A Congress for the People
by Gearóid Ó Loingsigh
The National University in Bogotá is a sprawling campus with wide-open green spaces that, at times, give it an appearance more akin to a park than a campus. For five days, from the 8th to the 12th of October, it was home to over 20,000 peasants and indigenous people as they arrived to install the Congress of the Peoples.
The green spaces became a small town populated by people from all over Colombia — black communities from Chocó, indigenous people from Cauca, peasants and miners from Southern Bolivar, and women’s organisations from Nariño on the border
with Ecuador. Walking through the campus the colours of the chivas (the traditional
countryside bus) dazzled the eyes and then the smells rose up from open fires on which people were cooking on makeshift stoves. That, and the traditional dances at night and the
children (yes, the children came too) painting on the side of the roads, all gave the Congress a festive feel
Though the Congress was festive in spirit, serious work was undertaken. The people had come
to ‘legislate’ on the issues affecting their communities. Mining and the government’s
agricultural policy were top of the agenda. To say they were ‘legislating’ is perhaps a bit
of an exaggeration, as this Congress has no power to implement its decisions in any legal
sense of the word, but they discussed how to respond to the Colombian government’s strategy of handing over their lands to the mining multinationals. They also discussed alternatives, looking at what their Mining Code would look like, if they could draw one up.
Since 2002, when Uribe first came to power, the government has awarded mining concessions to companies in practically the entire country. You can almost throw a stone into any field anywhere and it will hit a mining engineer carrying out tests.
One community I spoke to, from Suaréz, Cauca, has been declared as ‘displaced’ by the government, even though there is little or no has not been displaced, but rather continues to live on its lands. So why has this happened, particularly as the government is generally loathe to acknowledge phenomena such as forced displacement? It is no accident that the area is rich in mineral resources, as evidenced
by the number of traditional small-scale miners at work. As the indigenous and black territories are collectively-owned and protected by law, declaring the populations to be ‘displaced’ resolves certain problems for the State and the multinationals. How can you consult a community
that no longer lives there? Thus the prior consultation that must be carried out by law is voided as there is no-one to consult. They have been declared invisible, whilst strangers traipse through their land to ‘discover’ gold.
The Congress terminated on October 12th, that infamous date when Columbus, having got lost on his way to India, stumbled upon the people of the Americas — people, who as a result have been murdered and plundered, a
process which has evidently not come to an end in Colombia. Over 20,000 people took
part in the march from the National University to Bogotá’s main square, home to that
other Congress, which is not of the people, as was pointed out by the popular musical
group Atercipelados. Even though the media was conspicuous by its absence, there was no
way the march could be ignored, as it made its way down Bogotá’s Seventh Avenue.
Expelling the multinationals
The organisers were happy with the event. According to the indigenous spokesperson
Feliciano Valencia, “It was very positive. Despite the enormous difficulties we had,
the people arrived and they understood our message, in terms of the construction of the country. We discussed fundamental points on water, mining, agriculture, territory, and we are going to continue developing these points after the Congress. We took the decision to oppose the current government policy on mining and to develop our own policies. We are going to demand that they call a halt to the mining licences that they have awarded and we going to expel these multinationals from our territory through peaceful civil disobedience campaigns.”
Indeed, prior to the Congress I had the pleasure of hiking through the indigenous areas of Suaréz, giving talks on mining to the communities. They had taken the decision to boycott the multinationals, not to sell them food, not to even give one of their engineers a glass of water. Although the companies have ways of overcoming such boycotts, they galvanise the community and it makes them aware of who their enemy is. The multinationals have frequently hired locals to supply them with food and also to act as guides, in an attempt to establish a social base and divide the community. In Cajamarca, Tolima, the South African mining company, Anglogold Ashanti, has had some success in this respect, having successfully established a base amongst the community in the main town, which is now pitted against their rural counterparts.
Feliciano, was understandably short on details of how these campaigns to expel the multinationals would manifest themselves, but there seemed to be a determination amongst the participants that enough was enough.
In a similar vein, German Bedoya from the peasant organisation National Agrarian Coordination was upbeat about the outcome of the Congress and the discussions that they had held with other organisations and communities. Agrarian reform was at the top of his agenda in a country were 3,600 people own over 31 million hectares of the best agricultural lands, over a quarter of the 1.1 million square km that make up the entire country.
However, it remains to be seen if they manage to translate the discussions into action, though in reality, given the nature of the conflict, the communities don’t have any other choice. The real success of the Congress will be determined by the degree of coordination
between the communities and to what extent the different political organisations set aside their differences and work together. Colombia’s left has been plagued by sectarianism and one up-manship, particularly from the Communist Party and the Moir, led by Senator
Robledo. Although those organising the Congress were generally outside these two currents, any attempt by the CP and the Moir to take ownership of the process will sound the death knell for the opposition to the multinationals.