Marylen Serna Salinas on Rebuilding Community in Capitalist Colombia

This spring the CNY members of the Cajibío-Central NY Sister Community Partnership organized Marylen's CNY speaking tour. Colleen Kattau interviewed Marylen in Spanish on April 4 and translated the interview into English. Along with Ann Tiffany of the Syracuse Caribbean Latin America Coalition (CLAC) and Meagan Sheehan of Ithaca's Committee on US-Latin American Relations (CUSLAR), they were returning from the annual Colombia Support Network conference held in Madison, Wisconsin. This is the unabridged version of the interview, excerpts of which were printed in the Peace Newsletter.

Colleen: Perhaps you could begin by describing where Cajibío is and what this region is like.

Marylen: Cajibío is in Cauca, a department in the southwest part of Colombia, about 650 kilometers from Bogotá. It is an agricultural municipality with 36,000 inhabitants, 1,800 of whom live in the county seat. The rest of us are in the countryside. We are small farmers having an average of four hectares (~10 acres) per family. Our main products are coffee, sugar cane and plantain. Much of the land is in the hands of an international corporation called Smurfi Cartón de Colombia which produces raw material for processing paper.

Cajibío has long history of struggle for social justice. Fifty years ago the first movement for land recovery was initiated. We are well organized because our ancestors, the Nasa or paez (which means 'person') culture left us with an ancestral legacy of trabajo comunitario or community work which is embodied in the minga. As part of our cultural heritage, the minga is something that we've been able to conserve, support and strengthen over time.

C: Can you say more about the minga?

M: In the paez language minga means community work - work which has a common goal - like fixing a road, making a bridge, building a schoolhouse…and it is also largely used for crop planting. Food produced by the minga is done collectively. If the crop planting is collective, then the harvest is also. Thirty years ago the minga was used in cultivating maize, an ancestral tradition of the region that has been getting lost, but is being recovered by certain groups.

In September, we had two mingas. First we cleared the land, then we prepared the soil and planted seeds collectively. We brought the community together again for the first harvest in which we prepared and shared the envuelto, which is a way of preparing maize. It was a way of thanking God for this first harvest and for this collective work.

Today the minga, also called cambia de mano, is used for other things as well that affect the community. One day, people will work at one farm and then the next day at another. Men use the minga to produce things; women use it to improve their households and to raise their animals; young people use it to make places to play sports. Each group uses it for what they need to accomplish.

These opportunities to work together generate much more organized, solid and permanent relationships whose objective is not only to work together, but in the long run to seek an alternative to development that will strengthen the entire community. It is much better to work together. It's more fun, and gives us more hope when we join together to do the same work.

C: Can we continue with describing the process in which you made the decision to re-establish the collective way of working, and the challenges you've faced in doing so and the successes that you've achieved.

M: Community work was reclaimed in an even stronger way in tandem with land recovery. Our region was colonized by the Spanish who had usurped the indigenous peoples' land through a process of deception. Many indigenous people were inebriated and then forced into signing documents which gave over land to the colonizers. Other land was taken over when the person least expected it, as a way to pay debts that that person did not even have. Other land was just taken outright by force. Over time this process made it so that peasants lost their indigenous roots. They realized that it was necessary to reclaim their land, but that this land was not to be bought because it was already theirs. One way to recover land is to ask the state for resources to gain it back. Another way that began in the 1940s was that a group of landless families would join together, take the landowner by surprise, and take over the unused land that he held. In all these cases, all the land that was taken was not being used. Perhaps, if at all, it served as an occasional vacation spot for the landowner, so he could go to a pretty farm with nice horses to enjoy a weekend or two every now and then, but it was not being used to produce food. This land recovery was done collectively and many people died in the process because the landowners were supported by police and military forces or by private groups that were hired to kill the comuneros.

On the one hand, the peasants sought to take the land, but their real purpose was to take care of it, to steward and protect that territory. We had to do this collectively. This was a starting point for also reclaiming collective techniques for working together.

The challenge we face is to generalize community work to make it a viable alternative for the entire community, since not all families see it as an option. One of the most important challenges is that the people who think that working for a business or for a landowner is good change their minds and shift their gaze to their farm and to their community. We hope that they see the benefits of working in common to gain autonomy over their production, to have an economy that is genuinely theirs.

Some people who did work for multinational businesses and who abandoned their farms to dependent salaried jobs have come to reclaim their traditional collective work on their own farms as a way to gain self-sufficiency for their families and for improved productivity for the community as a whole, and this is an achievement of the Small Farmers Movement.

C: What are some of the outside pressures that you are up against? How can our sister communities work together mutually to support your work?

M: A sistership has to be realized within a context of community. The first step is that we become like sisters and brothers among ourselves in our respective communities so that we start from a basis of well-established relationships. Once we've been able to organize and set forth some commonly agreed goals, we can go out to other communities to form sister city relationships. As the scripture says, we need to create light inside our own house in order to spread the light outside of it.

So, there's a fundamental element to all of this and that is the importance of family life - that we be brothers and sisters within our own homes and within our larger community.…A sister city partnership should have some particular characteristics: we should meet as equals, with fraternity, respect and autonomy.

Our community work has been threatened by violence. In Colombia, any collective expression, any resistance, any alternative vision is met with threats from a system that wants to destroy any form of community organization - especially one that specifically refuses to accept a system based on individualism. Trabajo comunitario breaks with an individualistic ideal that the media and the state try to feed us every day. We confront this system precisely through collective work, but we need our work to endure over time and survive even in the midst of war.

Having a sister city partnership in another country helps us to protect that fabric that we have woven historically yet has been so difficult to sustain alone because of the threats that violent conflict imposes. As the US part of our sister community you can give testimony before government entities in the US and Colombia. You can say that collective expression, and organizational initiatives are not "terrorist activities" and are not seeking to attack the state. On the contrary, they are helping to construct a true democracy and a true peace with justice.

It is also extremely important that the resources going to foment war and promote militarism go instead towards projects that genuinely improve the conditions of life and really address the underlying causes of violence, that is, the great injustices which generate the armed conflict in our country.

C: You've spoken of trabajo comunitario as part of the cosmovision of the indigenous peoples. Can you tell us more about how that vision differs from let's say modern western culture?

M: The indigenous cosmovision begins with la tierra (trans. note: meaning the earth and land)- as the fundamental element of existence. It is the mother of the indigenous peoples. The cosmovision begins with the respect that we have for the earth and all it contains. It is a vision that is not about over-exploitation of the land, but rather taking only what is necessary while conserving what may be necessary for future generations. We see how a capitalist system just does not understand this. It thinks it can sell and buy the land, contaminate, exploit, injure, and pillage it. What indigenous peoples seek is that land not be only that little physical and geographical piece, but that it be seen as a territory where lives develop in abundance and freedom including being able to develop and create autonomous systems of justice based upon balance and equality. A system in which there is self-determination, and a right to decide what kind of development is best for them. They also seek a territory in which their language, culture, artistic expression, and dress be representative of their cosmovision. For this to happen it is necessary that we be able to develop autonomously. In this sense indigenous people have an immense advantage because they are thinking very seriously about their future, about conservation, about the environment, and about human beings themselves as a fundamental part of the earth.

C: You've been here for a few days now. What have you observed about the culture here so far?

M: It's a bit difficult because it's a very short time, and then there's the language barrier. There is a lot going on around me that I can't understand. But I am observing the embodiment of capitalism- seeing capitalism in its element. I have been able to touch the best part by being able to share this experience with many people who have a similar critique of the system. But I've been able to observe how capitalism reveals itself on a daily basis here. This is a country that requires many, many things to maintain itself. In this sense it is true what is said of these capitalist countries- that they take much much more than what they need. They consume so much of what we need elsewhere. What we are lacking there has been brought here to fulfill a level of overconsumption while we over there barely maintain a minimal subsistence.

A great number of the peoples of Latin America are in a situation of scarcity while the owners of their resources extract them because the system here demands it. One of the most important things that people can do is to reevaluate this inequity to consider how living far beyond what it takes to survive in turn means that there's scarcity of these very same resources in other places. This inequality prohibits a fair distribution of resources when a society consumes so much and demands so much. Look at the case of petroleum. This country consumes a tremendous amount of petroleum for its huge number of cars and trucks. There's no one source of oil in the world that can sustain this demand and so it becomes more and more necessary to declare another war so that oil can once again be pillaged from its place of origin and acquired by the place of demand. But it's not that it really is needed there- it's that it's demanded. Life could be so much simpler. No?

C: How is the struggle that you have in Cajibío linked with those of other communities in Colombia?

M: Joining together with other organizations is extremely important in the struggle for structural change in our country. For that reason, different campesino organizations have come together to be part of the National Agrarian Coordinating Committee. Its purpose is to promote agrarian life with dignity so that we are able to remain in the countryside and build relationships of equality among ourselves as farmers. It also demands that the state fulfill its obligations and responsibilities to the campesinos.

In our region we maintain close ties with indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, as well as with women's organizations - all of whom are trying to defend and protect fundamental rights such as rights to water, to a clean environment, and the right to organize.…Our unity has made it possible for us to rein in many of the threats against our rights. The solidarity we are forging on a local, national and international level has contributed toward realizing our goals.

We are also establishing economic ties among each other in a process of exchange, marketing of products, and sharing knowledge. We are expanding our organizational initiatives to bring student groups and urban populations into this process of reclaiming and restructuring. The idea is to open this space of socioeconomic and cultural interchange to strengthen our community.

C: Finally, can you speak about the current situation and how Plan Colombia is now being played out.

M: Colombia has an economic system that is not working for the vast majority of Colombians. It is one based on competition where some accumulate so much wealth while the rest live amidst conditions of isolation, unemployment, lack of health care, little education, and high costs of social services. Today 60% of Colombians live below the poverty line and are falling further into misery. According to official statistics, 22% of Colombians are unemployed. All of this is historical, as is the great armed conflict that we are living through now. Many people have taken up arms because they cannot bear the injustice. We also have a system that does not attend to the causes of the conflict- it responds only to the results of the situation it has generated - with violence.

Plan Colombia, financed by the United States, has served to worsen the conflict, to polarize the population. It uses the pretext of narcotrafficking to attack one of the weakest links, the campesinos, or to displace the cocaleros [coca growers], those who are growing the 'illicit' crop. But the crop itself is not illegal; rather it's the products developed out of it. The cocaleros see their crop as a way to survive.…But the ones who are really doing the most harm are those who are taking that production, transforming it and commercializing it, and who are profiting most from it.

The countries that consume the drugs perhaps have their weakest link too - the young people who become addicts or those who wind up in jail. But the strongest link - those who deal in drugs and in armaments and in all those things inherent to narcotraffic are not being affected. Politicians who are hypocritically writing laws that protect the traffickers while calling those who produce a crop terrorists are not effective in confronting the main problem of narcotrafficking.

In Colombia, The neoliberal socioeconomic model is only making the divide between rich and poor deeper. It is eroding the possibility of an autonomous alternative campesino economy. We don't understand why for instance a country such as Colombia that was meant for growing corn, whose ancestral tradition is based on corn, is importing corn from the US. But it's been dictated by the IMF, the World Bank, and the US. The expansion of Plan Colombia is only one more element of intervention. We see it paving the way for the FTAA [Free Trade Area of the Americas] - which in turn means the neo-colonization of the Americas.

There is not much hope in transforming such an immense system as this. That's why we've decided to work locally from within our own communities to construct new alternatives for ourselves and for future generations.

To learn more about the Sister Community, in Syracuse contact Ann Tiffany, (315)

478-4571; in Ithaca Meagan Sheehan at CUSLAR, (607) 255-7293; or in Cortland Colleen Kattau, (607) 753-2025.

Marylen is a campesina, anthropologist and community organizer from rural Cajibío in Colombia. Colleen is a songwriter, political folksinger, and professor of Spanish at SUNY Cortland.