Solidarity Across Borders

From the October 2011 PNL #808

by Jessica Maxwell & Ursula Rozum

“There are going to be some losers. Campesinos [small farmers], indigenous, Afro-Colombians, they aren’t going to win.” –US Embassy official in Colombia


Activists in Syracuse, Cortland and Ithaca have maintained a solidarity project with activists in the Movimiento Campesino de Cajibío (Small Farmers Movement of Cajibío—MCC) in Cauca, Colombia since 2003. We have organized six delegations to Colombia and hosted three visits from Cajibío organizers to CNY.

In response to escalating human rights violations and threats by rightwing paramilitaries, including the assassination of a founding member of the MCC this spring, Patricia Rodriguez of Ithaca spent two weeks in June accompanying the MCC’s Caravan for Life. A second delegation, including us, Colleen Kattau and Sara Watrous, traveled in July to follow up on the Caravan and to continue building grassroots solidarity.

Colombia receives more US aid (primarily military support) than any country except Israel and Egypt. Despite Colombian government promises and billions of dollars from the US, little progress has been made on human rights concerns. More union leaders are killed in Colombia than the rest of the world combined, local communities clash daily with multinationals over land and water rights, the Colombian military continues to be implicated in fresh violations of international law, and Colombia has the largest displaced population in the world. The economic situation is similarly dire: a country rich in natural resources, Colombia has the highest rate of inequality between rich and poor in Latin America next to Brazil. According to the UN Economic Commission on Latin America, 43% of the population lives in poverty.

Yet, the Obama administration has declared its intention to push for the passage of a US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA). On arriving in Bogota, we met with US embassy representatives to question the focus of US policy. Imagine our shock when one of those embassy officials candidly responded to our questions on the FTA with the quote that opened this article. Unfortunately, Cauca is considered too dangerous for embassy travel, so they’ll never see the communites being jeopardized by such Free Trade policies. A primary reason for our ongoing relationship with Colombian activists is that within this context, they have sustained a vibrant, well-organized, popular nonviolent resistance movement.

Grassroots Resistance

Every Cajibío visit astonishes us by the MCC’s commitment to their lands and maintaining their community’s cultural identity. This summer, we spent an afternoon at La Aromatica, the communal farm run by MCC families. Under Natalia and Christian’s supervision (the children of Arlen and Judy, our hosts at the farm), our delegation helped to plant and harvest corn and transplant lettuce. Corn seed is saved for distribution among families in the community. Recent studies have identified nine extant native corn varieties in Cajibío, and the MCC is working to preserve them. John Henry, a lead organizer with the MCC, makes the hour long trip down a country road a few times weekly to take the lettuce and herbs to a restaurant in Popayan, the closest city. La Aromatica serves as an incubator, determining what organic crop varieties are most appropriate to the climate and most palatable to the local community.

The MCC, like many resistance organizations, recognizes the need to transfer knowledge, skills and political consciousness to youth and future leaders. To this end, it organizes cultural activities for children focused on art, dance and ecology. Young adults in the MCC participate in exchanges with campesinos from all over Colombia, sharing sustainable agriculture techniques, networking and developing a larger political analysis of their reality. Currently, a young leader from the MCC is studying agriculture in Brazil with the Landlesss Workers Movement (MST). His family and community, including our CNY sister community, look forward to him returning with new ideas on organizing and sustainable agriculture.

 Alongside their economic and educational work, the MCC continues to develop grassroots approaches to protect human rights. Currently, they are developing contingency plans, with governmental cooperation, to respond to human rights abuses.  MCC leaders approach Colombian governmental bureaucracy with a hopeful skepticism.  The government’s knee-jerk response to challenges is to deploy military solutions, which is problematic because the presence of the military in rural Colombia, whether for “protection” or development projects, leaves communities vulnerable to retaliatory attacks from other armed groups.

Spending time with the MCC, whether in the countryside or meetings in modern offices, often feels like a Garcia Marquez vignette. Simultaneously, you experience the beauty of a community embracing equality and environmental stewardship alongside overwhelming structural and physical violence. Our recent delegations solidify hope that we can continue learning with MCC organizers ways to create and sustain alternatives.

Jessica and Ursula are staff organizers at the Syracuse Peace Council.