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Follow the Money: Repression, Collectivization and Progress in Medellín, Colombi

Robbie Packer | 11.07.2011 10:22 | Globalisation | Migration | Repression

The focus of development discourse on technical solutions to rural development draws attention away from the real issue holding back small farmers from improving ther livlihoods: denial of their basic human rights highlighted by the murder of land activist Ana Fabricia Cordoba last month. This represents a dated tradition of displacing our problems to the 'third world' that must be dropped by politicians, academia, the press and me and you.

On a Thursday morning of last month, at 10:30am, Ana Fabricia Cordoba, a land and victims activist from the department of Urabá, North Colombia, was murdered on a bus in Medellín. Ana is the tenth activist this year to be murdered, undoubtedly due to her work demanding the recognition of the human rights of victims of violence and those expelled from their lands.

Being Colombia’s second city with almost 4 million inhabitants, Medellín seems an unlikely scene for a story of rural collectivization. However, it is here in the sprawling slums, where small farmers, dispossessed of their lands, must eke out a living. Hundreds of thousands have come here from the regions of Urabá and Chocó in forced displacements that coincidently begun to increase in scale following the expansion of the African palm oil industry in these regions. They know that only collective action will get them back their lands, yet from poverty, repression and murder this is an uphill struggle; a social movement to which straight forward technical prescriptions cannot, unfortunately, be applied.

According to the Colombian Institute for Rural Development, throughout Colombia, “Small farmers’ land has been invaded and those who remain have been subjected to secret military strategies of intimidation”. Upon displacement they suffer discrimination and further repression, family and community ties are ruptured and life persists in a constant state of insecurity. Any attempt to organize and work together in order to improve, protect or reclaim their land is brutally repressed by both state and non-state actors. Today, numbering almost 5 million, Colombia’s forcibly displaced population equals that of Sudan making these two countries the worst cases of forced displacement in the world.

Despite positive rhetoric, Colombian state discourse and media tar the forcibly displaced with the brush of conflict, implicitly linking them to guerilla or paramilitary groups. The state actively and unfairly criminalizes land activists and what they can’t do within the confines of the law, they leave to paramilitary groups with whom they have proven links. Since the 80s, small farmers’ lands throughout Colombia have slowly been taken by large landholders with strong links to paramilitary groups. Under the banner of “progress”, the land oligarchy point out high export profits in order to justify their position. In reality, what is actually promoted is a regressive, backward social order in which 1.4% of land owners own 65% of the land.

The fact is that, as well as challenging the economic monopoly on natural resources enjoyed by multinationals, small farmers working successfully together directly threaten the mechanized-monoculture agricultural model which favors unequal ownership patterns and regressive income distribution. Many people find it hard to believe, but small farming is actually more efficient than large-scale agriculture. It goes against our logic but, putting aside sustainability and environmental concerns, the majority of research (including that of the World Bank) clearly indicates an inverse relationship between farm size and efficiency. Furthermore, small farming generates more employment and distributes wealth more evenly, leading to further benefits associated with social equality.

ACA (Campesino Action of Antioquia) is a farmers’ collective that represents peasants who settled in the region of Angelopolis. Previously considered barren by commercial agriculture, by working together, ACA turned this land into one of the most productive areas in the region. However, this wealth drew the attention of paramilitaries who orchestrated a campaign of intimidation and threats that lead to the community’s eventual forced displacement. Confined to the slums of Medellín, ACA are constantly subject to threats and intimidation due to their work. Rather than focusing on capacity building and technological development, ACA must now focus on collectivizing politically in order to reclaim their stolen land.

Collective action, from forming cooperatives to participating in the democratic process and state-run development programs, is a natural human behavior which we have employed, to varying degrees, for millennia in order to survive and prosper. The optimal extent and manner depend upon a complex set of cultural, social, historical and geographic factors best understood by those to whom they are specific.

From grain silos to fertilizer, small farmers know themselves what is best for them, their families and communities. It is high time that well meaning experts stop attempting to hand down prescriptions to ‘cure’ underdevelopment and, instead, look to the crux of the problem and start supporting small farmers throughout the world in taking the individual and collective action necessary to help themselves. This doesn’t mean, of course, that there is no place for advice and consultation; there will always be something we can learn from one another. However, the deluge of prescriptions that has flowed from “The West to the rest” for the past 60 years has failed to deliver a sustainable solution to rural poverty throughout the developing world.

The majority of these prescriptions from development experts effectively place the responsibility for small farmers’ failure to collectivize on the heads of small farmers. However, in light of the violence and repression in Colombia, can we really ‘blame’ small farmers for not being able to collectivize and organize effectively? The fact is that recommendations to small farmers on how they should farm their land completely ignore the brutal repression they experience and, furthermore, fall neatly into a long tradition of blaming the poor for the problems of the world.

Rather than studying agricultural practices in far away lands, it would be far more productive to pose a few questions regarding our own societies; where do the weapons come from? Where to the drugs and palm oil from the forcibly acquired lands go? Simple, Follow the money.

As long as we persist in turning a blind eye to the fact that we are a part of the problem there will be nothing we can share with small farmers that will help deliver a sustainable solution to rural poverty. We must use the rights we are lucky enough to enjoy to demand that our governments defend the human rights of small farmers and do everything they can to pressure foreign governments and businesses to do the same. This way, small farmers will be free to link up in whatever way and to whatever degree suits them best in order to improve their livelihoods and confront the challenges of global warming and a rising world population.

In Medellín they demand one thing; respect for their human rights, something worth more than all the advice, models and programs we can muster. Collectivization is, rather than technical, a social process. Being its seedbed, freedom must be cultivated to ensure a natural, bottom-up process best suited to improving livelihoods.

Robbie Packer
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