The dignity of campesina women

It is around eight in the evening when you start to feel hungry. You wander into the kitchen, open the fridge and take out a tomato, you wash it and cut it in half and… you notice that one part of it is a bit soft, so you squeeze it a little and the juice squirts out and hits you in the eye –the tomato’s revenge. You think it smells a bit off, so you take another look just to make sure and then you quickly reject it, throwing it into the bin without further thought. Tomorrow it will be collected by the bin men who call by your house early every Thursday morning to take the bag of organic waste to some landfill site or other –maybe the one called Doña Juanita[1]– on the outskirts of Bogotá, where the pungent aroma of the rubbish doesn’t bother anyone. And so the squidgy tomato half will become food for the birds, worms and dogs or maybe it will just decompose, marking the end of a long and somewhat unknown production chain that starts in the countryside and ends in the city. But how did this tomato get here, what is its reverse journey from the city to the countryside where its life began?

Let’s press rewind: you bought that tomato from the supermarket nearest to your house. The night before, it made a twelve-hour road journey in a fruit and vegetable lorry from somewhere in the Sur de Bolívar region, together with lots of other tomatoes, and who knows, maybe lots of other vegetables. The previous day Manuela, a dark-skinned, weather-beaten woman, collected the produce, these crops that she has been growing with her husband for more than 18 years. On that day, the day that Manuela and her husband harvested the tomato that you decided to eat two evenings later, the half that was too soft and that you threw into the bin was fresh as a daisy.

Sometimes, when I open the fridge, I think about the journey that food makes from the countryside to the city and I imagine the detailed story told in the documentary Ilha das Flores.[2] I wonder whose hands picked this fruit or that vegetable and how many kilometres it travelled to get to me. It is always women’s hands that come to mind, hands like the hands of Manuela, Diana, Carmen, Flora and Sabina. Campesina (small-scale farmer) Women I have met at one time or another in different areas of Colombia. All rural areas. All agricultural.

Nonam, Santa Rosa de Guayacán 2013
“Women human rights defenders are often at the forefront of human rights battles, partly because they are directly affected by human rights violations and because they challenge companies’ power and deeply rooted patriarchy.” United Nations Special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst, 2017. Photo: Bianca Bauer

And I think about these campesina women from my perspective as an urban woman trying to establish some kind of feminist, practical relationship with these women farmers at this moment in history, so that we can understand each other from our different perspectives in the knowledge that, deep down, we are not so different after all. Many women say that “Life in the countryside is difficult.” Not because of the daily grind of working with the land, but rather because although we city-dwellers romanticise the countryside (with its clean air, nature, freedom, silence, contact with the earth, freshly picked produce from the vegetable patch…) the reality for small-scale farmers is full of difficulties, violations and discriminations, all of them silenced but ever so clear. And the psychological, physical and economic violence suffered by campesina women, for the simple fact of being rural women, is made worse due to discrimination in access to land and productive resources, as well as in decision-making, as highlighted in the Declaration on the Rights of Small-Scale Farmers.[3]

In Colombia, the Peace Agreement[4] signed between the Government and the FARC- an agreement that involves all citizens, not only those who signed it – reflects many of the current challenges to implementing what is known as the gender and differential approach. “The agreement managed to shift that way of seeing and explaining the world, by recognising gender, difference and territory and by placing a focus on the human rights of the victims,” explains Girlandrey Sandoval, a feminist activist who is part of the Colombian women’s social movement. She knows that these victims are for the most part female, and she makes it clear that this progress could not have been achieved without the efforts of the women’s movement that has been striving for peace in Colombia for many years.

One of the serious problems that rural women have been protesting about for a long time is the lack of ownership or titles they have over the land on which they tirelessly work. Historically, it has been men who have had the right to be land owners, to own and decide how to manage plots of land, even though land titles are scarce in Colombia for small-scale farmers and most of the land is controlled by big landowners.

However, let’s get back to the differences between men and women, and to the countryside in particular where gender inequality is so evident. “Women do not own the land, they do not inherit it, they do not have land titles, they do not make decisions about what is sown and where, or what is done with rural property. Today there are many women who are presidents of Community Action Boards (Juntas de Acción Comunal – JACS) and have broadened their horizons out towards community organisation, but even so there is no awareness of sexual difference, something basic in almost every consciousness-raising process”, Sandoval explains with some indignation.

Maybe that is why the Peace Agreement offers some hope for those who have never seen their name on a land title, because its first point, entitled Towards a New Colombian Countryside: Comprehensive Rural Reform, addresses the promise of free land re-distribution, as well as the formalisation of land occupied or owned by the rural population in Colombia.

“Campesina women have taken initiative in the struggle for land, territory, and respect for natural resources…everything that has to do with the conservation of our environment”. Photo: Bianca Bauer

Nevertheless, “the lack of compliance with what is set out in the agreement in the year since it started to be implemented has led to more concern than joy for small-scale farmers”. Carmenza Gómez, President of the National Association of Small-Farming Reserve Areas (Asociación Nacional de Zonas de Reserva Campesina – Anzorc), says in Bogotá about the frustrated hopes that are flooding in from the most peripheral areas. Fortunately, in these places, where the State almost never complies with its obligations, the small-scale farmers have become accustomed to taking charge of their own development and well-being. That is why women´s organisations in rural territories have been working on a consolidated political position. They are the ones who have stopped extractive and agrofuel projects, large-scale road projects, mining, intensive farming and agro-forestry that “only bring us problems”, Carmenza sighs, because of the pollution they bring with them, the social dynamics that they create in communities and the breakdown of the social fabric that they cause. “Campesina women have taken initiative in the struggle for land, territory, and respect for natural resources…everything that has to do with the conservation of our environment”, explains the farmer from the Valle del Cauca region, emphasising the women’s feminist struggle that she has been leading for years.

The recovery of traditional seeds is another of the activities that rural women should be recognised for. They work to preserve traditional customs, not only in relation to the food they have always cultivated, but also agricultural, social and cultural activities. Under the model of capitalist and free market development, small-farming ancestral knowledge has been lost, either because cities have become attractive magnets encouraging rural peoples leaving the countryside or because traditional productive and harvesting processes have been absorbed by capitalist processes, leading to other much more industrialized, highly-processed and at times artificial procedures, that have turned food into mere merchandise, which has paradoxically caused more hunger in the world.

In addition to the loss of these practices, we must recognise that the ancestral knowledge of small-scale farmers has been made invisible, as if those who work the land do not have a due right to a healthy environment, as the indigenous and Afro-descendent communities put it. The activities carried out by rural women could ensure food sovereignty, although it appears to be difficult for us to think of these women as active protagonists in the rescue and conservation of seeds. “Why else are women not represented in decision-making processes in their families, communities and organisations?” Sandoval asks, describing the way in which women contribute to and sustain rural life, yet do not hold any power or authority, as there are still many inequalities between women and men who work the land and maintain special, direct links with nature.

Women coca leaf growers

I still remember the journey that Diana Morales has to make every time she wants to go down to Florencia (Caquetá) from her farm in the mountains. There, high up, far from the goings on below, she farms some 500 hectares, a fifth of which is sown with plantain, yucca and coca leaf. She has been working this land for many years now. Her children, three young men who take up to three hours to get to school, have never known another way of life. This has been the only produce that has allowed them to make a living “because we have no other choice”, she told me with justification two Novembers ago. The remoteness of their land has prevented them from producing and marketing other crops due to the difficulties of travelling the few miles on horseback to reach La Unión Tejada and from there taking a bus, if they manage to work out the timetable for when it passes through on its way to the city.

Just the other day I remembered Diana and her journey every time she needs to go to the doctor, or buy what she can’t get in the countryside, or attend meetings of the Regional Women’s Commission, of which she is a member. I remembered how she and all the Dianas in Colombia have achieved legal recognition under point four of the Peace Agreement: Solution to the problem of illicit drugs. This point recognises the role of rural women who are part of the chain of coca leaf collection and production. It also recognises that this activity is carried out as a result of the lack of implementation of state plans for the voluntary, comprehensive and concerted substitution of crops for illicit use. In addition, the people who farm coca leaf in Colombia defend the ritual, ancestral, medicinal and industrial uses of this plant, the alternative marijuana and poppy industry, and the need for drug addiction and consumption to be considered a public health issue.[5]

As a result of all their peace building work, women coca growers have become more visible, but the question now is whether they will achieve total respect as small-scale farmers. If the peace agreements are not totally fulfilled, as many experts are predicting and as shown by the aggressive eradication activities that are taking place in some parts of Colombia which have even led to murder,[6] violence against these women may increase, including physical, sexual, economic and social violence. Carmenza says that there is an easy way to prevent this situation from occurring: “there must be guarantees for coca substitution processes. If the government does not comply, people won´t be able to change,” she laments with a grimace that shows her uncertainty about the future.

These women are the future

Despite the hope that the Peace Agreement has brought not only to campesina women but to society in general, with each new day a new pessimism is beginning to take over in different Colombian scenarios. There are many voices saying that the signing of the peace agreement has opened up the country to a more uncontrolled neo-liberal model that can already be seen in some of the most remote Colombian territories. That is why the struggle for land in Colombia, which caused the social and armed conflict in the 1950s, seems to have no end.

For Girlandrey it is all about establishing policies which can be used to make progress towards higher standards in gender equality, which means more social mobilisation, more scenarios for reconciliation and more peace culture. She also believes that “it is fundamental that people understand that a society that cares for its women and that grants relevance to the feminine in the world is a society undergoing transformation,” she explains, convinced of her arguments.

Girlandrey’s words remind me of the tomato and the soft part that was thrown into the bin with no afterthought for the journey it made from Manuela’s farm. And I think of the many Manuelas in Colombia and how it is still fundamental that we recognise these small-scale farmers both socially and politically, and not only because their plots of land and territories offer alternatives to the current development model, but because, and let’s not forget this, the people who reside and build life in the countryside play an essential role in urban stability in cities and are synonymous with the future and with dignity.

Silvia Arjona


[1] Doña Juana landfill site: Wikipedia
[2] Jorge Furtado: La Ilha de las Flores, 1989
[3] Vía Campesina: Declaración de los Derechos de las Campesinas y Campesinos, March 2009
[4] High Commissioner for Peace: Final Agreement to End Conflict and Build Stable and Lasting Peace, 24 November 2016
[5] Prensa Rural: Lanzamiento de la Coordinadora de Cultivadores de Coca, Amapola y Marihuana Coccam, 28 January 2017
[6] Tele Sur: Defensoría de Colombia señala a la Policía por masacre en Tumaco, 8 October 2017

*Cover photo: Caldwell Manners/ECAP

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