“Queremos agua! Queremos maíz! Multinacionales fuera del país!” yelled the protesters on October 26th as they marched through the streets of El Carmen de Viboral in Eastern Antioquia, Colombia. Around 1,000 people representing 60 grassroots organizations from 17 municipalities of the region traveled to participate in the fourth annual Water Festival, “for the autonomy, defense of territory, life and peace.”
“Queremos agua! Queremos maíz! Multinacionales fuera del país!” yelled the protesters on October 26th as they marched through the streets of El Carmen de Viboral in Eastern Antioquia, Colombia. The small town, about an hour east of Medellin, is located in a highly water-rich region of Colombia, and one where the local populations are fighting the threats of multinational companies taking over their territories. Around 1,000 people representing 60 grassroots organizations from 17 municipalities of the region traveled to participate in the fourth annual Water Festival, “for the autonomy, defense of territory, life and peace.”
Water privatization is the central theme of the annual festival, which intends to compile and share information about local social problems and human rights violations associated with the use of land for large scale multinational mining, electric, and water initiatives. The festival also serves to unite the communities from the various municipalities so they can struggle as a collaborative and united regional front against the threats to their territories.
“The problems and dynamics that we are seeing today have been accumulating for many years, even these protests and community mobilizations have been combating the threats for many years; we Eastern Antioquian farmers have been resisting displacement and the stealing of our lands for a long time,” explained Benito Guarin of ASOPROA (Association of Small and Medium Scale Farmers of Eastern Antioquia), “and the Water Festival is an example of that collaborative resistance.”
The acknowledgement and sentiment of the historical importance to the present-day struggle is reiterated in the manifesto created by participants in the Water Festival. The manifesto recounts how, since the 1970’s, Eastern Antioquia has been invaded in the name of big business and large-scale “development” projects that have had devastating effects on the land, environment, and local farming populations. The manifesto denounces EPM and ISAGEN energy companies for their land grabs, as well as the government for granting titles to multinational companies. The public claims that these collaborations between government and big business are not actually in the interest of the local community.
“Part of the problem is that the citizens and the government do not have the same concept of development for the territory,” said Guarin. “The national and local governments are trying to sell a model of development to the community, but a lot of times the community is not in agreement with that model, other times the community isn’t even consulted, and it is always the community that suffers.”
The manifesto highlights the negative effects on the local communities: “the economic development model of extracting natural resources from rural territories to feed the insatiable demands of the multinational economic actors makes big promises of development and prosperity to the local inhabitants, but have actually only worsened the social and economic inequalities between the rural and urban communities…”
In the central park of El Carmen de Viboral, a stage provided artistic space for musical groups and theatrical presentations from each of the municipalities present. The stage was also a space for public denouncements of what is happening in the territories. Tents were set up around the park with pointed themes around the issues, which created small group spaced for presentations and discussions of the threats faced in the region. “I really appreciated the space for public denouncements,” said one woman, “it’s important to share what is going on and learn from one another.” The importance of unity was echoed by a teenage boy participant. “The audiovisual tent was a really powerful space because it showed experiences from other parts of the country where similar processes are happening around multinational overtaking of land,” he said.
Jamie Gomez of the Farmers Association of Antioquia coordinated a tent about food sovereignty. He reflected on the high participation of the event. “It’s clear that, with so many participants, the farmers of Eastern Antioquia, as is the case in much of Colombia, are ready to protest for the protection of their territories from the land selling government that is giving away Colombian territory in exchange multinational mines and dams,” said Gomez.
“It’s clear that the public’s consciousness around these issues is growing. Every year there are more participants in this space,” said ASOPROA’s Guarin. “Many years ago, when the government came knocking with grand plans for development, the public did not have their own experiences to know the grave effects that would come of these processes. Today, there is a lot more understanding around what happens with these sort of government plans and agreements with multinationals.”
After the event, in the environmental cooperative Alborada’s office in El Carmen de Viboral, various organizers talked about the importance of having spaces and events to join the region together, like that of the Water Festival. They also recognized the uphill battle ahead: the truth is that what Eastern Antioquia has seen to date is very small compared to the imminent damage to come if the government continues to give away land and water without limitation.
“We have various examples in Colombia of regions and communities much more organized than we are,” said one man, “and they have lost in battles against multinationals. It’s more probable that they will kills us all than that we’ll be able to stop the privatization of water.” While everyone in the room nodded in agreement, they ended their meeting planning the next one to work on community proposals around the continued defense of their territories within the framework of, ‘plans for life’ and in accordance with their manifesto: “…we commit to standing together, firm and persistent… to form a regional movement of Eastern Antioquia with capacity to defend our territory from an extractive model… to create an equal distribution of riches, with justice to the resources we have and the aim of improving the well being of our neighbors and territory…”
The Water Festival created a space for community based regional planning to confront social problems in Eastern Antioquia. The question at the end of the day was not about lack of understanding of their rights on behalf of the community or lack of commitment to fight for those rights, but rather when the government discourse around development in Colombia is going to take into consideration the rights, opinions, and well being of the constituents it represents.