Thursday, 22 October 2009

The Caribbean Minga

The 'Minga de Resistencia Social y Comunitaria' (Gathering of Social and Community Resistance) which took place last week in three places in Colombia, builds on the indigenous minga last year when thousands of indigenous spent a month marching from their homelands to Bogota to demand land rights and social justice. They faced massive police repression during this mobilisation and at least one person was killed with dozens injured and arrested.

This year the minga was broadened to include other social movements and took place in the west converging on Cali, in the centre in Bogota, and in Cartagena on the Caribbean coast. Small farmers and artesanal miners from the south of the departments of Bolivar and Cesar, converged on the village of Gamarra on the Magdalena River on Monday 12th to hold their annual 'Festival of the River' event, a celebration of the region's culture with song and dance, as well as a commemoration of the violence the region has and continues to experience. This April a community leader who opposed new palm oil plantations was assassinated by paramilitaries.

After a communal lunch outside the home of a local, a caravan of coaches transported the delegation consisting mainly of farmers' and miners' families to Cartagena where we set up camp on the grounds of a recreational ground on the edge of the city. People quickly organised themselves into different teams to deal with the running of the camp like kitchen, toilets and cleaning. Hammocks were slung along the fences outside and mattresses laid in the sheltered central structure with sloping thatch roof and open sides.

The next day as regional musical and dance groups performed, the local police and authorities with media in tow showed up and organisers spent much of the next few days dealing with them. With spirits high the youthful gathering didn't let this sideshow disrupt the festivities and a constant beat was sustained for the rest of the day. Groups dressed in regional costume performed cumbia and vallenato folk music with an assortment of drums, accordion and guiro.

In the afternoon we were bussed to the beach with the excitement palpable as it was the first time many had seen the sea. After dip we returned to find out the mains water supply to the recreation ground had been cut off so no shower to wash off the salty residue from the seawater. For the rest of the week there was twice-daily provision from a water tanker.

The following day three groups visited different barrios of Cartagena for an exchange of experiences. Some from the rural south of the region were shocked to hear of the urban poverty of the barrios, having their illusions of the 'good life' in the city shattered. We heard about the experiences of some indigenous Senu who had been displaced from their land and settled on a small plot of land in the deprived Membrillal district on the edge of the city in 2002. Originally 140 families crammed into this area but many have since moved away in search of work elsewhere. Their sense of identity has been weakened much through this dispersion of the community. We heard the familiar story of extreme poverty - unemployment, hunger and poor provision of health and education. We walked past a school built by the humanitarian NGO Plan International, which attempts to plug the gaping holes of a state that neglects the needs of the majority. Meanwhile on the other side of town modern luxury hotels and office blocks have sprung up to cater for tourists and the business elite. Locals are still able to visit some of the nearby beaches, but even this is under threat with local authority plans to privatize these. Parallels were drawn with the seizure of land for palm oil plantations on the banks of the Magdalena in the south of Bolivar.

Prolonged showers on Wednesday night meant a disrupted night's sleep for all but didn't dampen enthusiasm during Thursday's festivities in the city centre. With a strong police presence folklore groups performed for several hours right on the edge of the Walled City and many locals and tourists stopped by to watch and take part in the dances in the 'Plaza de la Paz'. Amidst this festive atmosphere, banners were held and leaflets handed out to remind onlookers of the accompanying political message of the communities' determination to remain on their land and for justice for the violence unleashed on them.

The week culminated with a march from the edge of the centre into the Walled City, where the farmers and miners joined social movements from the coastal region including a group of indigenous Wayu, in a mobilization against hunger and poverty. Around 2,000 were closely escorted by police in a two-hour march with no respite from the intense heat and dust and with water sellers doing a roaring trade. Representatives from trade unions, the Polo Democratico left-wing party and student collectives all condemned the rising unemployment, lack of opportunities for the youth, expensive basic services, privatizations, official corruption and human rights violations. Many had drifted away, no doubt exhausted like me, as the march entered the Walled City in the fading light and ended in the Plaza de San Pedro Claver, the 16th century monk who ministered to slaves brought from Africa. We were treated to a lengthy mass with much praying, but the priest did praise the value of solidarity as well as songs by a local musical celebrity and there were some who still had the energy to boogie. The militant message of the march with its demands was perhaps lost in this final ceremony but the message had already been made repeatedly and very publicly earlier in the day.

With little contact between the city and its hinterland the week's activities managed to bring together and dispel mutual illusions. Due to media portrayals many in the city perceive the south of the region to be exclusively guerilla and paramilitary territory whilst those living a tough life on the land are often unaware of the extent of urban poverty. The common cultural heritage with many in the south having moved inland from the coast was highlighted through song and dance.

Throughout the week the authorities pressurised organisers and the police were a constant intimidating presence but they failed to deter the peaceful message of those who eke out a living from the land. Despite the challenges faced in the first 'Minga Caribe' mobilisation, the expansion of the annual Minga to include non-indigenous groups is a defiant stance of the social movements against a regime which has continuously tried to divide them and a crucial step in the strengthening of this network

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