Colombia’s agricultural strike

By | 10/07/2013

“En el campo está la frontera entre la guerra y la paz”

What pops into your mind if I say you will be (hopefully) spend the next 5 minutes of your life reading about conflict in Colombia? Even if you know little about the Latin America country, probably “FARC” and “cocaine” are two of the concepts you are considering. But let me add something else to that cocktail; the agricultural strike within the frame of the Peace Negotiations that are taking place in La Habana and Oslo,  which started an year ago.

Here’s a sneak a peek: Masacre Catatumbo

Nearly an 18% of labor force in Colombia is employed in agriculture. They cultivate coffee, rice, tobacco, corn, bananas and sugarcane. Oh, and yes, they also cultivate coca. In fact, Colombia is the World’s leading coca cultivator with 116,000 hectares in coca cultivation in 2009. It supplies cocaine to nearly all of the US market and the great majority of other international drug market. Aerial eradication, dispensed herbicide combined with manual eradication had been the tools to transform this reality, but better policies are needed. We will go back to that point later on.

Farmers demand government help; they want it to agree to a wide-ranging set of demands, including subsides for their products, and cheaper fuel prices. It’s pretty simple to understand; prices for raw materials and fuel needed to transport their goods rise, while the prices their products fetch have been falling. Another of their demands was relative to the fact that the TLC or CTPA (free-trade agreement or FTA between the US and Colombia) makes them buy genetically modified seeds which can only be used once, from US corporations, instead of using their natural local seeds. The TLC between the UE and Colombia and Perú, which operates since the 1st of August this year, has also been criticized. The peasant farmers see the pursuit by the Santos government of the free trade agreements placing their future increasingly in danger.

To learn more on the FTA: Impact of the FTA with Colombia on Afro-Colombian and Indigenous Communities (An extended version:

But their claims are not just a reaction to the current economic situation, those have historical roots.  Demands go from reforms on ownership, territoriality, and legalization of small and traditional miners, political inclusion and social investment in state programs investing in education, health care, housing, roadway infrastructure and public services.


However, the peasants’ most pressing concern is food. Colombia has one of the most severe rural poverty rates in South America (according to the National Study on Human Development.)

They do not just protest on the streets, but politically, by submitting a formalized list of complaints to the office of President Santos. The basic points of their demands can be summarized as follows;

  1. Implementation of measures and actions to face the farming crisis.
  2. Access to land ownership.
  3. Recognition of the rural territoriality.
  4. Effective participation of communities and traditional miners in the formulation and development of the mining policy.
  5. Implementation of measures which fulfill the real guarantees to exercise the political rights of the rural population.
  6. Social investment in rural and urban population in education, health, housing, utilities and infrastructures is demanded.

The National Agricultural and Popular Board for Dialogue and Agreement (MIA) challenge is, among others, to present a unified front, that is, to represent all the different groups, ethnically and culturally diverse, that protest; peasants, miners, afro-Colombians, indigenous peoples, artisan miners, farmers, union laborers, transport workers, students and victims of armed conflict. The peasant movement itself is a hardly a uniform group, either.

They protested in almost all the 32 Colombian provinces. Even Interior Minister Fernando Carrillo wrote on Twitter that many of the demands “were just, but violent protests will not bring about solutions, but rather only deepen the crisis”. About the violence of the strikes; the Government claims that the peasants are being “manipulated” by outside forces, including armed militants and organized drug traffickers. The movement itself has no intention of instigating violence, but it will fall on the Government to ensure a diplomatic end to the protests. ESMAD’s (anti-riot police) and mobilized army units’ response has been brutal in some cases to face the demonstrations and the obstruction of traffic using highway blockades.

The Catatumbo background is of poverty, populations displaced from land, and Governmental neglect of dire social problems. Paramilitary groups controlled the area for many years and oil production and industrial agriculture expanded due in part to foreign funding and backing by multi-national corporations.

The Government’s decision in early June to carry out eradication of coca cultivation without prior consultation served as trigger for the protests. The area under coca crop cultivation in Colombia fell by a quarter (according to UNODC 2012 survey). The number of households involved in coca cultivation fell a 3%. Coca production does not fetch the same lucrative rewards as in the past, but it is still worth 0.2% of national GDP and 3% of the GDP related to the agricultural sector.

The underlying reason to punish coca-cultivators was the same than to criminalize (through the implementation of its new licensing requirements) artisanal miners, putting them in a position of great vulnerability; the current internal armed conflict is being fuelled by a struggle for control of mineral-rich lands and land profits. These activities finance their armed actions, and remove popular resistance to incursion of multinationals. The problem is that it makes no distinction between new illegal medium-scale mechanized open pit mines run by powerful criminal gangs and traditional artisanal mines.


1.- This is a national issue that should go through an agreement all together. The input costs for products such as fertilizer and gasoline, the effect of the nation’s free trade agreements and the legal push to use licensed seeds should be addressed to dignify the agricultural and rural sector in a country where it is so important.

The internationalization of the conflict might be interesting at some point as well. If some of the 28member states of the EU do not ratify the free-trade agreement, because it violates de human rights it is supposed to protect, for instance, it won’t make it, and the SGP Plus, a much more advanced piece of legislation could be revised and implemented. At the same time, the ILO must have a word to protect the unions, which are highly vulnerable in Colombia, considered the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists for several decades. The international public opinion has a lot to say as well.

At the same time, the IACHR could intervene, as repression and discrimination are taking place in the conflict, on the one hand, and property law is being disputed.

2.- Food dependency is a violation of sovereignty. The speculation with raw materials prices put at risk core values and protected rights such as the public health, and therefore should not be permitted and be sanctioned as a crime.

International pressure for Colombia to ratify the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights could be an interesting tool.

 To read the complete report visit:

3.- Finally, crop eradication, even when it yields positive results, must be complemented by alternative livelihood schemes to improve social, economic and environmental conditions and to achieve a sustainable reduction in the area under cultivation.


*This article was motivated by the conference “Videoconferencia con el líder del movimiento campesino en Colombia: ‘¿Qué está pasando en Colombia con el paro agrario?’. Mecanismos de intervención del Derecho Internacional”, organized by The International Criminal Court (Comisión Justicia Penal Internacional) and held on the 19th Sep. 2013 at ICAB, Barcelona. Presented by Gustavo Franco, Eulàlia Pascual, Leonora Castaño, Jaume Saura and César Jerez.

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