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COVID-19 is not a pretext for violating the rights of Colombian farmers

May 4, 2020

Many farmers in Colombia have little choice but to grow coca.

Colombia’s farming communities have suffered decades of conflict between the army, paramilitaries and guerrilla groups, who dispute control of their territories, but the threats they face have intensified with the arrival of COVID-19.

Instead of protecting them from the pandemic, Colombian authorities are invading their territories to resume the forced eradication of coca crops, the primary ingredient used to make cocaine. This means exposing a population with little access to health care to infection, and taking away their only means of subsistence while they comply with isolation and social distancing orders. As if this were not grave enough, the authorities are also abandoning farming communities to the mercy of armed groups who have threatened to “shoot anyone suspected of having been infected by COVID-19”.

Despite several social organizations having requested the suspension of forced eradication during the pandemic, the authorities have carried out operations in seven provinces of the country since the government decreed obligatory preventive isolation on March 25. Local organizations have complained that the military were responsible for gunfire during the operations, and in one case even shot at coca farmers. These operations undermine the terms of the 2016 Peace Agreement, which states that the eradication of illicit crops should be voluntary.

The Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission has reported that the police and the army have carried out these operations without taking hygiene and health protocols to avoid COVID-19 infections into account. They are therefore violating the right to health of farming communities, which are often more vulnerable to the pandemic since in many cases they do not have nearby medical centers.

Jani Silva, legal representative of the Association for the Sustainable Integral Development of the Amazon Pearl in Putumayo, said in an interview with Amnesty International that the farming communities in the region asked the government “for the military to at least stay away from houses when they’re going to eradicate coca crops, but that hasn’t happened… the soldiers are approaching people’s houses, and they’re coming from elsewhere so they could be contagious and infect the locals.”

Amnesty International has visited several agricultural communities in the Amazon rainforests of Putumayo and the rugged mountains of Catatumbo in the past year. In these regions, where there is little state presence other than military deployments, the message from coca farmers is clear: they do it because they have no choice. Many say they do not want to grow illicit crops, but the historic lack of social and economic investment in their communities leaves them with no alternative.

“The government cannot decree social isolation without guaranteeing the fundamental rights of our communities to water, food and health, at the same time as threatening our food sovereignty by launching operations to forcibly eradicate coca crops,” said María Ciro, a member of the Social Integration Committee of Catatumbo.

Invading agricultural workers’ territories to eradicate coca in the midst of a pandemic can be tantamount to a death sentence. Farmers not only face losing their only source of income, but during the eradication they also risk of losing legal crops that they depend on so as not to starve to death during the pandemic.

“The government cannot decree social isolation without guaranteeing the fundamental rights of our communities to water, food and health,” says María Ciro.

Silva warns that “leaving families completely unprotected, with no means of defending themselves, when the government does not take responsibility for anything, would be catastrophic. People would be forced into displacement. What are they going to do without coca, without money and without food when they can’t go out to work? There would be a deadly famine during the pandemic.”

The farming communities of Catatumbo have peacefully protested to call on the government to halt the coca eradication operations, at least during the health emergency. But taking a stand in Colombia can cost you your life. On 26 March, the Catatumbo Farmworkers Association accused the army of the extrajudicial execution of Alejandro Carvajal, a 20-year-old who was participating in the protests against forced eradication. The situation in Putumayo is just as serious. On 19 March, armed men killed Marco Rivadeneira, a defender of the rights of farming communities, who had been promoting crop substitution in the region. In total, at least 14 people have been killed in Putumayo during the quarantine.

At 56, Silva is all too aware of the risks that agricultural workers face. She grew up on the edge of the Amazon, surrounded by crystal-clear waters, towering trees and wild animals, but had to move to the city of Puerto Asís after receiving threats link to her work defending local territories and the environment. Last month she was warned of a new plot to assassinate her.

“With this pandemic it’s become clear to us that the army does not guarantee the security of the farmers, and that it’s the armed groups who control these territories,” Silva said, referring to the paramilitaries, guerrillas and drug traffickers that operate in Putumayo. “With the threats and killings that have taken place in the region, we are afraid and in panic, not only about contracting the virus, but about being killed.”

In light of this terrifying situation, the Colombian government must immediately suspend coca crop eradication operations and take urgent measures to guarantee farming communities’ rights to life and health. The COVID-19 pandemic is not a pretext for violating anyone’s human rights.

This op-ed was co-written by Amnesty International campaigner Daniela Camacho and was originally published in Spanish by The Washington Post

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