Colombian Cane Cutters Score Victory, But Struggle of Afro-Colombians Continues

Sugar cane cutters in Colombia, most of them Afro-Colombian and indigenous, won a major victory with the end of a strike on December 4 which awarded them concessions including pay increases, 15 days of paid vacation per year, some job stability in the face of a mechanizing industry and Sundays off.

ImageSugar cane cutters in Colombia, most of them Afro-Colombian and indigenous, won a major victory with the end of a strike on December 4 which awarded them concessions including pay increases, 15 days of paid vacation per year, some job stability in the face of a mechanizing industry and Sundays off.

Since September 15, more than 18,000 sugar cane workers in the Valle de Cauca, Risaralda and Cauca provinces had been on strike, calling for better pay and working conditions and an end to a convoluted “cooperative” system that allowed employers to avoid collective bargaining rights or paying health and retirement benefits. As a result of the strike, the workers gained the right to unify these small, previously isolated “cooperatives” into a system that gives them more power.  

“This was a major victory for sugar cane cutters,” said Adriana Ferrer, with the human rights group Corporación Humanidad Maestra Vida.

But the struggle will continue for cane cutters, who work in conditions often described as virtual slavery, laboring 16 hours a day at grueling jobs that often cause serious health problems.

“Not one cane cutter likes the work,” said Ferrer. “They only do it because it’s the only choice they have to survive.”

Ernesto Cuaspuv, who has been a cane cutter in Valle de Cauca for 15 years, gets up at to make food for the work day, then leaves at on a bus for the fields and doesn’t return until dark.

“We work Monday through Sunday, Monday through Sunday, we never have a day off to be with our families or go to the pool or relax,” he said. He explained how the so-called “cooperative” system includes so many monetary deductions that he is left with wages barely enough to pay rent and buy food for his family.

“We can’t save any money, nine in ten companeros don’t own a home, there are companeros with three or four kids and they can only afford to educate one,” he said. “There are many accidents; workers suffer many injuries to their spines, knees and shoulders.”

ImageNonetheless, they depend on these meager wages for their survival, so workers are fighting to keep jobs which could be decimated due to mechanization of the industry.

“A cane-cutting machine can replace 180 workers, and it can work at night,” said Cuaspuv. “We’re afraid in two years cane cutters will disappear.”

He thinks the success of the strike – which also included a promise to pay weekly instead of monthly – was due largely to international pressure and attention. But he is still afraid their employers will renege on the promised reforms, slated to take effect at the start of 2009. He said employers never complied with promises mandated by the government after a 2005 strike.

Meanwhile there are still six people – four workers and two human rights campaigners — facing serious criminal charges related to the strike. Human rights worker Juan Pablo Ochoa is facing three charges including “sabotage” and being an intellectual author of crimes against the state. A judge began hearing the case December 6. On December 16, workers will hold a walk-out demanding the charges against the six be dropped.

“What they did wasn’t a crime, it was part of a movement,” said Ferrer. “There is much indignation, because this is aggression against the movement and mobilization of workers.”

The cane cutters strike is part of a larger movement for the rights of indigenous and Afro-Colombian people. “They call us Indios and Negros, there is so much discrimination,” said Cuaspuv.

Indigenous and Afro-Colombian groups think the proposed free trade agreement between the U.S. and Colombia would have serious harmful effects, including increasing economic and physical displacement of their communities through the promotion of mono-culture plantations like sugar cane and palm oil.

ImageThese issues were among the major concerns of thousands of indigenous and Afro-Colombians who marched and protested in different parts of the country around Columbus Day. The government declared a state of “internal commotion” giving law enforcement extra powers. A letter from multiple U.S. and Latin American groups to U.S. government officials charges that the military fired live ammunition on 10,000 protesters in Cauca, killing one and injuring about 100. The letter also says that during the marches “‘demobilized’ paramilitaries referring to themselves as the Black Eagles” assassinated two indigenous people of the Embera Chami tribe in the department of Caldas, and another man, Nicolás Valencia Lemus, in Cauca.

Afro-Colombian leaders and human rights groups have predicted a massacre by the military or paramilitaries in the Cauca region. Already this fall, on October 7 an activist opposing industrial mono-crops on Afro-Colombian land, Armenio Cortes, was assassinated as he arrived home from a community council meeting in the Nariño department. Then on October 14, Walberto Hoyos, a community leader working for the return of collective lands in the Choco Department, was murdered as he left a community council meeting. Hoyos had witnessed the kidnapping in 2005 of Orlando Valencia, an Afro-Colombian activist opposing palm plantations who was later found dead.

The threat of violence against sugar cane workers and the surrounding communities persists despite the end of the strike, human rights groups say. Paramilitaries including the Bloque Calima led by “Comandante HH” are known to be active in the area.

Image“My experience is that in Colombia once all the attention (to the strike) has diminished, the threat will return,” said Ferrer. “There is a climate of fear.”

Eunice Escobar, an Afro-Colombian activist based in Chicago, said Afro-Colombians reacted with hope and joy to Barack Obama’s election, so she hopes he pays attention to their situation. Obama has opposed the free trade agreement with Colombia as previously scripted, mainly because of the murders of Colombian union members. She said they now hope he considers the plight of workers on the sugar cane and palm oil plantations, especially since those sectors are expected to keep growing with the push for ethanol and other biofuels, which Obama has championed. (Bagasse, from the sugar cane plant, is a major source of ethanol.)

“We’re trying to do something for the environment, but at the same time it’s causing the repression of Afro-Colombian and indigenous people,” said Escobar.