Handmade in Colombia

| September 20, 2002
Colombian community leaders Alirio Arroyave and Arquimedes Vitonás were in Toronto last month to give talks, part of the Canada-Colombia Solidarity Campaign. rabble interviewer Justin Podur caught up with both men during their stay and spoke with them about participatory politics, direct democracy and what can happen when the people making the decisions are also the people affected by them.

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Alirio Arroyave is a peasant leader from the community of Tarso, Antioquia — in northwestern Colombia. For the past several years, Tarso has been the site of a Municipal Constituent Assembly, a successful experiment in direct democracy in which the entire community participates in local-level decisions.

Justin Podur: Tell me about Tarso and about the democratic processes the community has created there.

Alirio Arroyave: Tarso is an agricultural community of about 7600. Production is mainly ranching and coffee. What we have done is create a participative assembly called the Municipal Constituent Assembly. It is an open space in which members of the community exercise their rights and participate in decisions.

Podur: What kinds of decisions?

Arroyave: The Municipal Development Plan, for example. This is a three-year planwhose content comes from a collective process. There are five working groups: on jobs, social security, environment, democracy and human rights/duties — we don’t want to speak only of human rights but also of duties. Participation is an obligation of citizens. The construction of society — of a better society — means people have to fulfill their obligations.

Each of these working groups has 150 spokespeople named by the community, representing social organizations or neighbourhoods. Each delegate is named to the assembly. The assembly is a planning instrument that coordinates the initiatives of the municipality. The mayor is a participant, the municipal council members participate, members of the church participate. The system represents an agreement of the citizens towork together on a solution to our social and economic problems.

Podur: What’s the history of this project?

Arroyave: It is quite new. It started in October 1999 with a forum on Tarso inthe new millennium. Some local activists struck a committee to unify the community. We held workshops on participation and mechanisms of participation. We were motivated by a social and economic crisis in the municipality. There was growing public debt. There was violence and a growing problemof displacement.

There was, of course, unemployment because of falling coffee prices. This is all due to a crisis in a form of governance — a product of how politics was done.

Politics is not a science of administration but something the community lives. But politics was being presented by the existing government as just administration, and that administration inevitably put the interests of capital before collective interests. This brought us to the crisis.

Traditionally, municipal politics consisted solely of a drive to get executive power. The executive in power seeks to get a majority in council, control of the bureaucracy and control of resources. The council — the representatives of the people — lose any power to make proposals.

When the constituent assembly took over, we restructured the administration and re-invested in social spending. We have made education free; we have increased health care access; we’ve made housing improvements. We are making improvements in the quality of education and the quality of the environment, as well. We are looking to create more employment.

Podur: What do you lack?

Arroyave: Several things. We need international co-operation. We would like to build food security, for example. And to eradicate poverty. International co-operation at all kinds of levels can help. Above all, we need protection of our process. We are threatened. We are an example of democracy and peace, and we arethreatened by the war in the country. We need the protection of the international community so we can build welfare for our community.

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Arquimedes Vitonás is a Paez indigenous leader from Toribio, Cauca — in southwestern Colombia. Cauca has a democratically elected indigenous governor, Floro Tunubala, but also practices direct democracy through through local councils. The councils enact Planes de Vida, or Life Projects, which deal with land reform, development, education, health care and general governance.

Podur: What are some of the principles behind the Life Projects of Cauca?

Arquimedes Vitonás: Our work is based on three principles. First, we start from the premise that nobody owns. The only entity that can own is the great spirit. When a person begins to feel like they can own things, that’s where the problems begin. Nobody owns oil. Nobody owns water or wind or wood — how could they? Who could have given it to them? To us, only the spirit — in our language Chaus — canown.

Our second principle is that everything must be shared. Otherwise, you are contributing to jealousy and to violence. We have self-regulation around this principle. If I gain and gain, greedily, and do not share, I will be ostracized. So not sharing makes one worse off in our communities.

Third, and this is related to the second, is that someone who does not share, who thinks he owns, is stealing from the community, from nature and from the spirits. This behaviour merits punishment.

Podur: It seems clear that your political work is inseparable from, founded on, acertain cultural and spiritual fabric. How much it is possible for outsiders to learn from you if your progress is based on your particular social fabric? Can outsiders apply the lessons you have learned?

Vitonás: I believe so, yes. For example, I think people here could learn aboutsolidarity from us. I have seen only a little here, but it seems to me there is an extreme individualism here. Everyone is out for themselves. For the most part, people don’t even know each other. You can go to a party, dance with someone, see them on the street the next day and not even say hello. To us, the idea of accompaniment is sacred — being with someone or being there for someone on a personal level but also on a community or political level. If we hear that someone has died, we will go to their house to accompany their family.

Another thing I would teach people here is to love life. To live. It seems to me that people here are not happy. Their identity, their life, revolves around work. To us, work is about doing what you need. We work to live. We plan as we go. We refuse to stop living, to stop laughing, even if there is violence. That’s a kind of resistance toviolence.

But is our political process inseparable from culture? I think it is.The municipal government, which we [the indigenous of Northern Cauca]now control, shares out the public resources. If our cultural values of sharing did not prevail, our government would be impossible. And there are cases of the communityhaving to sanction authorities who came to believe that the municpality’s car, for example, was their own personally to use.

Podur: Cauca is one of the sites of the most successful land reform in thehemisphere. Could you give an example of a land recuperation?

Vitonás: First of all remember that the land was ours. It was lost only in the 1950s and 1960s during La Violencia. At that time, we were displaced by force by large landowners, and these seizures of land were then legalized by the government. When the indigenous returned from flight, they found themselves workers of these large landowners. So they began in the 1970s to recover the land.

It is a long process. First, there are community meetings. These happen between 1 and 4 a.m. as they are prohibited during the day. They are as secret as possible. There is no writing, since to the authorities and landowners in those days having a typewriter was far worse than having a gun. During the meetings, 200 to 500 workers would get involved through coming to agreements about decisions.

The next step is the occupation itself, which we do at dawn, taking over the territory with the people by simply starting to work the land. There are already set escape routes and people watching, however. So when the police and army come, as they always do, we would run and hide. The police would stay for three or four days, and leave — at which point the people would return.

After months of this, maybe years of this, during which there are assassinations, attempts to single out leaders, etc., the owner sees that he has to negotiate.

There were also people on the inside, fighting with legal instruments and legalizing the conquests that the people had won on the ground. It is a long fight, and many were killed, but we recovered the land.

Having recovered it, we made the land collective property. Sometimes we have continued with ranching, but we’ve always added diversity, food security and trees to the mix. The ranch becomes a ranch, farm and grove. As a consequence, we’re accused of lowering meat and milk production. That is true, but we have trees and water here where we did not before.

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