Army kills two protesters as peasant protests continue in Catatumbo

News from Colombia | on: Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Peasant Farmers Protesting in Catatumbo

Peasant Farmers Protesting in Catatumbo

The Colombian Army has reportedly killed two protesters and injured a further six more with live bullets in response to peasant farmer protests that have brought the Catatumbo region, in Northeastern Colombia, to a standstill. The Colombian Army are reported to have fired live rounds at protesters as they occupied Ocaña Airport which was being used to bring in riot police reinforcements from different parts of the country. There had already been complaints of extreme police brutality with rubber bullets and tear gas being fired from helicopters in previous days. Ambulances were being blocked from arriving. A verification mission published results on the 24 June which revealed that over fifty protesters had been injured and eight were in intensive care. Many of the fifty have had limbs amputated as a result of exploding canisters used by the Army and the Police.

The protests are being organised by the Peasant Farmer Association of Catatumbo (ASCAMCAT) in response to the failure of both local and national authorities to comply with agreements made to implement a Peasant Farmer Reserve Zone in the region. ASCAMCAT, which is an affiliate of the agricultural workers’ union FENSUAGRO, has worked for over four years on the proposal, with recent support from the National Association for Peasant Farmer Reserve Zones (ANZORC), as a means of offering a sustainable economic model in the region, addressing the extreme humanitarian crisis, and providing economically viable alternatives to the production of coca. Poverty is endemic in rural Colombia; roads, schools and hospitals are non-existent. Military check-points offer the only semblance of state presence. The proposed Peasant Farmer Reserve Zone would provide small scale farming opportunities to over 80,000 farmers according to ASCAMCAT leader Olga Quintero. The organisation had been in talks with the institution for rural development, INCODER, and had followed all the necessary steps for implementation of the Reseve Zone but it has been waiting for over a year for a final decision. Meanwhile a combination of poverty and militarisation continues to affect the civilian population along with the manual eradication program which sees farmers’ coca crops destroyed without any alternatives offered. Coca cultivation is often the only viable option for peasant farmers in rural Colombia where production costs for food products are extremely high due to a lack of any infrastructure and prices are extremely low due to an abundance of imported goods.

The protests started two weeks ago, on the 11 June 2013, after the peasants decided to demand a response from the authorities as well as an end to the continuing manual eradication program. There are reports of up to 17,000 peasant farmers taking part in the protest which is spread across two separate locations. Many more have demonstrated their solidarity across the country.

There is considerable national and international concern about the role of the President, Juan Manuel Santos, in legitimising the violence being carried out against the protesters after he accused the protests of having been infiltrated by the FARC. His statement was made on Saturday and the following day saw the Army open fire leading to the deaths of Dionel Jacome Ortiz and Edilson Franco Jaimes who were 30 and 21 years old respectively. The actions of the President and the Colombian Army have been denounced by international human rights organisations and in the UK Parliament by Rob Flello MP.

The peasant farmer organisation ASCAMCAT continues to call for dialogue with the civilian authorities. Last Wednesday a negotiating meeting was called to bring an end to the protests but the Minister for Agriculture refused to adhere to ASACMCAT’s demands that it would not attend a meeting in which there was presence from the Armed Forces. The organisation’s leaders and two hundred peasant farmers walked out of the meeting. They continue to call for talks with civilian authorities and today called on the President himself to initiate the dialogue.

What is clear is that the peasant farmers of Catatumbo are organised and determined. In spite of the accusations, the threats and the intensifying violence they continue to stand up together in search of justice and in search of an end to the economic violence which they are forced to endure on a daily basis.

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