campesino crops begin to appear, the bus suddenly came to a stop. Molano”s description is priceless: “I looked out the window and saw hundreds of black campesinos jumping fences, coming down the hills to the West. They were all shouting and waving long sticks.”

Across the road, the scene was similar. “My amazement hadn”t subsided when I saw that indigenous people were coming down on the other side of the road, the same way, though a little more intrepid. Probably because of the practice they have had in taking over the Panamerican Highway. The currents mixed and crossed the vehicles.  They deflated the tires and ordered we, the nervous and obedient passengers, to get off, because “la joda (the blockade) takes awhile.”[3]

His description reveals the unthinkable. The black population comes from mining regions, where gold has been panned for four centuries. A few years ago the construction of a hydroelectric dam took land and mines away from them.

“Now, the retro-excavators work the broken riverbeds and the paramilitaries return to prowl, sowing terror so that local communities accept the entrance of large mining companies,” Molano reported.

The Nasa indigenous people took to the road to demand land for their autonomous territories. For their products, they call for credit, the dismantling of agricultural monopolies, roads to transport their harvests, and the demilitarization of the region. And they demand “free trade for their ancestral seeds,” that is, the millenial practice of sharing saved seed, something that is today punishable by incarceration thanks to the TLC.

The most notable part of the story is the mixture of the indigenous movement with the Afro-American movement, something that has rarely happened on this continent, but has a precedent in these same lands. In October 2008, the Minga[4] for Life March of 20,000 Nasa from Cali to Bogotá coincided with the strike of twelve thousand cane cutters, almost all of African descent. Now, that confluence has multiplied.

César Pachón, spokesperson for potato and onion growers in Boyacá, a department near Bogotá, explains what led to the strike on August 19.

“We participated in the potato strike of May 7. We had also done ​​one with the onion growers on Nov. 16, 2011. We dropped the previous strikes because of government promises, which were never fulfilled. Now we will resist.”[5] Pachón represents Dignity for the Potato and Onion Growers of Boyacá, an oganization of more than110,000 families that depend on potato cultivation  and another 17,000 onion growers. When asked about the causes of unemployment, he has no doubt.

“The disastrous effects of the free trade agreements approved by the last two administrations, high input prices that raise production costs, [and] the absence of an agricultural interest group that protects small and medium farmers against inrestricted imports.” He explains in detail the ruin of small producers. “Producing a load of 100 kilos of potatoes costs 70,000-75,000 pesos. We sell that load for 25,000. It costs 65,000 pesos to produce a load of onions  65,000 pesos, and they are sold for 10,000. Since economic liberalization policy began, we have lost all that we had achieved over a lifetime. I sold my family”s house and farm and now all I have is a car. How can I pay off debts and purchase materials for farming? It happened to me, it”s happening to everyone.”

Luis Gonzaga Cadavid from the organization Dignity for Coffee Growers in the department of Caldas explains that the 36,000 coffee-growing families in the region “are dissatisfied with the policies of the government and the National Coffee Growers Federation,” for poor coffee prices and for the “undemocratic manner in which decisions concerning the coffee sector are made.” In February, they began a strike because the price of coffee fell by more than half. They have four demands: controls on prices and input materials that are monopolized by four multinational corporations; controls on mining in coffee areas, as concessions for mining rights threatens coffee production; the democratization of the casino online Federation; and making debt payment to banks more flexible.

The confluence of actors is astounding. Coffee, potato, cocoa, rice, dairy, onion, bean, cereal and legumes, sugarcane, citrus, and cut flowers producers have come together in a vast array of small and medium scales producers not represented by large employers” federations and now grouped under the umbrella of National Agricultural Dignity

Changing Course

To that already impressive coalition, we should add truckers and miners. The mining strike began on July 17 with a list of nine conditions, among them the “official recognition of small and medium-scale mining”; that a new mining code be defined; the cessation of police and military operations;  respect for Afro and indigenous communities; and freezing the transfer of land titles to multinational  mining companies. After 48 days of strike and protest by 58,000 miners in 18 departments, the government and the National Mining Confederation of Colombia (Conalminercol) reached an agreement that, among other things, recognizes “work areas for small and medium miners” that will be formalized through a law that allows them to “maintain the right to work.”[6]

The truckers have paralyzed some 250,000 vehicles since Aug. 19, with the demand that their freight table, which sets the rates that commodity proprietors should pay for transport, be respected. The demonstrations were supported by the Central Workers Union (CUT), National Agrarian Coordination (CNA), Colombian Trucking Association (ACC), Alliance for the Right to Health (ANSA), Colombian Federation of Education Workers, the National Student Board (MANE), and the Association of Hospital Workers, among others. [7] They nationwide demonstrations banging on pots and pans in support of the sectors in conflict, and protested Sept. 11 and 12 during the National Agricultural, Peasant, and Popular Sector Summit.

The movement in fact began in February, with the protest of 130,000 coffee farmers, a serious warning not taken into consideration by the government. In June the protest of thousands of peasants flared up in Catatumbo (North of Santander, near the border with Venezuela). They rejected the “eradication of coca crops that had not been agreed to” with local residents.[8] In August, all sectors converged to raise their complaints and demands a notch, due to the lack of response.  Under pressure, the government decided to negotiate with each sector separately. It made ​​concessions that will clear routes across the country. It won”t be easy for them to fulfill their promises,  as coffee farmers know, who have been waiting since last March for the government to comply with their agreements.

Héctor Mondragón, economist and adviser to peasant and indigenous movements, provides five reasons for understanding the crisis plaguing the agricultural economy that is the basis of the current wave of protests. The first is the Free Trade Agreement (TLC) with the United States that allows the importation of subsidized agricultural products and establishes unfair intellectual property rules that “attack the rights of the farmers to reproduce their seeds.”[9] A documentary by director Victoria Solano entitled “9.70” is circulating throughout Colombia and the world. It analyzes resolution 9.70 approved in the TLC, which prevents farmers from setting aside part of their harvest for the next planting. Because of that resolution, tons of rice were seized and destroyed in the rice-producing municipality Campoalegre (department of Huila).[10]

The second problem for Mondragón is “the destruction of agricultural institutions.”  Colombia needs a powerful agricultural credit institution at the state level, he argues,  to plan the agricultural market, guarantee minimum prices, and prevent farmers from going into debt through high interest rates. He also highlights land grabbing. “More than 16 million hectares suitable for agriculture are wasted in the hands of large landowners, causing Colombia to have the highest prices of land in all of Latin America,” Mondragón states. That the war has caused “an accelerated process of dispossessing or transferring land already under cultivation by farmers” is an even more serious problem.

The rights of the peasantry

Since the beginning of economic liberalization in 1990, maize production has fallen from 700,000 to 200,000 hectares; wheat from 60,000 to just 5,000; irrigated rice from 330,000 to 140,000 hectares. Since 2010, potato production has fallen from 150,000 hectares to 90,000 hectares; bean production was cut in half.[11]

No one can doubt this profound crisis affecting campesino families. However, the crux of the agrarian problem lies elsewhere. The center of the demands of the campesinos–a sector that accounts for 32% of the country”s population–isnoted in their third point: “We demand recognition of campesino, indigenous, and Afro-descendent territory” and  call for “the immediate constitution and delimitation  of Campesino Reserve Zones (ZRC)”.[12]

The ZRCs were created in 1994 by Law 160, which promotes “the regulation, limitation and management of rural property, and the elimination of uncultivated land grabs and concentration to encourage campesino smallholdings and prevent the breakdown of campesino economy.” [13] In sum, the law sought to defend the campesino against the voracity of large landowners. So far six ZRCs have been created, located “within the limits of the agricultural frontier, in regions heavily affected by the dynamics of armed conflict, largely absent of state presence.”[14] Peasant organizations directly solicited most of these, to break the cycle of violence. Since the 2002 arrival of Álvaro Uribe to the government, the establishment of such zones has been blocked.

While the law works in favor of the peasants, the ZRCs are “reviled by the military, landowners, and political bosses,” as Alfredo Molano notes. Establishing and maintaining the zones is therefore a problem of the distribution of political power. For this reason, the Political Declaration of National Agricultural, Peasant, and Popular Sector Summit (drawn up Sept. 12 at the Universidad Nacional in Bogotá) states, “We fight for political recognition of the peasantry.” [15]

It is a demand for social investment in the rural population and real guarantees for the exercise of campesino political rights. A recent study by the Center for Research and Popular Sector Education (CINEP), one of the most prestigious research centers in the country, agrees that the State has a “historic debt” with campesinos, and “has failed to secure a satisfactory political recognition the peasantry.”[16]

Peasant farmers constitute the sector that has suffered most from victimization and violation of human rights in the five decades of war. CINEP includes black communities and rural women and youth within the campesino  and indigenous communities who endure “devaluation and a deficit in old, structural political representation.” They are joined by the victims of armed conflict, the displaced, and those newly affected by the TLC–small and medium landowners. A recent report by Human Rights Watch states that the armed conflict “has forced more than 4.8 million Colombians to flee their homes.” Colombia has the world”s highest displaced population, families who have been forced to abandon six million hectares of land that were usurped by landowners.[17]

With these tremendous asymmetries of power and political representation, the first chapter of what we could call the triumphant return of the peasantry was closed. On Sept. 12, thousands of delegates attended the Summit. The same day, the government convened the National Pact for Farmland and Rural Development, dominated by the presence of the Colombian Agricultural Society (SAC) that is a proponent of large-scale agriculture, very far from campesino  needs. Most campesino groups withdrew or did not attend the meeting, not least because, as one potato farmer from Boyacá said, the government insists on not modifying the TLC.

While the government reaped some short-term success in negotiating with each of the sectors separately and defusing the protest, the campesinos can be considered the victors of this round. They placed their demands prominently on the political agenda and produced the first government crisis in decades. Much of the population understood that food sovereignty and is at stake, and that it is violated by the TLC. They established a powerful confluence of major rural actors, mobilized peacefully, without creating a hegemonizing apparatus from above.  Their voice will be heard in Colombia’s peace negotiations in Havana, although they have not been invited.

Raúl Zibechi is an international analyst for the weekly Brecha in Montevideo, professor and researcher on social movements at the Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina, and advisor to varias grassroots organizations. He writes the monthly Zibechi Report for the CIP Americas Program  (


[1] “La papa caliente”, El Espectador, 31 de agosto de 2013.

[2] “Declaración Política Cumbre Nacional Agraria, Campesina y Popular”, 13 de setiembre de 2013 en

[3] “La joda va para largo”, El Espectador, 24 de agosto de 2013.

[4] Farm labor in exchange for food.

[5] El Espectador, 24 de agosto de 2013.

[6] El Colombiano, Medellín, 3 de setiembre de 2013.

[7] Colombia Informa, 3 de setiembre de 2013.

[8] Semana, 22 de junio de 2013.

[9] Héctor Mondragón, “La gran oportunidad del agro”, Caja de Herramientas, Bogotá, 5 de setiembre de 2013.

[10] El video se puede ver en youtube bajo el título “9.70”.

[11] Le Monde Diplomatique edición Colombia, setiembre 2013.

[12] IPS, Bogotá, 29 de agosto de 2013.

[13] “Zonas de Reserva Campesina”, ILSA-INCODER; Bogotá, 2012.

[14] Idem p. 27.

[15] Cumbre Nacional, Agraria, Campesina y Popular, Bogotá, 12 de setiembre de 2013, en

[16] CINEP, “Luchas sociales, derechos humanos y representación política del campesinado 1988-2012”, Bogotá, agosto 2013, p. 7.

[17] Guillermo Rico Reyes, “Colombia, el país con más desplazados del mundo”, Desdeabajo, 18 de setiembre de 2012.