Micro-Resistances: An interview with Samanta Arango Orozco
Marwa Arsanios: Samanta, could you introduce yourself and Grupo Semillas (Seed Group), the organization you work with in Colombia?
Samanta Arango: My name is Samanta Arango and I’m part of Grupo Semillas in Colombia. Grupo Semillas is an organization that has supported Indigenous and peasant organizations for the last twenty years in a range of territorial advocacy processes, specifically relating to the defense of native seeds and community-owned forms of production. We are currently working in two regions of the country: in the northern part of the Cauca with Afro-descendant communities, and in the south of Tolima with Indigenous and peasant communities. We provide technical and political support to these communities, including through traditional education, economic solidarity, strategies for territorial defense, and community support, where we focus specifically on women’s autonomy.
MA: Can you talk a little bit about the most urgent struggles in the territory?
SA: We are in a very complex and diverse country, with much wealth in terms of the commons and natural resources. One of the biggest problems is, therefore, the fight for the right to the land. Historically, the government and the private sector have dispossessed the inhabitants of the countryside and attempted to take over the land. In order to appropriate the land, they have used all sorts of methods, from institutional methods (such as public policies) to direct violence against communities. So, although historically in Colombia there has been a single recognized conflict between the guerrillas and the state, what we have seen is in fact an ongoing war against the communities that inhabit and protect the territory. While it’s true that there are some illegal armed groups that have generated huge problems here, there is a bigger systemic problem in the way the central government has stripped the periphery through violence – not only physical, but also economic and structural violence.
There are very particular ecosystems in territories such as the south of Tolima. We have a desert next door, which makes the ecosystem especially fragile, meaning that any intervention is felt very strongly. And although it’s true there is a process of natural desertification, it’s also true that external actions have accelerated this process. It is the local communities that are most strongly affected by these drastic changes. This is on top of the whole problem of the struggle for land and against its intensive exploitation by economic projects that see the territory as a form of profit, and not as a place inhabited by people and animals and plants. There are many conflicts due to differing economic interests, and this has led the communities currently living here to defend and protect it. Finally, of course, this is a territory that has historically been affected by the Colombian conflict. There has been a constant presence of armed actors – paramilitary and guerrilla groups, as well as militaries and legal armed groups – that have caused a number of very complex situations and overwhelming pain for the local communities. These communities have always been trapped at the crossroads, in the middle of all these interests, including the economic interests of large corporations.
Under these complex circumstances, there is an alternative panorama that gives us hope as an organization, which is the political project that the communities have developed to protect and defend a dignified life in the territory – because it’s not simply about staying here, but about staying and living decently. In this complex situation, full of violence, they have set the goal of continuing to implement their traditional knowledge and their own forms of economy and agriculture. These knowledges and forms of economy are, let’s say, much more integral: you can’t think about the economy and culture as two separate things. On the contrary, these communities’ strategies involve more comprehensive economic models, which themselves entail ways to inhabit the territory without affecting it intensely and in ways that protect it and allow dignified ways of living in it.
Due to the historical conflict, women are the ones who have faced a lot of these problems. When men in their families were killed in the conflict or went to war, women remained, guarding and keeping the territory. They did this in part through the protection of creole and native seeds. The purpose of these seeds is not only to be sown and to produce food for us – it goes much further than this. These seeds can also help to stop the process of desertification; they are the memory of their ancestors, representing the adaptation to drastic changes in the territory. Communities have even developed seeds that have the ability to adapt to the drought. The protection and development of these seeds might be seen as something simple, but it’s revolutionary – especially in this context, where there are conflicts over water and an environmental crisis. So rural women are not only feeding their families, but allowing humanity to have a future in this land. They also represent a long-term achievement in tackling climate change.
Taking care of the seeds requires a lot of courage and strength: although most armed groups don’t see these seed projects as a direct threat, this is only because they don’t understand them (and this is a good thing). Yet the protection of seeds is a form of indirect resistance against these groups, because by protecting the seeds you are protecting the territory. It is a way to say to the community: “We will not leave our territory. Here we have the food, here we have the nourishment, here we can continue living, here’s how to protect the water through the seed process.” So, for me, it’s poetic and very magical to see the power that emanates from these small places that are normally inhabited and defended by women. These initiatives serve as inspiration for rethinking the economic and social dimensions of life more generally, in a way that departs from voracious and destructive economic models. I think that what we can call “home economics” applied in a wider context provides an alternative, comprehensive model for how we can organize economic life. Such economic alternatives tend to be despised because they don’t generate large amounts of money. But they enable sustainability over time, prevent irreversible effects on the environment, and create a more balanced relationship with the territory.
MA: There is political and economic violence, and also systematic gender-based violence in the territory. Mercy Vera (a seed guardian from the South of Tolima and part of Grupo Semillas’ network) once said that protecting seeds can be a risky business as it is a threat to big corporations. It got me thinking about the power of seeds, about how such a small thing can help us resist these forms of systematic violence. How can we resist through a thing as small as a seed?
SA: I heard a phrase here once: “The first territory in conflict is a hungry stomach; if there’s no food there’s no way to keep resisting.” Once others control the food, there’s nothing left to do. When communities depend on supermarkets or on the mass food system, it’s very difficult to generate a strong enough organizational process to resist this system. If they have autonomy with their seeds and their food, however, it’s easier to develop other types of economies that allow them to be independent and prevent them from having to put up with violent situations. If the community has autonomy in its food, in its seeds, they also have more strength to resist government projects that want to strip them from their territory. So, it’s about seeing how in a territory where there’s a water problem, where there’s an armed conflict, and where there are the interests of very powerful groups and social actors, women manage to feed their communities. And it’s understanding the feeding process as a more integral process of feeding a community and maintaining the territory. This means saying no to dispossession, saying: “No, we have a political project, we do not depend on you.” Of course it’s much more complex than this; it’s not as if everything works because they have food and they’re going to be able to change the conditions under which they live right away. But it’s certainly a start, and it opens the door for these women to make decisions about their bodies, their territory, their communities, and their organizations.
It should also be noted that the issue of saving and protecting the seeds is not isolated but involves an organizational process, because there’s no point in me having seeds if my neighbor doesn’t have seeds. This has led to very strong forms of organization in which people have joined together, exchanged knowledge, and said, “We have to unite.” So it has implications for the social relations in the area, prompting people to begin to recover relations that have been destroyed by violence. For example, we work mostly here in the southern plains of Tolima, Natagaima, and Coyaima, but last year we also started to work with organizations in the mountains, where the majority are peasant organizations (campesinos, although there are also Indigenous communities there). While there is an intense conflict over water here in the southern plains, in the mountains they have a very strong conflict over food sovereignty, because coffee monoculture came in and wiped out everything. Through this whole process, communities of the mountains and the plains have begun to meet again. We’ve seen that, again, women have been the ones who have generated friendly relationships; they’ve started exchanging seeds and taking seeds to the women in the mountains so that communities there, too, can begin these processes of autonomy. We start to see how apparently simple actions have begun to reconnect territories that had been separated by conflict.
Finally, in these initiatives, women have been using their own knowledge to strengthen other women’s processes. The purpose of the seed guardians is not to establish a relationship of ownership or institutionalization – it is not about creating a seed bank. For us, rather, the way to care for and preserve the seeds is by planting and growing them.
MA: Could you talk a little bit more about this practice, which rejects preservation in an accumulative sense?
SA: Politically we believe that seeds should be free, because seeds should be understood as a common good and not as someone’s property. This implies that there has to be a community that protects that common good, but that also benefits from it. To privatize seeds is to privatize life itself. When something is privatized it means that there is an owner and if there is an owner, there is corporate control and management, which does not allow the community to benefit from that common good. Usually the existing seed conservation projects (which I would rather call seed control projects) do it through banks, where they accumulate a quantity of seeds. They do this not to ensure food sovereignty but to control how those seeds are used, and to generate economic benefits from them. On the other hand, for the communities we work with, defending seeds is a long-standing historical process. They understand that the seed has to be planted, and that in economic terms this is the best way to preserve it. If one keeps the seed in a drawer or wherever, it is not the same type of conservation process, and neither adaptation nor improvement processes can be generated. When I say “improvement,” I mean the kinds of improvement that emerge from community and collective practice, not improvement as institutions have understood it, with regard to transgenic or certified seeds.
These communities concluded that the seeds are better off “walking” – and walking means that they need to be planted and produced rather than stored. If seeds are stored they won’t accomplish their main function, and accumulation practices will emerge. Such accumulation practices are, politically, what is being fought against, because the same accumulation is what has led us to have these problems of land, water, and so on. The accumulation of something results in another group not having it, or not having access to it. So, from a non-accumulation perspective, to be constantly sowing the seeds is the best way to preserve them. The seed, as a common good, should be reproducing itself; it should be immersed in a dynamic where it generates benefits collectively, to all people and not just to certain sectors.
MA: Could you explain what is happening with the fish farms?
SA: The south of Tolima is a dry territory with limited water resources and very strong economic pressures surrounding them. Within these pressures are the monocultures, which are extensive and access the water illegally, because there’s a huge problem with the governance of the South Tolima irrigation district. But we have another huge problem, which is the fish farming pools that have been developed both intensively and extensively. Firstly, these fish farms have been implanted on the territory without authorization – they have no environmental license. Secondly, their water usage is leading to significant resource degradation. This is all for the benefit of a few international corporations and on the back of many vulnerable people here in the territory. Since there’s so much unemployment and so few job opportunities or other alternatives to stay in the territory, these companies have taken advantage of their situation and hired people to work under conditions that I would almost compare to modern-day slavery. They pay very little for work that is extremely hard, both physically and psychologically, in a territory where average temperatures are around 30°C and can reach 38–40°C. These fish farms have also led to a political reconfiguration and militarization of the territory through private security. The fish farms’ private security are armed men with no identification, without uniforms. Indeed, you could say that they are paramilitary groups, because there is no clear organizational structure behind them, and because they know the business they are carrying out has a lot to hide.
The fish farms are very intensive productive systems that generate soil degradation, the degradation of water sources, as well as the degradation of communities. However, the latter is a very complex and risky issue to discuss, because you don’t even know who the people behind these businesses are. Their identity is not clear, but the power they have is: they demonstrate this through their weapons, through the magnitude of their projects, and through the way they come into the territory without asking – and simply install their business. They hoard water to raise fish that are not even destined for the local market, but for export. They come, destroy the waters, the territories, and the communities, and take everything away. All they leave behind is misery, trouble, and deepening inequalities. These fish farms were initially proposed as an economic opportunity, to generate employment. And employment is indeed being generated, but for jobs lacking in decent working conditions which simply exploit people, strip the territories, their resources, and their commons, and deprive communities of their dignity. It makes me nervous to go deeper as these are subjects that are very delicate to talk about. It’s a very sensitive issue.
MA: How is the bank system involved in the systemic violence? And is there an autonomous economic system being built?
SA: Within all these conflicts, there’s the issue of bank debt and of the “drop by drop.” The “drop by drop” are, in Colombia, illegal organizations that lend money at very high, unpayable interest rates, and then when loans can’t be paid people end up losing their homes, their businesses, their farms, and so on. People are constantly being stalked, pressured, and intimidated by armed groups that make up these moneylender mafias. Many Indigenous farmers have lost their land because of debts with banks or these criminal organizations. To deal with this problem, communities began to look for alternatives so as not to have to resort to banks or the “drop by drop,” but also to allow the economy to be rethought from a more collective and supportive perspective, rather than in an individualist way. In response to this, we started working with the rotary savings and fund groups, and the self-managed savings and credit groups, which have enabled social organizations to plan with their economic resources in a much more sustainable and collective way, and in a way that will benefit their own productive systems. It’s been a very important experience here in Natagaima and in Coyaima, and one which has been replicated in other parts of the country. Mincho and Nubia, who are the leaders of this initiative, have already been in other parts of the country to advise organizations on how to form self-managed savings and credit groups, and also rotating funds with the political perspective of strengthening their own production systems. This has generated a revolution, at least here in Natagaima.
The banks and the “drop by drop” take advantage of the fact that in many communities oppressed by this economic system, we don’t know how to plan our finances in a way that will allow us a sustainable and dignified life. The economic methodologies people have developed in response to this have allowed us not only to have a broader and more comprehensive perspective on the economy, but also to strengthen organizational processes, allowing people to have autonomy over their money and over what they produce in a sustainable way. This has brought many benefits for communities that have been able to move their productive projects forward, and also for women heads of households who can avoid ending up in huge debt and losing their home. Having economic autonomy gives these women the independence necessary to get out of many violent situations. Women involved in the initiative have the opportunity to participate in the public sphere and to make decisions about the economy, an aspect of society that has been usually dominated by men. These solidarity economy strategies started out as small initiatives like the seed projects, but have been reproducing themselves in a very accelerated way. Today they are having a significant impact on how communities see themselves, and how they plan for a future in which they do not have to depend on these money-lending institutions, both legal and illegal. Because even though banks may be legal, they end up having the same repercussions and effects as the illegal ones, with the aggravating circumstance that the banks are protected by the law.