The municipality of San Miguel, Putumayo, along the border with Ecuador, is one of the most violent and dangerous in Colombia. So things must be very urgent for hundreds of people to gather in the town center for a multi-day protest.
On March 18, 50 people from the municipality’s rural zone gathered in the county seat, La Dorada; their numbers continued to grow until, on March 26, 3,000 people from 30 villages had converged, and were marching through the town’s streets.
The protesters say that following the wave of intense U.S.-funded aerial herbicide fumigation that took place in December and January, they have been left with nothing to eat, and that levels of hunger have reached crisis proportions.
San Miguel has been subject to regular fumigations since late 2000, when “Plan Colombia” got underway with a large-scale spray campaign in Putumayo. The December-January fumigations are the same ones that caused the Ecuadorian government to lodge high-profile protests with Bogotá, in a diplomatic spat that is still not fully resolved.
The San Miguel protesters are demanding humanitarian aid to address their immediate food needs, and a commitment to fund projects to help them abandon coca, achieve food security and grow legal crops.
About 400 of the protesters remain, at least as of three days ago, in La Dorada’s main school, according to the Bogotá-based human-rights group MINGA. They promise to remain there until Putumayo’s governor and representatives of the central government meet with them.
The U.S. government, which funded the spraying that killed the farmers’ food crops, now has an obligation to help these people feed their families. Even those who see the San Miguel farmers as criminals who got what they deserved – there are plenty of such people here in Washington – should recognize that killing the population’s food crops, then refusing relief, is no way to run a counter-insurgency campaign.
Here is a translation of a letter that the San Miguel farmers sent last Friday to Colombia’s human-rights ombudsman, or defensor del pueblo.
March 23, 2007
Mr. VOLMAR PEREZ
National Ombudsman (Defensor del Pueblo)
Dear Mr. Ombudsman,
Two hundred farmers and indigenous people from San Miguel-La Dorada municipality have been marching towards the town center since Tuesday, March 19. This displacement comes as a consequence of the starvation we are suffering. Mr. Ombudsman, there is nothing to eat, no bananas, no yuca and all of our cacao, pepper, stevia, copoazu, pineapple and Amazonian cacao crops, as well as fish-breeding – some of them funded by Plan Colombia – have all been fumigated.
The national and departmental government institutions, and humanitarian ones like the ICRC, tell us that we do not have the right to petition for humanitarian aid, because the hunger we are suffering, and which is pushing us to protest at this moment, is not contemplated by the laws [for official relief]. They tell us that only in the presence of an armed conflict that forces us from our lands will they consider us displaced people [eligible for aid].
Mr. Ombudsman, we would first like to point out that we are not asking to be considered displaced people, this is not the problem; of course we need the urgent assistance that all types of displaced people need: assistance for children, women and old people, who left their farms under difficult conditions. But we swear, Mr. Ombudsman, that there is nothing sadder for a farmer than to have to beg for food, as he technically possesses the land and the possibility to sustain his family. It is a humiliation, an outrage and, according to us, it is a violation of a right, and it is for this reason that we ask for your mediation.
In addition to the denial of the most basic humanitarian assistance during this mobilization (with the exception of the aid provided by the mayor’s office and the pastoral social [Caritas Colombia]), we also want to denounce that we have not been able to produce our subsistence food crops; we do not have seeds for crops such as cacao and pepper, because they regularly fumigate; nor are there commercial avenues to sell those products that we have vigorously tried to keep producing with our own (limited) resources, as evidence that we want to eradicate coca and live from other things.
Where are the resources invested in social aid through Plan Colombia? Why must projects be brought here that have been designed behind some desk in Bogota? There, they do not know the reality of our soils and the productive guidelines that we tried to establish for so many years. Why, Mr. Ombudsman, do they not try to evaluate with the farmers of San Miguel and Putumayo the ways in which those resources are invested? A serious evaluation, starting with us, those directly affected.
We, San Miguel’s farmers, have proposed to the national institutions the creation of a Rural Agricultural Development Plan, with an initial component based on food security, with farms for self-sufficient development to guarantee basic food for our families, coupled with agreed productive short-term and long-term projects. We have many proposals that have not been heard. Mr. Ombudsman, the institutions can not disregard this serious problem and place all blame on us, the farmers, who, in addition being fumigated, directly feel the effects of the armed conflict.
The government’s institutions disregard both the hunger to which they are condemning us, and the failure of the Plan Colombia projects that have been imposed on us.
Fumigation and forced manual eradication, coupled with inexistent social investments in the countryside, have created severe problems of common crime, theft and robbery, which are now frequent but had never been a problem before.
Mr. Ombudsman, we insist on our right to feed ourselves, to live off of what we produce. We also insist on being able to present a plan which would manually eradicate coca, not only from our economy but also from our minds and consciences. The farmers are tired of this crop because it brings them death, violence, armed actors and wrong values. Mr. Ombudsman, in your capacity as defender of us all, we turn to you to ask you to support us, in both the discussion of this topic and in the development of consensus on solutions to our problem, at the meeting that will take place on March 26 in Dorada (San Miguel municipality) at 11:00 am at the mayor’s office.
Finally, we want to point out that we are not motivated, infiltrated, or anything along these lines, by armed parties; our only reason for protest is basically the hunger that, right now, we are suffering together with our children.
Thanking you for your consideration,
The San Miguel-La Dorada farmers’ roundtable