Colombia's Peasant Rebellion in Catatumbo Illustrates Economic Shortcomings

The rebellion in Catatumbo, North Santander, reveals the ills of Colombia's economic model of development.
Nazih Richani 6/30/2013


The Colombian peasants of Catatumbo, North Santander, have been in rebellion for more than 20 days, citing problems with the rural political economy. These economic issues are a result of the interplay between the rentier-extractive economy and the forceful eradication of illicit crops—both of which are happening in the absence of a sustainable development plan.

1872 Photo Credit: La Opinión, de Cúcuta

This is also aggravated by the negative effects of the free trade agreements that Colombia has ratified with countries such as Canada and the United States. Since the implementation of these agreements, Colombia has grown more dependent on other countries for food security. The Society of Agrarian Businesses of Colombia (SAC) reported that food imports during 2012 increased by almost one million tons, increasing from 8.6 million to 9.5 million tons with an estimated value of $ 6.1 billion. In terms of composition, chicken imports increased by 388%, rice by 205%, and the importation of milk increased by 171%. This while the areas of cultivation of traditional crops such as cotton decreased precipitously since 1990—from 219.9 thousand hectares to 44.5 thousand in 2012, a decline of 80%. The areas of sorghum cultivation decreased by 97%, soya decreased by 72%, and the areas dedicated to sesame cultivation decreased by 82%. Most of these hectares are now used by cattle ranching and for speculative activities.

These figures reveal only a part of the agrarian problem that explains the restlessness and open rebellion of the peasantry against the neo-liberal economic policies and the growing encroachments of rentier capitalism. Catatumbo is an area where the peasant economy was forced to contend with capitalist development by resorting to the cultivation of coca plants to support their livelihood. They now must contend with the menace of open-pit coal extraction and the resultant environmental effects on the soil, water, and air. This is in addition to its spillover effects on land use, land prices, food production, and the overall socioeconomic and political conditions extractivsm entails.

The people of Catatumbo are demanding the creation of Peasant Reserves that were sanctioned and protected by Law 160 of 1994 aimed to protect poor peasants. In light of the rentier-extractivism that is overpowering the rest of Colombia’s economy, the peasants need urgent protection to defend their survival and that of future generations. The danger lies in the commitment of the Juan Manuel Santos administration, like its predecessors since the late 1980s, to an economy that is based on transforming Colombia into a producer of raw commodities like oil, coal, and gold. This type of economy has led to the decline of food production and traditional crops as the above statistics show. (For a detailed discussion review my article in the Journal of Latin American Research Review, Vol. 47. No.2. Summer 2012.) Such an economy breeds instability, resistance, rebellion, and crime.

A rational approach would be to revise aspects of this failed model of economic development and to revisit articles of the free trade agreements in order to protect local production of key commodities. This also must involve halting the forceful eradication of coca plants when no sustainable substitution is available. The peasants of Catatumbo cannot go hungry Mr. Santos! The creation of peasant reserves in seven municipalities of the Catatumbo, which include two indigenous reservations, must move forward as declared in the original agreement. Repression of peasants is not the solution—already, state forces have killed four peasants and injured dozens of others. The Santos government must be held responsible for these crimes. 

Finally, a puzzle remains: If the FARC and other rebel groups were behind this massive mobilization of more than 16,000 peasants in Catatumbo, as the government alleges, then this only legitimizes their existence and also dispels the argument that they are defeated. Make up your minds guys!

Stay tuned.



Nazih Richani is the Director of Latin American studies at Kean University. He blogs at

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