With Frog-Lover the fourth member of Espacio currently in Colombia – see her blog http://www.bioduels.blogspot.com
A leader of Colombia’s largest paramilitary group once described paramilitary strategy in terms of clearing the ground for a model of “development” geared towards corporate interests.
He explained that once the paramilitaries had eliminated potentially subversive members of the population, imposed an authoritarian social structure, ensured that land once owned by peasant farmers became the property of large landowners and begun employment, health and education programmes in conjunction with state bodies, these right-wing death squads would stop being a “loose cannon of the State”, having “put in place the necessary structures for the victorious expansion of national and multinational capitalism and the ‘modernising’ State will be able to install itself with the cooperation of the private sector, non-governmental organisations and the “organised” communities.’ (Carlos Castaño, quoted by Colombian economist Libardo Sarmiento in 1996).
He was referring particularly to paramilitary strategy in the Magdalena Medio region of the country, where Espacio’s Frog Lover has been based for the last few weeks, providing solidarity accompaniment to communities there.
The region was taken over by paramilitaries – in full complicity with the “official” state forces – in the late 1990’s.
Although Colombia’s armed conflict is often misrepresented as being primarily to do with drugs, the well-documented, institutionalised links between the armed forces and paramilitaries, the recent “parapolítica” which revealed close ties between numerous top politicians and paramilitary groups and the numerous testimonies of collaboration between multinational corporations and paramilitary groups point to a different logic driving the conflict: the violent imposition of a model that geographer David Harvey calls “accumulation by dispossession”, which is being imposed, with differing degrees of violence, the world over.
When the paramilitaries arrived in Southern Bolívar, they made it clear to communities why they had come. In one part of the region – where local people make a living as small-scale gold miners – the paramilitaries killed one of the leaders of the Farmers and Mining Federation of Southern Bolívar, decapitated him and played football with his head before putting it on a pole looking towards the mining zone and telling the inhabitants that they were coming for the mines and they were going to hand them over to people who would work them better and make more rational use of them.
Today, gold mining in the region is controlled by multinational corporations, such as Kedahdah Anglo Gold. One of the current leaders of the Federation is Teófilo Acuña, who will be in Bristol on Wednesday, was last year was imprisoned at the order of the army battalion responsible for protecting the multinationals’ interests.
Monocultures of oil palm – a crop used for agro-fuels (also known as biofuels) as well as in the fast food industry – are another important interest linked to paramilitarism in the region as well as to international policies designed to keep capitalism going and provide what Bristol Rising Tide aptly desribe as a “false technical fix” for climate change.
In a country where eight million people are reported to by dying of hunger, the imposition of monocultures in place of local food crops is itself lethal – quite apart from the violence used to dispossess people of their land.
In the town in Southern Bolívar where Frog Lover has been living, it is planned that 16,000 of the available 24,000 hectares will be used for growing Oil Palm.
This does not leave much space for food crops. And much of this ‘available land’ is only available once wetlands have been drained, affecting fish and bird populations as well as destroying the livelihoods of local fishermen.
Frog Lover has met farmers in the region surviving on one meal a day since being forced off their land by a palm oil company, people working for palm companies paid poorly and paid late, and many who are angry and saddened that in such a fertile area they are having to import food from elsewhere.
The village of San Cayatano is one example of the misery caused by agro-fuel monocultures.
When Señor Numa, the owner of a 900 hectare farm died 23 years ago, the villagers waited five years for his relatives to claim the land before they started to farm it. They were there for fourteen years: around forty families, again growing staple foods.
It is still unclear whether the men who arrived claiming to have bought the land from Señor Numa’s sons actually ever did, although it is understood that they aquired the land for growing Oil Palm. What was clear were the threats behind the request for these families to leave the land. People were offered small amounts of money and were told that if they didn’t leave the good way, they would be leaving the bad way. Given the paramilitary presence in the area, people took this pretty seriously. The last man left was taken by the paramilitaries to be killed, but managed to escape.
That was three years ago. ‘Misery’ was the word used to describe life for them since. Unemployment is especially uncomfortable when there are eight children to feed. One meal a day becomes normal. Hunger universal.
Meanwhile, smallholders nearby have been persuaded by falling crop prices into growing Oil Palm through the EU-backed policy of “strategic alliances” between peasants and corporations (alliances that disguise grossly unequal power relations and the fact that the peasants take the risks while the company reaps the profit).
For the first three years, while the palms are growing, the farmers get a loan of 400 000 pesos (106 pounds) per month from the company – San Lucas – to cover the upkeep of the 10 hectares. It actually doesn’t cover much. At least two people are needed every day for keeping the area weed free. (If you are reported for having livestock on the land, the payment stops) If the workers are not family, they need to paid 40 000 pesos per day. If they are, they need feeding.
On top of this, when repayments start after 5 years, the 400,000 pesos per month will have to be paid back to the company.
Some farmers use herbicides, also supplied on credit from the company.
Most of these farmers currently have a loan of around 25 million pesos (6600 pounds) and many see losing their land as a real danger as a result of their debt. When their trees start bearing fruit, they will be at the mercy of global prices and the amount that San Lucas chooses to pass on to them.
It is not a company that has so far inspired much confidence. Three years ago they made an agreement with the community to sort out the local road which is impassible in the winter – children struggle to school knee deep in mud and arrive 2 hours late according to the teacher. The company also undertook to put in a drainage system to help against flooding. None of this has been done, and in fact the problem with flooding has been far worse as the drainage system from the company’s own land directs more water onto the old airstrip, and another palm oil company at the other end has blocked where it used to drain away.
This Tuesday, 15th April, mandatory biofuel blending comes in, meaning that 2.5% of fuel sold at the pump must contain biofuel. Espacio members in Bristol will be with Rising Tide at Tesco, Eastville from 4.30 – 7pm on Tuesday 15th, highlighting the impact of the agrofuels in solidarity with communities who are struggling to keep their lands. See: http://www.bristol.indymedia.org/article/688168