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]
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.