COLOMBIA ANALYSIS: A short primer on the national strike

CPTnet
26 August 2013
COLOMBIA ANALYSIS: A short primer on the national strike

[Note: the following has been edited for length.  The original is available here]

 
 Protests in Sincelejo (Photo: Marcha Patriotica)

 Beginning on Monday, 19 August, broad sectors of Colombian society rose up in a national strike.  The strike, which is now taking place in cities and rural areas across the country, includes coffee growers’ unions, truck drivers, small-scale miners, students, teachers, health workers, farmers, and fishermen.  CPT has had a presence at the strikes and roadblocks taking place in Segovia and Remedios, in northeastern Antioquia.  What follows is a short primer on why Colombians are striking, the historical context of these demonstrations, and what the demonstrators have demanded from the State.

 Colombia is a country deeply divided by economic inequality.  Almost half of all rural Colombians live in extreme poverty, defined as subsisting on less than $1.00 a day.  Colombia is also home to five million internally displaced people, a number on par globally only with the Sudan.  That adds up to one in ten Colombians, displaced within the last twelve years to refugee camps, shantytowns, and temporary shelters.  Women, Afro-descendants, and indigenous peoples are more likely than others to be displaced.

 But Colombia is also a nation of great wealth and a growing GDP.  Unfortunately, the poor have not seen the benefits of that growth.  The country has the second greatest income inequality  in the Western Hemisphere, following close on the heels of Haiti, and ranks eighth in the world for income inequality.  In the rural areas, this inequality manifests itself most obscenely in rates of land ownership: 0.4% of landowners own 61% of rural land, and that concentration is increasing even further with the skyrocketing foreign investment that Colombia has seen in the last fifteen years.

The recent spate of Free Trade Agreements has only worsened the situation.  Oxfam and others estimated that the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, which went into effect in 2012, would mean that small farmers in rural areas could lose up to 70% of their income.  The rate of displacement has already increased since the Free Trade Agreement went into effect.

Profits of Gold Mining 

Foreign investment by extractive industries in Colombia has skyrocketed over the past fifteen years, due in part to a much-touted reduction in guerrilla activity, which makes mining less risky for multinational corporations.  Owing to those changes, and responding
 to
 a
 hike
 in
 gold
 prices
 during
 the
 global
 financial
 crisis, gold
 production
 in
 the
 country
 has
 tripled
 since
 2006.  

 The
 government’s
 spending
 on
 infrastructure
 development
 is
 highly
 concentrated
 in
 areas
 under
 exploration
 by
 multinational mining interests, and
 up
 to
 a
 reported
 forty percent
 of
 the
 nation’s
 rural
 land
 is
 now
 open
 for
 multinationals
 to
 apply
 for
 mining concessions (See Pierre Shantz’s reflection here, which discusses gold profits in Segovia, Antioquia.)

 Moreover, these economic realities take place within the context of an armed conflict, which, contrary to the national narrative, has not ended.  Rural residents, in particular, continue to be affected by the violence of legal and illegal armed groups.  Indeed, organizers note that murders of and attacks on social movement leaders, blockages of aid and shootings and bombings by the armed forces are often the only evidence of state presence in rural areas.

 Social Movement Demands

In sum, while Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) continues to rise in Colombia, especially in the gold mining sector, local communities—many of whom have been making their living mining small amounts of gold by hand for centuries—have seen none of the benefits of that investment.  They have instead have suffered further violence, displacement, and impoverishment as foreign multinationals and local elites line their increasingly heavy pockets.  The Santos administration has refused to discuss foreign investment or the free trade economic model during its current negotiations with the FARC-EP.  In response, organizers of the National Strike yesterday released a list of six specific demands of the government.  These include

  • Measures to confront production crises in agricultural and fishing sectors
  • Access to property ownership and land titles
  • Recognition of peasant land reserves.
  • The effective participation of local communities and small-scale and traditional miners in the development of federal mining policy.
  • The adoption of measures on the part of the State that would guarantee the exercise of the rural population’s political rights
  • Social investment in education, health, housing, public services and roadways

            To continue to follow unfolding developments in the National Strike, check out our Storify page, where we will continue to post the latest news. 

            For more information on mining issues in Colombia, check out this report by Peace Brigades International, and this report by the U.S. Office on Colombia.