In June 2016, some 115,000 indigenous, Afro-Colombian and campesino organizers carried out an historic agrarian strike. Lasting more than two weeks, the work stoppage included road and port blockages, building occupations, and other rural mobilizations in more than 70 different locations—from small veredas (hamlets) to rural towns and port cities. José Santos, a leader from Proceso de Comunidades Negras (Process of Black Communities, PCN), one of the organizations involved in planning this year’s strike, described the impact of just one of the mobilizing actions—an unprecedented four-hour, 130-boat blockage of the port of Buenaventura in the Pacific Coast. “The news of our port occupation was heard even in China,” Santos told me in an interview. “And it could have been bigger…It was very beautiful, it was creative, and created a real surprise for the government.”
In the end, the strike, referred to as the Minga/Paro Nacional 2016, was strongly repressed by police forces—dozens of leaders were arrested and prosecuted, hundreds more were injured in the clashes, and three non-armed, indigenous “guards,” who provided security during the strike, were killed. But despite the authorities’ attempt to stigmatize the social movements involved in the national strike, organizers concluded that the action had been a success, with accords signed on a variety of issues.
The umbrella organization that spearheaded the strike, the Cumbre Agraria, Campesina, Étnica y Popular (Agrarian, Peasant, Ethnic and Popular Convergence), a national grassroots coalition of peasant movements, indigenous peoples, Afro-Colombian groups, and civic organizations from around Colombia, was born out of a similar national strike carried out in August 2013. That action was organized as a response to the 2012 Colombia-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, which hit the agrarian sector especially hard through rising consumer inflation and falling commodity prices for agrarian crops. In the aftermath of the 2013 strike, various organizations decided to work together to prepare an eight-point list of demands, known as the pliego único (roughly, general demands). Among other things, rural movements argued the Colombian government must commit to structural transformation in urban and rural areas and broad, democratic participation in shaping the foundation for any peace plan that ended the country’s decades-long armed conflict.
This year’s strike was the third in four years, and was the result of intense deliberation among movements that have been strengthening their collective demands for many years. But even more than in past years, the 2016 strike corresponded with a large number of solidarity actions by labor unions, such as the petroleum sector’s Workers Labor Union (Unión Sindical Obrera, USO). Most significantly, this year’s protests also concluded with the government recognizing Cumbre Agraria, and agreeing to several issues of importance to rural strikers. These included government guarantees to protect campesino groups’ right to protest as well as issues pertaining to the protection of human rights defenders and movement leaders. Perhaps of greatest importance, the government agreed to begin defining a route toward an alternative economic model in the Colombian countryside, based around what activists call “economía propia” (a self-governing, solidarity-based economy). Movement organizers and government officials also agreed to open talks about constitutionally recognizing campesinos as rights-bearing political subjects, which would establish a legal basis for the constitution of campesinos as a broad social, economic, and cultural group with rights to land, popular consultation in territories affected by mining or energy-related project, and protection of organic seeds, among other matters. And finally, as the post-strike accords were signed on June 13, the government made new promises to conduct a thorough review of mining concessions it has granted across the country, as well as a review of yet unfulfilled land titling arrangements it has made with ethnic and campesino communities.
Beyond the accords themselves, this year’s strike also led to important advances around issues closely related to the ongoing peace process with Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). These included state guarantees that rural communities and social movements in Colombia will be allowed greater participation in defining and implementing long-term aspects of the finalized accords through what is being called the Mesa Social para la Paz (Social Roundtable for Peace). This venue is proposed by Cumbre Agraria as a broad process that will include national and local government officials, entrepreneurs, guilds, religious leaders, scholars, political parties, communities and social movements to delineate an agenda for a “new country” built on peace and participation. Future discussions between the state and rural movements that are held in this setting would address major social and economic issues—everything from human rights matters to demands for comprehensive agrarian reform and other structural reforms. Movement leaders hope that such talks will move peace beyond the terms of the current cease-fire between the government and the FARC. All of these commitments are now being enumerated in more detail through a series of painstaking discussions between Cumbre Agraria delegates and the Colombian government, but activists are hopeful that a broad national dialogue about peace, which takes social movement concerns about social justice seriously, could commence in the near future.
Reaching an agreement to end the June agrarian strike was no easy task, suggesting the road to actually fulfilling the post-strike agreements will be filled with obstacles. Only on the twelfth day of the strike did the government finally agree to enter negotiations, which took place in the community of Quinamayó, Santander de Quilichao, Cauca, a territory with great ancestral significance to Colombia’s Afro-Colombian population. The negotiations relied on the presence of third-party mediators, including the Defensor del Pueblo (human rights ombudsman), allied politicians, such as Senator Alberto Castilla, and representatives of the Catholic Church . “It could have all gone downhill, and the Cumbre would be dead due to divisions,” said Marylén Serna, spokeswoman for both Cumbre Agraria and one of its constituent organizations, the Congreso de los Pueblos (People’s Congress). But, Serna says, “unity among the PCN, Congreso de los Pueblos, and at least some indigenous organizations provided the final drive necessary for national negotiations…and space for Cumbre Agraria’s direct political participation on key issues.”
The main points agreed to in the final accords suggest that Cumbre Agraria and its member movements want to have an active role in not just laying a foundation for social change, but in carrying out the economic transformations that are entailed by the idea of “peace with social justice.” Movement leaders often struggle with the question of participating in formal political life, given the potential loss of autonomy it can represent. And Cumbre Agraria’s various constituent organizations have raised some doubts about whether alternative economic, territorial, and ethno-cultural projects can exist in a country so tied to natural resource extraction, large-scale monoculture production, and widespread militarization. But if we analyze the minimal proposals and the next steps agreed upon in Quinamayó, it becomes clear that at the core of the Cumbre Agraria movement is a desire to continue challenging the mainstream policies of the government through collective mobilization.
Though the Quinamayó accords are an encouraging sign for those demanding structural change in Colombia’s countryside, there are several challenges ahead for the social movements of Cumbre Agraria. One of these is the very contradictory message that Colombia’s continued pursuit of free trade pacts and persistent reliance on corporate investment and international financial institutions sends to rural movements. In a striking example of these contradictions, at the same time that the Minga/Paro Nacional negotiations were happening in Quinamayó, international delegates from the World Economic Forum met with government officials in the Colombian city of Medellín. There, officials from Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) officials and the Colombian government worked together on the details of a plan to open up a new line of credit for the “foundation of new economy”—one described as more innovative and entrepreneurial, and less dependent on oil and mineral extraction. In addition, the government has recently proposed new laws, like the establishment of Zones of Rural, Economic, and Social Development (Zonas de Interés de Desarollo Rural, Económico Social, ZIDRES). These special economic zones are designed to build linkages between rural workers and national and multinational corporations, but many rural activists are skeptical, believing instead that they will only open the door to further land grabs by economic elites.
What’s more, since talks between the Colombian government and Cumbre Agraria first began in May 2014, the government has only lent its support to a series of ad hoc initiatives—most of them related to small-scale production, infrastructure improvement, and public service provisioning—and the state’s compliance with its promises has been minimal. Cumbre Agraria notes, for instance, that 83.5% of the CP$ 250 billion ($900,000 USD) originally promised for small-scale rural production during the 2014 agrarian strike has not yet been delivered. The Minister of the Interior, Juan Fernando Cristo, disagrees, saying that in the area of agriculture, the government has “been fulfilling a good percentage” of what it agreed to, “taking into account that there were about 400 accords unfulfilled from previous governments.” In Cristo’s words, “Today, we have both real advances and items that need adjustments.”
With this imbalance in mind, Cumbre Agraria leaders worked diligently over the past year to come up with a minimal set of proposals for negotiation with the government this time around. “Dialogues and lots of patience” were necessary, Marylén Serna told me. But in the end, Serna noted that the government and Cumbre Agraria did come up with a 12-page document outlining all the minimal priorities established by the broad range of organizations that make up Cumbre Agraria. These proposals were then offered as a starting point for negotiations during the June 2016 Paro Nacional—despite the intensification of repression of protestors by Colombia’s anti-riot forces.
In many ways, the Quinamayó accords have revealed a persistent commitment to contentious politics within Colombia’s agrarian movement. For many organizations, this means starting at the level of local politics. As Jhon Campo, a campesino leader from Cauca pointed out to me an interview: “[Many of us] are working at the local level [as campesino organizations] not just to construct an economia propia where families produce not just [traditional crops like] coffee and sugar cane, but also organic corn, beans, chicken.” As Campo said, “This is a form of resistance in face of an extractivist, latifundio (large landholder) economy dominated by the likes of [transnational companies] Monsanto, Vale, or Dupont, and the institutions of government that support this type of monopoly.”
The Quinamayó accords and the current negotiations over creating a National Roundtable for Peace offer a path toward greater inclusiveness in post-accord Colombia.Cumbre Agraria is currently in what they call a fase de acercamiento (a phase of building relationships), in which talks between the government, social movement leaders, rank-and-file activists, religious leaders, entrepreneurs and other sectors are underway. It is only with these many sectors at the table—and with each having had time to think through their most important interests and demands—that an agenda for peace with social justice can be built.
Presently, Cumbre Agraria is engaged in deep reflection about how it can build support for the “Yes” vote on the referendum for the peace accords between the FARC and the Colombian government. Yet many Colombians have deep reservations about the government’s commitment to ensuring social justice concerns accompany peace. The political Right, which includes former president Alvaro Uribe and paramilitary groups that continue to use violence to block progressive social justice policies, especially in the countryside, is pushing strongly for the “No” vote. They reject the political and social reintegration of FARC rebels, and denounce other concessions to the FARC as a form of impunity. Those advocating for the “Yes” vote argue that the demobilization of the paramilitary forces under former president Uribe represented even greater impunity; for instance, only 31 out of approximately 31,000 paramilitaries have been tried for their crimes, and most have not compensated their victims as required under Colombia’s 2005 Justice and Peace Law. For the most part, the movements of Cumbre Agraria see a cease-fire with rebel groups as a necessary first step, but maintain it alone will not bring peace.
Though the Quinamayó accords include commitments on the part of the government to investigate and prosecute paramilitary actors still active in the region, many observers point out that it will be extremely challenging to change years of militarization over night—particularly given how much support the Colombian government has received from the United States’ government.
As that process plays itself out, groups like Cumbre Agraria are grappling with the question of how to reincorporate FARC fighters into 23 temporary settlements in rural zones, especially in territories where collective communal councils have already established authority. Movements are also considering whether or not the creation of additional Campesino Reserves (Zonas de Reserva Campesina)—territorial areas dedicated to campesino crop production, based on government-sponsored colonization and entrepreneurial development projects that were first piloted in the mid-1990s), a proposal favored by FARC in the Havana peace deals, would respect Cumbre Agraria’s plans to push for alternative models for food production, like the Territorios Interculturales Agroalimentarios (agricultural zones that are organized around principles of intercultural tolerance and a commitment to food sovereignty and environmental protection). For Cumbre Agraria, continuing to articulate proposals at the grassroots level, which can later form the basis for legislative proposals to Congress, is necessarily part of the process of achieving the movement’s ultimate goal: peace with social justice and a dignified life for all.
Patricia Rodríguez is Associate Professor of Politics at Ithaca College in New York. Her research interests include ethnic, peasant, and worker mobilizations, the possibilities and challenges of cohesive alliance-building, and their consequences for democracy, social justice, human rights, and the environment in Latin America.