Saturday, December 20, 2008

Chained inside an armoured vehicle

Involved with direct action in the UK I am use to seeing security guards as obstacles and potential problems. I spent yesterday with a group of secuirty guards who spend their lives tranporting large quantities amounts of money around in armoured vehicles, dangerous work in Colombia. If they transported people around, solidarity would be more complicated.

A year ago Eyder and Carlos decided to join Sintrabrinks, the national union that organises workers Brinks de Colombia, an affiliate of Brinks Ltd, a global security company. Eyder joined after he was repeatedly refused permission to attend a court case. If he didn’t attend he would be arrested, if he attended he would be sacked. Employees’ work 13 out of every 14 days and sometimes they are denied this day off. Their working day varies from 12 – 15hours. Family time is a fleeting glimpse of a child sleeping, a wife tired but waiting up. Life is lived inside an armoured vehicle.

This vehicle becomes their home. Constantly refused permission to leave the vehicle to go to the toilet, a plastic bag becomes their bathroom. There is no flush, ventilation or door between the other two colleagues. The smell of urine and dirty money fills the vehicle where they sometimes must eat their lunch. Trying to maintain some dignity, they avoid drinking fluids. Dehydration follows.

Brinks de Colombia has a policy of switching routes, driver, security and money handler every day to reduce surveillance and the likelihood of a robbery. When Carlos and Eyder affiliated to Sintrabrinks, they were put together every day for the next three months on the same route. The risk of a union is a greater threat than being robbed for the Multinational.

On the 22nd April 2007 they were attacked by a group of men. Eyder told me how Carlos reacted bravely, doing his job to protect the company’s money, and prevented the loss of any money. However he was shot in the neck and lost movement in his arms and his legs. He has since regained some movement in his arms but is completely paralysed from the waist down. He received $240 in compensation from the company.

More recently, three employees Uberle Pungo, Eduar Vivas and Robinson Tamayo were suddenly sacked. Pungo was thinking about affiliating. Vivas and Tamayo had both just affiliated to Sintrabrinks. They told me how they were offered $5000 each if they withdrew their affiliation. They refused.

Most of Brink’s employees are ex-soldiers. In the army unionist means communist which means guerilla, the enemy. In Brinks a little more than a year ago, union was a dirty forbidden word. When Carlos and Eyder unionised and began to talk with their colleague’s, people stopped sitting with them in the cafeteria and were unreceptive. Today´s protest shows views have shifted - in the small windows of every vehicle that came in and out of the compound, we received smiling faces and thumbs up. “They now recognise that what we are demanding is fair and just. The company only cares about its economic wellbeing while our wellbeing is ignored” Eyder tells me.

Last Saturday Eyder was given a letter, telling his that he was not to return to work due to his ‘emotional state’. They will continue to pay him. Eyder is clear that this is an illegal political act. They are trying to isolate him.

Brinks reported that between 2005 and 2007 “overseas revenue grew by 38%, due largely to rapid growth in Latin America … driven by increased demand, lower service costs and increased margins”

Brinks is not worried about losing Eyder´s labour in the short term. They are worried about his gentle but clear words which have the power and wisdom to effect their profit margins. Their long-term aim is apparent; destroy any union activity.

“I don’t join the union as I see how they persecute you”.

The small union branch know that the workers support them but there is much fear. Eyder describes to me what he has found through joining the union. Despite the incessant descrimination, he feels calm. The anger and frustration at the total control his job has over his life is now channeled in to his organising work. He confided in me, when alone, that even though they don’t talk about it he knows that both Brinks and the Government have links with ‘dangerous people’ and that what he and the others are doing is risky. Yet he feels happier than he has for many years. He is not keeping his head down. He is demanding respect and decent working conditions for him and his colleagues.

Living with dignity. Worth much more than the risks.


If you get bored of Christmas merrities and would like to send a letter to Brinks that would be very appreciated by the guys I met yesterday. They repeatedly thanked me for listening to them and offering to write about what I learnt.

For the moment they are fighting for the:
Reinstation of sacked workers and compensation for loss of earnings.
Respect for all employees’ rights to free association.

You can send emails to:

Please bcc in espaciobristol at in so we can pass news on to them.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Dignity of Women - a women's space

In August 2004 the Colombia army detained Raquel in Saravena, Arauca. In November 2006 she and Samuel were convicted of “rebellion”, a common strategy by the Colombian government against those who insist on contining to educate, organise and mobilise communities to defend their rights to life and territory against the big oil sponsored militrisation of their lands. Another response is to murder them. In the same 2004 military operation three trade unionists were shot at point blank range by the Colombian army.

In August 2007 she was released but is unable to live in Arauca. “They [the state] wouldn’t let me return. They would get rid of me again if I dared” she tells me. Yet last Tuesday we are on a bus together travelling to Saravena for the First Assembly of AMAR (Organisation ‘Awakening of Women in Arauca’) As the event unfolds I see what drives Raquel to return .
Raquel was an outspoken and active member of the Teachers Union of Arauca for the twenty years before her arrest. It is as a passionate educator that her contribution to this assembly is really important to the growth of this young organisation (just 2 years old – very young in Colombian terms).

She tells me that in the assembly there is a session for exchange of experiences and wants me to speak. I ask S~ what she sees as the difficulties to participation in AMAR. Answer: choices controlled by jealous (or insecure?) husbands; societal pressure to be a ‘good’ wife and ‘good’ mother (so stay at home to cook, clean and bring up the kids), a cycle of women being told they have nothing to contribute outside of the kitchen, never learning new skills and thus reinforcing the myth that they are of no use; those who do break the cycle have their contributions criticised and undervalued. Constant battles with self-esteem

For many women just getting permission to attend the assembly is a big deal. A tactic used is to be very attentive to their husbands in the run up so they can get a pass out. Tellingly, the women who live this reality do not tell me this. A two-day event, with underconfident women is very little (compared to two-days with confident trade unionists) for building trust across differences.

I decide to share with them my community’s response to me being sexually harassed in Bristol. I had worries about doing this but decided to continue, and to also share the worries. I hoped they would contribute to building a space of truth and respect.

I worry that what happened to me is so small that you will think why all the fuss. It is certain that far worse things happen to women in England and Colombia. But this does not cancel out the reaction that I had nor how it affected my daily life.”

I shared with them details of the harassment, how low level fear affected my and how it affected my confidence. I spoke about how if it wasn’t for the words and love of both informal and formal groups around me it would have been much harder; how my community took responsibility to hold him accountable for his behaviour.

He wasn’t the enemy but every person has to take responsibility for the impact of their actions on others”.

This echoes the delicate path that AMAR are walking – holding men accountable for the violence within families yet clear that they are not the enemy. The women of AMAR wish to walk side by side with other social organisations, united against the violent policies of the government. It is already a hard task. They desire to build trust with men in the social organisations, showing them that that they are on the same side, build unity but just not ignore the shit the women have to put up with in their homes. Dignity for all, women and men.

Alone, we are weak, our fears, insecurities overwhelm us. But together I had the strength and support to manage this situation. I see that AMAR can play a similar role for the women of Arauca. Creating a space where we can support each other, grow together, encourage each other, be gently critical without damaging our self-esteem. We must laugh together

These were my honest words to these women. Speaking honestly with these women when I live such different experiences and priviliges is tough, it challenges me. I do not live surrounded by police, army, paramilitaries (who work alongside the army), and guerillas. When I share my perspective, shaped to encourage and support them, what accountability do I have to the suggestions I make? When I am told that to take action about an abusive neighbour is dangerous because you don’t know who they might be it reminds me how little I understand how this two decade long war over a land rich in oil weaves in to daily life. When I do not have to live with the daily consequences of my perspective what is my responsibility to the influence I may or may not have?

But as I spoke, nods, laughter and smiles held my hand and gave me a squeeze of reassurance. And it is these nods and smiles, not just to me, but to every woman who shared a part of herself, that makes AMAR such a powerful, exciting and necessary organisation. It is this womens’ space, where quiet women come alive with hidden energy and enthusiasm when we started talking about ideas for projects, where Sa~ shares an inspiring story of how she managed to help another women find her dignity and leave her violent husband, where we can dance together to end the meeting, that draws Raquel back in to the fabric of an Araucan social organisation. ”Having to live in Bogota and work on a computer all day as a continued prison, a form of pyschological torture.” Here she feels and acts with vibrancy I had not seen before. So despite the police monitoring of the house where we were sleeping, despite the nervous hands which shows what her face has the strength to hide, I imagine we will be back.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Where death lists become friends

October 2004 and I am leaving a meeting of my university walking club. I am handed this flyer with a note attached “Coca-Cola: Crimes in Colombia. Speaking :Edgar Paez, Sinaltrainal, Colombia. 7.30pm” I decide to stay instead of going to the union bar. The effect of his words put me on a new path.

He spoke about how the policies of this multinational are destroying lives in Colombia – through sacking workers and rehiring them as temporary workers, through unemployment, through the bullet of a gun. This was news, fucked up news, which I had not read about in the papers.

Even more crucially this was news combined with a plan of action. These were not words about violence that submerged me with gloom, desperation. This was a violent reality being told to me but with a refusal to be silenced. Instead there was a request for support coming directly from those affected: organise institutional boycotts of Coca-Cola to show people what was happening in Colombia and to force Coke to sit down and negotiate with the union for integral reparation: to fully repair the emotional, material, cultural and social damage done – in the families affected, in the workplace, in the union and in the community. Restoring dignity weaves through all of these.

This was it, I was being asked to help, to use my privilege as a british student. Ever a pragmatist (very soon to be on the path to becoming a radical one at that) I responded with determination and naïve/focused positivism. Of course we could kick Coca-Cola out of our union. Of course it was the right course of actions. And as I read, questioned, doubted, reaffirmed, I consciously immersed myself more in the Campaign against Coca-Cola. As I analysed, looked at what was going on it became impossible for me not to realise that my earlier moments of doubts came from the twisting and hiding of facts by Coca-Cola and a few unions that opposed the boycott for various complex but shit reasons.

Fast forward through four years of personal/political/emotional/spiritual awakening/maturing /developing, through the difficult slump of the student campaign against coca-cola in the uk through a reawakening within the camp for climate action process and I now arrive here: at the week long national assembly of sinaltrainal. A past me is thrust into the present as my past actions are connected across time to now, as I connect with people I was working with but who I imagined through the three sinaltrainal members I worked with on speaker tours in the uk: edgar, juan and euripides.

Last night while thinking about what I would write in this post I had the urge to read through old sinaltrainal press releases where they have publicised and condemn the threats they have received. Why?

In my speech at the end of the assembly, before being cajoled into playing my flute in front of them all, I spoke of getting over fears. I was thinking about chats during the week with different guys about participation in the political process. Many ideas were shared about how to improve this but it hits me now.

Fear of life ending was never mentioned an unspoken

The focus of the assembly was decision making and not-to-bad internal politics

  • how will they fight against sackings that violate legal and constitutional rights,
  • how can they prepare themselves better for negotiations with companies,
  • how can they counteract the work Nestle is doing to get the wives to be against the union activities of their husbands?
  • how can they build their demands for direct contract rather than through one of a thousand subcontractors where rights are eroded ever quicker.
  • how to continue their grassroots support of the sugar cane cutters who have been politicised by their recent 2 month long strike
  • how will they respond as union to the economic ‘crisis’ (“as opposed to the systemic crisis in which we live permanently”) given than colombia has second highest external and internal debt in the world –meaning a shrinking economy will make it near impossible to make payments.

I enjoyed listening, observing the dynamics without having to take a position – it left my ideas space for much maneuver. But what I didn’t engage with was the depth of the bloody reality for the union, despite knowing the statistics of violence.

Appreciating this more fully now back in Bogota, I see clearly as to why just my very presence was so openly and warmly received, just to spend time with them, with warm, kind men (with varying splashes of sexism thrown in to keep me on my toes) was really appreciated.

I read through old emails. 22nd November 2007: Jose de Jesus, a worker at a Nestle factory is killed…. in Dosquebradas. ... A* is from there. A* with whom we chatted about the internal union politics as we swam breaststroke side by side in the lunch break. He taught me how to play tejo – bit like french boules but with an angled board filled with clay that you have to get your disc to stick in to, he explained things when I got lost in the debates…. he has just been elected to the national committee of sinaltrainal.

I ask R~ if he took into account the security implications when he made the decision a few years to be on the National Committee. “No, I just saw things that needed doing and got on with them, found myself taking the initiative more and more in the union work and it seemed a natural next step to take part in the national organisation of the union. I take precautions like I only sharing my views with people who it is necessary to”

On Thursday night while a group of us were having a beer together in an outside bar they all noticed a guy sat on the table next to us. I didn’t spot him. I let relaxation set in as I made a judgement about what is and isn’t a safe space - based on limited experiences. Instead I noticed a family sat together in silence– women, boy and man - with 12 empty bottles of beer on the table. I felt sad for the emptiness that cloaked their space. R~ and I left to walk back to the holiday park after we could stand no more bad eighties rock that F~ insisted on putting on the duke box. When we got back, R~ got a call asking him to wake up the security and get them down to the plaza quick. The man in the bar and another had followed the group as they left the bar. Paramilitaries. They returned safely. Their jokes about the state of Colombia, about how ridiculous it is that they can’t go for a beer hundreds of miles away from where they do most of their union work attempted to dispel the the charged atmosphere.

I stayed with L~, the daughter of Santi, one of the guys involved, during all of this. She was shaken but not paniced. Seventeen years old and since the age of 11 a bodyguard has followed her father everywhere he goes. Later I catch her having a sneaky hidden kiss with one of the younger guys, all is well.

Twenty-two members of Sinaltrainal have been assassinated.

Reading the list of names makes me feel weak. Death threats are to people I have shared food or had a beer with, even played my flute for. Death threats may arrive for R ~ with whom I shared some beautiful spiritual intimate moments with this week

My soul is starting to root in Colombia.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Walking our words

I have walked for two days. Thousands of indigenous have been walking since Octboer 11th 2008. They are in ‘Minga’ and over the past 6 weeks more social organisations have joined in. The indigenous started from their ancestoral territories. I started from Soacha, a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Bogota where I glimpse the realities built by thousands of refugees who have struggled to arrive here with nothing but their lives.

The first day we walk for 30km across the city, arriving at the National Public University five hours later. Welcomed by hundreds of students, the surge of energy was immense. Underneath the bridge, the acoustics exploded and the noise made me tremble, a lump to my throat. Here was thousands of indigenous refusing to accept how a racist, hierarchical, authoritarian world treats them, refusing to accept the destruction of their lands and our earth.

With their call to do Minga they are the driving energy to build hope, new paths, new relationships across difference to build a strong social movement capable of social change. No apathy here, never a word of what's the point we can't change anything

“Minga is an ancient practice of the indigenous peoples of the Andes. It is a collective effort organised with the aim of achieving a common goal”.

“The essence of the Minga of Peoples is to go beyond the demands of each sector and to focus on a common political agenda; to have goals that go beyond the claims and demands of every sector. This is reflected in the five point proposal of this Minga”

The Vice-Chancellor first refused to let the Minga use the public university. Collective pressure changed that, reminding him that a public university if for everyone and is a place for debate. However when we entered the campus we found the doors to the buildings locked to us. For two nights now thousands of indigenous that have set up camp in the campus have had to sleep outside, despite lacking the clothes and blankets necessary to do this in chilly Bogota. Disgusting racism towards indigenous people is still the norm. I’m certain that if academics visting for conferences would not be forced to sleep on the grass.

“the Minga seeks to link and unite all people who are committed to a more far-reaching common agenda, than their own immediate objectives. In other words, it is not that all the people are mobilized so that indigenous achieve lands rights to which they are entitled. If this were the only result of this mobilization, the structural conditions that perpetuate the subjugation, oppression, impoverishment of peoples and of all life, would remain untouched. And in addition, the sectors supporting us could feel used.”

The concept of Minga makes me think of the ignorant English phrase rent-a-mob, people who turn up for many protests. It is used to devalue the actions of people who recognise their own problems in the problems of others. It has been used to devalue my actions of solidarity with those who are more affected by injustices than me.

It is Friday morning and Plaza de Che, the main square in the university, is buzzing with hundreds of different diverse groups painting last minute banners. I look for friends and with just two months in the country familiar faces warmly greet me.

The capacity of Colombian organisations to mobilise and go out to the streets despite years of violent oppression is utterly inspiring. We walk slowly together, through shopping streets, cheered on by suited people in their lunch break. A group of students from one of the many private universities stands clapping and then break into a run to join with us.

Arriving at the Plaza de Bolivar (Colombian Parliament Square) we find out that President Uribe has gone to Peru, unable to give any answers, unwilling to even want to. Rather he was in Lima to seal a Free Trade Agreement with Canada – totally contrary to the vision and needs of the popular movement.

"The Minga does not end here, it continues with its call to people, waking consciousnesses and unifying forces, sharing pain, walking the word forward without seeing borders and limits, with the hope of life that transcends all spaces, and we are each responsible to care for and create this creature that was born today..."

"Onward with the joining of efforts among Indigenous people, farmers, students, teachers, women, men, youth, African descendents, workers...!"

These were some of the words shared in the Plaza de Bolivar.

I wonder how we will make the idea and importance of Minga relevant to a farmer who had her husband killed by paramilitaries and is attempting to cope on the farm alone… to an afro/black man who is refused job after job cause he is black….to a teacher who is struggling to show the students that they have opportunities beyond joining the paras/army/guerillia while class sizes increases and no books arrive….to Liliana who wants to study to be a nurse but doesn’t have the money to do so….to an indigenous who has been forcibly removed from their land to make way for a huge coal port. How will we do the work of bringing these diverese people together, to build connections across these problems; war, violence, privatisation of education, ‘loot’ of natural resources, racism, sexism and more?

The Minga is an inspiring political process for change yet I don’t romanticise it. It will be incredibly tough, working together across issues and political difference but if we don’t – are we really building something that will bring about social justice and liberty in Colombia, in the UK?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Evolving rural life

The boy Darien shies from me, hiding his face in Dominga’s embrace. “Why does she look different from us, mami? Why does she look a bit like a man, mami?” Doña Dominga answers “because people are different.” And yet hours later we are sharing animal noises, laughing at the different sounds a cockerel makes in our different languages. The following morning he leaves some plastic yellow flowers on top of my bag as he leaves for his school. If we could learn from children – to trust and love across difference so easily.

That evening when Damien returns from school we study together, sharing new words, how to shape our mouths, tongues so the syllables sound right. As he, the sharpest and quickest english student I have ever met, writes ‘I like sheep, you like cows, we like pigs,…’ the sun sets and we switch on the bare light bulb.

It took twenty men from the community seventy working days to bring light to their farms. After many years of pressure, the council provided the materials. This was in 2004.

It’s so easy to see people living without amenities (running water, electricity, gas, roads, schools) as a permanent state and not recognise the sheer amount of hard hard physical work that has gone in to getting what they do have, nor to know of their plans for improvements for the future. Their time scale due is different – growing food and getting the money to pay for the materials must come first (no buy now pay later offers for a new bathroom - but change comes. And rather than just ‘home improvement’ change, they also have an idea of community improvements. Their next task is to dig drainage for the road to prevent it eroding away in the rains.

Education and collective organising are crucial to improving their lives. As Dominga told me “with education comes the confidence and skills to confront those in power who would otherwise ignore us.” With collective organising comes the capacity to improve more than just their homes and gardens, but their schools, roads, health access.….

Raul and I were there to help build some basic shelters for making compost for all in the vereda. The land, while lush and green, is not too fertile. I helped the men with the building - they didn’t comment on me doing such work, they didn’t say much to me. Shy – perhaps unsure of this strange person like Damien on the first morning. But with age – insecurities around difference are deeper, and it was tough for me to break through.

With Dominga, it took time too but through conversations while milking cows, making cheese together and washing up, we shared intimate moments. With me, she spoke openly about how her brother and husband ignore her opinion, yet later say she was right in the first place. She tells me she has had very little education, “women don’t need an education as they are only going to cook and look after the house and children" she was told..... I ask her how she has continued learning, despite being denied formal education. “I started recently going to meetings and there I have learnt a lot. I don’t speak but I learn. Some of the women think it is odd that I go to meeting but I tell them that we are as much a part of this community as the men”.

Our farewell suprises and moves me – we embrace for what feels like hours. She cries and tells me she loves me. I hold her dear to me. What do I mean to this kind strong woman? Why was my stay of just two days and two nights a profound experience for her? I hope I can return and spend more time with her, to find answers to these questions. For now I can only imagine.....

....that to spend time with another person with whom she could talk more openly (my gender was crucial for this trust to be built so quickly) is something she rarely has the opportunity to do as her imposed responsibility in life has been in the kitchen. Certainly not to talk and share ideas with others outside of her family.

This relationship prepared me a little more for the next part of my trip – participating in a workshop with a group of rural women, some of whom asked COS-PACC (the org. i was accompanying) for support in creating a women’s organisation so that ‘we leave from the kitchen’.

We did a few activities, intended to help them understand and reflect on their own situation in their community, and to start thinking of possible responses to their dignostic. I have my own views on what I think is really good about the rural way of life and what is not. But what I liked about the workshop was that the women from COS-PACC asked questions, instead of judging or being opinionated.

What did surprise me was how unique and rare the space created is and that the idea of the women of the community coming together every few months to eat, laugh, talk together is a powerful act for them. We left it in their hands. We could support them but they had to decide what they wanted and make the next step. I hope I go back there, as will mean that even though they were mainly pretty shy, that they enjoyed and valued the space and want to continue meeting.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Daughters of Slaves

“Colombia is built from the physical work of blacks, yet 150 years after the legal end of slavery we continue to work as slaves and live in the worst conditions.”

The Afro-colombian students and young people I met at their National Gathering are very aware that they are the luckier ones, able to get an education and leave poverty, while the vast majority continue live in terrible conditions. They want to change this. It was a full on, powerful, intense, priviliged, exciting experience to be in the presence of three hundred Colombian students as they conversed "how will we create a positive transformation in the lives of Colombia’s black population".

After being delayed twice due to threats from paramilitaries and guerilla groups, the event took place in Buenaventura. Four days of debates, analysis, heated discussion. Daily my mind got too full of new thoughts for me to think any more and my notebook crammed full of reflections. Dancing was a welcome respite at the end of long days where I quietly observed and pondered the debates.......

How to we break Eurocentric control over culture, education, economics? How do we decolonise our minds, our institutions? Is Afro-centrism a good response?

Should our political position reject both left and right wing positions as they are both Euro-centric concepts and have been historically racist? Or can we build alliances with the left, yet maintain our identity and challenge racism.

Is the indigenous struggle over land rights also our problem as Afro-Colombians? How is capitalism and racism connected? How can we demand reparation for the work our ancestors have done?

Is learning about pre-slavery african history important for us in our present situation? Does the term multiculturality mean we are respected but still not included? How about Interculturality?

Outside, taking a break, I met a group of young woman, whose dads’ have been on strike for over 7 weeks and I asked if they would share with me their perspectives. They told me their families’ stories, passing, tugging and sharing the words out between them. We sat all together on the concrete ground. I seated myself carefully so we can talk as equals. I don’t want to interview them, rather hope they take the space as their own, to tell their own story.

Lorenza, Liliana and Vanessa:

Our relationships with our dads are difficult. We rarely see them. They leave for the sugar cane plantations at 5am and get home between 8 and 10pm. At school we were sometimes asked to do projects about our dads but this was nearly impossible. It is only when they have accidents that we see them more. “My dad lost his sight in his right eye”, “my dad had an accident with his leg and couldn’t work for six months – he got sick pay for three months”, “my dad has problems with his lungs from the dust“.

Things are really hard at the moment and we are going hungry because our dads have been paid for over six weeks. But I think the strike is just. They work like slaves in the fields cutting the sugar cane all day under the heat of the sun. Also, they are given protective clothing and a machete twice a year, yet the clothing lasts a month and the machetes just two weeks before they have to change it.

“I work from 7.30am to 6pm, 5 days a week doing housework. I get paid $230000 a month (£70). On Saturday’s I go to college to study nursery education. This costs me $100 000 a month.”

“I don’t have a job. I help at home. Because of the strike I don’t any money to pay for transport, or to print applications so it is difficult to look for a job.

If they win the strike, I will go to college to study nursing. I really want to be a nurse.”

On Sunday’s we all take part in a group [which organised for them to take part in this event]. Here, among many things, we talk about how to improve the relationships with our dads. They are sometimes violent at home.

“If I have an opinion it doesn’t matter to him because I am a women. If I do something, it’s often wrong, yet for my brothers it’s all good. I confronted my dad recently telling him this. He accepted it and we are talking more about this now.”

Our dads worry that if we go out to dance, we will get pregnant, but we get sex education at school and have a higher-level education than them. They have to understand that they can learn from us, their daughters. If education was free there would’t be this violence in the home, nor this war happening. Some students miss sex education at school, as they have to go to work. If our dads received higher wages this wouldn’t happen. If they win the strike there will be less poverty and less women getting pregnant.

We want this, we want something better for ourselves, for our children.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

A step towards re-building communities

Click to see audio slideshow from my trip to Catatumbo

Two days travel there, two days in a remote community with 500 people from around the region and Venezuela and two days back again: all to take part in the 'First Social and Ecological Gathering of the Great River of Catatumbo'

Two thirds of the people in this stunning mountaion region were violently forced to leave their homes between 1998 and 2005. The population went from 900000 to 300000.

Now people are moving back, what else do you do if your livelihood is your farm? As one guy says ' you can't grow food in the city'.

The festival was a first step in re-energising the social organisations: giving them a show of our support in this remote corner and encouraging them to start rebuilding their community organisations.

My ideas are, perhaps, less clearly articulated with this audio blog but I hope my 'live' thoughts - recorded as the events unfolded - add something different to your perceptions of my experience. And it was very helpful for me to be able to unwind my mind to the dictaphone.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

My racism that allows new futures for Gabo.

Five days in the hot tropical city of Barranca Bermeja where spanish words are harder to catch - muffled by the constant whirl of fans hanging precariously above us. The smell of yet more roast chichen wafts from the Mac Pollo restaurant over the road yet different from Bogota - at 35degrees every breathe feels strained.

A pattern of breakfast, meetings, lunch, siesta, meetings, sitting around in the hotel reception, dinner, bed is quickly established . Nothing visibly powerful to do or see.

Gabriel's (Gabo) story - the warm, funny, dedicated man who I accompanied - assures me that my presence is powerful. Here is his story.

"We moved to Sur de Bolivar in 1971, when I was 21. Before that we lived in Calda but there was already many small scale farmers and not much land. We found land in an area that was not occupied and we settled there. We were looking for a place where we could have a better quality of life.

There were 10 families to begin with and many more people started arriving from different regions. By 1998 there was around 1000 people living in the community.

When our children started to grow up we built a school. We found teachers who had a high level of education that meant every child could get a good education. We also started building good paths, and later, roads (35km’s worth) around the community and to other villages.

A normal day for me was to work from 6am to 6pm. I grew yuca, plantain and rice. I also looked after the cows and pigs. This was my life, my passion, mi gusto. For me this proves that things that appear impossible can become real when we work communally.

Then the paramilitaries entered the region in February 1999, just one hours walks from my farm. Over the next few years we organised 8 marches - in the municiapl towns and the Capital of the region – demanding our rights were respected and that the paramilitaries leave the region. I was singled out as an organised and so had to leave the farm.

I stayed in the region until 2007, moving between different places, supported by different communities, with my wife and young daugher. At times we had to walk for 25 days in order to leave the region to report murders.

What I saw wasn’t fair, what was happening. They were killing the young people, old people. There was masacares all over the region. I was not going to work on the farm any more, instead dedicate myself to social work, building up people’s skills, organising.

When the paramilitaries were there I could hide but now the army have arrived I can’t hide in the region. One has to understand that within the army are the paramilitaries so the army does not mean you have security.

Before the arrival of the paramilitaries, the army already disappeared, tortured, killed. There was so many reports made about this that they had to change their strategy. And so the paramilitaries entered – they could do the brutal things.

What we now understand is that people were killed and disappeared because other interests appeared in the region, interests of multinationals.

They killed my son, they disappeared another. Brother of my wife was also disappeared. My son was killed on the 22 Sept 2002 in El Pairaiso, the army disappeared my second son in the middle of May 2005.

I’m not one to cry too much but everything that happens to you, your family or to your neighbour or friend, it reinforces your work. And you begin to understand who is the enemy.

The debate around the Law for Victims (that we went to on Thursday) to me is very dangerous as it supports impunity. It can’t ignore why we are victims, who benefitted from us becoming victims. The truth wil be when the state recognises that what has happened is a project of the state.

The land has to be taken away from the paramilitaries, from the multinationals and people can return to their territories. They must return my land, my house, and that they leave us in peace.

Those who are guilty must pay. But the guilty is not the person who shot, he is not the enemy, he probably didn’t know why, he was just ordered. Those who give the orders - they kill.

Now my wife and I live in the flat of my daughter in Bogota. We are looking for some land, as we are campesinos. I would like to live in the Sur de Bolivar but it is not possible. To go there I need to have accompaniment but this isn’t possible all the time so a bit of land near Bogota would be good."

The fact of my place of birth and my skin colour means that Gabo can return and work in his region. He knows that the political costs of disappearing him are raised higher with the presence of the likes of me.

I am strategically using racist structures - ones which make clear that my life as a white European is worth more than a brown Colombian. And as I do, I am complicit with racism. This is difficult. How do I ensure I don't reinforce a sense of European superiority over the Latin American's with the people I meet. Perhaps I can't - they will read my body as they choose.
But I can think about how my behaviour, mannerisms, ideas, words might be interpreted by the people I am with, and with this I can try to walk a sensitive path.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Words and Mining

“Our language indicates conscious decision about who we want to talk to”.

Donna Hightower Langston

How do I write to you all at once: old and new friends, family – each one different, my past and present lovers, my old colleagues, fellow rising tide and espacio participants, and people who I’ve maybe never shared an intimate space with but are curious as to what I am doing in Colombia.

You play a part in shaping me as I am. Each of you has your own past which has shaped the reality of how your/the world. I want to share with each of you what it means for me to be here in Colombia, but my words could builds walls between you and me. Perhaps they already have.

I have nurtured and grown my own evolving political ideas in my reality in the UK. I have clashed with you, oppositional thinking has dominated. Yet I also know that there are places where we meet and smile together.

Now in Colombia, my political ideas will continue to mature as I experience, participate, reflect and have periods of clarity. I want to share this process with you. I dream my words create a bridge of understanding between peoples’ lives here and your life.

My words may get tough to relate to. I ask you not to become defensive, or to see only difference but; to go beyond the differences and look for common ground. I ask myself to do the same.

And so I tentatively search for words to describe to you only one week’s worth of newness. I have spent the week since I arrived in Bogota, capital of Colombia and home to 8 million people.

Life for people here appears either the same or very different to yours – depending on how much money you have. As I walk the streets sorting out boring admin stuff, I see people dressed as diversely as I would in bristol, I see people selling sweets and cigarettes on the street, bored looking police on duty outside shopping centres, banks, monuments. I see Mercedes and hand pulled carts laden with fruit.

I hear the chorus of car horns as vehicles swerve in and out of each other, avoiding the buses that stop to pick you wherever you want, I hear the sound of guitars practicing Nirvana songs from garage doors.

I hear people asking me so politely for money to buy some food for themselves. I struggle to look her in the eye as I feel powerless to change her world with a few pesos, but yet I want her to know she is not invisible.

And I smell mainly bakeries, roast chicken and trafffic fumes.

Daily normality for people in the capital city.

While this goes on in the city, I have been taking part in other events: the Andean Forum against Large Scale Mining where people from all over Latin American came together to talk about how the mining industry affects them. This declaration emerged from the event.

What I found inspiring about the forum, and there was several things that weren’t, was that it brought together indigenous people, farming communities, small scale miners and workers in the mining industry.

Each group has their own problems with multinational mining companies: labour rights, water sources drying up, destruction of indigenous ways of life…. Each also has their own regionally specific vision of what kind of mining, if any, they would accept in their communities.

This difference is respected, and common ground is found – an opposition to the current situation where by the majority of people in Latin America still live in poverty despite such huge quantities of wealth beneath their homes.

And as I sat listening to so many peoples testimonies about mining and later looking at a map of Colombia which marks all the mines in operation in the country I re-remembered so quickly that everything we see around us must come from somewhere. Everything has a root, and then thrown into the pot of the market and comes out somewhere, it’s history unknown and so it often convinces me that it came from a peopleless, cultureless, nothing kind of place. At the forum I was reminded that isn’t the case.