Engagement as Life Politics in the Colombian Amazon

By Kristina Lyons, University of California at Santa Cruz §

March for the Hoe and Seed in Valle de Sibundoy, Putumayo in support of the National Agrarian and Popular Strike. Photo by author.

On August 19, 2013, small farmers and miners, healthcare and transportation workers, educators and students, indigenous communities, afro-Colombians, and popular sectors at large mobilized across seventeen departments of Colombia in a National Agrarian and Popular Strike that was temporarily suspended in September.  After failed negotiations with the State, the strike continues, and centers around the following demands:

1) suspension of the free trade agreement with the United States; 2) participation of small miners in mining policy and an end to a national development model fueled by extractive industry; 3) the recognition of the political and territorial rights of rural communities; 4) constitutional reforms to combat the privatization of health, education, and fuel; 5) a radical transformation of U.S.-Colombia antidrug policy, and 6) peace with social justice that commences with a long-awaited integral agrarian reform, and national constitutional assembly.

Strike Encampment in Villagarzón, Putumayo. Photo by author.

The stables of the town fairground in Villagarzón were selected as one of five points of mobilization for protestors in the southwestern department of Putumayo.  Black plastic bags slung over clotheslines protected the small farmers from intermittent tropical rain. Hammocks crisscrossed the horse stalls. Clothes hung to dry over the rails of the pigsty and trough.  The steam of boiling pots of yucca left makeshift tents dripping with humidity. Farmers crouched down under the shade of the pavilion to rest between their rotating work duties: highway blockades, security patrols attentive to the encroachment of anti-riot police, cooking and collection of firewood, logistical coordination, and attendance of popular education workshops. It was this latter activity that had Heraldo, an animal husbandry technician and small farmer, and I at the strike encampments that day.  Strike leaders had asked Heraldo to lead a workshop on alternative Amazonian agriculture among a group of farmers whose main economic sustenance is provided by “illicit” coca crops.  Nowhere are the consequences of antinarcotics policies – aerial fumigation, forced manual eradication of coca plants, and failed USAID “alternative development” programs – more visible than in Putumayo, a focal point of the militarized agricultural interventions that have characterized U.S. foreign policy since 2001 vis-à-vis Plan Colombia.

A coca leaf asphyxiated from the inside out after exposure to aerial fumigation with Monsanto’s commercial herbicide, glyphosate. Photo by author.

The National Agrarian and Popular Strike profoundly shifted my political engagement with small farmers in Putumayo.  My previous research had been attentive to the alternative (often covert) life politics emerging along with relational ecological practices in gardens, forests, and fields.   In August, I was propelled into the oppositional politics occurring on streets, across negotiation tables, and in regional meetings and mobilizations. When my dissertation was reviewed by the Cultural Division of the Bank of the Republic of Colombia looking to fund projects on soils, seeds, plants and “local knowledges,” a unique opportunity arose to support an initiative articulated among protestors in Villagarzón.  Both coca and non-coca growing farmers in Putumayo have long demanded state support for the development of a regional small farmers’ integral life plan (today known as the Plan for Integral Andean-Amazonian Development PLADIA 2035). In other words, a viable and community-designed and implemented process that will gradually shift rural livelihoods away from their dependence on not only commercial coca cultivation, but all extractive-based economic practices. This is a political struggle to address the structural inequalities that lead to participation in “illicit” economies, and starkly contrasts with the repressive antinarcotics policies that have cost the lives of human-plant-microbial communities over the last thirty years.

Hand Wraps: Protective measures taken by to avoid blisters from the friction of scraping coca leaves off the branch during harvest. Photo by author.

The lack of agro-ecologically appropriate and Amazonian-based technical assistance places serious obstacles on farmers who want to learn how to cultivate what I refer to in my research as selva [tropical forest] life projects. When they do have contact with agricultural extension technicians, farmers are most often directed to “correct” the pH levels of their soils, conduct chemical tests of soil fertility, switch to marketable varieties of seeds, and clear rather than incorporate tropical forest into their family farms.  Heraldo on the other hand shared the reasoning and simple method for conducting biological homemade soil tests: comparing the sounds of livingness between animal feces and the soil where one plans to sow a plant or tree after hydrogen peroxide is applied to both.  He contrasted this with laboratory-based chemical testing.  The farmers in Villagarzón were enthusiastic.  How could they learn more about agro-ecology, and more importantly how could they share these practices with other members of their communities?  Our collective conversation that day led the group to conclude that perhaps documentary film techniques might be the best way to multiply an Amazonian-based, farmer-to-farmer pedagogy that not only explores options beyond monoculture coca, but also its official substitution by licit export-oriented crops.

Heraldo indicates a polyculture design for sowing an Amazonian creeping plant garden. Mocoa, Putumayo. Photo by author.

During the month of January, with the funding of the Bank of the Republic, we initiated a collaborative documentary film project called, Cultivando un Buen Vivir en la Amazonía [Cultivating ‘Living Well’ in the Amazon].  This audiovisual project is conducted in collaboration with a UCSC filmmaker who is completing his M.A. in the Social Documentation Film and Digital Media program, as well as a group of farming leaders in Putumayo.  It aims to transmit Amazonian-based farmer-to-farmer agricultural practices among small-farming associations, networks, and unions in order to provide alternatives to current state-led militarized development paradigms. The project consists of thirteen short videos, photography and popular education manuals that present both the daily life-politics and the political life of PLADIA on farms and among rural communities. More than an attempt to influence public policy, this project aspires to multiply what I conceive of as “agro-vital spaces,” or the relatively autonomous life-making strategies that work to build an Andean-Amazonian territory – in the midst of social and armed conflict – one farm at a time.  Whether it is conceptualizing the distinction between land and territory, food security, sovereignty and autonomy, learning techniques for composting, seed and soil conservation, or the design of Amazonian gardens, no new “agricultural model” exists; only seeds, stories, and experimental practices to be shared and refashioned (or not) from one farm to the next.

Fruits and vegetables cultivated in Nelso and Elva’s Amazonian garden. Photo by author.

In our project, engagement means not only following the teachings of farmers, but being attentive to the ways that diverse elements and beings engage us: solar and lunar patterns, nutrient cycles, delving rootlets, and plant-microbial communities as they quietly creep, bud and decompose back into the selva.  Engagement leads us to not only question what it means to define a ‘soil’ as “productive,” but also market-oriented and ultimately human-centered notions of productivity itself.  More than anything perhaps, this documentary film project engages with tenacity; a tenacity shared by the thousands of Putumayo farmers whom, since 1996, have marched to denounce the devastating impacts of aerial fumigation on local economies, staple foods, and public and environmental health. However, rural communities also march to defend the dream of creating an alternative territoriality with its corresponding economic, political, and environmental, or better yet, life possibilities and limitations. Engagement may allow for articulating diverse kinds of political work and action that are not mutually exclusive – the kinds of politics that compose public spheres where direct opposition, power struggle, and debate occur, and the unassuming political work involved in recuperating hojarasca [litter layers or dying and falling leaves] on a farm – this thin and ephemeral layer that renders all life, and hence selva agri-culture possible.

The 5 to 10 centimeters arable layer that is characteristic of the Oxisol and Ultisols of the Amazon. Photo by author.

It is not that farmers are ashamed of being cocaleros [coca growers] or condemn those who are.  Rather they are tired of being criminalized by the state for residing in what are classified as coca-ridden “red zones,” while remaining on the losing end of a long commodity chain that provides growers with minimal benefits – albeit more than a neoliberal state guarantees its citizens – and highest risks.  Most coca growers have been pushed into marginal, rural frontier zones by historical cycles of structural and armed violence in the country’s Andean interior and Coastal regions.  Colombia is currently the second most unequal country in the world according to a recent Bloomberg study. As many cocaleros describe it, the capitalist system “eats away at you and pushes you out,” leaving people on the fringe of urban centers fighting tooth and nail to make a living doing just about anything including turning to coca fields in remote regions of the country. Other small farmers become cocaleros due to the historical social abandonment of rural areas, the lack of markets, fair prices and subsidies, access to fertile land, and democratic participation in agrarian policy and public life.

Small farm in the Andean-Amazonian foothills. Serranía de los Churumbelos, Putumayo. Photo by author.

After conducting fieldwork in Putumayo since 2005, I have witnessed innumerable poorly planned, ecologically inappropriate, violent, and undemocratic development initiatives associated with the “War on Drugs” that further disillusion, criminalize, and impoverish rural communities hoping to transform their life conditions and livelihoods.  Since 1996, the agrarian and popular sectors of the southwestern Amazon have struggled for the opportunity to determine their own life projects and processes with all the risks, creativity, potential failures, and critical reflection that this entails.  Our documentary film project is one more seed planted among these many.

Kristina Lyons is a UC President´s Postdoctoral Fellow in the Anthropology Department and with the Center for Science and Justice at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is an advisor for the Regional Working Group of Dialogue and Accords (MIA), and the Regional Alliance of Small Farmer, Indigenous, Afro, Union, and Youth Social Movements in Putumayo, Colombia.