Farmers clash with anti-riot police.
Since the very beginning of negotiations between FARC guerrilleros and the Colombian government mid-June, farmers from the north-eastern Catatumbo region have been protesting. Thousands of “campesinos”, as they are called, have demonstrated to denounce their low quality of life in this FARC-held region.
The protests have been going on for over two weeks but tension rose on June 22 when anti-riot police shot live bullets at protesters, killing two people and injuring eight.
The Catatumbo region is near the border with Venezuela and is a stronghold of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The FARC, which espouses a communist ideology, is the main guerrilla force in the conflict against the Colombian government. The very concept of rural development was one of the main reasons behind the FARC’s creation in 1964.
Video filmed after the police opened fire on June 22. Courtesy of the Peasant Farmer Association of Catatumbo.
“We are caught between a rock and a hard place: abandoning our land or illegal farming”
José de Carmen Abril is a member of the Peasant Farmer Association of Catatumbo.
The Peasant Farmer Association of Catatumbo presented a preliminary rural development plan in 2009. We have long been waiting for the implementation of a peasant farmer reserve area [an area benefiting from a rural development plan]. We have been requesting damages to compensate for the marginalisation of local farmers as well as for a new agricultural policy. We want the government to invest here and support farmers with subsidies and other assistance, rather than only trying to eradicate coca culture, which is widespread in our region.Agricultural reform is actually one of the main discussion topics between the government and the FARC [on May 27, both parties came to an agreement, but some points still need to be negotiated]. However, even though we are directly affected by this issue, we have not at all been involved in the discussions. This is why, on June 11, we decided to go on strike and begin protests: we are calling for our own direct negotiations with the government.Our protest was ignored at first. So we decided to block all the roads, to make sure our voices would be heard. At that point, the government chose to send its anti-riot squads and the army [the authorities have emphasized that the soldiers were not involved in the repression but were only patrolling the region].“A kilo of cacao is sold for 1,800 pesos, while a kilo of coca goes for 2.3 million pesos. The decision is pretty easy!”The authorities are now refusing to hold discussions with us so long as we continue protesting, even though they are the ones who resorted to violence. They justify their decision by pretending that our movement has been infiltrated by the FARC and by accusing us of illegally cultivating coca. But for us, coca is a means of survival. The other crops we cultivate here are not subsidised by the government [Editor’s Note: In contrast, the FARC help coca farmers either by funding them directly or by providing seeds and fertilizer]. Moreover, the market value of these other crops is next to nothing. A kilo of cacao is sold for 1,800 pesos [0.72 Euros], while a kilo of coca paste goes for 2.3 million [915 Euros] pesos. The decision is pretty easy!Mining and oil companies have also been emphasizing the existence of coca fields here in order to push us off our land and gain a foothold in the Catatumbo region, where there are significant mineral resources. We are caught between a rock and a hard place: abandoning our land or illegal farming. [Editor’s note: Our Observer did not wish to discuss the relations between the farmers and the FARC].