Wednesday, 6 July 2016

The Fight Against Neoliberalism and Resource Extraction in Columbia

In 2012, talks between the Columbian Government and the FARC (The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) Rebel group started. Now Colombia finds itself finally ending its sixty year Civil War with armed insurgents, one which has resulted in nearly 300,000 deaths or disappearances. Despite this, Colombia is still a long way from peace. Social movements look beyond the armed insurgency side of the conflict, to the problems of poverty and social inequality that fuelled the country’s unrest. They recognise the grievances of insurgents, condemning the Colombian government for ignoring the demands of the country’s poor, and pursuing a hard right economic model which privatises public property and gives large swathes of the country to extractive enterprises, for the benefit of established elites. Indeed, when talks between armed insurgents and the government began, Colombian President, Juan Manuel Santos, was quick to make clear to the rebels that the ‘economic model is not up for negotiation’. He might as well of used the slogan commonly used by Margaret Thatcher during the 1980s, that ‘there is no alternative’. As such, while war is finally over, Columbians still find themselves needing to fight against neoliberalism.

Colombia’s Economic Programme

The ideology of Neoliberalism holds the idea of the ‘power of the market’ above all else. It disguises its true nature in the language of emphasising the importance of the individual and free trade. However, translated into contemporary politics, this has meant the mass selling of state services such as Health Care, the rampant deregulation of massive companies and the quelling of resistance. It has grown from a small project by a group of economists and academics, such as Milton Friedman, to occupying a hegemonic status in modern economics. In Colombia this started with the presidency of Virgilio Barco Vargas in the late 1980s. He removed regulations on trade, privatised Public Services and made laws protecting workers more ‘flexible’. This has continued to gather momentum, president to President, and is promoted today by Juan Manuel Santos.
The Colombian governments four year development plan, ironically titled ‘Peace, Equity and Education’, has now reached a crucial point. In Colombia’s Public sector, the selling of the state is still well underway. The state now provides less essential services that people need to survive. Public companies that have already been passed into private Hands include the bank Bancaf’e, the telecommunications company Columbia Movil and the energy Company Isagen. In addition to this, municipalities and departments have been have been forced by law to reduce the number of employees, resulting in about 115,000 job losses. The Bogota telecommunications company (ETB), despite producing an income of over 1.8 billion pesos (£42,000), financing public libraries and providing internet for 1400 public schools across the city, is the latest institution to be hit with the controversy of whether it should be turned into a privately owned, profit making machine or not.

Exploitation of Natural Resources

The cornerstone of Colombia’s market driven economic system, and what has been the cause of so much of the conflict, is the extractivist model. This is the system by which the country’s land and natural resources have been surrendered to multinational companies, with locals seeing little to no benefit. The environment, people and life have been reduced to inputs in order to achieve the government’s desired outcome of ‘economic growth’. This has led to some activists defiantly labelling Colombia an ‘extractivist Disneyland’.
To give you an idea of what this neoliberal extactivism looks like, the state’s role in the mining industry has been severely limited, with mining services like CARBOCAL being liquidated. A Free trade deal with Canda In 2011, shifted the balance of power further to Canadian extractives, such as Pacific Rubiales. Despite this, this policy extends far beyond mining. Laws such as ZIDRES favour large agribusinesses over small farmers, by allowing wealthy elites to accumulate large swathes of land in the name of ‘investment’. In Colombia’s Altillanura, about one million hectares of land have been subject to illegal land grabs by big companies. Also, free trade deals with the USA and EU, have exposed small farmers, who make up 32% of the population and provide at least half of Colombia’s food, to damaging foreign competition.

What does This Mean for Colombia’s Population?

As you might expect, the consequences of this neoliberal restructuring imposed by the government and Private Companies have been extremely harmful for the country’s poor and indigenous people. Empty promises of growth and prosperity ring hollow for them. Rather, more growth seems to be correlated with more human rights abuses. In La Guajira, a huge open cast coal mine has been expanded, as part of government policy. It is also co - owned by the British megalomaniacal Corporations Glencore, Anglo American and BHP Billiton. In order to achieve the mines expansion, indigenous Wayyu people have been forcibly evicted from their homes by private militias, and left without sufficient means to survive. While this is going on, the mine consumes 17 million litres of water a day. This does not matter to the government however. To them water is nothing more than another commodity to be bought and sold. The promise of prosperity have not been fulfilled, with poverty rates at 65% and inequality soaring. Indeed, According to the Gini index, if La Gujara was a country, it would be one of the most unequal in the world. Similar situations can be seen throughout the entire country, building on the Colombian Presidents plan to make mining and energy a ‘locomotive’ for progress. In 2013, there were 159 new oil wells drilled per day, contrasted with the previous decade when that number was only 20. The entire country is being reimagined as a playground for private investors. All this comes at the cost of the Colombian people’s lives and homes.

This Is Not Inevitable

As I pointed out at the beginning of this article, one of the defining features of neoliberalism is that it likes to paint itself as the only feasible option. It’s not. In fact, others in Colombia have a different vision of how progress could be possible with respect for life, and without the imposition of hierarchy or the use of violence.
Activist movements regularly challenge the Colombian government and Private enterprise, both in the streets and the courts. People from U’wa communities in east Colombia recently came together to block the road leading to Ecopetrol’s Gibraltar gas fields, located on sacred territory.  This occurred as part of the National Minga, a two week long agrarian strike that saw thousands take to the streets. In similar actions, Indigenous Colombians blockaded the port of Buenaventura, while other indigenous groups shut down the Panamerican highway, which is an important artery between the south and centre of the country. In the capital, there were multiple marches and occupations against the privatisation of publicly owned services. This is not a particularly new movement. In fact, they have been agitating for change for the last five years. In 2013, an even larger mobilization forced the government to open up peace talks. In these talks, protestors demanded reforms including health, education, land rights and participation in the peace process. Despite this, they have since charged the government with ignoring these proposals.
Unsurprisingly, the Colombian government have not taken kindly to this collective organising. When two hundred farmers took a section of major highway in the east of the country, the army was called in to join police and an Anti – riot squadron, who had previously been accused of killing two indigenous people, using ‘dirty’ weapons. When the farmers were captured, they were stripped bare and beaten, and were robbed of all their possessions. Elsewhere in Columbia, three protesters were murdered, forcing the government to have to give an explanation to the UN, and a further two hundred were injured. In addition to this, there were illegal detentions, destruction of protest camps and deliberate misinformation campaigns. Despite this violent response however, the Colombian people continue to resist.

Conclusion

Beyond negotiating tables and empty promises, the ever growing protests in Columbia represent a call to action, in defence of the environment and the wellbeing of all Columbians. It challenges the economic apparatus that empowers the few at the expense of the many. While negotiations between armed insurgents and the government have now reached their conclusion, the fight against neoliberalism in Columbia is far from over.

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