Peasants in Catatumbo need solutions and alternatives to misery, not lethal repression.

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Since July 11th over 14,000 peasants from the Northeastern region of Catatumbo in Colombia have been protesting against the appalling conditions that prevail there. There is a complete lack of the most basic social services, the social fabric has been badly hit by the armed conflict (in particular by right wing death squads that terrorised the region murdering over 10,000 farmers from the ‘90s) and now the region has been militarised as part of the counter-insurgent strategy of the government, having a massive impact on the daily lives of poor farmers who denounce persecution and abuses from all parties in the conflict.

The community has now mobilised to demand respect and government fulfillment of its promise and constitutional duty to them. Organised in the agrarian union ASCAMCAT, affiliated to FENSUAGRO, they have set out the following key demands:

  1. Recognition of the Peasant Reserve Zone (PRZ) in Catatumbo: the Peasant Reserve Zone is a constitutional entity created by the Law 160 of 1994, which grants the peasant farmer community in certain determined regions special rights over the territory, creating an area where the local economy is to be protected and given environmental and cultural rights over agribusiness. All of the legal conditions for the establishment of the PRZ in Catatumbo have been met; the only obstacle remains an illegal veto by the Minister of Defence who claims this region to be a “safe haven for guerrillas” and therefore claims that the PRZ will be an obstacle for his military strategy. Peasant farmers demand an end to militarisation of their territory.
  2. Funding for their Project of Sustainable Development: Most of the Catatumbo is planted with coca, even though the territory is so lush that it is suitable for many different crops. This is so because there are no alternative crops that can guarantee the basics for families living in abject poverty. The peasant union ASCAMCAT has developed an alternative plan of development, which, with sufficient funding from the government, could provide alternatives. Yet, the government has not replied to the requests of the farming community and they are pursuing a plan of forced coca eradication only that leaves these poor farmers with nothing to sustain themselves or their families.

The response of the government has been brutal: so far scores of peasant farmers have been seriously wounded, and four people are dead. Local shops have been raided by police, houses have been burnt, possessions of the protestors have been destroyed, human rights defenders and agrarian leaders have been harassed; the community has even been gassed.

Heavy handed tactics, including the use of live ammunition and grenades, have been used against protestors. Dionel Jácome Ortiz (30), and Edwin Franco Jaimes (22), were shot dead on June 22nd, just hours after president Santos, without any proof or regard for the consequences of his words, accused the protest of being infiltrated by guerrillas. On June 25th, Diomar Angarita and Hermidez Palacio were also shot dead (film footage has been seen of one of them being brutally shot).

This situation is totally unacceptable, particularly while the government is negotiating a peace agreement. Once more, Colombia has failed to prove that it is a democratic country where the civil and social rights of the citizens are respected. Is this the military treatment that peaceful protest will receive in the future? How many deaths are needed before the Colombian government will fulfill its legal responsibilities towards its own people?

While we understand the Irish government cannot be directly involved in the peace process in Habana, we call on the government to find a way to use its influence to mediate in this crisis to prevent further bloodshed. This is of paramount importance, given the current agreements in relation to cooperation and respect of human rights and the democratic clause between the EU and the Colombian state.

We urgently request:

  1. The establishment of a negotiating forum with ASCAMCAT-FENSUAGRO to solve the crisis and to implement what is a legal and constitutional entitlement of the peasant population in Catatumbo –the Project of Sustainable Development and the Peasant Reserve Zone.
  2. Reparation and justice for the families affected by the violent response of the State to a peaceful protest, in particular to the families of Dionel Jácome Ortiz, Edwin Franco Jaimes, Diomar Angarita and Hermidez Palacio. We need to see those responsible for their murders and those who gave the order to be brought to justice.
  3. Respect to the peasants’ right to association, freedom of assembly and peaceful protest.
  4. And finally to seek an end to wanton use of force and militarisation of Catatumbo. The problems in that region are of a social nature, not of a military nature.