Coffee Brigade will harvest peace, justice and coffee in Colombia

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If ever there was a need for international solidarity with farming families in Colombia, that time is now. That is why the Alliance for Global Justice, at the invitation of the Astracatol agricultural workers union of Tolima, Colombia, is organizing a Just Peace Coffee Brigade to help farming families in the municipality of Dolores bring in their May and June coffee harvests.

Each of these families is facing the possibility of forced displacement due to ongoing repression in the region. The brigade will not only help gather the coffee, but also be a strong statement of international solidarity for peace and farmer/labor rights. The effort will take place May 23-June 8, 2014, and participants are encouraged to come for one or two weeks, depending on their availability. (For more information, contact James Jordan at james@afgj.org or call 202-540-8336, ext. 3.)

While the Colombian peace process underway in Havana is making significant progress, repression is also on the rise, and rural communities are the most negatively affected. According to Somos Defensores (We Are Defenders), assaults on human rights defenders are the highest in 10 years, and 97 percent of those assassinated are from farming areas. And according to CODHES (the Consultancy on Human Rights and Displacement), in 2012 forced displacement rose by 83 percent. The majority of those displaced are farming, indigenous and Afro-Colombian families.

The municipality of Dolores, Tolima, is one of the most targeted rural areas. With the discovery of oil in 1997 came the permanent presence of the Colombian Armed Forces starting in 2003, followed by a series of heavy-handed measures including the assassinations of five community members, multiple arrests of union and local leaders and mass displacement. Between 1993 and 2005, the date of the last census, Dolores lost 2,000 residents. Since then, there have been at least two forced migrations not yet counted. A poignant example of the repression there was the 2008 closing of the local school in the village of Las Vegas after the teacher was kidnapped, tortured and made to leave.

Over the past year, villages in Dolores have twice been raided by the Armed Forces, resulting in the detention of some 16 peasant leaders. Rural workers were also negatively affected by a series of violent crackdowns on three agrarian strikes that occurred in 2013. Farmers were striking for price protection, an end to free trade agreements with the U.S., Europe and Canada, the establishment of Peasant Reserve Zones to protect rural communities, and inclusion of popular movements in peace talks.

Dolores families are worried, with so many jailed or otherwise unable to work, that they will not be able to bring in their coffee harvests. One young man who was wounded during one of the strikes said:

"I was unarmed, but they shot me. ... The government and the state promised us help, but there is nothing. Instead, they kill us, they beat us, they put us in jail - and they ignore us. For six months I haven't been able to work and I don't know how we will be able to bring in the coffee harvest this year. If we can't, we can't pay our bills, I can't feed my family. I am afraid we are going to have to leave everything and go to Bogotá to seek work. I am afraid we are going to be among the forcibly displaced."

Don Guillermo Cano is a member of the Coordinating Committees for Astracatol, Fensuagro and the Patriotic March movement for a just peace. Don Guillermo is also the Coordinator for Astracatol's Human Rights Commission. Don Guillermo was detained for his role in one of the farmers' strikes in May 2013 and is now under house arrest.

According to Don Guillermo,

"Supposedly there was a witness who said that 'Guillermo Cano has operated an armed farmers strike in this region'. ... But there was never an armed contingent of these strikes in the Department of Tolima, and much less so in this municipality. ... Never!"

Don Guillermo reports:

"In 2002 ... the communities organized and presented a Project for the Development of the Community [calling for] ... for example, schools, universities for this zone, good roads to connect the area. Not for one moment did the communities go to the companies and tell them to "get out!" ... But when they presented these ideas, every company rejected them. ..."

"There are significant interests of the transnationals here. ... The oil companies ... and the leaders of this process want us to leave and to take away our space to make claims. ...

"In 2013, the oil companies returned to begin again to make some explorations, but they have encountered resistance. ... At this time the repression is severe."

When asked about the role of international awareness and solidarity, Don Guillermo replied:

"We, the politically persecuted, think ... the solidarity is very special ... and we want our sister organizations of the United States to unite and come share with us, that you might divulge to the entire world what really exists in Colombia. ... Here, we don't want an Empire. ...There are sectors in the United States and other parts of the world that share this with us and consider that our struggle for democracy in Colombia is just. ...

"Capitalism has a world character, and we must, too. When I think about the genocide against the Patriotic Union [a political party formed as a result of the peace process of the 1980s and '90s that was destroyed after 5,000 of its candidates and elected officials were murdered] and the threat to the whole peace process - I believe that it was the lack of international solidarity that made that genocide possible and that led to the failure of the peace process back then. Well, it is happening again. ... But I think in this moment, we have to seek peace. ... We want peace and therefore we have to open the space and not hide ourselves. ... As many sister organizations that want to accompany us ... this is what has to be done."

Photo: A young girl who lives on a coffee farm in Cauca, southwestern Colombia. Neil Palmer/CIAT CC

 

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