Colombia’s new peasantries and social-territorial movements


In Colombia, agrarian social movements have been at the forefront of struggles against neoliberalism and war. The rural poor have borne the brunt of half a century of civil war, which caused 260,000 deaths, 60,000 disappearances and 7 million displacements. They also suffered the worst effects of free market policies, which have resulted in new processes of land concentration, unbridled exploitation of natural resources and marginalisation of rural producers. Yet, far from precipitating their disappearance, this unprecedented assault has seen Colombia’s peasants emerge as major historical protagonists defending their livelihoods and territories.

In the 1990s and 2000s, the emergence of a new wave of agrarian movements was a response to the devastating impact of economic restructuring and war in the Colombian countryside, but it was also because the incomplete penetration of market forces left space for rural forces to maintain strategies of organised resistance. Struggles for territorial autonomy and ‘repeasantisation’ have been central strategies for these emergent movements, which often draw on indigenous, afro-Colombian or ‘peasant’ traditions for organising community life in combination with production for self-consumption and livelihood diversification. They have also vigorously contested state control, often forbidding entrance of the army and rejecting traditional channels of political participation, whilst also developing alternative forms of political participation and local decision-making structures. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, as large swaths of the countryside fell to the control of far-right paramilitary forces, the creation of autonomous territories offered a sanctuary from violence and the opportunity for survival through the production of subsistence crops for marginalised and dispossessed rural inhabitants.

However, the notion of struggles for ‘repeasantisation’ should not invoke a harmonious, undifferentiated ‘peasant’ community resisting outside forces. The social composition of contemporary agrarian movements is incredibly diverse, composed of heterogeneous sets of producers and labourers that frequently oscillate between a variety of on-farm and off-farm activities to meet their reproduction needs. My research emphasizes that it is impossible to understand the nature and politics of Colombia’s new peasant movements without closer inspection of their social bases and class alliances. I argue that the changing social characteristics of the movements’ bases, their mobilisation by different class forces and relation to the state were crucial in determining the outcome of the mobilisation process in the long term.

My research was based on a comparative study of two agrarian movements that emerged in the 1990s and 2000s as struggles for repeasantisation and territorial autonomy. The first was the Association of Peasant Farmers of the Cimitarra Valley (ACVC), a movement formed by settler peasants in the frontier territories of the Middle Magdalena region in the late 1990s.  The second was the Association of Small and Medium Farmers of Líbano (Asopema) a movement of small coffee farmers that erupted in response to the coffee crisis in the mid-1990s, and was later galvanised by an open-pit gold mining project. While both movements were formed in response to the impact of neoliberal restructuring in the countryside, they also reflected the divergent paths of neoliberal restructuring and forms of peasant response. The ACVC was formed to defend its members from a new wave of dispossession triggered by land appropriations by agribusiness and the narco-elite. Meanwhile, Asopema was a response to new forms of adverse incorporation into global commodity chains and processes of differentiation that resulted from the withdrawal of state benefits and protections under free market reforms.

My analysis highlighted the relevance of different forms of market dependence of peasant smallholders in determining the divergent trajectories of these two movements. While the social bases of both movements resembled ‘peasant’ producers insofar as they used family labour and had restricted access to land and capital, there were also important differences. The small coffee farmers of Líbano are more dependent on the market for their reproduction, using high-yielding varieties and modern inputs. They also relied on the state for loans and technological assistance. For its part, ACVC members are based in more marginal frontier territories; they depend on both market and non-market relations for reproduction, which are also associated with ties of reciprocity and traditions of collective work. Combined with state absence, this has provided a space for the formation of an ‘autonomous rural community’ in this frontier territory. While the Cimitarra peasants depend on entering the market to secure their household incomes, the autonomous rural community provides the basis for negotiating market access for ACVC members on a more collective basis, and a space for politicising and mobilising members around a broader transformational project, albeit one which is continuously subject to contestations and renegotiations.

The divergences in social base both within and between the movements were crucial in determining the outcome of the mobilisation process in the long term. Asopema’s leaders may have adopted a radical discourse, but in practice the movement was about defending coffee farmers from the shocks of the free market system and reclaiming state protections. Notwithstanding the radical, anti-capitalist framing of the coffee protests, the main demands were centred on lower prices for farm inputs and debt reliefs. Once these concessions had been negotiated, the mid-sized farmers had little interest in becoming part of a broader transformative project. Meanwhile, by the early 2000s, many of the smallest farmers that had formed the main part of the mobilisations had been forced to flee either from poverty or violence, and soon after the initial uprisings the movement disintegrated with astonishing rapidity. For its part, the ACVC’s capacity to mobilize for the construction of an autonomous rural territory in the Cimitarra valley was key for the movement’s survival in the face of intense violence and a subsistence crisis for its members. This allowed ACVC to negotiate basic economic benefits and income security for its base whilst simultaneously reinforcing the alternative production relations, organisational capacities, education and social ties needed for political autonomy and self-governance. However, in some areas producers that have gained land have increasingly become incorporated into global commodity chains of palm or cacao, and differentiation is a constant source of tension within the movement.

While neoliberal dislocations have often given rise to sudden and massive outbursts of radical rural activity in Colombia and throughout Latin America, a more critical assessment of the social dynamics and prospects of these struggles is needed to understand their character and durability. My research shows how the ebb and flow of agrarian movements over time is related to their changing social characteristics and mobilization by different class forces. Processes of differentiation occurring within agrarian movements once they enter negotiations with the state and gain concessions is often a major limit on their transformative potential.  Nevertheless, under certain conditions, the struggle for territorial autonomy may emerge as a strategy for agrarian movements to address the immediate needs of their members, whilst simultaneously developing transformative capacities, practices and relations needed for movement-building in the long-term.

Kyla Sankey is a PhD candidate in the School of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary, University of London.