Part two of the interview with Yenly Méndez, a human rights defender who works with the Peasant Farmers’ Association of the Cimitarra River Valley (ACVC) / Read part one of the interview
PBI: How many ZRC exist in Colombia?
YENLY: At this moment there are six recognised by the Colombian state. These zones were recognized between 1996 and 2002. The Peasant Farmer Reserve Zone of the Cimitarra River Valley was the last one to be recognised.
As a result of negotiation and an agreement made in 2010, between different Peasant Farmer Organizations, the Colombian state, the Ministry of Agriculture and INCODER, (the land authority in the country), the initiation of the process of constituting new ZRCs was acknowledged on behalf of the government.
A special case is that of the ZRC in Catatumbo, which has already fulfilled all the legal requirements, but without major arguments given by the government has been denied legal recognition.
Apart from these zones, there are seven processes that have already been started then subsequently been suspended. This is because since 2013 the government has vetoed the ZRC, ignoring the fact that it is a legal obligation that they have to fulfil.
PBI: What do the Peasant Farmer Reserve Zone mean for the protection of the environment?
YENLY: The Peasant Farmer Reserve Zone, by law, should have a Sustainable Development Plan that is constructed through a participative process between the communities and local government. The Sustainable Development Plan, from a sustainable perspective focuses on the environmental conservation that exists in these zones.
One of the characteristic features is the productive practices and the lifestyles that are developed with the intention of conserving natural resources.
One precise example is the auto-regulation that we have done in our ZRC in the Cimitarra River Valley, in that for almost two decades the communities have autonomously marked out a geographical area that is known as a yellow border, this is to say, an imaginary limit that the communities have come to an understanding and agreement about, and voluntarily respected without any state mediation of any sort. Autonomously the peasant farmers defined that in this area there shall be no agricultural activities, whether it be hunting, logging, or taking advantage of water resources.
The environmental importance and ecological value of this peasant farmer auto-regulation process has been so significant that the National Parks body has recognized this area as protected.
PBI: What are the advantages of the Peasant Farmer Reserve Zone for agricultural production?
YENLY: The ZRC has the objective to strengthen the peasant farmer economy, this is very important because in the last decades Colombia has not had a public policy that protects the peasant farmer economy.
The rural development model has in the last century always been focused towards economic progress and towards a model of rural agro-industrial development. This has ignored the peasant farmer economy, as the majority of the rural population is indigenous, afro-Colombian or peasant farmers and they are not affiliated with agro-industrial production, instead they use traditional production methods within a small-scale economy.
These production methods have many social, environmental and economic benefits of great importance. In the environmental context, small scale productive practices, without extensive use of land, without use of agro-chemicals, without extensive use of water resources are more sustainable in contrast to a agro-industrial model that uses extensive amounts of water and land. Therefore the peasant farmer economy has an important impact in the protection of ecosystems.
It is important that rural agrarian communities remain in these territories fulfilling this important ecological function. The peasant farmer economy generates regional market flows, which create an important catalyst for local markets. This has many economic, social and political effects.
However there still does not exist a public policy for peasant farmers, while studies have shown that between 70 and 80 percent of the food products in big cities in Colombia are produced by the peasant farmer economy.
Public policy has sought to corral the peasant farmer and convert him/her into a worker of the city or give him a salary working for a big agro-business project, in practice this means that they want to finish with the peasant farmer.
PBI: Why is there so much resistance on behalf of the government to recognising these new zones?
YENLY: I can identify two reasons. On one side, this is a country that has grown, it has developed and it has based itself on a model of land concentration. And the Peasant Farmer Reserve Zones have the vocation to attack, although only slightly, this concentration of land, in fact the legal framework mentions this.
This is a loss making society where the ones with power are scared of the citizens. And the ZRC represents this, a space of political recognition.
On the other side, a disastrous public image has been created of the peasant farmers, indigenous people and the afro-descendants. This is because; besides the bloody armed conflict they have remained in rural areas where they have had to live with guerrilla forces, well the guerrillas live off the rural population no?
The general public also believes that the Peasant Farmer Reserve Zones are concession zones for the guerrillas, when actually what the communities are demanding is the opposite: presence and investment on behalf of the state and recognition on behalf of the state and civil society.
PBI: Yenly, thank you very much, you have explained a lot about your work, about the Peasant Farmer Reserve Zones and about the work of the ACVC. We hope that we keep accompanying you doing all this interesting work.
YENLY: Thank you very much, it has been a pleasure to share these reflections and it’s the moment to give thanks to PBI who have always been there at the ACVC’s side. The accompaniment of PBI has had an enormous significance in the survival of the struggles that we are developing.