Friday, December 18, 2009

One Year Anniversary of Murder of Edwin Legarda by Colombian Army

On December 16th 2008, Edwin Legarda, the husband of Colombian indigenous leader Aida Quilcue, was killed when the Colombian army ambushed Aida´s car that he was driving that morning. Aida Quilcue at that moment was the Chief Councilor for the Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC) and spokesperson for the Minga of Social and Community Resistance. The CRIC believe that the bullets were meant for her for the fierce criticism of the Uribe government.(1)

Photo: We demand justice for State Crimes.

On December 16th 2009 we traveled to the Totoro municipal, Cauca where the murder occurred to take part in an event to commemorate the anniversary of Edwin’s death.

After being repeatedly shot in 2008, Edwin managed to drive 3km´s, thus avoiding any tampering of his vehicle or person which could be then be later used to attempt to cover-up the extrajudicial killing by presenting him as a guerilla.

The Observatory of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law of the Colombia-Europe-United States Coordination Group (CCEEU) a coalition of nearly 200 human rights group from Colombia, Europe and the U.S. reported 1,492 non-combat killings by the Colombian army between July 2007 and June 2008. According to the CCEEU, in the majority of cases the state is responsible, due to direct action or tolerance. (2)

Photo: Dario Toto, an indigenous leader, shows us the place where he came across the vehicle with Edwins still just alive at this point

Aida said that if her husband had not bravely driven these 3kms whilst injured, the army would have managed to successfully carry out the false positive then the government would have been able to portray the indigenous movement and the Minga of Social and Communitarian Resistance (which Aida led in social mobilisations in October 2008) as a ‘terrorist organisations’.

The event, attended by Indigenous from across Cauca and other social organizations, began with a symbolic march along these three kilometers, down a dusty unpaved road, accompanied by the sound of sweet, soothing, soul filling Andean indigenous melodies.

As I walk, I look at faces of compañeros around me, listening to their voices and laughter and imagine what Edwin was like. Even though I had shared just two hours with Aida and her daughter, their warmth and humour had been striking, I imagine Edwin must have had a great sense of humour and a great heart.

It is important that the Colombian state´s war against the poor and social organisations does not become just a list of shocking figures.

We arrive at the place where the army had fired 106 bullets at Aida´s vehicle, piercing it 17 times, not knowing she was not in the passenger seat that day. The place is now marked by a memorial, around which we gathered to share music, dance and words.

The current Chief Councilor of the CRIC, Alcibiades Escué spoke about how the event was not only important to support the family, but also to continue denouncing the murder which was a direct attack on the entire movement to both the national and international community. Legarda’s killing took place just two weeks after the Minga of Social and Community Resistance had completed its historic march from Cauca to Bogota, one of the most important acts of collective resistance that the Colombian indigenous movement has carried out.

Legard´s killing is not an isolated attack against the CRIC and the Minga. The 16th December 2009 was also the 18th anniversary of the Nilo massacre, where 20 indigenous people from the Huellas-Caloto community, including five women and four children, were murdered as they met to discuss a struggle over land rights in the estate of El Nilo in northern Cauca. In 1998, President Ernesto Samper acknowledged the responsibility of state actors in the massacre, and on behalf of the Colombian state apologized to the families of the victims and to the Nasa community of Northern Cauca.(3)

The night before this significant and tragic anniversary for the Cauca indigenous movement, two men laid hidden under the beds of Escue´s children waiting until they had gone to sleep. They jumped out and tied up the two children, announced themselves as members of the “Aguilas Negras” paramilitary group and said this was a warning and then left.

On October 29th 2009, Marly Guamanga was murdered in the Damina area of Cerro Tijeras indigenous reserve, Suarez municipality, Cuaca department.

On November 11th 2009, Reinaldo Bomba was murdered in the Bella Vista area of Cerro Tijeras indigenous reserve.

On November 13th 2009, Nilson Campo was murdered and Egdio Huila was seriously injured in the Damian area of Cerro Tijeras indigenous reserve.(4)

This is part of a systematic persecution of not just indigenous, but also afro-colombian and farming communities, whose struggle to remain in their ancestral lands gets in the way of powerful economic interests.

“They have returned to search for what was left after the first plundering 517 years ago. They are motivated by economic interests and seek land, water, gold and other natural resources. Wealth that the “investor friendly” government, is handing over to the highest bidder.” (5)

Aida, trembling at moments yet remaing a dignified emotional composure, spoke about the need to continue speaking out against not just the murder of her husband and the displacement of indigenous community through violence but also to speak out against the multinationals and European and US governments that drive it.

On the same day, Jose Goyes, another indigenous leader, took part in the climate justice mobilisation in Copenhaguen and spoke about what was happening in Cauca, making the links between climate and social iisues

"In the area (Cauca) we have the Anglo Gold Ashanty gold company from South Africa, Union Fenosa from Spain, and Carton Company from Ireland and ... the Cosega company, which is a gold enterprise from Canada. These multinational companies are causing large displacement, threats and even massacres and death sentences to indigenous communities. In our territories the paramilitary groups are supporting the state policy and the multinational policy through the use of violence. Cosega resource from Canada have a large interest in the area and the paramilitary groups have supported their political wish by threathening most of the indigenous leaders that are resisting the exploitation." (6)

Yet despite this huge powerful real threat against their human rights, primarily the very right to life, people continue to laugh, love and organise to resist this genocide against their cultures. This day was both profoundly sad, especially while watching Edwin´s daughter perform a dance in memory of her dad, yet at the same time it was a celebration of life, with shared food, song, laughter and ritual.

Photo: Banner " They can cut off our wings but never our desire to fly"

(1) Assassination of the husband of Ms Aida Quilcue

(2) Colombia: UN confirms ‘systematic’ killings of civilians by soldiers

(3) Embattled Cauca: A New Wave of Violence and Indigenous Resistance, by Mario A. Murillo

(4) Three murdered in Cierro Tijeras Reserve, Cauca

(5) Instruments of War by ACIN

(6) Colombian paramilitaries assassinate indigenous leader in the name of Canadian multinationals

Friday, November 6, 2009

Where was the arrest warrant when the paramilitaries arrived?

¿Donde fue el orden de captura cuando los paramilitares llegaron?

During an event for victims of paramilitary and state violence in Casanare, the intelligence services turned up with an arrest warrant. Arrests and legal processes are part of the state's strategy across the country to cause fear in people trying to organise to remember their victims and to demand justice. 

This video shows clips of a speech made by Gloria Cuartas in response at this attempt to intimidate us. The key question she makes is: Where was the arrest warrant when the paramilitiaries with the support of the army and police arrived here, torturing, disappearing and massacring people eight years ago?

Durante un evento por victimas de violencia de los paramilitaries y el estado en Casanara, el CTI llegaron con un order de captura. Detenciones y procesos judiciales son parte de la estrategica del estado Colombia para generar miedo en los que buscan organisarse para recordar sus victimas y exijir justicia.

Este video muesta una intervencion por Gloria Cuartas en respuesta a este intento a intimidarnos. La pregunta clave que les hizo es: ¿Donde fue el orden de captura cuando los paramilitares llegaron con ustedes para torturar, disaparecer y masacrar a la gente?

Biviana's words - Palabras de Biviana

(en español abajo)

I came to this event to support the people here and to bring attention to the fact that the government is doing things wrong. I don't support the government because they do what they want without the the need to think about the people that they affect on the way, walking all over the rights of people humans.

I imagined that there would be less people, I never expected that so many would arrive. I would have like to have had the opportunity to get to know people from other regions more, their customs and what they have lived through, here everyone has suffered.

I have learnt a lot here, there is much to learn and much to contribute to those people who have no idea, to people who say that this government is the best because of benefits that they may have received but who don't think about the violations that it has brought to many communities. A topic I didnt really have clear before is, that while yes i have suffered from the violence but i have never had the opportunity to understand the topic really well and understand the reality. We say that, over there, they have suffered violence but we have never worried much about why people have suffered violence. Sometimes we have to see things with our own eyes to believe it, sometimes we don't see what we don't want to see.

In my community, people haven't lived so much violence as like here in Recetor. They are forgotten about, they are topics that for fear have never been brought out in to the open, for fear that it might bring more violence. One can't say that this person died because it is certain that they will come and imprisonme, or take reprisals against friends and families.

I was scared, there were people that said to me that if you go on the pilgrimage it is really like that they will take reprisals agaisnt you. I am not scared here becuase there is many people that can help you in many things. So,....,no , and fear, you must leave it behind to be able to be to do what you want to do, to be able to be yourself, and to inform people who dont know.

I think it is important that people know becuase we are being tricked with...with practically, the government, the government says, or it goes out on the news, what is in their interest , we never hear about what is not in their interest, people never hear the truth about what is happeneing.

The two masses that we listened to were good. Sometimes religion lends itself for many things, to cover up things. I have no disagreement with the catholic religion but there are some things that i don't like. I have never been to a mass like this one, where they talk about politics, practically revolutionary, a mass where the father is not bothered by what the high church functionaries think, where he felt and spoke about the reality that people live.

About the presence of BP in the region,..., well,...I don't agree with that either. I don't agree because this oil megaproject has caused many violations against people. Instead of bringing benefits for the community what it has brought is more war, more unemployment, more hunger. These companies are taking land from campesinos and not giving them any other opportunities.

These businesses are supported by the government, why? Because they bring in lots of money for the government and they don't care what a campesino things, rather what is important to them is to get more money at the cost of people having to suffer.

In my daily life, oil production doesnt affect me that much, but with time it is going to affect all of us because it is damaging the land and i think that what this region needs is land for campesinos so they can work and get the resources that they need to survive.

I want to keep living here, search for opportunities to be able to survive, as long as I can, because you never know in what moment violence will return again and we will have to leave and look for other ways to survive.

Palabras de Biviana

Vine a este evento para apoyar a la gente y dar a conocer de que ellos (el gobierno) esta haciendolo mal hecho. No estoy de acuerdo con el gobierno por lo que buscan sus objectivos o logran lo que quieren sin necesidad de pensar a los personas que les va a afectar a hacer eso, pisoteando todo los derechos de los humanos.

Me imaginé poco gente, nunca esperé que llegaran muchisima gente. Me hubiera gustado la oportunidad a conocer la otra gente más, costumbres y lo que viven otras comunidades, a parte de que se vive acá, acá a todo el mundo ha sufrido este atropello.

He aprendido muchisimo aca, hay mucho para aprender y mucho para aportar a gente que no tiene ni idea, a gente que dicen que eq que esta gobierno es lo mejor por los beneficios que de pronto les han traido pero sin pensar en los tropellos que les ha traido a muchas comunidades.

Un tema que no tenía en esencia claro, que si, yo sufrí violenca, pero nunca tenía la oportunidad llegar al fondo de tema y conocer la realidad, nosotros, ah si por alla tiene o tenía violencia, pero nunca hemos preocupado el por que esta gente sufrío violencia,

a veces nosotros tenemos que ver para creer las cosas. Aveces no vemos mas allá de lo que queremos ver.

En mi comunidad, no se vivía tanto la violenca como acá en Recetor, estan olvidados, son temas que por temor, nunca ha sacado al flote por el temor que puede traer mas violencia. No se puede decir que esto persona murio por que seguro que viene y me va a llever preso, que van a tomar represalias con mi familia o con conocidas,

Tenía temor, hubo gente que me comente que si vas pa' allá seguro que te tome represarias. Temor no lo tengo en este moment pq hay mucha gente y que lo pueden apoyar a uno en muchas cosas. Entonces, ….no , y temor, hay que dejar lo atrás para poder hacer lo que uno quiere, para poder ser uno mismo, y dar a conocer lo que mucha gente no conoce.

Creo que es importante que gente conocza por que estamos engañados con.....con practicamente, el gobierno, el gobierno dice o pasa en loas noticas o todo eso , lo que les conviene, nunca pasa lo que no les conviene, nunca la gente se entere, que es la verdad que esta viviendo.

Estas misas eran cheveres. A veces la religion se presta por muchas cosas, se presta por tapar cosas. no estoy en ningun disacuerdo con la religon catolica pero hay cosas que en me gusta. Nunca había ido a una misa donde se han tratado el politico, practicamente revolucionaria, mas que todo es es, una misa donde no le importa lo piensa lo alto cargos en colombia, donde se siente y se dice la realidad que la gente vive, 

De la presencia del BP, …..pues..... no estoy de acuerdo tampoco, no estoy de acuerdo por que al hacer un megaproyecto, el petroleo, ha traido muchas tropellas contras las personas, en vez de traer beneficios a la comunidad lo que esta traendo es mas guerra, mas desempleo, mas hambres. Por que son empresas de que, les estan quitando la tierra a los campesinos y no les esta dando otras oportunidades.

Pq ellos son una empresa que esta apoyado por el goberino, por que? por que traen mucha plata por el gobierno, y ellos no les importa lo que piensa un campesino, sino lo que les importa es conseguir dinero a costa de hacer sufrir mas gente.

En mi vida cotidiana el petroleo no me afecta tanto, pero con el tiempo nos va afectar todos pq esta deteriorando mucho la tierra y pienso que lo que necesita en este region es tierra por campesinos y poder trabajar y poder conseguir sus recursos para sobrevivir. 

Quiero seguir viviendo en el campo, buscaré las oportunidades, poder sobrevivir, hasta cuando se puede no, pq pues uno no se saben en que momento vuelva la violenca, y tendremos que salir y buscar otra forma de sobrevivir

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Day 6: Walking the word - decolonising solidarity

It is the end of the beginning. The last day of an exhausting but amazing week of mobilisations. The closing act of the Peoples Pre-congress takes place in the central park in Cali, after another two hour march. An afro-colombia leader from Choco is given a special place in the closure to make visible the presence of afro-colombian communities in the Minga. Choco is the poorest region in Colombia.
"The only way to travel in Choco easily is by plane and we all know who planes are for. We travelled on foot, in canoes and in buses for several days, sleeping in difficult conditions and going without food to get here, to participate in Minga".

He tells us how the population of Quibdo, the main town in the region, has doubled from 40,000 to 80,000. Choqueños, mainly afrodescendents, have been forced to abandon their territories due to the violent imposition of megaprojects such as mining and palm oil .

"We know that alone we are not able to change things, we need to unite with indigenous, with campesinos, because in the end we are all living with the same difficulties and problems. This is why seven hundred of us have made the huge effort to be here in the Peoples Pre-congress".
Tears trickle out of me as I make links between this declaration of the Peoples Pre-congress and a difficult conversation I had last night.

Last night a friend challenges me to reflect on something I did. He challenged me to look at how I controlled the way in which we discusses a difficult conversation, racism within the Minga. With the bitter taste of irony in my mouth, I, with my full set of colonial priviliges, british, privilige to move wherever I want in the world, white, privilige to walk down the street and for people not to think I am going to mug them, set the terms for how we discussed racism that suited my needs, and not his. As we talk, his anger manifests itself as he goes over and over the two words he has written on a scrap of paper, ego britanico.

I have seen this before many times. The arrogance and preponencia of british people to have their own way, the result of being from a country that has repeatedly colonised and dispossed other peoples throughout history to get its own way”.

His words challenge rather than shock or suprise me. I am grateful to this rare person who critiqued me to my face. I wonder how many people I meet share similar criticisms about my way of doing things but do not tell me. I wonder what this says about ongoing patterns of colonial power within my everyday relationships here. I breathe deeply as I look at my challenge of how to achieve the balance between being myself and being conscious and accountable to how my self has been shaped by my cultural-political-historical context.

Back in the park, we listen to a song by Mercedes Sosa, recently passed away, as the Peoples Precongress in Cali draws to a close in Cali's central park. The thousands of participants stand intently, some listening, some quietly singing alone. The compañeros who sings it, dedicates it to those compañeros no longer with us, including Mateo. As I listen to the beautiful melody, I imagine what he could have taught me. Mateo, a Swiss revolutionary, worked for ten years as part of the Red de Hermandad. He was killed last December in a road accident. Incredibly missed and rememberd within the social movements in Cauca and Valle I wish I had the opportunity to know how he worked to de-colonise himself.
After the song, two compañeros read the final declaration.

"Minga is a collective expression that revives hope, that strengthens resistance and walks the word in defence of dignity and in commitment to collective life. We are conscious of how the neoliberal strategy is strengthened in our territories through the handing over resources and selling of mother earth to international capital, thorugh the recomposition of of corruption and the legalising of crimes against Colombia´s sovereigny, and through impunity and the militrisation of civilian life."

I seek a place to be alone with my emotions of rage and sadness. The weight of being British, of having benefited from so much violence, of being surrounded in the park by so many people who suffer from this violence, overwhelms me. The weight of knowing that the British ego is alive and kicking and that it continues to play a crucial role within the UK in the justification of the violent looting of other peoples natural resources is overwhelming.

I feel a hand on my shoulder and look up to see the caring eyes of an indigenous leader who I have shared words with during the week. He has 5 bullet wounds from attempted assassination attempts and had his farm burnt down. He is now displaced, living between cities. During this week, he was always accompanied by four indigenous guards. He tells me that when he goes back to his community, it is obligatory for him that he travels with thirty indigenous guard, armed with just their bastions of resistance. He listens to my emotions, as the words of the final declaration sound in the background.

"Mingueros and Mingueras, we have gathered in this spaces filled with dreams and ideals and we leave with thoughts on how to legalise with significant popular legitimacy, with proposals on the path to peace, whose route is the word that overflows with solidarity, generosity and resistence."

My solidarity must begin and end with me, a white british folk, learning to notice my colonial mentalities and then taking responsibility for them.

For more thoughs about this work of decolonising solidarity visit, the blog a beautiful wise friend.

To read the full closing declaration and the notes from the 5 tulpas that discussed the five points of the Agenda of the Minga check out this blog (in spanish only)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Day 4: Our Dignified Rage Walks the Word

This is a translation of a newsletter being written by a communication collective in Cali during the mobilisations.

Opening of the Peoples Pre-congress

With the arrival of the last marches and delegations that are part of the Minga of Social and Community Resistance in the Southwest of Colombia as night came, the peoples pre-congress was opened. Thousands of people filled the area in front of the state and the passionate emotive hymn of the Indigenous Guard opened the evening’s activities. The verses of the national anthem were not sufficient to welcome the diversity of the participants and the crowd was quiet with the sound of whispered conversations.

One after another, voices of those who have been in the process of building the Minga and who, tired and angry, expressed and conveyed the dignity of the peoples who are tired of paying the consequences of the current political and economic model. The voices told us of their realities: the impact of the multinationals on their communities and regions, the game that the powerful play with the destiny of the communities, the permanent human rights violations, the impossibility to decide how their economical, environmental and cultural resources will be used, and the militarization in rural and urban areas…… the angry dignity created by these problems exploded in words through different expressions from the heart of the Mingueros. But the voices also told us about their processes, about the steps that they have taken to build another country “where we all fit”, and about the hope and strength of the peoples. After this collective recognition, of knowing who we are and where we come from, the party began with happiness and fraternity.

Organising the path

All the mingueros met in the afternoon in themed working groups to decide on the methodology that they will use in the working groups and the discussions in The Peoples Pre-congress in Cali; also they shared and defined the subthemes that arise from the 5 point agenda that has been created nationally in the Minga de Pensamiento and that will be crucial in organizing and advancing in the construction of some proposals and paths to keep walking the work towards The Peoples Congress. In the Sovereignty, Land and Territory working group, people spoke about: comprehensive agrarian reform, legalization and reclaiming land, privatization, megaprojects, environmental sovereignty and food sovereignty. In the War and Human Rights working groups they looked at how to build a Peace Agenda that looks at the political and social roots of the conflict and how to propose a political solution based on these roots, as well as demanding from the state the guarantee and application of all human rights.

Public Statement

The organizations who are participating in the Minga of Social and Community Resistance denounce to the national and international public opinion and to Colombian social and human rights organizations the attacks to which Mingueros in the department of Cauca have been subjected to. Today in the city of Popayan various people have been detained by the police. They are Omaira A Piamba from the Comitte for the Integration of Mestizo Colombia, ALEX LOPEZ a motorcycle taxi driver and Julio Quiñones who is involved in housing struggles in Popayán.
It is important to note that the people detained by the police were participating at the time in one of many peaceful activities that are happening in different cities in the country as part of the Minga of Social and Community Resistance.

Again the armed forces are brutally attacking the popular and social movement that has taken to the streets to make proposals and work for a better country for everybody.

We demand the immediate freedom of the compañeros detained in Popayan and that the fundamental right to participate in peaceful protest is respected.

We Have Grown

The heavy rains that arrived in the afternoon also brought the force of the campesino, afrodescendents and other social sectors to the Peoples Coliseum. Their arrival was emotional for all as they were greeted with enthusiastic clapping and happy cheering from those who had already arrived. These Mingueros have been walking from different parts of the country for more than a week; Chocó, the North and Central area Valle, Tolima and the coffee región. They entered the coliseum with rallying cries against the multinationals that invade their territories, against the government that persecutes, marginalices and assassinates them and about all shouting with happiness for the opportunities for creation of new possibilities through exchanges with others who are socially conscious with the hope of moving towards a popular uprising and the construction of a new Colombian, dreamed by many.

The Minga continues to nourish itself with people from different places, marchers from Popayán and Antioquia who arrived to join in the process of the Pre-Congress. We are many who are preparing for the congress in July 2010. We are not everyone. We hope to wake more consciousnesses, hearts, and wisdom to keep weaving the Minga of Social and Community Resistance.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Day 3: Building Popular Power in Minga

It is nearly 9pm on Tuesday night in the grounds of the Coliseo in the city of Cali. People have rested after the 3 day of walking 15km and young indigeneous are now dancing in large circles in front of the stage. The music fades and Feliciano Valencia, spokesperson for La Minga speaks to the thousands that have gathered to listen to the proposals for tomorrows activities;
  • delegations to visit 5 places in the city to talk about what is Minga and to invite community organisations to walk the word

  • a caravan in the 40 chivas through the streets of Cali to make the Minga visible,

  • join teachers who are marching against labour conditions and have invited us to join.

  • begin thinking collectively about what the Congress of the People, planned for July 2010, actually is with important questions for consideration such as how are we going to legislate and what are the mechanisms and strategies we need so that the peoples laws are put into practice?

With the sheer quanity of people I have been curious to watch how decisions are made at this scale, how different forms of power are working and and how popular power is being built. What I watched was these proposals being created through a serious of meetings. Firstly the political commision of the Minga, which includes representatives of each social organisation involved in the Minga, met and came up with a proposal with Feliciano playing the role of listening, gathering all the opinions and presenting a synthesized proposal. This was then discussed and adapted by some 40 governers of the different Indigenous reservations. This was then presented to everyone. During the night, each community will have discussed it and as I write, another meeting is taking place to finalise the plans for today.

The sheer presence of indigenous from Cauca, through their impressive organisational capacity, is a challenge to the proposal of Minga to be inclusive to all. Yesterday, there was some serious errors such as the idea to start the pre-congress before the second smaller march arrives , yet once this was flagged up the idea was inmediately dropped. There is much to be learnt, and to get wrong and do better the next time, in terms of thinking about how to make proposals that are not based in sectorial thinking, but thinking of all.

Much has already been learnt. The 5 point agenda includes indigenous based proposals around territory and cultural, while also going much beyond and is incredibly inclusive. And as a friend says over a beer last night, "i think there is a distortion of the reality abroad of Colombia. They either thing that all resistence follows the same logic as the insurgency or that the problems in Colombia are all about defending the profits from the drug-trafficing trade. Here, what I think is important to say to people in your country is that we are here saying clearly there is another reality in which many Colombians are living and from this harsh violent reality, we are building a resistance based in the grassroots, and it is a resistance that is building serious proposals collectively to create another country. And the government are worried, the moment the indigenous invited other social organisations to recognise the commonality, they see a threat to their dictatureship"

In Popayan, two hours further south, mainly campesinos organisations held a campesino and popular assembly on Monday in preparation for the precongress in Cali. They declare " In our territories, we, communities and organisations will not allows policies and laws to be applied that are harmful to us, that have not consulted with us, that do not take into account the wellbeing of all and that are not participatory, coordinated or integral. Handing over territory to private hands will not be accepted and we will assert our rights to sovereignty, autonomy and independence to maintain the integrity of our lands."
And in the north of the country, social organisacions write "With happiness and vitality typical of the communities, but also with the hope to change the hard conditions that characterise their lives, the habitants of the Sur de Bolivar and the south of Cesar are "navegating the word" down the river Magdalena towards Cartagena.

"The message that we want to spread nationally and internationally is clear, free mother earth and our territories from the proposals, policies and projects of death with proposals where life and happiness, are the foundations of the people as they build with dignity a free and self-determined future, it is the voice of the people in a country where death took control of the Great River Magdalena and the oblivion tried to occupy all the territory, leaving hope with none.

We are a people who have declared our resistance, faced with a violent and injust state, that acts through the dispossesion of land, natural resources, memoria and identity. Faced with this tough situation, the proposals of life of the communities are representes in the sound of the drums, the flute, the accordion, the bagpipes, and the maracas . This is the sound of the resistance which does not permit us to forget our numerous leaders who have been disappeared and murdered, such as Alejandro Uribe, Edgar Martínez and Edgar Quiroga; it is the rhythm through which victims of state crime, students, women, indigenous, workers miners, afro-colombians, small scale farmers, unions and many more Colombians continue to meet and see their own struggles in the struggle of their brothers and sisters. The proposal of the Minga of Social and COmmunity resistance is needed by all of us. "

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Day 2: Walking the Word in Cauca

The temporary camp awakes before dawn, its numbers swelled by the constante stream of civas that through the night, piled high with people, food and firewood. As day comes, the huge black tarpaulins that were strung up during last nights rain to create sleeping shelters for entire communities are already being folded up. The level of organisation is phenomenal. A camp for with 20000 people has breakfasted, showered, packed away and ready to march again in just three hours.

As we prepare to leave, a group of 100 Indígeneous Guard go running past, evenly spaced out, young and old, men and women, each with their bastion adornded with red and green ribbons, the red blood of the earth and the green of nature.

I walk a while chatting with a young guardia. “I joined two years ago, in my community of 500 people, 45 are in the guardia. When the pólice or army come into our resguardias, we get together to go and find them and remind them of the indigenous laws that does not allow the armed forces in our communities. We tell them to leave".

After the husband of Aida Quilcué, Chief Councillour of the CRIC, the Regional Indigenous Council and a spokesperson for the Minga , was killed in an army ambush in December 2008, the quick arrival and response of the Indigenous Guard preventing evidence being destroyed.

The Guardia Indigena today are coordinating the safety of the marchers. Unfortunately a guardia bastion, symbol of indigenous resistance, trips over a young guardia and she crashes to the floor. We rush over but she gets up quickly, and without hesitation, continues, now hobbling, in her part of a human chain that goes from the head to the tail of the march, walking the line in the middle of the road to protect us from traffic.

We march squeezed in on one side by container lorries on route to Buenaventura port and on the other by sugar cane as far as the eye can see. The symbolism is intense. From this enclosing on all sides by an imposed economic development model has arisen the 5 point agenda of the Minga. Economic models that use violence to squeeze communities until they must displace because they have nowhere left to live. Broken agreements with the government that means social movements must look for other solutions, no longer believing that the Colombian state will ever act in benefit of the poor.

The march is tiring, our feet ache, stomachs empty, a temporary physical discomfort yet this reflects daily reality for the majority in Colombia. Yet the march is inspiring and exciting as we all know that in many other places in the country people are also walking the word in the streets this week, joining the dots.

Campesinos from Choco are walking to Cali via Pereida talking about displacement about palm.

Small scale miners are heading to Cartagena down the River Magdalena taking about defense of the territory from multinationals that want to get control of the gold there.

Communities in Tolima against a huge open cast gold mine are talking about how this will destroy their livelihoods.

Communities along the river Sogamoso are in Minga, talking about the mega-dam that will destroy their communities.

Cartagena are in Minga, marching against hunger and will meet with those on route down the rvier Magdalena to build a common agenda.
And all are talking about the Agenda of the Peoples. How do we continue to work together to recognise what our different struggles have in common and create a different country. The conversations at the Pre-congresses on Wednesday and Thursday are going to be an important step in these conversations. Many social organisations still believe that the Minga is indigenous Feliciano Valencia, councillor of the CRIC says "we have to go beyond these particular identities that make each of us fight in our corner. I´m indigenous but an indigenous struggle is not going to change this country. This is a fight between the rich and the poor. And one day, we will win."

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Day 1: Walking the Word in Cauca

A flash of fork lightning cuts throught the dark brooding sky, as two thousand indigenous march with an spirit of confidence and dignity towards us. The red and green colours of CRIC, the Indigenous Council of Cauca, are held high on flags and low, tied around the neck. Daisy Juliana, part of the CRIC and with whom I shared a smile on the bus on the way to meet this first group of marching Mingueros, waits excitedly with us despite the thirty or so armed police near by.

In the 10 minutes that we waited by the side of the rural road, we had spotted one unmarked 4x4 parked up and a police man talking with civilians inside, two men on a motorbike that drove past three times, a private security guard alone on a bridge, an unmarked 4x4 parked on the hard shoulder and a police van that stopped. The presence of suspected paramilitaries is worrying yet all too normal in Colombia. Here paramilitaries groups, whose insitutional links with the Colombian state have been well documented, have used violence and the fear of violence to attack and destroy movements, such as the Minga of Social and Community Resistance, that want to create alternatives to the imposed Western economic “development” model.

As we are “walking the word” Daisy comes and finds me . “It is mainly young people here today, some elders will arrive tomorrow, but us young people are really motivated. We want to change things, we teach the kids, we still have hope that our future can be better” She greets a young lad who is hobbling “He always marches, him and his group from his village, their village is near mine, about 7 hours walk from here.” She pauses from talking to me to shout with others

“No to Uribes policy of democratic security....... No to multinationals in our lands taking our natural resources...... No to foreign military bases in Colombia”

The Minga was a proposal by the indigenous to other social sectors, to organise and come together around a common political agenda. The first steps have been taken with a year of hard work among campesinos, indigenous, students and community groups to dialogue around their individual issues, figure out what they have in common and work together to achieve changes that benefit all.

In the UK it would be like farmers and students coming together to talk about, for example, what privatisation of education and control of food prices by large supermarkets have in common, and from these commonalities coming up with political proposals and plans of action together to confront both. Like this, only with more social sectors involved and not just a vague distant dream of mine.

As we enter Villarica, people coming out of their houses to watch. The response by the mainly afrocolombian community varies from watching quitely from afar to clapping and cheering loudly to welcome the march. I assume most of the men are sugar cane cutters, as the village is in the green desert of Valle de Cauca. This work has been described as modern day slavery. There has been dialogue between the Minga and those sugar cane cutters well organised but they have not felt that they share a common agenda. It is tough work in tough conditions, but the spirit of Minga is to do this tough work. The idea is not to arrive with the solutions but through hard work to build them together. This week The Peoples Pre-Congress will take place in Cali, Cartagena and Bogota to continue doing this work, together.

It is a long ardous path ahead, to build a political proposal for the country that goes beyond regional and sectorial needs, to build a proposal that speaks to all Colombians. But at least they are on it. It is a path which we scarely know we need to walk in my homeland. A big sigh.

Thank you to the lovely family that thought nothing of letting me use a bedroom to write this article. Sharing and solidarity are so precious, beautiful and vital to resistance, to live with dignity.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Not the Climate for just Climate Justice Mobilisations in Colombia

A sunny morning in Colombia in 2009 in a well posh conference hall in Bogóta, Colombian flag behind the podium and no coffee allowed in the room cos it might spoil the wooden floor. Presentations began. M, from COSPACC , nervously took to the stage to share his tales of the impacts of BP in Casanare with other campesinos and indigenous from around the country. The occasion is an event to spark dialogue about if climate justice should be included in the agendas of the social organisations and if so, how?

Christian Aid initiated and funded the event as the political agenda of Christian Aid in the UK says to CA here that we want you to be working on climate justice as this is what our members and funders want us to be supporting. And so colonial power relationships continues to exist in Colombia.

Do the grassroots organizations already have this agenda or do they, while recognising that the debate is being pushed from outside, see the necessity to include climate justice in their agendas?

Climate Justice is barely visible on the mobilisation agendas of the social movements. It isn’t surprising. 381,000 people were displaced in 2008 alone, both the aim and the result of violence in areas rich in fuentes de vida, (sources of life). 1,177 members of the armed forces are currently under investigation linked with cases of extrajudicial killings, 

What does to mobilise mean, I am asked. Good question, in the UK to protest is culturally understood, but do we understand mobilise differently? Here's my take on it. To mobilise around climate change means to work over time with people to critically understand how the causes and impacts of climate change affect our lives, and from this, create proposals for how we might change this, and then to create space in society for these proposals to be heard and discussed, through workshops, assemblies, marches, occupations,......  

Unfortunately, here there is a wealth of options of what to mobilize around: water, energy, displacement, hunger, militrisation, war, education, housing…….. I feel that among social organisations there is a shared view that mobilising around climate change would not be effective as the impacts in communities can feel less severe and less urgent than the immediate pressures of daily life in a country at war against its own people.

Yet to take action against climate change, do we have to mobilise around climate change?

The Asociación de Cabildos Gernaro Sanchez spoke about how as their glaciers disappear , those who control the glacier streams have the power to decide who gets the water. If the water sources moves to private hands, those who can pay will get the scarcer water. If in the hands of an organised community, all will get an equal share. How are struggles against water privatization a struggle for climate justice?

The Comité Prodefensa de Taganga spoke about how as sea levels rise and warming sea temperatures threatens fish populations, the fisherman in the pretty seaside village of Tagana, organise against intensive tourism which threatens to further damage the fragile ecosystem and thus their livelihoods.

As BP, Repsol, Oxy continue to export Colombian oil to the global North, the community of Sogamoso in Santander fight against a mega-dam that will not only force 900 campesinos to leave their farms, but also threatens food sovereignty as will affect the fish population, the staple protein in the region. Struggles for the right to territory and food sovereignty are struggles for climate justice,

Listening to the presentations, I saw a pattern of how direct impacts of climate change are exacerbating already ridiculously tough living conditions. A clear consensus at the event was that both are caused by an imposed model of development that communities have been struggling against for five hundred years in defense of life, land and sovereignty.

While European organisations goes crazy with the sense that Copenhagen is the last chance to save the world, Beru, an U´Wa Indigenous from Arauca calmly says “Copenhagen is not really important to us, we feel no urgency nor sense that this is the last chance, we have been living on the brink of genocide for 500 years, due to colonization that continues today.” Quite. Quite a different perspective than that of us panicking Europeans. And his sentiment was echoed around the room.

The whole history of Grassroots social organisations could be framed as taking action against climate change, if we understand the root causes of human caused climate change as capitalism that imposes itself through violence. 

The Minga for Community and Social Resistance, a broad base coalition of campesinos, indigenous, workers and students that has collectively created a five point proposal for which they are trying to bring together different needs of different movements. El pueblo unido jamas será vencido rings through me. Economic model, defense of life, failed agreements, sovereignty, land and territory, and lastly, the peoples agenda. 

I am excited by the potential for convergence, connections and solidarity between the global North movement against climate justice and the Minga. For me, it is clear that the Minga is mobilizing for climate justice yet within much more. And by being based in much more, there is much more potential to connect to the difficulties that people face in their daily lives

The Climate Justice Action network formed to coordinate action around Copenhagen has in its aims that it wants to amplify the voices of indigenous and people affected by climate change in the Global South. Those involved should listen hard and act in solidarity in these next few weeks, as the Minga mobilisations hits the streets.

One of the aim of Climate Camps is movement building. That should not be be limited to bringing more people in to act on climate change but rather expanding our understanding of what action on climate change means and linking across to other social grassroots movements. 

Friday, October 2, 2009

biofuels and begging

Here is a letter I have just wrote to Bristol City Council opposing a proposed biofuel powerstation near the city. I thought I would share it.

I wish to object to W4B’s planning application to build a 50 MW biofuel power station at Avonmouth Docks, which would burn 90,000 tonnes of vegetable oil every year.

I have been working in Colombia since September 2008 and see daily the impact of monocrops, such as palm oil, have both on people and the environment. Just two days ago I had a really intense sad experience that, above all, is what is motivating me to write to object to this biofuel plant. Waiting at the traffic lights on route to an event about Climate Justice here in Bogota, the captial of Colombia, an old man approached my taxi. He was dressed as smartly as he could, dark suit, a tie and a felt hat, but he didn't look like your average suited man., his clothes while clean and tightly ironed were old and shabby. And his old, sunweathered face, that makes guessing ages very difficult, showed such a sadness. He held a carefully handwritten sign in his hand, "Please help my family, god bless you. We are displaced from the Magdalena Medio”.

The Magdalena Medio is a low lying tropical region through which the river Magdalena flows. The relationship between paramilitarism and african palm is clear. In the Magdalena Medio the african palm expanded after the paramilitary takeover of the region. The paramilitary takeover of the region, through violence and the threat of violence, caused massive displacement, the result of which is thousands of old men like this begging at traffic lights. The fear of violence meant that opposition to palm oil projects has been small, and those who have opposed it live at risk.

In April 2009 I attended the funeral of Edgar Martinez, a farmer on the banks of the river Magdalena and community leader, who was killed after leaving a meeting with the mayor San Pablo. He strongly spoke out about the impacts of palm oil plantations on his farming community and opposed new palm plantations. The murder of Edgar is not an isolated case, but a systematic repression of those who try to oppose monocrops becuase of the damage to the environment, their culture and their livelihoods.

Palm from the Magdalena Medio is exported to Europe and the USA for both use in cosmetics, food and biofuels. Since the beginning of September, the network I work with has been accompanying a village which was violently evicted by riot police at the orders of a palm oil company which sells to the Body shop.

If the use of palm oil grows in Britain, people will continue to be violently evicted from their homes and forced to urban areas to beg at traffic lights.

Bristol City Council must consider the impacts of planning decisions, not only in Bristol but globally and take a lead in acting responsibily to protect lives wherever they may be. If this biofuels plant is granted planning permission, it is very likely that it will contribute to yet more violent displacement for Colombian people. Thus I ask you to reject this development.

If you feel motivated to write a letter and right  now (as decision day is Tuesday) go to : biofuelswatch action page 

In recent months Biofuel power plant applications have been rejected in Newport, Weymouth and London. Could Bristol be a fourth?

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Jacquelina's story - La Historia de Jacquelina

El articulo en español aparece al final del texto de inglés.

Sifting through the mound of family's daily washing which all but covered the double bed Jacquelina aged 19 tells me how she doesn't want to get married yet. “Not until I have finished studying and trained in something....If things went badly what would I do, I couldn't leave if I didn't have my own job.”

She tells me about her dad as i edge on to the bed, slowly becoming visible as the clothes get stacked into eight piles, one for each family member. She was nine the day the paramilitaries arrived in La Gabarra and took control through the barrel of their guns. Hundreds were murdeded but her family stayed. Her dad a fisherman in the river Catatumbo. His life and livelihood the river. 

His daily catch diversified from the fish the length of his arm, fish that fed his family. He took on the gruesome task of fishing parts of mutilated body out of the river. He would later bury the remnants of touch, smell, sound, sight, taste, spirit, along the banks of the river. 


She is bored at school. A few years ago she had friends with whom she would play sport, organise fiestas and practice dances. Baseball is her favourite sport. But these girls all left school early, pregnant. She is the only one of the ground left and none of the others want to do anything fun. She goes to school, attends classes and comes home. Bored. 


Her dad was taken by a group of paramilitaries one cloudless beautiful early morning. Her mother searched for him, for the shadow of him, from the hour of making the arepas to the hour of washing the kids after much play in the unpaved streets. As dusk passed her rapidly by, she found the courage to visit the paraco in charge in his office. Her mother, with dignity, asked if he knew why her husband had been disappeared. It hadn't been an order and the paraco was feeling generous that cloudless starfull evening. He ordered her husband, not yet a shadow, to be turned out on to the streets. 


She loves physics and maths but struggles with chemistry. Snap. She has friend in the town council and is hopeful that once she finishes college she may be able to get a job there, starting at the bottom and working her way up, learning skills and earning a salary as she goes.


Aged 10 her and her mother found a dismembered body on the river bank.  Arms, legs and head cut off, the chest wide opened. She describes me the details calmly, no big deal, as we sit resting in chairs outside in the front street, washing all folded and put away now.


She tells me how she bashed into someone earlier, a teenager from one of the delegations who have came on this Pilgrimage, the political – cultural -religous journey that brought 300 of us to La Gabarra. She tells me how embarrased she was but that the lad had responded with a lovely smile and made her laugh. 


She was too young for her to be taken as a “girlfriend” by one of the paracos. “Lots of teenage girls had to be the girlfriend of one of them. They did horrible things to them. I don't want to think about it.”


Some of the teengage lads from CISCA walk past a few minutes later. In the dark street she thought it might be one of them. I call them over with the excuse of asking what time we are meeting for the final rehearsal before the perform their drama piece about displacement, death and life. I look at her and she shakes her head, not one of them. They move on.


She overhears a man in a shop that morning. He is angry with us. This is not a commemoration but a celebration of death. He spits the words out. She translates him. Anger, impotence for what happened. Impotence for what may happen again.                                                       


               "In spite of the hard hits we endured, we can still smile."

She is really suprise that so many people have come to take part in this event to remember the 10th anniversary of the massacres in La Gabarra. “It's awesome that people have not forgotten what happened to us here. And others are happy too even though they didn't take part in the march this morning. They were waiting for the mass to begin. I saw a big group of people from the village in one corner. And they later went to the bridge and took part in the act there too, throwing flowers into the water. ” 

She liked what the bishop had said in the mass. People that forget their histories run the risk of repeating it. Me too. 

La historia de Jacqueline

Arreglando el montón de ropa para lavar de toda la familia que cubría la cama doble, Jacqueline, de 19 años, me cuenta que todavía no quiere casarse. “No hasta cuando haya terminado mis estudios y aprendido algo … Si las cosas van mal, ¿qué haría, no podría salir si no tuviera mi propio trabajo.”

Me cuenta de su padre en cuanto me acerco a la cama que poco a poco aparece debajo de ocho pilas de ropa, una para cada miembro de la familia. Ella tenía nueve años cuando los paramilitares llegaron a La Gabarra y tomaron el control a través de sus fusiles. Cientos fueron asesinados, pero su familia se quedó. Su padre, un pescador en el río Catatumbo. Su vida y su medio de vida fueron el río. 

Entonces sus pescas cambiaron, ya no eran sólo el pescado del tamaño de un brazo, el pescado que alimentaba la familia. Asumió la espantosa tarea de pescar del río partes de cuerpos mutilados. Más tarde enterraría los restos de tacto, olor, sonido, vista, sabor, espíritu en las orillas. 

Ella se aburre en la escuela. Hace algunos años tuvo amigas con quienes jugaba deportes, organizaba fiestas y practicaba bailes. Baseball es su deporte favorito. Pero las muchachas dejaron la escuela temprano, embarazadas. Ella es la única que queda y los otros no quieren hacer nada divertido. Ella va a la escuela, asiste a clases, y regresa a casa. Aburrida. 

Una hermosa mañana despejada su padre fue llevado por un grupo de paramilitares. Su madre lo buscó, buscó su sombra, desde la hora de marcar las arepas hasta la hora de lavar a los niños luego de muchas horas de juego en las vías destapadas. A la hora de caer el sol juntó la valentía de buscar al paraco encargado en su oficina. Su madre, con dignidad, preguntó si él sabía por qué había desaparecido su marido. No era una orden, y el paraco se sintió generoso esa noche estrellada. Ordenó que soltaran a su marido, todavía no una sombra. 
A ella le fascina la física y la matemática, pero lucha con la química. Tiene un amigo en el concejo y espera que cuando termine el colegio vaya a encontrar un trabajo allí, empezando desde abajo y escalando con su trabajo, aprendiendo habilidades y ganando un salario.  
Cuando tenía diez años, ella y su madre encontraron un cuerpo desmembrado en la orilla. Brazos, piernas y la cabeza cortados, el pecho abierto. Tranquilamente me describe los detalles, no parece nada serio, nosotras descansando en sillas afuera sobre la calle, con la ropa doblada y ahora guardada. 
Me cuenta cómo antes se tropezó con alguien, un joven de una de las delegaciones que vinieron para la Peregrinación, el viaje político-cultural-religioso que trajo a 300 de nosotros a La Gabarra. Me cuenta lo avergonzada que estuvo, pero que el joven respondió con una sonrisa hermosa y la hizo reír. 

Ella era demasiado joven como para ser “novia” de un paraco. “Muchas jóvencitas tenían que ser novias de ellos. Hicieron cosas horribles con ellas. No quiero pensar en eso.”                                          
Algunas de los jóvenes del CISCA pasan unos minutos más tarde. En la calles oscura ella piensa que tal vez es uno de ellos. Los llamo con el pretexto de preguntar por la hora en que quedamos para el último ensayo antes de la presentación de su obra de teatro sobre desplazamiento, vida y muerte. La miro y mueve su cabeza, no es uno de ellos. Siguen su camino. 
En la mañana escucha a un hombre en una tienda. Está enfadado con nosotros. No es una conmemoración sino una celebración de la muerte. Escupe la palabra. Ella lo traduce. Rabia, impotencia por lo que pasó. Impotencia frente a lo que pueda ocurrir otra vez. 

Está realmente sorprendida que tanta gente han venido a participar en ese evento para recordar el décimo aniversario de las masacres de La Gabarra. “Es bacano que la gente no ha olvidado lo que nos pasó acá. Y otros también están felices a pesar de que no participaron en la marcha esta mañana. Estaban en el polideportivo esperando a que empezara la misa. Vi un grupo grande de gente del pueblo en un rincon. Y luego se fueron al puente y participaron en el acto allí también, tirando flores al agua.”

Le gustó lo que dijo el obispo en la misa. Gente que olvida su historia corre el riesgo de repetirla. A mí me gustó también. 

Monday, August 24, 2009

In your country, is there also war?

Helicopters overhead, vallenato tunes reaching my ears from all direction, children squealing as they bathe together, the cluck of chickens searching for any sign of food in the bare yard, soldiers pass through the village, buying lunch, just an average day here. I go to use the toilet at 6am to find a solider showering there. His helmet on the wall where I wash my hands. I am in the municipal of El Tarra, one of the most heavily militarised municipals in the region, with an estimated one thousand soldiers present.

Two weeks ago the Colombian government gave the USA permission to use seven military bases for US soldiers from which they will carry out military operations both inside and outside of Colombia. The argument given for this unconstitutional agreement is anti-drugs and anti terrorism. In Catatumbo I have met young people with far smarter answers to these arguments than foreign military in their territory. 

Yesterday I watched a group of children and young people prepare small sketches. One of the groups portrayed the paramilitary invasion in to their community ten years ago. As the armed men broken into the house shooting, the daughter feigning death, heard her parents being slaughtered. Filled with revenge she escaped and went to join the guerillas. Filled with bitterness, knowing the army had allowed the paramilitaries to carry out many massacres, she fought against the army. And yet in her improvisation, the desire for no more deaths overwhelmed her in a moment and she took out the white t-shirt, held it high above her head and cried out “why cant we just have peace, peace for my country?”

And in this piece she told me a simple reason for why many young people continue to join the guerrilla groups. One of many. 

Another is the near impossibility to learn new skills, get good work. Fighting is one current option to get paid work: army, police, paramilitary, FARC, ELN. Another popular option is raspando, picking coca leaves to make cocaine. 

Bullet Holes and Aguilas Negras Graffiti: Classroom occupied by the paramilitaries in 2002 in the village of Filo Gringo. 

While in a shop the owner immediately started asking us if we knew of opportunities for his son to become a professional solder. His son had heard there was a shortage and wanted to train. Did we know of any veterinary courses that had programmes to support students from poor backgrounds. His nephew wanted to work with cattle. Did we know of a way to get on a mechanics course. Another nephew thought he could make a living if he got good qualifications. 

We did not know. 

If the Colombian government really wanted a anti-drugs policy they would know where these sons and nephews could get support to study. They would be trying to open doors for young people so they can follow dreams and not get drawn in to the conflict and coca.

They are not.

They are permitting a foreign army to become involved in the internal armed conflict thereby exacerbating the confrontation and diminishing the possibility of peace. They are giving military bases to the USA from which attacks could be launched on neighboring democratic and progressive governments. They are giving US soldiers full impunity for crimes that they may commit.

After the rehearsal, one of you teenage girls asked me:

“y en tu pais, hay guerra tambien?”

“in your country, is there war as well? ” 

The following day a boy asked me:

"el conflicto alla, donde vives, es mas fuerte que aca o menos?"

"the conflict there, where you live, is it worse than here?"

Conflict is such a part of everyday life that kids assume that it is normal. Twisted brutal reality.

Yet it is staggeringly beautiful that while they improvised much conflict and murders in their sketches, that they also had the vision to improvise peace, performing the possible.

Written on 11th August


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Planting among landmines

Sitting on our friend's porch in Ocaña, with the mountains in the distance and the early morning sun warming my face, I felt happy to be back in Catatumbo. Yet this contentment was odd, considering that that same day we were heading to an area where the local population live with the daily fear of landmines. Just two weeks before a campesino had to have his left leg amputated after stepping on one.

I wondered, when told, what I could do constructively with this information. Several options came to mind: be worry and be nervous; forget I was ever told; or trust the people I am going with that the paths we will use will be safe. Yet what I thought about most when we were walking these paths was that I know that I would have a much much higher chance of getting a replacement limb (if I survived) than the dear friends from the region I was walking with. And that is fucked up. It hurts me thinking about it; that because of my passport I could get a new leg and they could get a new stick to help them walk. I struggled to think whether there was any value in sharing this reflection with my friends. I didn't. But is silence on an all to apparent privilege useful? Is it kinder to them not to speak the truth, not to remind them of what they already know. That the current global hierarchy based on passport/racialised identity/class puts them pretty low down. And so their right to health and consequently, their very right to life is deemed less important than mine.

Perhaps the question should have been, speak truth to who?

I ponder and I feel that the best option is what I am doing right now, speaking truth to you english speaking priviliged folk. England did not gain their/our/its wealth and fairly good free health care system from just the hard work of the english. Wealth was gained through several hundred years of colonialism, that continues today in the form of multinational corporations controlling and carrying away the wealth of the minerals that rest in the Andean mountains.

People from colonised countries deserve equal standards of health care as us english do.

I was told that the mines are left by both guerilla and army who combat in the area. The farm where we stayed is to become a model farm based on principles ; a seed bank to rescue traditional seeds of the region, many types of local chickens, pigs and cattle and a program to improve the quality of these local breeds. The owner, who has donated the land to this project, a step towards the vision of food sovereignty in the region, showed us where they want to turn some of the wooded areas into fields. Yet it is known that various armed actors use this as a route from one valley to another, and rumours have it that there may be mines, or there may not be.

The presence of land mines has grown as conflict between the army and the guerrilla has intensified. Control of this territory has geo-strategic importance as it borders Venezuela and is rich in oil, gold, coal and land suitable for growing palm. The pipeline carrying oil from Arauca to the Atlantic coast for export also runs through the mountainous region. Yet control of the territory is not just about destroying the guerrilla, for the Colombian state it is also about destroying the social organisations and fabric in the region so that people are left with no possibility of organising to ensure that development means development for and by those who live there, and not for foreign corporations who would control and benefit from the mega-projects.

The paramilitary occupation of the region from 1999 to 2005 destroyed Catatumbo's social organisations and community fabric; communities divided and dispersed, farms and crops abandoned, community shops burnt down by paracos, schools closed for lack of students, community leaders particularly targetted. Campesinos in Catatumbo have never doubted the institutional links between the paramilitaries violence and the Colombian States and slowly information is beginning to coming to light proving what they have always known: that the State and the paramilitaries worked together to terrorise local populations in order to develop the oil, coal and palm oil industry.

On Sunday 5th July, hours before catching the bus from Bogota to the region a friend sent me a link for an article from La Semana, a major weekly national magazine.

“The Army allowed the Paramilitaries into Catatumbo

For the first time a high official publically admits how he participated in one the most bloody paramilitary invasions.

One of the first things that Llorente admitted was the way in which they paramilitaries arrived in Catatumbo. On 29th May 1999, in an unprecendented operation several lorries, carring 200 heavily armed paramilitaries, travelled from Córdoba across five departments to La Gabarra, Catatumbo without any obstacle. Two generals participated in the planning meeting and designed the strategy with Mancuso and Carlos Castaño [leaders of the AUC, national paramilitary group]. His witness statement coincides with those made by demobilised paramilitaries.”

In the first year of the paramilitary incursion in Catatumbo more than 20000 people were displaced, an unknown number of people disappeared, and 800 official murders, the majority of which took place in massacres.

Living with fear of landmines is not a new fear for the Catatumberos.

Yet last week, dancing in Bogota with people from the region who had travelled for 24 hours for the launch of a Campaign for the Victims of Catatumbo, you would not easily spot fear in the room. Hidden deep in layers of resilience, dignity and survival, the victim of Catatumbo is more likely to be found laughing about Bogota people trying to drink boligancho or complaining it is an hour past dinner time and they still haven't eaten.


Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The human price of coal mining

Fifteen years ago Roche was a hub of rural activity in the municipal of Barranca, La Guajira, a dry arid region in the northeastern tip of Colombia. It was home to 500 families but 483 families have gone. In their place is a sea of red and white striped posts, marking out the plots of land that until recently contained the daily lives, cultures and family memories of the thousands of people who have been forced to leave their lives. The posts mark out the land that is now owned by Cerrejón, one of the largest opencast coal mines in the country.

To walk among these posts filled me with an intense feeling of sadness of lives being slowly suffocated as the mine creeps forward. To live among these posts, with the whines of mine machinery playing over the sound of the wildlife, appears to me like psychological torture for the remaining 17 families.

The majority of Roche’s residents, along with those of nearby villages Patilla, Chancleta and Tamaquito, lived off the fertile land by the banks of the River Rancheria. Life revolved around growing food crops both for themselves and on larger farms as hired hands, rearing cattle, hunting rabbit and goat, and fishing. The Roche residents who remain spoke to us of life now. The land has been poisoned by the coal dust and is no longer productive. The track down to the river from which they used to collect sand for making cement had a trench dug across it preventing vehicle access. Men have been detained by the police when fishing, told that Cerrejón now owns the river that runs past their village and thus illegal to fish in it. Men have been detained when hunting, for trespassing on what was once village lands but is now the private property of Cerrejón.

The local socio-economic system of the area is being obliterated, forcing people from the communties of Patilla, Chancleta, Roche and Tamaquito, an indigenous community, to leave in search of a source of food and income elsewhere. The highest levels of displacement in Roche came post 2001 when a nearby village, Tabaco, was razed to the ground by bulldozers protected by the Colombian armed forces.

“Tabaco pyschologically affected us and people began to sell up for whatever price the company was offering. Cerrejón took advantage of the fear to buy the land for next to nothing and people had to leave Roche, their community.” Resident of Roche

Former residents of Tabaco recently signed an agreement with the owners of Cerrejón, BHP Biliton, Anglo American and Xstrata in which they will be relocated and compensated. I was shown the payment slip for the compensation by a woman wanting answers I could not give. She could not understand how the compensation was for just $200,000 pesos (about £50). “Is this it? Is this our compensation after everything we suffered and 8 years of fighting for some justice? It is an insult.”

While there is an urgency for a solution, the communities are adamant that they deserve at the very least a dignified compensation for their physical and psychic losses, and to be relocated to a site of their choosing with a quality of life at least equal to what they had before the communities social fabric was unpicked.

“Every day we feel the contamination getting worse, we need solutions to this now. The good practice of the company would be to relocate the entire village in one go, instead they are doing it individually, and only with people born in the villages, and so dividing the communities.”

On Wednesday 20th April, at the invitation of the communities of Roche, Chancleta, and Tamaquito, and under pressure by a visiting international delegation and Sintracarbon, the union representing Cerrejón workers, representatives of Cerrejón attended a meeting with around 150 people from the communities. More would have liked to have participated but health issues, which they connect to the mine’s presence, made this difficult.

The first issue on the agenda was about the resettlement process. Involuntary resettlement due to mining projects, according to the World Bank, should be done in coordination with the affected communities.

“First Cerreón has to work with us in making a list of what relocation involves, housing, productive projects, amenities. After this is done, they should consult around every one of these points. But they didn’t, their first error. Second error, which can be considered more serious, is that despite the company not doing this, they published on their webpage a completed plan for settlement and said that they had consulted with the communities of Roche, Chancleta and Patilla. What did the company want with this lie? Trick the community? the international community? the local governance? all of the above?“

Roche village leader, community meeting with Cerrejón, 20th May 2009

Other issues presented by the community were around the productive projects, health issues, and the behaviour of the company towards the communities. The final issue of the day was around independent advisors.

Community members had previously reflected that whereas Cerrejón has access to an expert team of advisors, the communities have nothing and as such are being manipulated and lied to by the company. For example, one member spoke about how they were invited to a meeting in the mine, where Cerrejón’s legal advisor told them that they did not need advisors, as the company would just negotiate directly with them. Recognising the near comicalness of being told this by a very advisor of Cerrejón, the communities of Roche, Tamaquito and Chancleta united and presented a proposal to Cerrejón. No more negotiations until they have independent advisors, paid for by the company. Cerrejón must give a yes or no by the 31st May.

The following day we met with community members from Barranco, another village. They told us how representatives of Cerrejón are holding meetings and visiting families to talk about future relocation. What was interesting was how the people had been convinced so quickly that they had no other choice, but to go. They know though that they will have to fight for this to be in a dignified and just manner.

It appears to me that Cerrejón is willing to spend the money necessary on its well paid Corporate Social Responsibility and public relations team but not willing to spend the money necessary for a dignified and just relocation of the communities who live on top of the valuable coal.

What is the thinking, individually and institutionally, that justifies these decisions? The dangers of what a just relocation precedent would mean globally? Historical white racism that sees these communities as inferior and therefore not as deserving? And what thinking justifies extracting the coal out the ground at such an incredible speed that, according to Sintracarbon, in 30 years there will be no coal left, the mine will close and the dominant economy of the region will collapse?