Campesinos Against Climate Change: The Fight for Economic Justice in Colombia

by Milo Phillips

7 August 2016

In areas slowly recovering from decades-long military conflict, campesino peasant farmers in Tolima, Colombia are facing a fresh crisis brought on by a toxic combination of climate change, excessive indebtedness and neoliberal government policies. As the temperature rises and new pests thrive, losses of up to 100% of the harvest have meant that many farmers face destitution and bank repossession of their land. At the same time, foreign multinationals and the government have earmarked the region for mineral extraction and mega-hydroelectric projects. In this context, new resistance movements are springing up to defend a campesino culture in danger of extinction, and to reclaim rights to life and land. The battle lines for social conflict in ‘post-war’ Colombia have been set.

“The climate is no good for growing coffee any more”.

“We lost the whole harvest this year, practically 100%. What the heat didn’t get, the broca pest finished off.” Sandra Castro is one of 20 000 coffee farmers from Tolima, a department in central Colombia, who is mired in crisis as climate change threatens to do away with her livelihood.

Walking through neat rows of coffee plants in the stunning green valleys of La Aurora village, with the snow-capped Ruiz volcano in the distance gently spraying smoke high into the sky, you would not notice it. Nor from interacting with the local people, who invite casual passers-by into their homes for a tinto (sugary black coffee) or agua de panela, (a cane sugar drink).

Beneath the natural beauty and warm hospitality, however, lies a darker reality. “Before we used to sow in March, after Ash Wednesday, we would sow coffee, maize and beans, and we could count on the date. Not any more. Now we don’t know when summer will come, when there will be sun. And it’s not only the sun that’s got stronger, the rain too, and that also affects the crops.”

It’s not just the direct effects of the change in weather that are harming farmers. More debilitating has been the arrival of new pests, such as ‘broca,’ a small insect, which have thrived in the heat since the mid-1990s. Elkin, another campesino, shows me a handful of what look like healthy green coffee beans. He points out a small dark hole on the underside of one grain, before throwing the whole handful away. All have been eaten inside out by the broca pest, that Elkin guesses will render worthless 80% of his crop this harvest.

At least he has some crops to sell. For land at lower than 1500m altitude, coffee is no longer an option. One campesino in the La Alcancía village states simply, “the climate is no good for growing coffee any more.” For people whose identity is inextricably bound up in the crop, this goes beyond mere loss of livelihood.

Crop losses and crippling debt mean farm repossessions.

The crisis has been coming for two decades. It marks the culmination of various trends that together threaten the very existence of these rural farmers and the campesino culture that defines them. To climate change, add a debt crisis. As farmers struggled with difficult conditions, government policy in the 1990s and 2000s seemed to present a solution: they were encouraged by the Federation of Coffee Growers “to take out loans and plant coffee like crazy,” says Sandra, with promises of excellent returns and increased profits. “To people, it seemed like an excellent idea… Everyone indebted themselves until they couldn’t borrow any more”.

Today the effects of this can be measured in the millions of pesos owed and farms repossessed. ASACOL, a campesino collective formed in 2013 to defend the rights and livelihood of the farmers, conducted a survey to assess the damage. Leafing through the responses is grim reading: one records 90% crop losses and a three million peso debt; another 100% losses and a five million peso debt. An accompanying question asks respondents to report how they’re feeling: most tick the box marked “bad”. And if the dreaded happens, Sandra is blunt about the consequences: “a campesino displaced in the city without any education, what can they do? Join the lines of the poor and begging.”

Neoliberal government policy: aiming for “un campo sin campesinos”.

Sandra claims that this is a deliberate government strategy to force campesinos off their land, carried out via the banking sector. Andrés Felipe Arias, the former agriculture minister in the government of Álvaro Uribe Vélez, is said to have aimed for “un campo sin campesinos” or ‘a countryside without peasant farmers’. It seems to have worked: two and a half million peasants migrated to the cities during Uribe’s eight-year rule, leaving the way open for large agribusiness and multinational extractives.

This comes as part of the rise of neoliberalism in Colombia, which intensified under Uribe’s government, with privatisations of state enterprises such as MINERCOL and CARBOCOL, deregulation of labour rights and environmental protections, and attempts to attract foreign investment into the extractive and agro-business industries.

As a consequence, campesinos have been left to be buffeted by the winds of the market.  Since the weakening of regulation caused by the collapse of the International Coffee Agreement in 1989, international prices have been low and volatile. Domestically, the laissez-faire model also leaves farmers of all crops at the whims of more powerful market players, such as buying cartels. These act as intermediaries between producers and consumers, and fix the prices so low that the campesinos often find themselves growing at a loss. “With the intermediaries it’s terrible, they’re killing us… We have to hand over a bag of plantain at 5000 pesos but they take it to Bogotá and sell it at 30 000,” says Sandra. Requests to the government for investment for their own vehicles, and help on developing supply chains have gone unanswered.

Extractivism: a new threat.

The neoliberal government model also threatens farmers in more direct ways. While the campesino vision attempts to preserve the strong ties between rural people and the land, and defend their rights to the water and a healthy environment, the government has other plans. At a national level, current president Juan Manuel Santos has spoken of the ‘mining-energy locomotive’ as one of the key drivers of future development in Colombia. Mining concessions now cover five million hectares of the country’s land, one million more than agriculture in a country where campesinos still produce the majority of the country’s food.

In Tolima, the government’s “Goliath Plan” would convert the region into little more than a series of gold and mineral mines fed by mega-hydroelectric power plants. One report suggests that just one proposed gold mine, La Colosa, owned by the notorious South African multinational Anglo Gold Ashanti, would require more energy than is currently consumed by the entire department’s over one million inhabitants. According to Luisa Arango, co-founder of El Líbano’s Environmental Committee, a movement which has led the fight against extractivism in the area over the last two years, local people are being pushed aside for the needs of multinational companies and international markets. “They sold us something we didn’t need. We lived fine before gold.”

The effects of these projects are already being felt. The Orwellian-named “El Gran Porvenir” (“The Great Future”) mine two years ago leaked toxic cyanide into one of North Tolima’s main rivers; traces were found in rice grown locally but the evidence was not accepted by the regional oversight body as it had not come from one of their official labs. This speaks to another problem: regulatory capture. CORTOLIMA (Autonomous Regional Corporation of Tolima) is officially charged with environmental protection in the region, but as Luisa argues, “you see the officials having a coffee with the mine owners and you think: it doesn’t have the impartiality that it should to be dealing with these issues”. Beyond this, the Gran Porvenir mine sponsors Líbano municipality’s only radio station, funds festivals, and pays marginally more than the day rate for a farm worker. If the efforts of activists like Luisa to build awareness among campesinos fail, the multinationals have enough money to buy the social license they need to rip up the landscape.

A legacy of conflict.

The mining projects are also often backed by paramilitary groups that continue to operate in the region, adding another layer of complexity to the situation in which farmers find themselves. The region has certainly calmed down since the mid-2000s, when campesinos had to deal with paramilitaries, the army, and three distinct armed rebel groups, including the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias Colombianas (FARC) and the Ejército de Liberación Nacional.

Dagoberto Medina is the president of ASACOL. “It was really difficult, many forcibly displaced, many killed”. He quips that he would wake up and find thirty guerrilla soldiers sleeping in the corridor of his house; if you didn’t feed them or do what they said, it could mean death. And if you did, it could also mean death, at the hands of the government or paramilitaries, for being ‘collaborators’. Social movements mostly disappeared, voluntarily or otherwise.

Since 2011, things have de-escalated, but in spite of vociferous claims by the government that Colombia is close to concluding peace talks with the FARC, for Joana Castaño, regional coordinator of the National Agrarian Coordinator, a national-level organisation representing campesinos, “post-agreement is not post-conflict”. Sandra, in her role as vice-president of ASACOL and President of the local Communal Action Committee, has received multiple threats in the past, including as recently as last November. She reported the incident to the departmental authorities but was told ‘she needed to learn to look after herself on her own, and in any case no one would believe her’. She has been forced to avoid coming frequently to her farm, leaving it in the hands of an administrator.

But the legacy of the conflict is more damaging; these individual threats have an insidious effect on the farmers’ capacities to build social movements and contest the twin effects of climate change and economic reform. “Nowadays people are scared to express themselves and claim their rights,” says Sandra. Others in the area arrived as internally-displaced people, and are reluctant to get involved in activities that might put them in the line of fire.

Building a resistance movement.

Despite this, there are signs of a resurgence in the fight for campesino rights. There is an increasing realisation among farmers that unless they stand up and organise, no one will save them; as one campesino put it, “if the baby is sleeping, the mother won’t wake him up to feed him.”

In 2013, eighteen years after a historic strike in 1995 that lasted over two months, campesinos in Tolima took to the streets again as part of a nationwide mobilisation that paralysed the country. And out of that mobilisation, “around a bonfire one night we said why not build an association run for and by campesinos to represent us, that would identify with us and our rights, to be heard.” ASACOL is now small but growing, with around 600 members.

They have a broad platform of demands that start with the recognition of the campesino as a political subject in the constitution, without which farmers will remain quietly forgotten and ignored by state institutions. Alongside cancellation of debts, and the introduction of insurance to cushion against shocks, they are also asking help for those forced to diversity away from coffee production to other crops by the changes in the climate. Like miners and oil workers, these farmers, too, are in need of a ‘just transition’.

At a national level, ASACOL is affiliated with the powerful Congreso de los Pueblos (‘Congress of the People’), a political movement founded in 2010 that has brought together indigenous groups, Afro-Colombians, trade unions, campesinos and more to challenge the government’s model of development. In May and June this year, it coordinated strikes that shut down highways across twenty-three of the country’s thirty-two departments, involving over 100 000 people. As the government concludes talks with the FARC and declares Colombia open for business, they are making their voices heard. Some campesinos even talk of a full lockdown on food production, starving the cities to force the government to the negotiating table.

Back in La Aurora, where the slow-burning crisis getting a little deeper each day, all this seems very remote. 11 July was the National Campesino Day festival, and the whole village turned out as part of festivities in the nearby town of Santa Teresa. The village won a prize for best float, and came a close second in the mule-loading competition. Spirits were high as families headed back to their farms.

But for Dagoberto, these seemingly banal celebrations also have their political significance. The sense of unity and positive momentum generated helps rebuild trust between individuals in the community, a vital step in fighting the government and multinationals. He reasons, “people won’t take action unless it’s with friends, with people they know. It has to be with a spirit of love and a sense of family.” As Brexit reveals a yawning gap between the progressive left and the people it purports to represent, it is a poignant message.

And while the process of building the movement is painstaking, Dagoberto has bold ambitions. He sees a future where campesinos are valued and recognised by government, where they enjoy representation by ten or fifteen senators in addition to the one they have now. And with power in the hands of the people, Colombia “will be truly democratic, will be progressive, will be a country of great opportunities”. Even faced with climate change and crippling debt, a government that doesn’t want to know, a market that doesn’t care, and paramilitaries that don’t hesitate, you would not bet against him.

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