Yurany Cuellar is a Colombian activist working for the defense of rural and peasant women’s rights. For years, her commitment has been conveyed through the Asociación Campesina del Valle del río Cimitarra (ACVC), an organization that brings together more than a hundred Community Action Boards and other community groups from various municipalities in the Magdalena Medio region.
ACVC’s work, which began in the mid-1990s, is framed in the integral defense of human rights, and promotes the struggle for access to land and the dignification of peasant life. In addition, the ACVC promotes productive and food security projects, regional development and the promotion of peasant organization processes. In 2010, the entity received the National Peace Prize, awarded by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the Friedrich-Erbert-Stiftung Foundation of Colombia, various media and other organizations. In September 2020, the organization was also recognized with the National Award for the Defense of Human Rights in Colombia, granted by the NGO Diakonia and Act Iglesia Sueca, in the category of Community Social Process.
ACVC began working for the defense of women’s rights in 2015. Yurany Cuellar explains that it was then “when peasant women raised their voices to be heard”. The first women’s committees were created, which ACVC strengthened with productive and economic initiatives. In 2017, the Coordinadora de Mujeres de la Zona de Reserva Campesina (ZRC) del Valle del Río Cimitarra was formed, with the participation of women delegates from the four municipalities of the ZRC (Cantagallo, San Pablo, Remedios and Yondó). Cuellar, as ACVC’s gender coordinator, was one of the founders of this Women’s Coordinating Committee.
Shortly thereafter, in August 2018, the articulation of peasant women of the ACVC acquired solidity and breadth with the birth of the Coordinadora de Mujeres del Nororiente Colombiano. The Coordinating Committee is also made up of the Corporación Acción Humanitaria por la Convivencia y la Paz del Nordeste Antioqueño (CAHUCOPANA), the Asociación de Hermandades Agroecológicas y Mineras de Guamocó (AHERAMIGUA), the Asociación Campesina del Catatumbo (ASAMCAT) and various Territorial Spaces for the Training and Reincorporation of demobilized FARC-EP members. Cuellar, who is one of the driving forces behind this new Coordinating Committee, explains that the objective has been to strengthen peace agendas and create a joint program for the defense of peasant women’s rights, in order to have political influence in decision-making spaces.
Colombia is one of the most unequal countries in Latin America in terms of income inequality and labor market informality, according to World Bank data. It is a country with an economy based on political patronage in which large companies hardly pay taxes. As a result, the country is characterized by an exclusionary economic model. The problems that communities have had to continue to face since Iván Duque came to power in August 2018 have been of various natures: territorial, environmental, armed and other conflicts. These are not new problems; they have been dragging on for years.
According to the National Administrative Department of Statistics (DANE) almost half of the Colombian population lives in poverty and 7.5 million people suffer from extreme poverty. In the countryside, the territory is rich in oil and other natural resources, hotly contested by a number of national and international actors, but peasants continue to suffer reprisals from the powerful and remain without access to land resources. “This is where the processes of resistance and organization are born and this is where we continue to meet, resisting against the policies of a state that does not govern for us. We are not free: we cannot decide about our territory and this generates many social inequalities, conditions of extreme poverty and wars,” explains Yurany.
In addition, in 2021, the government of Duque, who has dozens of open judicial processes for links to massacres carried out by paramilitaries, the murder of civilians at the hands of the Colombian army and illicit enrichment, has reactivated spraying with glyphosate of coca leaf cultivation, which had been halted in 2015 on the recommendation of the World Health Organization and after several community protests.
Faced with this situation of systemic and structural poverty and violence on the part of the authorities, in 2019 the Colombian population took to the streets en masse to protest: the accumulated social discontent caused Colombia to explode. This is known as the National Strike. The reasons were varied: questioning an economic model that widened the social rift, a precarious implementation of the Peace Accords, the assassination of social leaders or the lack of opportunities. That’s when the pandemic hit. Although the street movement was temporarily halted, one year later, in April 2021, the Colombian population took to the streets again. The delays in the Covid-19 vaccination campaign did not help to calm the spirits of Colombians.
But the trigger was a tax reform proposal which sought to raise taxes on the working classes by 19% through commodities. This measure, which the Duque government called the “Sustainable Solidarity Law”, was intended to raise 23.4 trillion pesos (about US$6.302 billion) to clean up public finances after the country was plunged into a deep health, economic and social crisis due to the pandemic. In this context, on May 3, 2021, Alberto Carrasquilla, the Minister of Finance, had to resign .
The NGO Temblores, the Universidad de los Andes, Amnesty International and PAISS (Action Program for Equality and Social Inclusion) wrote in a communiqué:“The repression with which the State has decided to confront the claims of the citizenry has left a lamentable balance of at least 4,687 victims of violence by members of the Public Forces distributed as follows: 1,617 victims of physical violence, 44 homicides allegedly committed by members of the Public Forces, 2. 005 arbitrary detentions against demonstrators, 784 violent interventions in the framework of peaceful protests, 82 victims of ocular aggressions, 228 cases of shooting with firearms, 28 victims of sexual violence and 9 victims of gender-based violence”. Duque’s government justificar l’ús de la força justified the use of force and violence by asserting that behind the protests were “terrorist” groups and “criminal organizations” financed by Farc dissidents and the ELN.
But the demonstrators were clear about their demands: abolition of the proposed reform, reform of the Colombian police and dismantling of the ESMAD (Mobile Anti-Riot Squad) and a better implementation of the peace processes through a productive and real development of the regions affected by the conflict and respect for the communities of the territories and human rights. On this last point, it should be remembered that, Indepaz data 71 social leaders and human rights defenders were assassinated in 2021. Forty-three signatories of the Peace Accord and former FARC combatants also lost their lives or disappeared.
On May 29th there are elections that may be decisive in Colombia. All of the surveys give the victory to Gustavo Petro, of the Colombia Humana party and presidential candidate for the leftist coalition Pacto Histórico. Yurany Cuellar acknowledges that the outlook is good and the activist hopes Petro can win in the first round of the elections. “We have faith that these elections can change things, but we are also realistic and we know that we need many years for the transformation of the territories to be total. In this country, the inequalities are immense”.
What is the peasant and popular feminism for which you are betting?
It is a feminism that we women build from the grassroots up. An inclusive feminism, so that men and women understand that we have to look at each other with respect, that there is a historical debt to women and that we have to compensate for everything that the State and society have done to women. Peasant feminism is a form of struggle that demands knowledge of women’s contributions to the economic, social and political development of our territories. It connects with the peasant identity, as a force of unity for the defense of land, territory, food sovereignty and native seeds. Defense of equality and equity, which must allow us to see ourselves as equals in all areas of society. It involves strengthening political organization and women’s empowerment, with the development of political training schools with a focus on gender and women’s human rights. And finally, it promotes sisterhood and complicity, which make us grow from our differences.
What do you expect from the next Colombian government in terms of gender?
We continue to call for Colombian government policies to help mitigate violence against women. Although there are many laws that protect us, they are a dead letter because they are not enforced.
Precisely, one of the objectives with which the Coordinadora de Mujeres Campesinas del Nororiente Colombiano (CMCNC) was created was to to make visible the contributions of women in their communities. What would you highlight?
First of all, the creation of meeting spaces for women to talk and discuss the needs and situation of rural and peasant women. Next, the definition of a programmatic agenda for advocacy at the local, national and international levels. And finally, the training of peasant women leaders as an opportunity for women to be politically trained to defend their fundamental rights.
The CMCNC was launched with the slogan “With women at home, land reform is overdue”.
This is a slogan that we have been working with since we began to form a national space of peasant women in the territories of Peasant Reserve Zones. The slogan was born around 2015, to break with the macho culture that understands that women were born only to be at home. It aims to encourage and promote women to be more present in public spaces, where they can defend their rights. As peasant women, we will not defend comprehensive agrarian reform from home, nor will we fight against a government that only seeks to do away with the peasantry.
What obstacles do rural women face to effective political participation?
They are diverse. In the first place, we have the reduced access of rural women to education and the formalization and ownership of land. Secondly, there is the low political participation of rural women in decision-making spaces. Third, there is a lack of sexual and reproductive health programs for rural women, as well as comprehensive care services.
How do you work, from the ACVC Women’s Coordinating Committee and the CMCNC, to promote the eradication of male violence?
We do not have a recipe. We have been working on a training process with the peasant communities, with the women and men of the territory. This process has allowed us to understand that it is necessary to strengthen the spaces for rural women and that women must be present in political decision-making spaces. We have developed many actions to raise awareness on gender issues and, as a strategy, we have understood that we need a dialogue with men. At the beginning we could not reach any agreement, because we always clashed and nothing was solved. We saw the need to meet.
What is the strength of these exchanges?
These projects allow us to influence communities and work in the defense of territories, human rights and women. Our mission is to strengthen organizational spaces and scenarios to create a sea of political context in which change is possible. These spaces have allowed us to generate other spaces of encounter; spaces of exchange in which each community makes known the realities of its territory. We are enriched by each other’s experiences and learn from them, while generating joint actions.
The CMCNC also works with former guerrillas in the process of reincorporation.
In our agenda, working for peace is fundamental. For this reason, we accompany the reincorporation process and guarantee the participation of women in all training and visibility spaces. Within the structure of the Coordinadora, there is a space for the reincorporation delegate, who has a voice and vote in decision-making.
How have you experienced the crisis caused by Covid-19 in the communities?
During these two years of the pandemic, we have adapted to the moment and the dynamics. The situation has exacerbated the health issue, but vaccination has helped us to reduce the impact of the virus. We have promoted the organization, self-protection, individual and collective cures and everything has become a learning experience for future similar situations. We had never experienced something so complicated: we knew about epidemics in other times, but we had not experienced it like this one. It has been an organizational learning experience.
On May 29, Colombia will experience a decisive election day. All polls give the victory to Gustavo Petro. Do you have faith in a new government that will change the course of the country?
We are currently experiencing important moments in Colombia that we cannot afford to miss. The current context can lead us to a transition towards a life with more guarantees. For too many years now we have been suffering the effects of extreme right-wing governments that only govern for the country’s elites and businessmen. In this country, there have never been government alternatives, so we are now facing a unique opportunity. However, it will not be easy, because these people do not want to leave power. That is why there is still fear, trepidation and uncertainty; and I must confess that the silence of the far right worries us.
What would you ask of the new government?
To work on the fulfillment of the agreements. We cannot continue to live in a country in which war comes before health, education, community welfare or decent housing, among others. So far, the Colombian State has not complied with what was agreed and this has been evidenced by the death of comrades, imprisonment, lack of opportunities, difficulties for free development and threats. The communities will continue to work, but we need political will. In this new context, respecting the Peace Agreement is fundamental; it is a State policy that must be complied with. In addition, the necessary conditions must be established so that it can be implemented adequately and with guarantees. It is a tool for the defense and promotion of peace processes in Colombia. For us, it continues to be our flagship.
How are these upcoming elections being experienced in the communities?
As a peasant organization, we work so that the communities understand the importance of the electoral exercise, but we also find people tired of so many lies and promises that have not been fulfilled. There are many communities that are afraid of change.
Last February, they issued a National Humanitarian Declaration.
We called for the urgent application of the Minimum Humanitarian Agreements in order to be able to carry out the March 13 elections normally. We request the armed actors to stop hostilities to guarantee the correct development of the day. However, we encountered several human rights violations, clashes between the army and the communities and unpleasant situations.