On the Frontlines of Neoliberalism: Resource Extraction and Popular Resistance in Colombia

by Milo Phillips

19 June 2016

“The economic model is not up for negotiation,” said Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, before talks with the FARC rebel group (“The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia”) got underway in 2012. He might have added, “There is no alternative”. Colombia finds itself on the brink of formally ending its sixty year civil war with armed insurgents that has claimed nearly 300 000 lives in deaths and disappearances. But far from the negotiating table in La Habana, the country at large is a long way from peace. Despite the widespread armed conflict, Social movements look beyond the AK47s to the unresolved problems of poverty, injustice and social inequality that fueled the troubles. For them, the fight against insurgency is not primarily military, but rather about addressing the legitimate grievances of the insurgents. They charge the government with ignoring the demands of peasants and marginalised groups, and pursuing a model of economic development that benefits established elites, privatises the public sphere, and gifts large swathes of the country to foreign extractive enterprises. With the civil war nearly over, Colombia now finds itself on the front line of the fight against neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism and Colombia

As a political ideology, neoliberalism primarily emphasizes a limited role for the state, the value of the market, the importance of the individual and free trade. Translated into policies around the world, this has meant the privatisation of state enterprises, deregulation, and liberalisation of trade policy. It has grown from an intellectual project of the Mont Pelerin Society to occupy a hegemonic status in contemporary politics. In Colombia, the neoliberal turn started with the presidencies of Virgilio Barco Vargas and César Gaviria Trujillo in the late eighties and early nineties. They liberalised trade, privatised publically-owned serviced, and made labour laws more ‘flexible’. This trend gathered momentum after 2002 under president Álvaro Uribe Vélez, and continues today with his successor Juan Manuel Santos. In the government’s four-year development plan, incongruously named ‘Peace, Equity and Education’, it has reached a critical point. A brief survey of Colombia’s recent history serves to illustrate.

Selling Off the State

In the public sector, Colombia has been following the orthodox neoliberal script. The state has shrunk. Law 617 of 2000 forced municipalities and departments to reduce the number of employees, resulting in 115 000 job losses. Public companies such as the bank Bancafé, the telecommunications company Colombia Móvil, and the energy company Isagén have all passed into private hands. The Bogota Telecommunications Company (ETB), despite producing an income of 1.8 billion pesos (£420 000) as well as financing various public libraries and providing internet for more than 1400 public schools across the city, provides the latest battleground.

‘An extractivist Disneyland’

Looking more broadly, the country’s recent economic history presents an evolution towards a neoliberal, export-driven, extractivist model: in which the countries natural resources are harvested and exported, with the locals seeing little or no benefit. This is facilitated by extensive deregulation, privatisation and liberalisation. The focus has been on encouraging private accumulation and foreign direct investment. Since 1990 as the state increasingly has surrendered control of the country’s natural resources and land to multinational companies for the service of the international market. With economic growth as the aim, the environment, people and life have been reduced to inputs to achieve that goal. Colombia has become, as one activist put it, an “extractivist Disneyland”.

A new Mining Code in 2001, helpfully drawing on a conference held between the energy ministry with the Canadian Energy Research Institute in 1997, limited the state’s role in the industry to facilitating and taxing mining activity. State enterprises CARBOCOL and MINERCOL were liquidated. in 2011, a free trade agreement with Canada – the biggest foreign investor in Colombia – further shifted the balance of power to ‘the market,’. That is to say, towards Pacific Rubiales, Gran Colombia Gold and other Canadian extractives. At the same time the Colombian state has been an increasingly hospitable host for business, demanding a pitifully small share of the spoils of the mining industry. For gold mining projects, it’s as little as 4%. One 2007 study found that, in the case of coal, deductions and kickbacks for companies had exceeded the amount then paid to the state.

Neoliberal extractivism in Colombia also goes beyond mining. Measures such as the controversial proposed ZIDRES law favour large agribusiness over untitled campesinos (small farmers), facilitating the accumulation of land by entrenched elites in the ambiguous name of ‘investment’. Already, about one million hectares of land in the country’s Altillanura have been subject to land grabs often carried out illegally by large companies. Free trade agreements with the EU, USA, and others have exposed Colombia’s rural campesinos, who make up 32% of the population and provide over half its food, to destructive foreign competition. Colombia may have dumped the USA on its backside in their most recent football match, but American farmers continue to dump 4.4 million tonnes of corn onto Colombian markets each year, said a joke circulating on social media.

The consequences of this development imposed from above, has been especially disastrous for peasants and indigenous and Afro-Colombians. GDP growth has meant nothing to them. Indeed studies show that the growth oil infrastructure is positively correlated with human rights abuses. One emblematic example is the gargantuan Cerrejón open-cast coal mine in La Guajira. It was expanded in line with government strategy in 2010, and is currently co-owned by three British-listed corporate behemoths: Glencore, Anglo American and BHP Billiton. To achieve this expansion, Indigenous Wayyu people have been evicted from their homes, and left without sufficient water in this arid province, whilst the mine consumes 17 million litres a day. Water has been reduced from a basic human right to an input to be bought and sold. Meanwhile, promises of prosperity prove hollow with poverty rates of 65% and soaring inequality; if La Guajira were a country, it would be one of the most unequal in the world according to the GINI index. In the words of one local Wayyu woman “Life was a thousand times better before the mine was constructed”.

This situation repeats itself across the country, in line with President Santos’s plan to make mining and energy one of the five “locomotives” of progress for the country. He is building on the work of his predecessor Uribe, who managed to multiply eightfold the amount of legally mineable land, from 1.13 million to 8.53 million hectares. Where in the past decade twenty oil wells were drilled per day, in 2013 there were one hundred and fifty-nine. The country is being rewrought and reimagined as a feeding ground for foreign enterprise. Where before the invocation of “public utility and social interest” might be used to oppose such projects, this moniker has been redefined to include mining activity, undermining the capacity of communities to defend their rights to their land and homes.

A system glued together by violence

One important aspect of neoliberalism is the way it hides socially-constructed power relations behind seemingly objective terms. ´The market’ is cast as a simple arbiter, rewarding winners and punishing losers with disinterest. In reality, as George Monbiot argues, “ ‘what the market wants’ tends to mean what corporations and their bosses want”. The powerful are rewarded and the weak are punished, in a vicious cycle that reproduces itself in the UK via the concentration of wealth. In Colombia, violence is added to the mix. Violence is integral to Colombia’s neoliberal system, serving the function of displacing people from their land, and repressing the social movements, labour unions, and political dissenters that oppose reforms. One hundred and thirty-four activists have been assassinated in the last 18 months. Until recently, Colombia was statistically the most dangerous place to be a member of a labour union.

In a typically neoliberal twist, violence is not monopolised by the state, but outsourced to paramilitaries. As Jasmin Hristov explains, these paramilitaries are bound to capitalist elites, and complicit in the forced displacement of workers on behalf of industries and large agribusiness. Meanwhile the quelling of guerrillas under the watch of President Uribe offered ‘security’ to foreign investors, facilitating the entry of multinationals. The same dynamic can explain President’s Santos’ desire to conclude formal peace talks with the FARC and ELN, in order to declare the country ‘open for business’.

Black gold or the blood of the mother earth?

This is not an inevitable state of affairs. Another feature of neoliberalism is that it hides itself, and tries to persuade us that there is indeed no alternative. It conceals the fact that it represents just one particular vision of progress, with particular costs and benefits, winners and losers. As Jonathan Glennie puts it, “Development can be carried out with justice, respect and dignity for the poor. Or it can be carried out with violence, displacement and the suppression of human rights.”

And indeed, others in Colombia have a different vision for how the government could operate. Berito Cobaría, an indigenous leader who led the successful fight of the U’wa Nation against the US company Occidental Petroleum in the 1990s and early 2000s, states:

“For the U’wa, oil is ruiría, it’s the blood of the mother earth. And if it’s taken out of the earth, what happens? What would happen to us if we had no blood in our bodies? Our bodies would wither and die”.

For the Cobaría, the extractivist, neoliberal model cannot bring peace and prosperity. There is a clash between two worldviews: one that pursues economic growth and marketisation, GDP increases through extracting value from the earth, and another tied irrevocably to nature, that has as its aim the preservation of the environment for future generations.

“La lucha continua”

This clash between worldviews is not just metaphorical. In the east of Colombia, the U’wa nation has been fighting against oil companies like Occidental, Shell and more recently the state-owned Ecopetrol, for decades, both in the courts and through direct action. In the late 1990s, they even threatened to commit mass suicide if a planned oil project was implemented. It continues today, as two hundred men, women and children from the seventeen U’wa communities recently came together to block the road leading to Ecopetrol’s Gibraltar gas fields, located on sacred territory, for more than two weeks. As one U’wa nurse, Mariela, put it: “We’re here defending our territory,as always. We’ll continue with the defence of our territory.”

The U’wa group took the plant on 31 May as part of the National Minga, a two-week long agrarian strike that saw more than 100 000 take to the streets across twenty-seven of the country’s thirty-two departments.

On the Pacific coast, Afro-Colombians blockaded the port of Buenaventura with a flotilla of one hundred and twenty boats, while indigenous groups shut down the Panamerican Highway that is a crucial artery between the south and centre of the country. In the capital, there were multiple marches in the streets against the privatisation of ETB, and the offices of state oil company Ecopetrol were occupied.  Overall, there were more than one hundred concentrations in the Minga, with some outlasting even the formal ending of the strike, from Colombians disenfranchised by the government’s development model.

This strike is part of a movement that has been demanding change for the past three years. In 2013, an unprecedented intersectoral alliance of social movements, ethnic groups, trade unions, and more took part in an even larger and more disruptive mobilisation that forced the government to open up negotiations. The Agrarian, Peasant, Ethnic and Popular Summit that emerged has since held 1100 hours of talks with the government, demanding an eight-point reform plan that includes land rights, education, health, political autonomy, participation in the peace process, and a moratorium on extractive projects. It has since accused the government of not delivering any concrete progress on these points. The majority of Colombians are effectively ignored as discussions with the FARC and ELN near conclusion.

But beyond the negotiating table, though, the Minga represents a collective call to action, in defense of the environment, and for the peace and wellbeing of all Colombians. It challenges a predatory model of development designed to enrich foreign companies and entrench elites. It has followed other movements that have brought together diverse sections of society, such as the defense of the delicate Páramo ecosystem in Santander and North Santander departments, where workers have joined environmentalists, students, defenders of public services, traders and unions to resist mining.

Faced with these strains of militant collective organizing, the state has reacted uncompromisingly. In Berlín, in the east of the country, where two hundred farmers took a section of a major highway. The army was called in to join a repressive coalition of police, Special Operations agents, undercover operatives and the controversial Mobile Anti-Riot Squadron, which has been accused of killing two indigenous men in the course of the protests with modified ‘dirty’ weapons. The farmers were eventually captured, with some stripped naked and beaten, while many others were robbed of all their possessions. One protester present, Carlos*, said,

“They kicked me from behind and then a police officer hit me with his truncheon, I put my hands up to defend myself but they threw me to the floor and then they stepped on my neck… They said they wanted to burn me alive and that the only thing I deserved was to be killed.”

Meanwhile, in the country as a whole, three protesters were killed, prompting the UN to demand an explanation from the government. A further two hundred were injured. There were illegal detentions, police intimidation, incineration of legitimate protest camps and deliberate misinformation. This is the unfinished peace that the government, defending the neoliberal system against real structural transformation, has delivered.

But despite this response, the people continue to resist. The Minga concluded with important concessions on mining and talks due to continue this week. This success has opened up a space for other groups to forge links and challenge the status quo; the truck drivers’ union, representing three hundred thousand workers, joined the strike on 7 May calling for social programs, and an end to state attempts to force small transporters out of business. As another protester detained in Berlín, Fernando*, stated on being freed, his arm heavily bruised, “We will continue to support the continuation of the National Strike, of our demands and the reasons that led us to protest”. The strike may be over for now, but the fight against neoliberalism goes on.

*names have been changed

Photo:World Bank Photo Collection/Flickr

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