Taking on the Neoliberal Development Model: A Social Movement in Colombia Rises Up in Defense of Water

Colombia is booming, we are told. The security improvements of the last decade have opened up the country to investment, allowing it capitalize on its resource wealth to fund much needed development and investment in infrastructure. However, while this narrative has now traveled around the world, for many of those living at the heart of this brave new Colombia, it does not ring true.

Instead, they say, the foreign investment and extractive economy has not brought the promised work and riches, but poverty and pollution. The massive infrastructure projects may have brought development – but for the cities and industrial heartlands, not those living in the rural territories where the true price of such constructions is paid.

In one of Colombia’s key strategic and resource rich areas, Eastern Antioquia, a nascent social movement is unifying disparate social issues under one banner – the defense of water. In October, this new movement announced its arrival when organizations from across the region descended on the town of El Carmen de Viboral to stage a “Water Festival.”

Present at the festival were activists, community leaders and supporters from every corner of Eastern Antioquia – 23 municipalities in the northwest of Colombia characterized by its natural beauty, richness in resources and recent history of bloody violence when paramilitaries fought to drive leftist guerrillas from the region. On the agenda were issues pertinent to the whole country – mining, infrastructure mega-projects and the threat to the way of life of traditional campesino (small scale farmers and rural workers) communities.

“The East [of Antioquia] is a zone where there are a lot of forests and a lot of water, and now that private and multinational companies have begun to enter the region, the campesino communities are very worried,” said Alba Gomez, the El Carmen Coordinator for Colombian NGO Conciudadania and one of the event organizers. “We feel the war is going to repeat itself because it was like this last time – they begin by making incursions to displace the campesinos.”

Leading the charge of this new invasion have been the mining companies. Over the last decade, Colombia has witnessed an explosion in mining, with the amount of land concessioned to companies rising from 1.13 million hectares to 8.53 million hectares during the previous government of President Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010), a policy that has continued during the current administration of President Juan Manuel Santos.

Although the department of Antioquia has long been one of Colombia’s mining hubs, until the recent boom, Eastern Antioquia remained relatively untouched, with just a small informal mining sector boosting an economy based on agriculture, cattle ranching and local industries. Now, mining concessions have been granted or are awaiting approval in nearly every municipality. 10.0pt;line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>

With the paramilitaries demobilized – although successor groups still terrorize parts of the country – and the guerrillas driven back by a military offensive and now participating in peace talks, a semblance of normality has returned to the region. And Gomez is optimistic the communities can leave the fear behind and speak out against the new invasion.

Key to this is the involvement of the local youth, she says. Various youth networks are active participants in the movement, a fact that fills the older heads with optimism.

“I feel hope there, because they don’t carry the same baggage, they have learned about the history of their parents and their grandparents and now they have a different way of thinking,” said Gomez. “They also have a long road to walk.”

James Bargent is a freelance journalist based in Medellin, Colombia. He has reported on Colombia and Latin America for various publications including the Independent, the Miami Herald, the Toronto Star, In These Times, the Times Education Supplement, AlterNet, Toward Freedom and Green Left Weekly. 

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