Territories of Rebellion in Colombia

Para obtener una versión en español de esta pieza, consulte aquí / For a version in Spanish of this piece, see here.

Peasant rebellion has historically led to substantial changes in our society; it has been truly revolutionary. In preparing for a post-pandemic world, however, we are failing to listen and consequently promote environmentally friendly and just food systems. Peasant leaderships have been a cultural beacon for many Global South communities and are vital for the future of humanity to help us build a new and better “normal.”

However, the hegemonic powers—colossal legacies of colonial institutions—who still administer our countries have progressively managed to displace, disenfranchise, and depeasantise the few surviving peasant communities. In Colombia, in particular, these dark forces not only have altered their customs, they have also grabbed their lands and murdered many in order to exploit their water and minerals and change the soil’s vocation. This threatens socio-ecosystems and biodiversity. On top of that, the Colombian government has responded to communities’ claims with anti-peasantism and persecution under charges of “rebellion”—as we see happening today.      

This post is the result of connecting the dots between my own research and current events in Colombia, to evidence how the criminalisation of peasants, and the portrayal of their activities as a “rebellion”-type crime, is part of a long history of anti-peasant policies aimed to depeasantise territories.

Peasants’ Revolt; The death of Wat Tyler (left) and Richard II addressing the peasants (right), miniature from a manuscript of Jean Froissart’s Chronicles, 15th century. Image and description taken from Britannica.
[Image description: a painting of six people on horses in Middle Age attire on a hill, there’s a tree behind them. On the left side, an army of soldiers with trees in the background; on the right side, more soldiers with a castle in the background.]

In 1381, a huge, well organised rebellion, called the Peasants’ Revolt, hit the streets of London. When I think of Wat Tyler’s comrades and their demands—such as sensible laws, social justice, freedom and equality—I cannot help but indulge a counter-historical feeling that, if it succeeded, this could have been an early French Revolution. After all, those claims are core values of our modern democracies. The peasant knowledge that was erased in Europe and disregarded by modern societies, who associated it with poverty and ignorance to the point of degrading the word peasant to its current nadir, has somehow survived in other cultures such as in Latin America, the Caribbean, and India.

Indian farmers are on strike. A current agricultural bill pushes towards a form of subordination called “contract farming,” favouring big corporations that dominate the food market in the process.[1] These farmers not only demand a review of this bill, but also (as many others elsewhere) fair prices for their products. This is something that they are entitled to, as laid down in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas. Coincidentally, as I write this on December 17, 2020, it has been exactly two years ago that the UN adopted this declaration. The way farmers have been treated and repelled in India—in a similar way to many peasant leaders across Latin America—evidences that the UN Declaration is not yet taken into account by our governments, globally.   

Image from People’s Archive of Rural India, see @PARINetwork, “‘We Give This Country Food and We Get Tear Gas and Water Cannons in Return. If This Is Not Treachery, Then What Is?’ #FarmersProtests 9/10,” Twitter (December 16, 2020).
[Image description: a black-and-white photo of an old peasant man in a tent, with a phrase added that reads “”We give food and we get tear gas and water in return. If this is not treachery, then what is? #FARMERSPROTESTS” Image from farmers’ protests.

In comparison with medieval English peasants or modern-day Indian farmers, peasantries across Latin America are complex and diverse. We are lucky to share with Indigenous peasants, Afro-peasants, or peasants with “double ancestries,” as the verse goes, “Don Quijote y Quimbaya.”[2] Many identities and cultures that fall under this umbrella phrase have also felt the impacts of, for instance, developmentalism, the Green Revolution, neo-colonialism, unfair markets, and the climate crisis. And, on top of that, violence. This is why Giuseppe Feola, a sociologist based at Utrecht University, and his colleagues have developed a particular framework to study the vulnerability of Colombian peasantries, called “multiple exposures.” There are so many combined stressors at play that their survival and resilience is almost a miracle. There is also one more to add, what local organisations call “arbitrary judicial prosecution.”[3]

This week, three different peasant leaders in Colombia, coming from very different peasant communities, were arrested under unclear circumstances: Rober Daza from Nariño in the Andean higlands in the Southwest, Teófilo Acuña from Barranco de Loba (Bolívar) in the Caribbean, and Adelso Gallo from Meta in the Southeastern savannas.

It has been said today, as I write this, that they have been charged with the political crime of “rebellion.” According to the Colombian Penal Code, this means that they supposedly tried to “overthrow the National Government or suppress or modify the constitutional or legal regime in force” and “through the use of arms”.[4] In a country where the perpetrators of the 1928 Banana Massacre opened fire on rural workers on strike against United Fruit Company, or where innocent young men were killed and passed as guerrillas to complete military quotas in 2008, this has raised all the alarms of every human rights organisation operating in the country.[5]

The peasant movement in Colombia has been well organised since the time of the so-called “peasant leagues” on the Caribbean coast at the beginning of the twentieth century. The struggles of these leagues against terratenientes (landlords) and state authorities were captured by Chalarka and La Rosca in a graphic novel—which, in turn, served as inspiration for the leaders of the National Association of Peasant Users (ANUC) in the 1970s. This is one of the earliest popular research works where such female leaders as Juana Julia Guzmán and Felicita Campos, “the peasant woman who struggles for her land,” were celebrated.[6]

Pages of Chalarka’s graphic novel “Historia Gráfica de La Lucha Por La Tierra En La Costa Atlántica’”(History of the struggle for land in the Atlantic Coast).
[Image description: two images from a graphic novel with text in Spanish. The left one includes two drawings of Afro-Colombian peasants. The top drawing is of a group of women led by Juana Julia Guzmán and Agustino Medrano, with the date 7 de Agosto 1919; the bottom drawing is of a group of men who occupy the land they called Baluarte Rojo, they are half-naked and holding agrarian tools (spikes, axes). The image on the right is a drawing of a woman in a dress taken prisoner by soldiers, walking in front of them with bravery and pride. The title reads “Felicita Campos (Sucre), la mujer campesina en lucha por la tierra,” which translates to “Felicita Campos, the peasant woman who struggles for her land.”]

In the 1970s, a new generation of peasant leaders in the ANUC, such as Catalina Pérez, were repressed and criminalised by the authorities with such violence that Amnesty International had to arrange their asylum in Europe in order to keep their lives and freedom. When Pérez was out of the country, for instance, her region of Montes de María was almost wiped of peasant communities by the guerilla and paramilitary war. Even today, it still counts as one of the Colombian regions with the most victims and reparation claims.[7]

Catalina Pérez holds a photo of herself from when she was as a young leader of the ANUC in the Colombian Caribbean in the 1970s. Today, after living in exile for twenty years, she is still a leader of the peasant women’s movement. Photo by Marcela Madrid Vergara, from Marcela Madrid V, “Feminismo campesino desde el Caribe: la historia de Catalina Pérez,” Semana Rural (November 7, 2018).
[Image description: a photo of an older peasant woman holding a photo of her younger self in front of her.]

More than thirty years later, communities of the High Mountain Movement in the Montes de María demanded reparations as victims of the civil conflict. In 2013, some of them organised a peaceful protest, the so-called Avocado March, designed to pressure the governor’s office to address their claims.[8] One of its organizers, the Afro-Colombian leader Jorge Luis Montes, was arrested some months after. He was jailed and sentenced to thirty-nine years of imprisonment under the charge of rebellion and complicity with the guerrilla group FARC. Three years later, in 2016, when a peace agreement was signed and ex-FARC guerrillas started to confess, his name was cleared. There was no proof of any connection between Montes and the guerrillas’ activities, and their testimonies clarified it.[9] Montes is currently free and alive, and keeps on being an active member and a hero for his community.

Jorge Luis Montes in 2015. Photo by Kristian Sanabria, from Carmen Andrea Becerra Becerra et al., Documento Metodológico Sobre La Formulación y El Desarrollo de Procesos de Memoria Locales Con Participación de La Comunidad: Aportes Desde La Experiencia de La Alta Montaña de El Carmen de Bolívar (Bogotá: Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica, 2016).
[Image description: a photo of a man walking handcuffed and accompanied by an armed soldier in front of some people looking at them.]

Those peasant leaders that spent their first night in jail last night—Rober Daza, Teófilo Acuña, and Adelso Gallo—are all members of Coordinadora Nacional Agraria (National Agrarian Coordination) and Cumbre Agraria (Agrarian Summit). Daza is also a part of the “water defense” with the Comité de Integración del Macizo Colombiano (Integrated Committee for the Colombian Macizo), and a member of an international movement called Congress of the Peoples. Acuña is part of a delegation that negotiates directly with the government as a spokesperson for communities in Bolívar. Gallo is one of the leaders of the Sarare Agricultural Cooperative in the western Savannas.

In contrast with their predecessors, Daza, Acuña, and Gallo are not only caregivers for their crops and their land, but also for the shared resource of water. They hail from communities in three different river basins: the Cauca river (Macizo), the Magdalena Medio river (Bolívar) and the Sarare river (Meta). Their activism, or their “rebellion,” is deeply relational with this territory, which (as far as we know) differs extensively from the one defined by the Colombian Penal Code. Many researchers and human rights defenders have expressed solidarity with the three peasant leaders, and observe the current developments with great concern—considering Colombia’s historical record of anti-peasant oppression and persecution.

Let us hope that—like Felicita, Juana Julia, Catalina, and Jorge Luis—they can clear their names, and go back to their territories, communities, and rivers to live for many more years until they must reunite spiritually with their ancestors under the same soil they have cherished and loved.

[1] ‘”GRAIN Extends Its Solidarity Support to Farmers Protesting in Delhi, India,” GRAIN (December 11, 2020).

[2] From the Colombian folk song La Ruana by Luis Carlos González Mejía

[3] Giuseppe Feola, Luis Alfonso Agudelo Vanegas, and Bernardita Paz Contesse Bamón, “Colombian Agriculture under Multiple Exposures: A Review and Research Agenda,” Climate and Development 7, no. 3 (2015), 278-292; “Denuncian captura de tres líderes agrarios en Nariño, Bolívar y Meta,” El Espectador (December 16, 2020).

[4] See Artículo 467 on “Rebelion” of the Código Penal,

[5] For more on the Banana Massacre, see: Ángela Uribe Botero, “Historical Facts Could Resist to the Mendacity?: On the Killing of ‘Las Bananeras,'” Co-Herencia 7, no. 13 (2010): 43-67; William L. Partridge, “Banana County in the Wake of United Fruit: Social and Economic Linkages,” American Ethnologist 6, no. 3 (1979): 491-509; Mariana Palau, “The ‘False Positives’ Scandal That Felled Colombia’s Military Hero,” ‎The Guardian (November 19, 2020); and the audio long read under the same title (December 7, 2020).

[6] Ulianov Chalarka, Historia Gráfica de La Lucha Por La Tierra En La Costa Atlántica, ed. by Fundación Punta de Lanza, Bogotá and Fundación Oscar Arnulfo Romero, Montería (Montería, Cordoba, Colombia: Fundación del Sinú. Apartado Aereo 479. Monteria, 1985).

[7] Marcela Madrid V, “Feminismo campesino desde el Caribe: la historia de Catalina Pérez,” Semana Rural (November 7, 2018).

[8] This protest resulted in the Bosque de Memoria Viva (Forest of Living Memory), a participatory research project carried out by the same peasant communities with the support of the National Centre for Historical Memory. Carmen Andrea Becerra Becerra et al., Un Bosque de Memoria Viva: Desde La Alta Montaña de El Carmen de Bolívar (Bogotá: Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica, 2016).

[9] Carmen Andrea Becerra Becerra et al., Documento Metodológico Sobre La Formulación y El Desarrollo de Procesos de Memoria Locales Con Participación de La Comunidad: Aportes Desde La Experiencia de La Alta Montaña de El Carmen de Bolívar (Bogotá: Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica, 2016).

*Cover image: Logo used by the CNA. The prase “Ser Líder Social No es Delito” translates to “Being a leader is not a crime.”

[Cover image description: a drawing of six figures in a half circle, in the middle a phrase that reads “Ser Líder Social No es Delito” and the website address “www.serlidersocialnoesdelito.net” underneath.]

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