Bogota, 2600 m altitude, 7.5 million inhabitants. Sunday 30 April, Daniel Libreros, facilitator of the ecosocialist movement, Camila C. (23) and John F. (24), members of CADTM in Colombia picked me up at 8:30 a.m. at the city centre hotel to take me to a working-class district on a mountain side, at 2800 metres altitude. After a 45-minute drive through an urban area, we arrived in a neighbourhood at the edge of a natural reserve at the source of the river Fucha with peaks of over 3500 metres.
In this Bogota locality, called San Cristóbal, https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Puebl...) 5 250 families in seven different neighbourhoods live on lots where they have built houses without building permits or property title over the past 30 years. We meet up in a hall in La Cecilia neighbourhood. The hall, built by the neighbourhood committee, is named Lluvia de ideas (Rainstorm of ideas). We joined 30 people who had already begun their meeting. 24 look as if they are between 18 and 30 at the most. The people conducting the meeting live in this neighbourhood. They have invited Indigenous leaders of the Nasa people (approximately 200,000 people, https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Puebl...) who come from the North of River Cauca valley (1350km); trade union activists from an electric firm, CODENSA, which belongs to the Italian multinational ENEL, members of CADTM Colombia, members of the ecosocialist group, myself and young activists from Bogota and surrounding areas.
The people chairing the meeting, young men and women from working-class neighbourhoods, explain the ongoing struggle in these 7 neighbourhoods of San Cristobal. Land occupations to build housing began in 1985. From 2006, the inhabitants won access to drinkable water, electricity and finally natural gas. Since 2015, the Bogota authorities announced that the inhabitants’ situation would be legalized. This first seemed to be a victory, and then the inhabitants learned that the legalization would only affect 50% of them. The others would have to accept to leave and be rehoused elsewhere in the city. Providing title to some residents was conditional on the others moving out. The community opposed this prospect and for the time being there is a stalemate.
In Bogota, there are recurrent operations to destroy ramshackle dwellings. On April 25th, in another neighbourhood, the authorities expelled hundreds of families from their homes and while the police were carrying out the operation a fire destroyed most of those dwellings. Several residents were burn victims.
In La Cecilia neighbourhood, the residents remain united and the meeting hall is an active place for coordination of local actions. All the framing was built in bamboo, then zinc sheeting was added to the facades (decorated with a beautiful mural); the rest is consists of large translucid plaques that make this meeting place a very luminous one. 500 metres away, La Cecilia neighbourhood cultivates a collective market garden called “Huertopia”, meaining “Utopian market garden”. Defending Mother Earth from predatory capitalism lies at the heart of their concerns.
After hearing the stories of the struggles and initiatives undertaken in this neighbourhood, we went outside to walk along a dirt road towards the dense nature at the beginning of the natural reserve. It is a real pleasure to take in this luxuriant nature, although it bears the obvious signs of green capitalism. A large portion of the trees are eucalyptus that were planted due to their rapid growth and thus their financial profitability. This greatly reduces biodiversity. Fortunately, when we went deeper into the natural reserve, the eucalyptus trees finally gave way to the normal vegetation of high-altitude forests.
Discovering this beautiful nature, we began to understand why the people who settled in San Cristobal insist on staying there: they all have the opportunity to till a garden patch. Air pollution is low. The water flowing through this settlement is pure, as it comes directly from the mountain. There is abundant water. There is a real neighbourhood life and people help one another. Downtown is only 30 minutes away by bus.
Meanwhile, city authorities want to redevelop the area for the wealthy and the tourist trade. They want to create an ecotourism corridor leading to the nature reserve. Beside this corridor, luxury hotels would be built, as well as residential developments for the Bogota elite. To achieve this, many people living in poorer neighbourhoods have to be moved out.
To win the residents over, the authorities announced that they would build an aerial tramway. Note that in cities such as Medellin and Caracas, good-quality aerial railways are used for public transport. At first, the residents were interested, but later learnt that the aerial tramway would not link their neighbourhood to the city. It extend from the beginning of the nature reserve and whisk tourists up to the mountain peaks… In short, it would not aid public transport between the city centre and this working-class neighbourhood.
After an hour’s walk through the nature reserve and the chance to admire the river pouring down from the mountain, listening to birdsongs and observing the foliage, we returned to the meeting hall. The neighbourhood activists were explaining that there was an attempt to portray the residents as invaders, destroyers of the environment and dangerous people when in truth they respect and protect nature.
Later, they explained that the situation in the neighbourhood is dangerous. Some sectors of the ruling class are backing armed gangs; militias, and try to keep permanent control over the different neighbourhoods. This is what is called paramilitarism in Colombia. In many neighbourhoods there are micro-networks for dealing drugs, and even weapons and prostitution. The paramilitary groups connected to sectors of the ruling class combat local gangs to take them over or take their place. They exert a role of repression of the peoples’ movement by threatening or killing peoples’ leaders. Often the police are in cahoots with these gangs and take a cut on various rackets.
Three years ago in San Cristobal, an armed struggle pit the local gang of petty criminals against a gang from outside linked to the upper bourgeoisie. The local gang won the battle by killing several members of the invading gang. San Cristobal residents don’t want a local gang but feel that it’s a lesser evil than the arrival of an outside gang close to ruling class sectors.
The local gang doesn’t burgle houses in the neighbourhood; it “only” takes part in selling street drugs. Afterwards, the police stepped in to grind down the local gang: arrests, 2-year prison terms for some leaders. When they were released, the ex-convicts re-joined the gang, but last month two of them were executed by anonymous killers. Neighbourhood activists think this might portend a return en force of the other “invading” gang, which might have the benefits of police complicity. This is conjecture but indicates how hard it is to conduct liberating struggles because the era when urban social activists were liquidated en masse is not very remote: no more than a dozen years at the most and the executioners are still alive and at large, starting with one of their main sponsors, the ex-president Alvaro Uribe who wants to be a candidate in the 2018 presidential elections. Alvaro Uribe (https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%8...
) is one of the main people behind the massacres of popular leaders, which took place during his two terms between 2002 and 2010. He has direct ties to the paramilitary militias. He fought the peace agreement signed between FARC and the government in 2016.
During the meeting, the Indigenous leaders of the Nasa nation presented their struggle. They explained that they want to free Madre Tierra
(Uma Kiwe in the language of the Nasa people – Mother Earth) from capitalist exploitation. In their region several hundred kilometres from Bogota, towards the Northeast in the direction of Ecuador, their organization is facing off against major landowners who have developed sugar cane monoculture. They have succeeded, they say, in reclaiming control over thousands of hectares they cultivate to produce food crops (maize, yucca, beans, bananas) in respect for nature. They seek social justice and fight capitalism. They oppose the Colombian State, which is in the service of the wealthy. Confrontations with major landowners’ paramilitary militias are a regular occurrence. One of their comrades was assassinated on 22 March 2017, and in mid-April, an Indigenous governor or Cauca was also executed. They know that there is a price on their heads; they are each worth from 30 to 50 million pesos (from 10 000 and 17 000€). In the part of Cauca where their movement is active, they affirm that they have freed Tierra Madre in 9 locations. They invite urban youth to join them to take part in training courses. They seek to develop the cooperation, which has been forged with the ecosocialist movement over the last few years. It is one of the reasons why they travelled to Bogota, where they took part in all CADTM public activities in the last 6 days. They have a website: https://liberaciondelamadretierra.org/
Their movement is part of a regional Coordination of Indigenous peoples, CRIC (Indigenous regional coordination of Cauca). In the municipality of Corinto (https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corin...
) they organize a regional meeting for liberation of the earth. This will take place from 4 to 6 August 2017.
Afterwards, three trade union activists from the CODENSA electric production and distribution firm, which belongs to ENEL, an Italian multinational. They explained that they were waging a difficult fight against the owner of the firm that wants working contracts and conditions to be made a bit more precarious still. It is an overarching struggle throughout the world, waged by Capital against Labour. They are there to promote convergence between different sectors in struggle.
Afterwards, the meeting organizers asked me to speak. I explained what the international network of the Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debt (CADTM) is and what its main goals are. In the last 30 years, I’ve travelled to Colombia a dozen times for meetings with social movements and left-wing political organizations. I observe that new forms of struggles are emerging in cities, such as the ongoing process in the San Cristobal district. These new forms of struggle the young generation is taking part in link up with other forms of struggle, such as those of Indigenous peoples, of trade unionists and others. These comprise a whole. I also observed a perverse strategy for dispossession implemented in Colombia. The State offers people living in ramshackle shelters to legalize their situation. In rural areas, it grants property title to peasant families in different regions of the country. This appears to be a positive move. However, people who have access to this process granting property title have to go into debt to finish off their dwellings or to upgrade their lands. Often, they don’t manage to reimburse their debts and wind up dispossessed. A State in the service of the people must guarantee access to land and housing while providing the people the necessary means without any need to contract debts with the private sector.
After a closing address by Daniel Libreros, one of the leaders of the ecosocialist movement and CADTM, all the group set off for the utopian community garden (huertopia) to share a meal prepared by the neighbourhood association and continue our discussions, in particular to prepare for participation in the May Day demonstration.
Translated by Maria Lagatta