By Tigrane Yegavian
Colombian activist Ruby Castaño has been known as one of the main figures of SINTAGRIM (Independent Agricultural Workers Union of Meta), a collective of agricultural workers fighting for their right to dignity. She defends the peasants of her native region of Meta tirelessly, putting her own life at risk. Her colleagues from SINTAGRIM have been the targets of assassination attempts for years, and Ruby is also regularly threatened by the paramilitaries. Today, she continues her struggle as head of a new association, ASOCATDAME (Meta Association for Peasants, Rural Workers and Defenders of the Environment), which fights alongside the local communities for access to land.
Ruby Castaño is a woman of courage and conviction that is rooted deeply in her family history. Her story is closely intertwined with that of the peasants of her country who are fighting for their right to a life of dignity. Working in remote areas, Ruby Castaño is difficult to reach, but once you hear her voice, it stays with you. She talks about her fight from the town of Villavicencio in the region of Mata, 124 kilometers from the Colombian capital, Bogota. Several times a month, Ruby goes there to take a breath before returning to her work, supporting the peasants and indigenous people who are threatened and persecuted for their activism in their communities, facilitating post-conflict resolution in rural areas, and defending women who found themselves alone, with no resources to feed their children.
With the dream beaches of the Caribbean Sea to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the northwest, Ruby Castaño’s native Colombia is a country very rich in natural resources, including the Amazon rainforest and the highlands of the Andes mountain range. It is also a country deeply marked by violence. Between 1948 and 1957, Colombia was ravaged by a civil war called “La Violencia” (“The Violence”). 300,000 people were killed during that time.
Today, Colombians continue to suffer from deep inequalities and outbursts of armed conflict between the regular army, Marxist guerrillas, and extreme right-wing paramilitary groups who defend the large landowners. The context of generalized violence that has plagued the country for seventy years has resulted in significant levels of crime. In the countryside, the number of assassinations of peasants, members of indigenous communities, and political activists is steadily increasing.
Ruby Castaño has been an activist since she was a 17-year-old peasant girl, supporting the Independent Agricultural Workers Union of the Meta. A union with a long and tragic history, it was established over a vast territory in the region of Meta whose agricultural lands belong to large landowners, often acting like oppressors of the landless peasants. Ruby Castaño’s parents were victims of this system, too. “I was born in a land where there was nothing, hardly any effort or will of the peasants to fight for their rights, for access to land and for the production that would allow them food self-sufficiency,” she explains.
As a child, she remembers her parents campaigning in the 1970s for this union, which redistributed land to peasants in equal plots. With the help of the Catholic Church, the same union had opened schools for the peasant children like Ruby: “The values that we were taught at school were respect for the land and the environment, but also the knowledge of the rights of peasants.”
Naturally, she supported the union and was eventually elected as its regional Vice President, later becoming its Secretary General. After receiving death threats on numerous occasions and surviving several assassination attempts, she was forced to resign and to go into exile in Spain in 2006. But now she is back and leading a new association.
Ruby Castaño encouraged the creation of ASOCATDAME for the sake of landless peasants, promoting further unity. She is also a mother, committed to the defense of women and their rights. “The Colombian government may have signed a peace agreement with the FARC guerrillas in 2016, but the situation has hardly improved on the ground,” she laments, adding that the number of killings of local leaders has increased. Ruby’s fight to ensure that the people may live with dignity on their land has transformed into a fight for human rights or, quite simply, a right to life.
“The government has not kept its commitments to the peasants," says Ruby. In fact, the post-conflict period saw violence resurface and intensify. Added to this is the lack of political will on the part of the government to cure the ills that breed violence. Poverty remains endemic and inequalities have never been so deep between the large landowners and the millions of peasants threatened in their existence. “Colombia is a country rich in its biodiversity and its fertile lands, and we cultivate monocultures for the food industry to the detriment of the peasants. In doing so, it is both the farmers and the environment that are threatened,” notes the activist.
Despite the grueling combination of an unmanageable amount of work and the life-threatening risks it brings her, Ruby Castaño has no intention of giving up. She simply doesn’t know how. “There are many who have died in this fight. I also fight for them and I hope I don't end up like them. It is about principles in one’s life. By not giving up fighting, by not feeling defeated, it is also a fight for our dignity. For a different country.”
Top photo: @ Tanja Wol Sørensen