The peasants of Catatumbo have been on strike for over a month while the government is refusing to review its coca eradication plans without first accepting an alternative crop substitution strategy. There have also been disputes over the designation of seven municipalities in the Catatumbo as Peasant Reserves put in place by the Law 160 of 1994 that protects the peasants’ subsistence economy from the encroachments of multinational corporations and local capital. Now small-scale, independent miners—consisting of about two million families—are on strike against new mining laws they fear will destroy their only source of livelihood. At the same time, small coffee growers are again protesting the government‘s lack of compliance to fulfill the financial support they agreed to provide only months ago. This sector alone supports more than 500,000 families.
These miners' and the small-coffee growers' strikes are scheduled for the 17 and the 19 of July. An urgent question is raised about the significance and the underlying causes and eventual repercussions of these growing rural protests.
These are expressions of the deep-rooted crisis of the neo-liberal economic model that Colombia adopted two decades ago. This model is exhausted and is exacerbated by one of its main consequences: rentier-capital, which is transforming the country into an exporter of raw material (coal, gold, oil, and others) and a few other cash crops, all of which are detrimental to a sustainable economic development. Succinctly put, the neo-liberal economy and the corollaries of free trade regimes have shackled the Colombian economy to a global division of labor in which its agriculture, industry, and manufacturing have little room to grow.
Under this emerging political economy, the rural population—about 35% of the country’s population—is not expected to enter the industrial economy, but instead continues to fall further into poverty, and this is the heart of the problem. Rural small-scale producers (farmers, miners, coffee growers) and subsistence peasants are anti-systemic forces fighting against the grinding machines of capital fighting to stay afloat. If these economic trends are not reversed, the post-conflict era looks very turbulent.
In the event that peace agreements are signed with Colombia's Marxist rebels, a post-conflict pacification period requires economic policies that protect small-scale producers—which constitute the majority of the rural population—and those in turn will help in securing food and peace. These people have to become stakeholders, otherwise the stockholders in Bogota and Wall Street will not be able to get a good night's sleep.
Nazih Richani is the Director of Latin American studies at Kean University. He blogs at nacla.org/blog/cuadernos-colombianos.