Persistent U.S.-supported aerial fumigations in northern Antioquia department, a few hours’ drive from MedellÃn, have spurred thousands of campesinos to leave their villages and protest in town centers of municipalities like TarazÃ¡ and Valdivia.
The Colombian government’s response, so far, has been to send the security forces – including the National Police’s feared anti-disturbance squad (ESMAD) – and to deny requests for meetings with high departmental officials.
The MedellÃn daily El Colombiano sent a correspondent to the area, and this morning’s report is very much worth a read. Here is a translation.
- The situation was calmer yesterday and the dialogues with authorities continued.
- In Valdivia, farmworkers await more aid before returning to their farms.
- In TarazÃ¡ they are still waiting for the governor to come and hear them.
By Paula LÃ³pez, special correspondent, TarazÃ¡
“We’re not against the government. We know very well that the logic is to eradicate all of the illegal crops, but we want them to understand us: we aren’t opposed to eradication, what we oppose is that little plane that passes over us every so often, burning out our yuca plants, burning out our pastures, burning our our plaintain and corn plants.”
“Until two years ago, we made our living in the mines. We worked with a tub and a pick, scratching away at the earth to see what we might find, but we tired of that so we began to work as day laborers in the coca fields. Months ago we tired of that and we bought ourselves some cattle and went back to planting pasture and yuca. On November 20, the plane passed over, fumigating, and within two days the yuca plants’ leaves fell off and the pastures turned brown. We had to sell the cows for whatever price we could get, and once again we ended up with nothing.”
This story from an inhabitant of Oco Alto village is repeated over and over again in TarazÃ¡. For four days, 1,500 campesinos have been occupying the municipality’s sports coliseum, asking the government to please listen to their needs.
Yesterday they had hoped to speak with Antioquia’s governor, Luis Alfredo Ramos, but he did not arrive. Their disappointment almost generated another disturbance, like those of Monday night and Tuesday morning, which left 35 people arrested, 15 of them charged with disorderly conduct.
When listening to the liders of the 1,500 mobilized people, their arguments sound as coherent as the logic of officials at all levels, who insist on continuing coca eradication.
“What we want is a productive project. I have wanted to plant cacao, but that is expensive and we don’t have anything to start out with. The thing is that our situation is so difficult that we are buying yuca at 1,200 pesos a kilo (about 60 cents), whether it looks healthy or sickly, and buying a single plantain for 500 pesos (about 25 cents). Who could imagine a campesino having to buy his plantains in town?” asked one of the leaders of Oco Medio village.
“I assure you that it is necessity that forces us to live from coca, that is why we are asking for the government to be present, even though they already told us that nobody is going to come. Do you know what is most outrageous? That of all the plants that we planted to feed ourselves, the coca is the only one that does not die,” alleges another leader from Los Refranes village.
Yesterday, during the entire day, the campesinos’ leaders, the Municipal Administration and representatives of UNHCR, DAPARD and [the presidential department of] Social Action were meeting to find a solution that would allow the farmworkers to return to their lands. But no substantial accords were reached, because the department’s principal authority was absent.
In Valdivia, where another group of campesinos has been protesting for two weeks, their return has been slowed for two reasons: the amount of foodstuffs that the authorities offered them in order to feed themselves during the first month, and the 300,000 pesos [US$150] that the governor’s office offered them.
“The foodstuffs they are offering us includes 6 kilos of rice, for example, but we are asking that each family receive two arrobas [about 23 kilos] of rice and two arrobas of panela [unrefined sugar], among other small things. You know that someone in the countryside eats more because he has to work harder, that is why we want them to help us with more goods,” explains CÃ©sar RendÃ³n, of Pensilvania village.
The Valdivia protesters contend that they need a subsidy of at least eight months, or that they be given loans to cover the next two years, when the new crops will begin to produce.
Some spokespeople of Valdivia’s mayor’s office argue that in addition to economic incentives and foodstuffs, the families have been offered benefits from government Social Action programs like Families in Action, Forest-Protector Families and the Food Security Network (RAS).
For a while
As things are going, with the farmworkers’ clear intentions to stay in town until they are listened, and with the absence of high-level public officials, the situation in TarazÃ¡ does not seem likely to change.
Meanwhile, 150 men from the Mobile Anti-Disturbance Squad (ESMAD), the police and the army remain ready to avoid any alterations to public order.
While at first glance the situations in Valdivia and TarazÃ¡ appear similar, the protesters’ willingness to dialogue differs greatly between the two municipalities.
In TarazÃ¡, so far, the atmosphere is more peaceful and is tending toward finding an alternative that would allow people to return to their villages as soon as possible. Until last night the curfew, the prohibition on alcohol sales, the prohibition on motorcycle passengers and the prohibition on bearing arms all continued, according to Major Nelson GÃ³mez, commander of the anti-disturbance squad.
Luis Walteros, TarazÃ¡’s deputy mayor, said that the campesinos continue expecting a meeting with high government officials, and he said that that depends largely on the mobilization’s continued tranquility.
John Gilberto GÃ³mez, from Pensilvania village, Valdivia:
“We plan to say here until they address our situation. We need them to assure us that we can go safely back to our farms without fearing armed groups. Also, we have to leave here with improvements for our crops, loans and seeds.”
TobÃas de JesÃºs VÃ¡squez, from Pensilvania village, Valdivia:
“I have four children and my wife. Since December 20 I’ve had nothing planted in my land because the fumigation did away with everything. Since then I have had to ask for free food from stores and restaurants. I am here out of necessity, if the situation were otherwise I would have went back to my farm a while ago.”
Dilia Molina, from Buenos Aires village, TarazÃ¡:
“We are displaced and we have nine children. The only thing we want is for the government to aid us, to give us the protection we need to live. Before, we lived from mining, but now nothing can be found. What we wantis for them to give us a way to plant food and see it grow.”