by Chris Knestrick
So much of what the global north consumes comes from Colombia – flowers, bananas, coffee, chocolate, gold, oil, coal, palm oil – so why do we know so little about this country? The war in Colombia has been raging for the last forty-eight years, which begs the question, “why?” To get to the heart of that question, here are four things everyone should know about Colombia’s armed conflict.
1. First and foremost, the war is about land. Over the course of the war, those who have benefited most from the conflict are multinational corporations and large landowners.
Colombia has the largest internally displaced population in the world. Around five million people, mostly subsistence farmers, have fled their homes to take refuge in urban centers, leaving land vacant for the taking by multinational companies and wealthy landowners.
According to Peace Brigades International, “40% of Colombia’s land has been licensed to, or is being solicited by, multinational companies in order to develop mineral and crude oil mining projects.” Furthermore, about .4% of the landowners in the country own 61% of the land.
2. Human rights defenders seek justice and nonviolently struggle to regain their lands. Colombians continue to call for justice and peace for their communities. Many community leaders risk their lives in nonviolent resistance to forced displacement and demanding justice for their lost loved ones. For example, according to Colombia’s leading organization on displacement, CODHES, between March 2002 and January 2011, 44 displaced community leaders who were attempting to return to their land were killed. Moreover, the organization “Somos Defensores” documented 239 violent attacks against human rights defenders in 2011. The same year, 49 human rights defenders were killed in Colombia.
3. Colombia is the most dangerous place in the world for union organizers. More union members are killed in Colombia than in the rest of the world combined. Over 2,500 trade unionists have been killed in Colombia in the last 20 years and in 98% of the cases, no one was brought to justice.
The Free Trade Agreement (FTA) signed by the United States and Colombia in October 2011 ensures ongoing extraction of natural resources and continued threats to the security of union members. Indeed, workers rights have deteriorated. In 2011, 30 trade unionists were murdered and four unionists have been killed thus far in 2012.
4. The United States has given Colombia billions of dollars in military aid. Under the disguises of the “War on Drugs” and the “War on Terror,” the U.S. government continues to pour military aid into Colombia and train Colombian soldiers in counter-insurgency warfare while human rights abuses continue.
Since the implementation of Plan Colombia in 2000, the United States has given $6 billion in military aid, mostly to fight the “War on Drugs.” Many experts say that this policy is a proven failure.
Furthermore, a recent report by the Fellowship of Reconciliation notes that “U.S. officials neglected their obligation under the Leahy Law [which prohibits U.S. aid going to battalions that commit human rights abuses], and ... many Colombian military units committed even more extra-judicial killings during and after the highest levels of U.S. assistance to those units.”
Further resources: http://goo.gl/ZYe64; http://goo.gl/QQzK; http://www.codhes.org/
Chris Knestrick, based in Ohio USA, has served full time on the Colombia team since 2008.