According to Amnesty International, the Colombian military has opened fired on protesters in the Colombian region of Catatumbo in two separate incidents killing four and wounding dozens. Agricultural workers, numbering in the thousands, have been protesting for the past three weeks in Catatumbo, demanding economic justice, local autonomy, environmental protections and policies that would provide economic alternatives to coca cultivation.
The main demand of the protesters is the establishment of an Agricultural Reservation Area (ZRC, or Zona de Reverva Campesina), a legal figure through which small farmers can attain legal titles to their land, concentration of land ownership is limited, and local communities have increased control of public resources. They are also asking for programs to wean poor farmers off coca production.
Catatumbo, in the department of Norte de Santander, has long been torn by war and competition for the region’s fertile land and natural resources. Alfredo Molano, writing for El Espectador, describes how fifteen years ago paramilitary death squads took over huge expanses of the region, carrying out massacres and selective murders to displace poor farmers and install African palm plantations. The United States embassy expressed concern at the time about the evident collaboration between the Colombian military and these illegal private armies. Today, as the palm industry continues to expand, both in Catatumbo and nationally, Colombia has become home to more internal refugees than any other country in the world.
Meanwhile, the government has promoted coal extraction in the department with the goal of increasing local production to five million tons per year. A report published by Equipo Nizkor describes the area’s mineral interest in detail; as of 2011, 37 coal mining licenses had been issued in Catatumbo. The region is also rich in oil, and has been divided almost entirely into concessions for oil extraction or exploration. President Santos has identified the extractive economy as one of the most important strategies of for economic growth, but while mining operations accounted for a third of foreign investment between 2006 and 2010, the industry currently accounts for only 1.1% of employment.
The effects of Free Trade Agreements on small scale agricultural have also contributed to the regions woes. FTA’s recently signed with the US and Canada open doors for multinational business interests and flood the Colombian market with cheap agricultural products with which small framers cannot compete. This has exacerbated a situation in which some 73% of Catatumbo’s population lives in poverty, only 27% has access to potable water, and none of its municipalities have sewage treatment plants.
Many small farmers have turned to coca cultivation for income, and need comprehensive assistance from the government to curb this practice. In essence, as Molano puts it, protesters are asking “to exchange an illegal economy for one that is legal, defined by law and with protections for private property”. According to INCODER, the government agency responsible for rural development, ZRCs are intended to “create the necessary conditions for peace and social justice”. The legal petition was presented three years ago, but the Colombian military has blocked its approval, claiming these areas are safe havens for guerrilla groups.
In addition, the Colombian government has indicated that protests have been infiltrated by the FARC guerrilla organization, which has come out in support of the ZRC model during peace negotiations currently underway in Havana. El Tiempo reported that the Defense Ministry has produced evidence that Cezar Jerez, a prominent social leader involved in the mobilization, is tied to the FARC. For Congressman Ivan Cepeda, however, it is dubious that this information, said to have been attained years ago, is only now coming to light. If allegations are true, said Cepeda, this information should have been made available to the governmental entities responsible for investigating such cases long ago.
More importantly, the Colombian establishment has used this sort of rhetoric to justify the violent repression of political opposition on a repeated basis.
For example, the Santos administration pointed to the influence of guerrilla groups earlier this year when similar protests brought the oil-rich department of Arauca to a halt in response to inadequate public spending on education, healthcare and infrastructure, as well as environmental damages. This echoed statements made several years ago by former Vice President Francisco Santos when agents of the Colombian military murdered three of Arauca’s most influential union leaders. Francisco Santos immediately defended the massacre, indicating publicly that the victims were members of the ELN guerrilla organization, a statement that proved to be false. Nevertheless, the violence continues; last year two labor activists, including a teacher, were murdered in Arauca.
In short, there seems to be a systematic campaign on the part of the Colombian ruling class to excuse human rights abuses on the pretext that they are part of a military strategy. Does an ‘infiltration’ of a protest by members of an insurgent group justify the Colombian army opening fire on a crowd of protesters? By generally associating rural, grassroots organizing–including labor organizing–with terrorism, are the media and representatives of the Colombian state telling the public is it acceptable to execute of members of civil society without a trial?
The protests in Catatumbo continue and the government has sent a high profile negotiating team to the region, including Vice President Angelino Garzon.