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.