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Colombian Peasants Fight Back

By Eric Gardner

Bogotá, Colombia – U.S. anti-war activists traveled to Colombia in July on a human rights delegation organized by the Colombia Action Network. The delegation met with trade unions, peasant farmer associations and student organizations. FENSUAGRO (Federación Nacional Sindical Unitaria Agropecuaria, or the National Federation of Agricultural Farming Unions), Colombia’s national federation of peasants, hosted the U.S. activists. The delegation visited rural regions and documented the living conditions of Colombian peasants.

The difference between the city and countryside in Colombia is dramatic. Rural communities often lack electricity, health care, schools, drinkable water and sanitation. Peasant farmers don’t have roads to transport their crops to market and cannot compete with cheap, free-trade goods from American agribusinesses. As a result, many peasants must grow coca to feed their families.

Unfortunately, these are not the only hardships that peasants face. The Colombian government, working with paramilitary death squads and the U.S. military, has employed state terrorism against peasant, indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities for 40 years. The Colombian government’s goal is to open Colombia’s natural resources to U.S. and multinational corporations by violently forcing rural inhabitants from their land.

One method of displacement is fumigation. Under the U.S. government’s Plan Colombia, U.S. military contractors spray toxic chemicals from planes across the Colombian countryside. The Bush administration claims that fumigation will stop the growth of coca, the raw material for cocaine. Hubert Gomez, national vice-president of FENSUAGRO, has another view. “In Colombia we have suffered from fumigation for over 30 years. Fumigation destroys the ecosystem and the livelihood of campesinos.” Food crops, livestock and people are routinely sprayed with chemicals. Victims report skin diseases and birth defects. While its record for reducing coca production is abysmal, aerial fumigation succeeds in displacing thousands of peasants.

The state also uses violence. Under the pretext of eliminating ‘guerrilla sympathizers,’ the Colombian military attacks social activists. The U.S. helps by supplying military advisers, weapons and vehicles. In these operations the military and paramilitaries work side by side. “The soldiers in the Colombian military become paramilitaries by putting on a paramilitary armband,” said one peasant activist. “The paramilitary go into town, kill people, leave, remove their armbands and return as soldiers to the scene, supposedly to help. Commanders of these military units are trained at the School of the Americas.” The School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia trains Latin American soldiers in torture, intimidation and counter-insurgency warfare.

In spite of the brutal repression, peasants resist. Leading the struggle is FENSUAGRO, which coordinates peasant associations nationwide. They use a number of tactics to defend the land, lives and livelihood of peasants. To protest the lack of roads and infrastructure in rural regions, FENSUAGRO mobilizes communities to blockade highways. In two southwest provinces in May, 150,000 people mobilized and shut down the Pan-American Highway for eight days. They were immediately attacked by the military and police. Their action forced the government into a round of negotiations over tax spending on rural development. “Under the current regime,” said Eberto Diaz, FENSUAGRO’s national president, “we can only move forward through mass mobilizations, even though this means some of our people will die.”

Everywhere the delegation traveled, peasants agreed: Without U.S. military aid, the Colombian government would be unable to violently persecute the Colombian people. Katrina Plotz, delegation member, explained, “It’s time for a drastic reassessment of our national priorities. Billions of dollars are being spent on Plan Colombia for the so-called wars on drugs and terror. What does this mean for Colombians? Displacement, starvation, death threats, torture, murder. The U.S. government is waging a war of terror on Colombians. We must educate people about how U.S. tax dollars are being spent. If Americans knew the truth about U.S. intervention in Colombia, they would overwhelmingly oppose it.”

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