While in Paris at the beginning of November 2012, in the midst of a European tour to promote the Colombian social movements, Marylen Serna, national spokesperson of the Minga and the Peoples’ Congress in addition to being a rural producer herself, agreed to an interview.
Le Grand Soir: Colombia appears to be experiencing a new wave of social mobilization these the last few years. You are part of this, but those of us who observe the situation from afar often get confused over the many different parties involved. What is the Peoples’ Congress? Is there any connection with the indigenous peoples’ Minga?
In 2008, the indigenous movement in the Cauca region started the Minga, a movement for social and community resistance. This movement called for the members of society to unify and organize to defend the rights of the Colombian people. A great many groups representing peasants, women, Afro-Colombians, youth, students, cooperatives, workers, and homeless people answered the call. The Minga swept across the country as a movement for justice and for change that brought together many different sectors of society. In 2010, the Minga set about to propose a national agenda for human dignity as an exercise in people’s legislation. This entailed the drafting of model legislation – what are known as “popular mandates” – right at the grassroots, right in the peoples’ organizations. This was the genesis of the Congress of the Peoples. The process brought together many from outside the Minga – nearly 700 grassroots organizations throughout the country – with a clear commitment to putting the mandates to work in defense of rural and urban living spaces. In October 2012, this dynamic mobilized some 200,000 people in 25 regions of Columbia (1).
LGS: What are the similarities and differences between the Peoples’ Congress and the Patriotic March?
The Peoples’ Congress is a social movement made up of different local, regional, and national processes, with a far-ranging capacity to mobilize the population in defense of life, land, and building people’s power. It takes off from the experiences stockpiled by the Minga resistance movement since 2008.
The Patriotic March is a political movement launched in April 2012, also made up of social processes occurring in different regions of Colombia – a movement seeking to take power away from those who hold it at present.
LGS: Does the Peoples’ Congress itself have any electoral designs?
The Peoples’ Congress envisions the construction of a broad-based, grassroots Political movement in Colombia. For the time being, its position is that running candidates in elections could have the damaging effect of eroding its power to mobilize broad sectors of society, a power it has acquired since the beginning of the mobilization and the resistance.
LGS: What is the scope of action of the Peoples’ Congress members? What is the impact of their activities?
The scope of their activities resides in the development of the popular mandates. The impact is local, regional, or national depending on the organizational capacities at each level. Currently, the Peoples’ Congress participates in land defense activities, including expelling multinationals, safeguarding local economies, and protecting heritage seeds, all of this in the context of popular mandates in the particular area of multinationals and free trade agreements (2).
At the local level, we are working hard to rally other organized sectors of society to confront public policies whose aim or actual effect is to impoverish the population. Together, we are fighting for the recovery of displaced people’s land and against the intensive use of agrichemicals.
On the economic plane, we are in the process of bolstering our specific positions on advocacy of workers rights in the informal sector and on development of cooperatives to support local economies and urban/rural trade.
LGS: Countries bordering Colombia, such as Venezuela and Ecuador, have experienced quite a vibrant wave of societal resistance to the dominant model. What are your relations with the South American social movements? Does the Peoples’ Congress have any common projects with them?
The Peoples’ Congress entertains direct relations with organizations and with left-wing social and political movements in countries such as Venezuela, Ecuador, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Chile, Cuba, and Panama. These relationships feed back into and help to strengthen our own process, lending to it an international dimension of anti-capitalist struggle. We in Colombia are having input into the broader Latin American movement, and we are members of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA).
LGS: Bill 1448, the “Victims and Land Restitution Act,” was signed into law by President Santos in June 2011. Since then, the Colombian government has continually maintained that it is an effective tool for the protection of victims’ rights, in particular the right to the restitution of their land. What is your view on the efficacy of this law?
Unfortunately, this law holds out no guarantees that the victims of violence will be able to go back to their land. With the armed conflict raging on, it is simply impossible for the victims to use this law in a way that makes their rights effective. Furthermore, the victims have to show deeds of ownership, and in Colombia have very few people can do this because the land has been handed down from generation to generation, very often without papers. The stolen land is now in the hands of armed groups and/or multinationals who have planted mass-scale monocultures – call it the “biofuels megaproject” – and it is very difficult for displaced people to get their land back. These are some of the reasons why we do not feel that the law is fulfilling its objective of returning land to its legitimate owners.
LGS: The peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC got underway in Oslo and are continuing in Havana. What should be the role of other actors in Colombian society, such as civil society and the other guerrilla force, the National Liberation Army (ELN by its Spanish acronym)?
It is important to emphasize the importance of having civil society represented in the form of social and popular movements that have been trying for years to replace a situation of grave social injustice with one in which the rights of the whole population are preserved and the country’s sovereignty is secured. These movements must have their place in the peace process, with their own delegates, demands, and autonomy – speaking for themselves, not being spoken for by the government, the insurrection, or the businessmen, who are the ones currently sitting at the negotiating table.
As for the ELN, it is an important player in the ongoing conflict, and must be sitting at the table so that it can present its raison d’être, its ideas, and its proposals.
LGS: The onset of negotiations with the FARC guerrillas might lead one to believe that a country known above all for its endemic political violence might be entering a period of détente. What is the actual state of affairs?
No. Although there is a negotiating process underway between the government and the FARC, the armed conflict is continuing to hurt our communities. Armed confrontations between the army and the guerrillas are still to this day displacing whole communities. You’ve got indiscriminate firefights that are taking place in populated areas, destroying or interrupting the operations of community infrastructure (schools, health centres, community centres, cooperatives, children’s homes, etc.). It’s hard to imagine an environment conducive to peace when the negotiations seem oblivious to the fact that the population is caught in the crossfire. (3)
LGS: Against this backdrop, a unified platform of social movements known as Shared Pathways to Peace (Ruta Social Común para la Paz) has been launched to support peace building efforts in Colombia. Is there a way for French social movements to build closer ties with the Colombian social movement and with the work of the Peoples’ Congress?
Shared Pathways to Peace is a forum in which we are building solidarity among the Colombian social movements with a view to our ultimate participation in a legitimate peace process. This forum is worth promoting and supporting, since it affords our best hope for the coordinated participation of organized communities in the peace negotiations. The Peoples’ Congress has established various mechanisms for listening to and channeling the voices of those who are sensitive to and involved in today’s movements in Colombia. These mechanisms include:
- Thematic congresses where people’s legislation – that is, the mandates – is developed and drafted. There is one coming up on the theme of peace in March 2013. After that there will be congresses on education and women’s issues. You can support these thematic congresses by holding parallel activities to contribute ideas and proposals to our process.
- Complaints filed by Colombian organizations in response to constant violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.
- Witnessing and direct support, which involves outside volunteers spending time in communities at grips with situations that threaten their lives, land, and organizations.
(1) Videos of Peoples’ Congress activities are available at http://congresodelospueblos.org
(2) The Peoples’ Congress spearheaded the Week of Indignation in Colombia, held 4–12 October 2012 at the national, regional, and local levels: http://congresodelospueblos.org
(3) One example: In the midst of the peace negotiations, on 7 November 2012, the paramilitaries once again committed a massacre against peasants, with 10 slain in Santa Rosa de Osos (Antioquia-Colombia); see http://www.eltiempo.com
Author: Association EntreTodos, Le Grand Soir/La Pluma