April 7, 2004

Salinas Discusses Colombian Colonization and Exploitation

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Yesterday afternoon in Uris Hall, Marylen Serna Salinas of the Small Farmers’ Movement of Cajibio, Colombia discussed the continual colonization and exploitation of her country.

“She came from a rural family of peasants — a campesino family,” said Mary Jo Dudley, associate director of the Latin American Studies Program who translated the event.

“We are a country that was colonized by Spain over 500 years ago,” Serna said.

For most of its history, Colombia has dealt with colonization in one form or another. According to Serna, the US dominates Colombia militarily, economically, and politically.

“We are a nation that is not sovereign,” Serna noted. “These governments have been aligned with an economic model that favors transnational corporations.”

The Farmers’ Movement seeks to eventually reach autonomy from outside interests and works toward a system of development that stems from the concepts of respect and knowledge of Colombian history and culture and does not take away from the natural environment, Serna said.

“We need to be in charge of our land,” Serna added. In trying to repossess their land, many peasants have been murdered.

“There is what they consider an authoritarian government of rich, economically powerful, landed interests,” said Lowell Turner, Professor of International and Comparative Labor in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

Serna’s group feels that if the peasants can take back their land, stability will follow.

“Inherent in this struggle is also a struggle for our authority and autonomy in our communities,” Serna said.

The Farmers’ Movement faces opposition on two fronts. First, from the Colombian government, which according to Serna is more aligned with international business interests than the interests of the Colombian people.

Second, the Farmers’ Movement is nonviolent, so they must also face resistance from militant leftists. According to Turner, the rebels have, “niches and bastions of popular support,” and the government and rebels attack groups such as the Farmers’ Movement for suspicion of sympathy with the opposition. “Most Colombians are caught in between,” Turner added.

“We can’t be in support of a government that violates human rights,” Serna said. “It would seem as though there are no alternatives in Colombia.”v One of the major problems the Farmers’ Movement has dealt with is United States intervention in coca crop concerns, called “Plan Colombia”. Under its drug program, the U.S. hopes to eradicate cocaine by fumigating the crops from which they originate.

According to a press release from the Office of National Drug Control Policy website (www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov), “survey figures show a dramatic drop of 21 percent in coca cultivation in Colombia for 2003”.

However, to the coca growers in Colombia and to Serna, the criminals are not the farmers who grow the leaf, but those who process it into cocaine.

Plan Colombia also targets drug consumers, erects jails and arrests cocaine users. Serna believes that arrests and fumigation are ineffective — as long as there is a drug demand there will be a supply. Furthermore, she thinks that the real purpose of Plan Colombia is to fight any forms of resistance to American policy.

“The [U.S.] senators don’t really understand what’s happening with Plan Colombia,” Serna said, baffled that U.S. officials would support a program they know little about.

“Because we try to resist the policies of the [U.S.] government we were identified as guerillas,” Serna explained. Since 9/11, the Farmers’ movement has been identified as terrorists, Serna added.v Colombia has been a tumultuous area for about forty years, dealing with civil war and internal terror.

“These folks are coming out with an alternative, and it’s really a heroic effort,” Turner said.

The Farmers’ Movement is focused primarily around access to land to develop a collective and participatory community, Serna said. To the peasants, territory is “important to be able to create a certain kind of autonomy,” one that is focused on group participation, she added.

The movement also aims to increase and improve education. Serna achieved a university level education, but many Colombian peasants are not so lucky. Health care is another area of importance. The Farmers’ Movement works toward achieving a health system that “is not a business, but a service,” Serna said.

The Farmers’ Movement began in 1990 when Serna and others were surrounded by soldiers and arrested after informing the mayor of Cajibio that they intended to start a farmers’ rights group.

“Once in jail, our organization was born,” Serna chuckled.

In their current struggles, members of the Farmers’ Movement continue to face jailing and violence.

“We’ve had about 20 leaders who’ve had to leave the area through force displacement,” Serna said.

The event was sponsered by the Latin American Studies Program. Serna was also scheduled to speak to the Ithaca community at Autumn Leaves bookstore at 6 p.m. yesterday.

Archived article by Clark Merrefield
Sun Staff Writer