I just returned from Catatumbo, Colombia where thousands of peasants are waging a life-and-death struggle against the U.S.-backed Colombian military and its paramilitary allies. For over 60 days, the peasants have been demonstrating against the deplorable living conditions and economic circumstances in which they live, and in support of their proposal for a Peasant Farmer Reserve Zone of 10 million hectares.
Such a zone, which is provided for under the law, would allow the peasants to engage in subsistence farming free of the threat of encroachment by extractive companies desiring to mine or drill on their land. This demand, along with the concomitant demand of the peasants for all mining and oil exploration and extraction in their region to be suspended, is critical to the peasants who are being driven to the verge of extinction.
According to the Luis Carlos Pérez Lawyers’ Collective (CALCP), 11,000 peasants have been killed in this region by state and para-state forces, most of them during the 2002-2010 term of President of Alvaro Uribe, and over 100,000 peasants, out of a total of around 300,000, have been forcibly displaced. At least 32 mass graves containing the bodies of murdered peasant activists have been found in this region in recent years.
And, this mass murder and displacement is being carried out to make way for more oil drilling, African palm cultivation (for biodiesel) and for coal mining by North American companies.
I say that this mayhem is being carried out, in part, in order to make way for more oil drilling because, in fact, much oil drilling has been taking place there for the past 70 years. And, the peasants of this region have nothing to show for this many years of drilling. As we were told a few times during out trip, after 70 years of oil exploration, the rural parts of this region do not even have a paved road. (Our delegation – led by Justice for Colombia and including participants from the USW and Unite the Union UK – found this out the hard way during our 3.5 hour drive over a dirt road from Cucuta to a village outside Tibu near the Venezuelan border).
Peasants greet us along the highway.
In addition, there is no sewage system, no running water and no health services. Indeed, peasants injured in their confrontations with the military and police during the two months of demonstrations – with the peasants defending themselves with sticks against the guns, tanks and other U.S.-supplied hardware of the military and police – have been forced to flee into Venezuela for refuge and medical services.
In short, the oil and other extractive companies, beginning with Texaco in the 1930’s, have taken and taken, and left the people with nothing. Now, the companies want even more, and it is the very existence and presence of the peasants which stands in their way. And so, quite logically, the companies, with the help of the U.S.-backed military and paramilitaries, are aiming to literally wipe the peasants off the map. In other words, these forces are engaged in a calculated act of genocide. Indeed, when a number of us remarked upon how almost everyone we saw and met with in our visit to Catatumbo were no more than teenagers, we were told that this was the result of the fact that their parents had either been murdered or displaced. Left behind are villages populated almost entirely by children.
Young Peasants of Catatumbo In Rebellion
The calculated mass killing and displacement that is taking place in Catatumbo is a good example of the phenomenon discussed in the new book, Capitalism: A Structural Genocide by Garry Leech. In that book, Leech argues, and quite forcefully, that capitalism, left to its own devices, will inevitably destroy (1) those who stand in the way of the exploitation of natural resources; and (2) those individuals, such as peasants and subsistent farmers, who are engaged in pursuits which neither contribute towards economic “growth” nor produce surplus value or profit. Of course, the peasants of Catatumbo fall into both of these categories simultaneously, and are therefore a double threat.
Citing Indian physicist and philosopher Vandana Shiva, Leech explains that, under capitalism, “nothing has value until it enters the market. Shiva points out that under capitalism ‘if you consume what you produce, you do not really produce, at least not economically speaking. If I grow my own food, and do not sell it, then this does not contribute to GDP, and so does not contribute towards growth.’” Rather, for such subsistence farmers, “’nature exists as a commons.’” The commons, moreover, and those who work on it, are simply not permitted under capitalism.
Young peasants of Catatumbo in rebellion.
As Leech and Shiva explain, those working the commons must either “be incorporated – often through coercion – into the ever-widening spheres of production and circulation,” or they must be simply be destroyed. This process, as Leech explains, is what Karl Marx termed, “primitive accumulation,” and it is quite a nasty process, wherever it is carried out.
Leech explains that, as capitalism was beginning to get into full swing in Britain in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, the British Parliament passed a series of Enclosure Acts which privatized commonly held lands and “prevented much of the generations-old practice of grazing their animals and cultivating their crops on commonly held lands, thereby forcing them to move to the cities in search of jobs.”
More recently, as Leech astutely points out, Mexico outlawed communal land titles for indigenous peoples in order to make way for NAFTA. As Leech explains, and as many of us have argued for years, a major raison d’être of NAFTA was in fact the primitive accumulation of the commons of millions of small farmers in Mexico. This primitive accumulation was carried out by NAFTA’s provisions which allowed heavily-subsidized, and therefore cheap, agricultural products from North America to flood the Mexican markets tariff-free. Meanwhile, the IMF rules governing Mexico forbid that country from subsidizing its own agricultural producers.
As Leech explains, the results for 2 million small farmers in Mexico, who could not compete with the subsidized food from the North, was devastating, with these small farmers losing their livelihood and their land and fleeing into the cities, or illegally into the U.S. Finding themselves displaced from their land, many were left with no jobs at all, found themselves exploited in low paying jobs with poor safety and health practices, or turned to the drug trade for employment. The result for Mexico as a whole has been the destruction of the social fabric of the nation and increased violence, with cities like Juarez suffering violence levels comparable to nations at war.
While Leech does not focus on Colombia in his book, he does mention that Colombia itself “has become Latin America’s poster child over the past decade and its economic growth has been driven by the exploitation of the country’s natural resources, particularly oil, coal and gold, by foreign companies.” Colombia now has the largest internally displaced population in the world at over 5 million. As Leech explains, “[m]any have been forced from their lands by direct physical violence related to the country’s armed conflict – often by the Colombian military and right-wing paramilitary groups serving the interests of multinational corporations. However, many others have become economic refugees due to the structural violence inherent in neoliberal policies that has dispossessed them of their lands in order to facilitate capital accumulation for foreign companies.”
Peasants Greet Us Along The Highway
The peasants of Catatumbo have long been the victims of such direct as well as structural violence, but now they are fighting back to defend their land. For 53 days, these peasants, armed only with sticks, blocked the main highway linking the cities of Cucuta and Tibu. Shortly after our visit, the government agreed to negotiate with them directly, and the peasants ended this blockade for now. However, they will begin it anew if talks fail.
While the Colombian Minister of Defense warned us not to travel this highway because of these protests, the peasants freely allowed us to pass. Of course, as all of us understood, what the Colombian government was truly afraid of was that we would witness that it is in fact the peasants who are on the side of right; that it is they who are defending the land, the water and the rainforests for all of us. And, this is why their struggle, and the struggles of others like them, must succeed. In truth, our very lives and future depend on them.
Daniel Kovalik is a labor and human rights lawyer and teaches International Human Rights at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.