Still No Peace for Colombia’s Campesinos Five Years After Accords
By Monica Cruz
Reporting from Cauca, Colombia
“I’ve been fighting for 45 years and I will continue to fight as long as it's necessary to live, and until God decides it’s my last day.”
Gabriela, a farmworker and organizer in Miranda, Cauca, has spent decades moving homes constantly to evade paramilitary and state violence. This is just one aspect of the heavy price she and her compañeros have paid organizing for the dignity of campesinos (farmers) in Colombia. The land on which Miranda sits was long an active war zone between left-wing guerrillas and paramilitary forces. While the 2016 Peace Accords formally ended the war, in reality it is far from over.
Just last month in Miranda, a campesino organizer Olivar Mestizo was tortured and murdered by paramilitary troops. Two of Mestizo’s brothers, also organizers, had already met the same fate. From January 1 to July 25 of this year, 102 human rights and environmental justice leaders were murdered in the country, alongside 30 ex-FARC combatants who put down their weapons based on the promise of peace and security. These are the official numbers, but grassroots organizers consistently cite higher figures. No one disputes that each year the killings have increased, each death a sign of the Accords’ unraveling. Campesinos have endured the brunt of this violence but in interviews they explained why backing down is not an option.
The largest union representing farm workers in Colombia is the National Agricultural Trade Union Federation of Colombia or FENSUAGRO. Founded in 1976 with the aim of uniting the labor and farmers movements, its members have experienced relentless violence from paramilitaries and the state. Between 2016 and 2020, 38 FENSUAGRO members were assassinated.
Why has the extreme violence continued despite the formal end to the civil war? To put it simply: the Colombian government has failed to uphold its end of the deal.
The livelihood and safety of Colombia’s farmers are dependent on Points #1 and #4 of the Accords in particular. The first point was designed as a major land reform that would give landless farmers access to land through a Land Fund. An August 2020 report by Colombian senators and representatives found that only 0.08% of the targeted 3 million hectares of the Land Fund had been allocated. The government was also tasked with creating a registry to inspect and distribute rural properties. It has been 5 years since the Accords were signed and it remains a complete dead letter. In Colombia, 0.4% of property owners possess 67% of the land.
The fourth point of the Accords seeks to address the issue of illicit crops. Many farmworkers have historically had no option but to harvest coca, used to produce cocaine, in order to make enough money to survive. Due to neoliberal policies like deregulation of the agricultural sector and the 2011 Free Trade Agreement with the United States, crops like bananas and coffee are no longer lucrative enough for farmers to live off of. The National Comprehensive Program for Illicit Crop Substitution is a cornerstone to this point of the Accords.
The program offers farmers the choice to uproot their coca fields in exchange for government subsidies and training programs to harvest alternative crops. Over 99,000 families enrolled, most of whom never received full payments nor the assistance needed to begin harvesting these new crops. Logistical failures and a lack of funding caused the program to crumble quickly, and the inauguration of far-right President Ivan Duque in August 2018 officially ended it. His administration instead pushed the violent displacement of farmers and the use of aerial glyphosate fumigations to destroy coca crops. Both measures have amounted to more killings, more impoverishment of the campesino class and more poison in the soil, water, and air these communities need to survive.
The August 2020 report from Colombia’s Congress found that while the hectares in coca production fell notably since 2016, the production of cocaine has actually increased. The government claims to be fighting narco-trafficking but its policies are eliminating all economic alternatives, and activists say the administration continues to function as a narcoestado (narco-state).
The communities hit hardest by this violence continue to grow more organized and militant in developing local alternatives and to promote peace and build a sustainable future.
An array of grassroots organizations have sprung up in the aftermath of the Peace Accords to do the work of fighting for their lives. In 2017, COCCAM (National Coordination of Small-scale Coca, Marihuana and Poppy Farmers) was formed by campesinos working to build sustainable development projects in the areas most impacted by the forced displacements, aerial glyphosate fumigations, and civil war violence. Around 60 members of COCCAM have been murdered by paramilitaries and state forces.
COCCAM National Coordinator Leider Valencia told BreakThrough, “Continuing with our struggle is the only way to be visible ... It’s the only way for us to survive these neoliberal policies of dispossession and extermination in our lands.” He continued, “We know we have an enemy, a class enemy, and the only thing that makes us strong is to organize ourselves and to struggle, and to never desist from this struggle.” Valencia is also a leading member of the Process for Popular Unity of Southwestern Colombia, an organization of activists across the rural communities of the country’s southwest.
To really understand this seemingly endless war in Colombia, it is critical to understand the role the U.S. has played. In the 2020 fiscal year alone, the U.S. spent $448 million dollars, half of which has gone to the military and security programs. Essentially, the U.S. is funding the same military forces that are violently displacing campesinos and assassinating leaders in these communities. The Duque administration has received consistent support from Washington for its practices of displacement and forced eradication of coca plants, as well as its decision to end the popular crop substitution program.
U.S. intervention in Colombia spans decades and activists insist that the end of the violence in Colombia begins in Washington.
Griselda Rivera, a member of FENSUAGRO and the Association of Workers of the Peasant Reserve Zone of Corinto, requested solidarity from the American people: “Your government, your Congress has helped spill blood here. We know the majority of American people don’t know about the pain that the U.S. has subjected us to. We hope for people to open their eyes, to work to change these policies and, despite the difficult situation we are in, to help us change Colombia.”
Monica Cruz traveled through Colombia as part of a labor solidarity delegation organized by the Alliance for Global Justice.