Tuesday, August 24, 2010

An ecological experiment with bamboo and pop bottles

Please carry us” shouted the women to the bus driver that went slowly past us heading up the dusty unpaved road. The laughter filled the air even as it looked like the driver wasn't going to let us on but then he signalled us to climb on through the back door. The ten of us piled on, amidst “god bless you” and numerous jokes about how he would be a good husband. Solidarity on the normal buses is ever present and they always let you travel for less than the official price and sometimes when near the end of the line, they let you ride for free.... all ten of us.

Meanwhile the Transmillenium bus system, the multimillion dollar transport system never lets you on for less than the official price, imposing an altogether different culture of 'rights for those who can pay'. Several students have been run over and killed this year alone as they didn't have the money to pass through the barriers so instead tried to jump through the bus access doors. Students poured out of colleges on mass blocking the bus routes and demanding that a student price be introduced so that the city's poor students don't have to choose between eating, transport or risking their life. The response was the riot police but the political space seems to have been created for the debate.

Back to our day out. We scrambled excitedly out of the bus at the end of the line and headed toward the plot of land. It is a plot right on the edge of the city, you only see fields and trees and most importantly you only breathe clean air, high up in the mountains above the smog level.

Wilson, a young lad from the organisation “Jovenes Proponen” -Youth Propose – from Ciudad Bolivar explains the project to us. “We want to have a place where young people can come and learn new skills, choose a different route in life to joining gangs and learn about the relationship between humans and our environment and how this capitalist way of building is destroying our environment, our home

They are building a education centre out of guadua, clay mixed with horse shit and plastic bottles filled with plastic bags. Seven thousand plastic bottles roughly. The women from Paraiso got excited and inspired “so many of us had to work so hard to buy the bricks for our house, they are so expensive. If only we had known about another way to build.....”. They offered immediately, only to happy to help, to collect bottles to contribute to the project,

Local neighbours have been inspired by the project and have got involved, coming down to help with work in their free time. They proudly tell us how they have planted peas, potatos, peppers and lettuces and about their irrigation system, again using plastic bottles. In return the women from Paraiso introduced themselves and shared their thoughs:

I like to be nosy and find out what is happening in other places, but not to be nosy for the sake of it but to learn new things. I am very happy to be here today” says Elvira

For me it is very important that people are building again with bamboo and clay. That's how they build in my region. And it is a great idea to use the rubbish from this city so we don't have to exploit more natural resources” says Carmen

It brings back memories being here, where I come from we used bamboo a lot. We used it to carry water in, and I use to hide avocados inside them” says Gratiniano. I didn't find out quite who he hid the avocados from.

Maria presents the women's project “We are a smallish but solid and determined group of women from Paraiso who want to organise ourselves so that we don't keep being exploited. We have a small allotment where we have strawberries and peas and arachacha planted and also we have a wormery so that we can make good compost from our waste products. If you wanted to come and visit us one day it would be good. So we can continue sharing experiences of how to produce food. Also it would be wonderful if we could come here and begin to cultivate some of the unused land around this plot.”

The land around the plot belongs to either Victor Caranza or Forrero Fetequa, we aren't sure which but we are sure that they are both part of Colombia's landowning class.

Colombia has one of the most unequal land distributions in the world, achieved through violent dispossession of the lands and wealth of first indigenous peoples and now also of peasant farmers and afro-colombian communities. At the end of 2009 there were up to 4.9 million internally displaced people (IDP) in Colombia, bringing it alongside Sudan as one of the two largest internal displacement situations in the world. In 2009 alone there was a reported 290,000 people displaced. This massive displacement has resulted in over 6 million hectares of productive land being abandoned by campesinos.

The current Internal Displacement Situation situation has to be seen in the context of a historical movement of expansion by the land-owning elites, an agrarian and structural problem, complicated and compounded since the 1970s by drug-trafficking and the presence of large international corporations.” [1]

Using this land above the urbanised part of Ciudad Bolivar for growing food on would definately ease the problem of hunger but the land is earmarked as part of the Mining Industry Park, which will not ease problems of hunger.

As we walked back to El Paraiso the women commented to me how many of the houses, built from tin, plastic and wood, that we passed on our way home were not their a year ago. Signs of displaced peasant farmers trying to find a patch of land where no one will violently kick them off.

[1] Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre


Monday, August 23, 2010

Building Popular Power: CISCA's regional assembly Part 2

My memory of assemblies are of day after day sat cross-legged
on school hall floors singing hymns from the Come and Praise hymn book and listening to fables and school news. Here in Latin America assemblies have a very different collective historical meaning.

Lets re-imagine the school assembly. Gone is the lifeless out of tune sound of childrens voices repeating kumbayah. Instead the space is alive with groups of teachers and students discussing the governments policy on education. Each group feeds back to the plenary and people listen eagerly for consensus from which school policy will be built. Others listen for unresolved questions and makes suggestions for how each class can work on exploring further the question so that for the next assembly the ideas will have been matured and advanced. This is the type of assembly I wish was in our collective memory.

As I try to bridge different cultures I will continue with the metaphor a little longer.... the Come and Praise hymn book where each song carried the same message of thanks to god is like the Colombian daily news which presents lots of different news but that all converges to the same idea: Democratic Security is good and necessary and anyone that opposes it is the enemy.

In CISCA's assembly the hymn book is replaced by presentations on topics related to the reality of the participants, the prayers replaced by group discussions, and the lecture by the head teacher replaced by large group discussions to make decisions and decide the ongoing strategy.

Some notes
No.1: National Current Situation

National, international and mafia capital mixed together in most investment projects. Free Trade Agreements with the EU and the US give more space for mafia profits to be “lost”. Huge accumulation of all three capital continues through three strategies:

  1. Over-exploitation of workers achieved through violating human rights. For example the majority of those lucky enough to find work in the formal sector will only have work for three months and then can now legally sacked so that the company can avoid all social security costs Companies have saved 75% in labour costs.

  2. Exploitation of Natural Resources and Peasant, Indigenous and Afro-Colombian Territories

  3. Financial Speculation

Colombia has been condemned to fulfil three roles in the global economy.

  1. Provider of fossil fuels

  2. Provide non strategic primary agricultural materials (fruits, rubber, cocoa)

  3. Transport Infrastructure so that global capital can circulate more quickly.

Santos, as the new president and part of Colombia's oligarchy, may decide to prioritise legal capital over mafia capital. Most worrying for the assembly of CISCA is his call for 'National Unity'.

The so called National Unity is an effort to remove all oppostion from the map and build an empty consensus through the power of the media that gives him complete freedom to advance however he wants without debate or even justification” [1]

In groups people discussed how this would mean a continuation of the State strategy of criminalising oppostion and expressed worries that the next four or eight years would be the same if not worse than what they have already lived through under the ex-President Uribe.

We are against the politics of the Santos government because they go against our Planes de Vida - our Community Development Plans” declared the assembly.

No.2: Mining in Colombia

Mining is a reality and I am not going to oppose it” stated the new Environmental Minister. “Well at least we know we can count on no support there, then” said Aramides. While the Environment Ministry bans the Bari indigenous people from entering the national park within their reserve to collect wood in the name of conservation, they are not going to put any obstacles in the way of plans for a 20,000 hectare open cast coal mine in the same park. After listening to a presentation about the negative and supposed positive impacts of mining we returned to groups again to discuss what CISCA's position on mining should be.

As peasant farmers we aren't trained to work in mines, the jobs will go to people from outside the region. We are skilled at getting a good crop. We should oppose the mine and increase food production to combat poverty.”

After much discussion, which began in 2007 and has been ongoing in CISCA's consultivas, the assembly reafirmed its commitment to oppose all extractive mining in its territory as part of the defense of their own community development plans.

No.3 Impacts of US Southern Command 2018 Strategy for Integrated Action

The USSOUTHCOM is implementing a military-civil strategy in 9 regions of Colombia, one of them being Catatumbo in order to win full territorial control. This included control of the economy, the physical area, the social organisations, the peoples mind. According to their Strategic Document 2018 “the region will not win the war against poverty increasing their participation in the reduced global agricultural sector. They should use their energy in producing more sophisticated exports.” This means that in Catatumbo the economic model that is already being imposed is production of non-basic food crops for export, such as palm, cocoa, tropical fruits. So where does the food come from? The so called unsophisticated exports, that is basic staples such as wheat, rice and maise, is now being exported to Colombia from.....the USA.

In practice, the doctrine of integrated action may mean that brigades of soliders begin to provide basic health cover or play the role of teachers in the region. Leaders expressed disgust that the USSOUTHCOM, with the full support of the Colombian State, is taking advantage of the overwhelming need for better health care and education to coopt and control the region through the use of government handouts, and is going against international humanitarian law to not involve the civilian population in the armed conflict.

In my group, men spoke about the hard work needed to convince their communities of the long term strategy behind these handouts which goes against the needs of the people in the region and to take a dignified position. They spoke about the need to not allow these programs to enter their communities in the first place. They reminded each other that it is the Colombian State that has a legal obligation to provide these human rights. The different groups later converged and there was a shared view in the assembly that they need to be more organised and mobilise to confront these programmes. Concrete proposals were put forward to reclaim community spaces such as schools, health centres from military occupation by marking them as 'peace spaces' (eg signs banning the entrance of arms, organising on mass to ask them to leave.) The need for this was marked by the (un)timely illegal arrival of the army to the assembly. They were politely but firmly asked to leave and reminded that we have the right to assembly without interference by the armed forces.

This is a just a snippet of the four days of discussion and decision making, a taste of a collective way to analyise what is going on and a way to come up with huge amounts of concrete actions to confront this (though I do fear they came up with way too many proposals and the collective decision making should have narrowed these down).

As we are leaving the assembly we hear news on the radio from the community of El Tarra, who are also particpating in the assembly. The army had been shot at in their barracks and in response, according to witnesses, they had shot at all young lads they found in the street at that moment, killing one and injuring three others. They had tried to place a gun by the side of the dead una joven aprendiendo como grabar
16 year old which caused indignation by those who saw and people
spontaenously rose up to oppose this injustice. Three army vehicles were burnt, the mayor's office and bank, and with sticks and stones the army was forced to retreat to their base admist shouts accusing them of murdering over 5000 people in the region.

Militry check point at entrance to El Tarra (2009)

While the assembly demanded the demilitrisation of the region and of civil life, the people of El Tarra were expressing with their bodies the urgent need to demilitrise their territory. And winning.

Thanks to J for the photos

[1] 'A dragon dressed as a dove', Editorial Periferia (in spanish)

Friday, August 13, 2010

Building Popular Power: CISCA`s Regional Assembly

Part 1

As the bus bumped along the unpaved roads, recently eroded yet more by the ongoing rains, I ask Ismael to update me on the security situation in Catatumbo. “Since the elections in May things have been quiet, calm. What is really bad are the ongoing rains. There have been lots of floods, and many parts of the region have been cut off due to landslides blocking roads.” We hold our breath as we go slowly round a tight curve with half of the road fallen away - bendy buses might be the solution we joke!

We are making our way to the third assembly of CISCA – Committee for the Social Integration in Catatumbo, a peasant farmer grassroots organization which emerged in 2005 to rebuild the community organizations that were wiped out by more than 7 years of para-military occupation.
I delight to meet with old friends but notice the lack of some. “Many people from Asserrio haven´t come because two girls from the village drowned last week. There was a flood which swept away the houses. They haven´t found the bodies, disappeared” Miriam tells me matter of factly as is her way. “One was my half cousin, but I still wanted to come to the assembly. What can you do. Nothing. She is gone.”

Yet Miriam is a fighter, while we don´t make the connection in this moment, she knows there is much that can be done and is doing it. While the militrisation of this territory rich in natural resources and of geostrategic importance continues to kill, the lack of social development is also killing; roads, hunger, mal nutrition, curable health problems cause unnecessary deaths each day. CISCA´s community life plans are a concrete response to both these realities. They are about deciding together what social development means for us Catatumberos and then implementing concrete autonomous projects to begin this experiment in self-governance. Supporting Miriam as she blossoms into a young talented leader is a joy. She is beginning to take on the huge challenge of actively dreaming of a Catatumbo where deaths like that of her cousin are something of the past. She became involved in CISCA last August through some street theatre we put together as part of the pilgrimage to commemorate the 10 year anniversary of the worst massacres in Catatumbo.

The assembly began with a ritual. In groups we wrote down an injustice which prevents children from becoming community leaders. The messages “they don’t know the history of our country” “domestic violence” “fear because of all the violence that has happened to those who spoke out” “education which is technical and lies about the reality” were then ceremoniously burnt on the fire while positive messages were read out.

This was followed with stories about local indigenous resistance to colonization. Up to the 1930´s it was a sport for the white Americans who had arrived to exploit oil in Catatumbo to hunt the “savages” at the weekend. By savages they meant the Bari indigenous community. We heard how indigenous fought back. We heard how they fought back to defend their territory; bows and arrows against lead. Catatumberos are a mix of german, Spanish and Bari heritage yet colonial racist views of the indigenous as being inferior and the European as superior are still embedded strongly in people. These stories play such an important role in challenging this internalized racism. And Luis Antonio, a Bari leader present ended the evening with some important words “The histories that you have heard of persecution, displacement, and resistance is not what it was like. It is what it is like.”
Part 2 to follow. For now I am going to return to the group. I can hear the evening´s cultural activities and the clapping of many compañeras as local musicians, dancers and actors share their local cultures and traditions in opposition to mass produced homogenous entertainment.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The closure of a chapter and the start of a new one in Casanare

Midday through writing this, I hear that my partner, the organisation he is part of (Solidarity Committee with Political Prisoners) and other compañeros from NGO's and social organisations in Cali have received death threats, the third against him in the last two months. Yet we both know that we must continue telling the stories of how people are trying to resist and build social organisations. All too often news from Colombia is a depressing list of threatened people and organisations. So here is the story of a weekend of weaving webs of hope, written while I chew my nails and my stomach churns.....

I arrive at Tauramena before sunrise and witnessed for the first time the huge gas flares. Just as the gas flares dominate the night sky with a bright orange glow, the oil industry dominates all aspects of life in Casanare. I had come to witness the closure of a chapter in the history of oil in Casanare and the start of a new one. It was a huge privilege to witness.

The previous evening, after five long months of negotiation and mobilizations, the Movement for the Dignity of Casanare signed an agreement with BP that includes action on basic labour, social and environmental issues. The agreement includes among other things a small but significant wage increase, investment in local roads, a commitment to finance a forum on the human rights situation in Casanare and an independent study in to the environmental impacts of the oil industry.

"Our lives are not for sale. BP supports the violence"

Previously, communities and workers have not been able to speak out against BP for fear of being targetted by the paramilitaries. This agreement is historical and important yet I noticed the lack of celebrations. Rather, people spoke about this just being the beginning.

Firstly we need to ensure that BP sticks to the agreement and that the commitments are met. That is not going to be easy. Secondly, we need to build the Movement for the Dignity of Casanare and unite us much more. We could have achieved double, triple what we achieved if we were more united but BP used many dirty tactics to manipulate and turn people against us” Pacho tells me.

Pacho speaking during a community and workers assembly in March 2010

We head over to the school where today's workshop is going to take place: Exchanging Experiences on the Impacts of the Oil Industry. As I greet the people who have travelled from around Casanare, I recognise familiar faces from different documentaries that COSPACC, the NGO I am with, have made. I particularly remember one guy being filmed while harvesting crops from his farm beside the River Ariporo “I'm not leaving Casanare because of all this I have planted, yuca, plantain, maize. Here we live well.” he tells the camera with a big warm grin on his face. And in real life he is just the same. You would warm to him straight away.

We start the workshop with a great exercise which sparks sincere exchange and trust building: we form two concentric circles and pair up with the matching person. We are asked to introduce ourselves, where we are from, and share briefly with the other what is our experience of the oil industry in our municipal. We then return to the whole group and introduce our partner to everyone else, sharing what we have learnt.

We hear stories of how seismic exploration in Visinaca has left vital summer water sources with much less water and in some cases, with no water, cutting off the lifeblood to their farms, especially those that were fish farmers. Efforts at compensation have not been listened to.

We hear stories of how peasant farmers from Monterralo said no to seismic exploration only to later receive a copy of a decree which tells them they have no say or choice over the matter. It is going ahead. Miguel offers information which the authorities and companies would rather was not exchanged. He reminds them that the Colombian constitution states that 'Every person has the right to enjoy a healthy environment. The law will guarantee the community's participation in the decisions that may affect it.' The decree can be challenged he said.

We hear the story of how an U'wa indigenous leader was killed after refusing payment in exchange for allowing oil exploration in indigenous territory. Instead of being weakened, the U'wa people took the decision to not talk with the oil industry until there is a full investigation in to the murder of their leader. “Money is nothing, it will end. What is important is our territory, where we live, where we walk, where we get water from, what we leave for our children. The oil industry is a cancer destroying our mother earth. We must defend our territory

Campesinos from Paz de Ariporo share their tactics for fighting against oil exploration in their municipality . He tells us proudly how they refuse to sign attendance records when meeting with the oil industry, wise to the dirty tactics of these records being used to tick consultation boxes. He tells us their strategy to avoid corruption in their leaders; the community chose four leaders who are prohibited from representing the community in meetings with the oil industry alone. They all must be present. They also took the decision to invite the U'wa people to unite with them despite different cultures and world views. They extend their invitation to unite to all present at this exchange. "If we don't all defend the water of the hills, these plains are nothing."

After lunch, we are taken to see these hills and its rivers, with the solidarity of a local bus driver who lends us his time and bus. We get off the bus by the River Cusiana and Don Alexander leads us down to the river to the place where the water inlet pipe siphons off thousands of litres of fresh water daily to be pumped in to the oil wells. "This water they take is lost forever" Juan David, who participated in the Tauramena environmental negotiations with BP tells us. "BP take it without paying anything and bury it underground, removing it from the water cycle for ever.

Don Alexander warns the others "when they wanted to build the water inlet pipe they arrived like a man who wants to conquest a women, they arrived with flowers and nice words. But just as a women doesn't know who the man really is until later, we didn't know what was behind the flowers until it was too late and the huge damage was done. They arrived with an army of machinery and rerouted the river in to a channel to fill the inlet pipe. We lost lots of land, 20 hectares. And they have never paid us for what we have lost, just as they have never paid for the water they have robbed."

After admiring all the beautiful creepy crawlies that kept jumping out at me, we headed back to the bus, an hour late and the solidarity of the driver wearing a little thinner. As we drove back to Tauramena, people sat with new compañeros and the bus was filled with the buzz of conversations, full of ideas about how to move forward with this new chapter. This new chapter in which these different local resistances to oil exploration and exploitation in Casanare begin once again to weave hope and strength together. This was something really exciting and genuine to celebrate. And the cool beers went down well that evening. Let us hope there are more small steps to continue celebrating in the coming months.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Acknowledging our Wealth amisdt the Poverty: A Step to Stop Pillage

What wealth do you know about in your district, Ciudad Bolivar, we asked them. They looked at us surprised but curious. They are more use to naming Ciudad Bolivar's numerous problems, the poorest and largest district of Bogotá, the Capital of Colombia.

They responded naming air, the soil, land and water. Maria and I listened worriedly, it was as we had feared. The 30 women who came from various different neighbourhood groups did not know or acknowledge the huge amount of wealth there is in their district. The Environmental Forum had organised this tour around the district to explore what the impact of seeing this wealth with their very eyes would be, following the practice of Popular Education.

We boarded our bus and begin winding our way up the potholed roads, and as we gain more altitude the houses become more precarious and the barrios more controlled by paramilitaries.

We arrive at the first stop: Industrial Mining Park. Unluckily for the residents of Ciudad Bolivar they live on top of a enormous quantity of construction materials; sand, agregate, gravel and clay. After Holcim and Cemex rewrote part of the country's mining code, Colombia is now the only country in the world to allow open cast mining in urban areas.

The quarries have been condemned by numerous social organisations for the health impacts and the increased risk of landslides that they cause. The gravel pits, owned by Holcim and Cemex and following a 50km stretch of the River Tunjuelito, have destabilised the land and caused grave damage to the river ecosystem. Furthermore social organsiations that have spoke out against these megaprojects have suffered threats, assassinations and stigmatisation.

"We don't know where these materials are taken. Lots of trucks leave carrying the materials but we don't know where they take it, maybe for building works somewhere” comments Elmira.

Private companies extract the materials and sell them for the construction of Bogota, a city from which the residents of Ciudad Bolviar are excluded. “International capital is getting richer on our resources at the expense of us putting up with this shit situation; families without homes because of the mines and because of the huge inequality in Colombia, social control by paramilitaries to silence and weaken our grassroots organisations, hunger, bad health.....” says Maria angrily. The social and economic injustice is only too clear, and women receive the worst brunt of it, in their gendered role as carer of the entire family, highlighted by Carmen who described how she went without meals in order to buy her boy the medicines he needed.

Furthermore, the women were first excluded from influencing in the planning decisions around the operations of these mines, secondly they have been deceived in to believing that this wealth is not theirs and thirdly they have been kept in the dark around where the resources and profits from these resources end up. The tactics for preventing people from recognising their collective wealth are an essential part of the strategy to take these resources.

A similar situation happens in the United Kingdom where the elite landowners with the complicity of the British State have never revealed how much land they own so as to avoid demands for redistribution from the common folk. If we don't know and don't value the wealth we have, it is all too easy to take it without an outcry, such as what is happening with the Mining Park.

From the mines, we continued climbing the steep hill through densely populated barrios until suddenly we came out on to large extensions of open, barren land.
Here there is so much land that we could work, we could plant and grow food for many people, lets take advantage and start producing” suggested enthusiastically a compañera. The estimated 46000 hectares of land belongs to a member of the Colombian elite who lives in Miami.

While he is there in luxury we are here living in misery. Occupy y reclaim this land would be a good strategy. Land should be for those who work it... We would have to be very organised it to defend ourselves from the violent response by the state as it protects its interests. We know who they would send. All of this land is part of the Industrial Mining Pak which is why they don't let anyone squat this land. They are going to keep opening quarries and within 50 years this whole hillside will have been eaten away” replied Mario. Pointing to Paraiso, a barrio in the distance he continued “those of you live there are going to have serious problems soon. You are going to be in the middle of a quarry.

The Paraiso compañeras fall quiet with thoughtful expressions. “These mines are wealth, but only for a few people, for everyone else they bring us social and environmental problems” concludes Luz Angela

The solemn moment is broken by Marisela enthusiastically pointing out a lake we are passing. “Look, look at the lake, would't it be amazing to be able to come here on Sundays." The lake is in fact the source of one of the many streams that flow down through Ciudad Bolivar, down through the quarries and into the River Tunjuelito. But the water up here is clear and clean.

With so much open green space near where they live, the women are frustrated that they do not have the freedom to enjoy the landscape, to rest and enjoy the peace and quiet, breathe clean air and forget the stresses of daily life. They do not have the freedom as the area is not very safe due to the paramilitary presence. The idea to organise a group outing is suggested.

We continue our tour, entering into land on which peasant farmers are cultivating. The women remark excitedly at all they see; corn, quinoa, peas, potatoes, cows and chickes, allotments and small farms with children playing in the fields. Many of them themselves are campesinas - peasant farmers - who have been displaced by either the armed conflict or the rural economic crisis.

We pass through the rural hamlet of Quiba and arrive at the village of Pasquilla, a campesino village within the City. We all notice the lack of cars and contamination as we eat our locally produced yoghurts in the main square. We watch the campesinos pass by wearing their traditional ruinas.This is wealth too, that there are peasant farmers here using their knowledge of the land to produce food” observed Olivia.

Our next stop was the Doña Juana rubbish dump, the second largest open air rubbish dump in Latin America. The largest is in Sao Paolo, Brasil and communities there have formed organsiations to recycle the materials that arrive. Here 7500 tonnes of Bogotá's rubbish arrives daily and it is all dumped. They are dumping minerals and metals that are taken from communities at great environmental and social cost. Illogical but logical within a profit logic. Rubbish is big business, in Bogotá it is the most expensive public service. We discuss where the dump is wealth or a problem.

“It is a problem because it contaminates the water with leachates” says Isabel. “It is a problem because it contaminates the air. Beside this unbearable smell, it gives off lots of gases that cause health problems, such as rashs and lung problems” contributes Maria. “It is true but the gases could be uses domestically in the nearby communties” says Olivia. And despite the fact that we all have blocked our nose Amelia proposed that “it could be a source of work, we could organise ourselves and recycle here”

We arrive at the conclusion that like the quarries and gravel pits, the rubbish dump is “bad wealth because a few people profit while the rest suffer without any benefits.”

We leave the overpowering stench behind and move in to a new smell, that of mountain rain high in the clouds that surround the Regadera and Chisaca reservoirs.

The public water company provides all of the water for Ciudad Bogota from these two reservoirs. We shelter from the rain under a huge tree to reflect over the tour and the wealth we have found along the way, to laugh and to share our food.

“there was a total lack of knowledge of what wealth we have, we now know what our wealth is”

“we have a lot of wealth, we have seen and named it, we are not poor, we just don't benefit from it”

“we have allowed ourself to thing that this is not ours and so we haven't empowered ourselves to make demands”

“we have to organise ourself so that we can discuss, propose and make demands about the use of our wealth. But we need a lot of people, each one of us should go home and share what we have learnt with our children and our neighbours, those who it is safe to do so with.”

“Organising will bring us problems, it will but we have to do it, we have to value our territory”

“We have to work in community, educate ourselves and strengthen our womens networks so we can demand our rights are respected.”

As we wind our way home, the words of Mercedes Sosa accompanies us.... listen here

Monday, May 24, 2010

A conversation with marginalised women on the global politics of food

The skyscrapers in the centre of Bogotá become smaller and smaller as our bus winds its way up through the marginalised neighbourhoods of the grand metropolis. These are the neighbourhoods where you will find resting during the day the men who are forced to walk the city at night sifting through the rich mans “rubbish” or the poor mans “recyclable materials”. These are the potholed and unpaved streets owned at night by gangs of young lads, who are used and manipulated by the paramilitaries who have overall contol.

We are heading to the neighbourhood at the very top of the hill, La Estrella, where we work with several groups of women and young people on urban agriculture projects.

The theme for the workshop today is food sovereignty and autonomy, particulary relevent considering the recent signing of the free trade agreement between Colombian and the European Union. We make sense of the terms necessary for then being able to analysise what the radio is saying; imports, exports, dependency, “free” trade, import tariffs.

To be dependent is to be like a slave and have to beg for food.”

We don't want to be dependent on other countries for food because we are rich in products and we should give the opportunities to our producers.”

"free trade sounds pretty but the reality in the global markets is different. The big producers have many benefits while the small producers have none."

We talk about the decision on milk imports. I ask them what they think about the argument on the news that the powdered milk imports will mean that milk prices will drop and more poor children will have better brain nuerons. Olviria replies “it is true, milk is quite expensive at 70p a litre, but it is better that we support our milk producers as there are many many familes that survive from selling milk and what will all their children do?" Cleo adds “What is in this powered milk? Who knows what they will add? Milk fresh from the cow is the best, the healthiest.

This conversation, a practice of popular education, makes me later think about the baby milk scandel, the practice by multinationals of aggressivly promoting powdered milk as better than breast milk to health care practioners and new mothers around the world. As far as I know this has not affected Colombia. Women here breast feed.

With imported powered milk now allowed in to Colombia in much greater quantities will it be followed by this manipulative life endangering practice?

Monday, April 19, 2010

BP AGM: confronting power with solidarity

We entered nerviously into the luxurious and modern Excel convention centre in London, but with all the wonderful people we have met and have worked with in Casanare giving us strength and a strong mandate; put pressure on BP to accept as legitimate the list of demands that the Movement for the Dignity of Casanare has presented to one of the world's most powerful multinational corporations.

It was an inmense stage that made clear their symbolic, economic and political power, as well as their huge egos. Their power is all too real; their decisions in Casanare have affected the lives of Casanare people through the intense militrisation and human rights violations which oil exploration brought to the region in the nineties.

It was to their home turf that we brought the voice of the Casanare people, who in spite of the 9000 people dead and in spite of fear, have risen up again and demanding dignity, the right to a trade union, respect for the environment they are dependent on, respect for life and better living conditions. We asked BP if they considered the demands of the communities to be legitimate considering BP has benefitted for 16 years from the oil that flows from this region.

They responded our question saying that they knew of some dialogue happening in Casanare, which is important, but it was not to do with BP. Considering that BP has been in negotiations and meetings with the Movement in Casanare for the past six weeks we pondered whether a lack of capacity to tell the truth is seen as a strength rather than a weakness when applying for a multimillion pound job with BP.

We took the microphone again, telling the audience that what BP said was not the case and that the problem was with BP. We also made clear that the chair's failure to recognise at the very least the legitimacy of communities to demand better environmental, social and labour conditions is very dangerous in the context of Casanare. Every time community organisation have raised their voices against BP, community leaders have been killed and the organisations destroyed. BP's public affirmation of the legitimacy of the right to protest would have been a minimum measure to prevent history repeating itself. They would not do so.

We also shared with the audience that only the night before BP had indeed responded to the list of demands presented by the communities saying that they not going to negotiate with them and furthermore they were going to sue them for slander. This is how a multimillion pound multinational corportation responds to communities asking for some dignity.

Later in the meeting George Poitras, a First nations Indigenous spokeperson, began his intervention about the impact of Tar Sands operation in his lands saying “When i heard my friend from Colombia speaking about what BP has done in his country, my heart bled. We hope that this won't be what their presence brings to our lands.”.

As we left the convention centre, friend on the outside shouted “Canada, Colombia, No Blood for Oil”. In the sunshine we gave a summary of what had happened inside. We were angry but not suprised by the manipulation and lack of answers inside, we were confident that our actions had served as a protecton mechanism for our friends back in Colombia and that BP knows the political costs are high for any future repression in Casanare, and we were excited by the solidarity between Colombians, British and Canadians. Solidarity is our own form of beautiful power, not over but between people, that will be crucial for the ongoing mobilisations in Casanare and for the communities in Canada.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Attempts to silence humanity with arrest of Indigenous Leader

Yesterday, Saturday 10th April, Feliciano Valencia was captured by the Colombian Security Services (DAS) at Cali Airport. He is an indigenous leader and spokesperson for the Community and Social Minga of Resistance. Now he is in danger of also being yet one more Colombian political prisoner, adding to the 7500 already in Colombian prisons.

I had the joy of beginning to get to know Feliciano during the mobilisations of the Minga last October. His reflections and thoughts, shared with others in his role as spokesperson for the Minga have been hugely valued by thousands of indigenous, peasant farmers, afro-Colombians, students and displaced people. He has a special quality of being able to listen to all these different oppressed peoples and then speak across these differences, finding commonality in their different histories of oppression and struggle.

Solidarity, autonomy, mutuality, integrity, reciprocity, these values among others must be the essence of how together challenge this hegemonic model, this project of death. And we must learn together, from one another, at the same time as we keep walking the word in Minga.”

The Minga is a process not an apparatus to use. The Minga has no owners, nor is anyone more important than others, there is a principle of equality.”

Feliciano speaking at a Minga event,July 2009

He has been detained by the DAS for kidnapping and personal damage for an event that happened in October 2008. Fourty thousand indigenous 40,000 indigenous marched in Minga from the south of Colombia to Bogotá, the Capital city inviting Colombians to build a new country based on equality with them. While still in indigenous territory, the indigenous guard discovered a member of the armed forces had infiltrated the march in order to gather intelligence and frame the indigenous march as having links with the guerrilla. He was detained with a rucksack containing camouflage clothes, radio equipment and explosive manuals.

The right of the indigenous people to their own law is recognised in the Colombian constitution and in international agreements. The indigenous authorities made the collective decision to give him 20 whips, which was carried out in the presence of the congregated community as well as the governments ombudsman, and human rights organisations.

Despite it being a community decision and carried out by the indigenous authorities, the Colombian government the arrest warrant was signed for both Feliciano and Aida Quilcué (another spokesperson for the Minga). This is a clear persecution against those who speak out against not just the government, but also against the neoliberal capitalist system imposed on Colombia by Europe and the USA.

This minga was not organised to confront the government, not even to confront Uribe , he'll fall one day, the problem is the system, it is the model, here we must have clarity. The laws and policies come from the imperial countries.”

Feliciano Valencia, July 2009

Yet again the Colombian government wants to silence critical voices. And I'm sadly all too sure sure the mainstream media will be silent too. Their silence to date around the seven thousand social activists, people just like Feliciano, who are imprisoned within Colombians squalid prisons tragically highlights where their interests lie.

But yet again people refuse to be silenced. The Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC) has responded by calling for a permanent assembly in Popyan city centre, where Feliciano is being held, to reject this latest attack by the government against them. They plan to stay until he is released.

It is through uniting our voices and efforts that Feliciano Valencia and the thousands of other political prisoners in Colombia will be freed.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Dominga: an unknown victim of EU "free" trade agreement

News is just coming out that in the EU “free” trade negotiatons with Colombia, the first victims are to be the small scale milk and cheese producers. The Andean price band, a system that stops the price going too low or too high, will be elimiated and Colombian milk will have to compete with subsidised milk arriving from Europe. This will have an effect on 450,000 milk producers

Thousands of small milk producers, that are not able to access loans nor do they have leverage in high government, will suffer from an avanlanche of 5500 tonnes of powdered milk, 2310 tonnes in cheese and 1100 tonnes of other milk products those arrival in the country will increase by 10% annually until this vital part of the peasant economy disappears. Is this not about the human rights of thousands of peasant families?”[1]

Photo: Dominga leaving to take her cheese down to the main road, one hour away.

One of these families is that of Dominga, who I first met and wrote about in October 2008. I have been to stay with her several times since then. Darian is now living in the nearby small town where he can continue his studies. There is no secondary education in his hamlet. Cheese production pays for his transport, food and accomodation costs.

The last time I stayed with Dominga was in January. I told her about my good friend who has recently been sentenced for a year and a half after being found with two kilos of cocaine on him. He was doing the more risky job of carrying out the region as his two babies had rashes and he needed to buy medicines urgently.

She wasn't that sympathetic. “those lads in the

se coca areas just want easy money without having to do much work” I remember her saying. An interesting conversation around the kitchen table followed where we chatted about why we each thought that there had been a big increase in coca production in Catatumbo:

- paramilitaries imposing it as got 70% of their national revenue from cocaine in that one region

- twelve hour walks from many farms to just get to the road makes transporting yam or plantain very costly (you would need a lot of donkeys) for the price you would be able to sell it at while a kilo of cocaine in the rucksack is practically actually possible
- lack of State support for peasant farmer agriculture

Photo: Milking her cattle, the daily morning work.

I wonder if Dominga will remember this conversation as she hears news of this threat to her livelihood. Will she have to turn to coca looking for a way to get food on the table and an education for her kids as the neoliberal policies continue to destroy peasant farming?

[1] RECALCA (Colombian Action Network against Free Trade) http://www.recalca.org.co/

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Riots in Villahermosa Prison

We hear the news on the radio as we are breakfasting – one person dead, seven seriously injured and fires in some patios in the Villahermosa prison in Cali. I am with Walter who is part of the Committee for Political Prisoners (El Comité) and works with prisoners in this very jail around human rights issues.

Our morning plans quickly change. We pass by the office to check in with the rest of the team, share information and divide up tasks. We then jump in a taxi and head to Villahermosa, on route calling the United Nations, the International Red Cross and the Colombian Governments Human Rights Ombusdman to make sure they are aware of the situation and urge them to come to the prison.

Responding to emergencies is a consuming task; emotionally and physically, and one that diverts efforts from longer term work. Colombian human rights organisations have been responding to emergencies for too many years, and El Comité as one of the oldest HR organisations has a lot of experience.

Our taxi driver is told by another driver at a set of traffic lights that the road ahead is closed. He drops us at the police barricade and wishes us luck. The policeman lets us past and we head towards the prison gates where we find an angry mass of people, mainly women, shouting. Partners, mothers, sisters, and daughers are demanding more information. Photocopied lists of the injured and dead are passed around, groups swarming around each sheet. People respond angrily adament that there are more people dead and injured than this.

When two more of the infamous vehicles that collect corpses turn up the crowd gets angry and blocks the vehicles entrance to the prison demanding more information.

“How can they say there is just one dead person when there are now three of these vehicles. INPEC (National Prison Authorities) are lying to us. There are more people dead.”

“We heard prisoners in patio 9 shouting for help because there was more people injured. We have a right to know. We aren't saying our family members are saints but they deserve to be treated as human beings.

Cries, sobs, shouts. The anxiety and tension is high. Walter attempts to mediate. He tries to ensure that the police don't use excessive force against people who have good reason to be anxious. And tries to get people to calm down and minimally trust the information that INPEC has given until an independent commission can enter to verify the facts.

The police pull out shields and begin to push people out of the way of the vehicle. Forces wins the day and the vehicle manages to enter. The gates are shut behind it and people crowd around Walter, desperate for someone, anyone, to be able to give them some news. He has no news to gives. Instead we begin to talk about the conditions in the prison and what might have sparked the situation.

The group of women around us speak about the general abuse that the prisoners have to endure at the hands of the guards and how it is impossible to report it as the situation would just get worse rather than better. They talked about how inedible food is used as a means of humiliation and degradation. I later found out that after previous complaints, tests were done on the food and evidence of excrement was detects. One women told me that there will be no food for the next three days as a form of collective punishment. The other women nodded their heads in agreement. We don't know the details behind the conflict and why at least one person is dead but we all agreed that the physical conditions in which the prisoners are forced to live plus the humiliation and lack of respect would cause a reaction in any human trying to keep a scrap of dignity. Just like the workers in Tauramena, a human spirit just cannot be kept down.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

I really hope that there doesn't need to be a murder for BP to negotiate”

Workers for BP in the department of Casanare, Colombia have been protesting, demanding that the oil multinational improves labour conditions, since 23 January.

We earn $30,000 (£9), this is what we were paid in 2004. Everything has gone up in price. Our salary is the only thing that hasn't increased. After paying food and bills we are left with nothing in the pocket while BP earms millions from Casanare oil. Us poor people need respect too as we are humans, just the same as rich people. And a dignified salary is part of this respect.”

One week ago they were forced to take the decision to go on strike after BP cancelled yet another meeting to discuss the demands. They are tired of being made fun of and walked all over for twenty years.

On Monday 15th February, the notorious Colombian riot police, ESMAD, arrived and without any warning they violently attacked the strikers and community members using tear gas, their batons and shields.

Wilson, a young local commited councillor, told me how ESMADs response to his efforts to calm the situation down through attempting dialogue, was to be pushed to the ground and giving a kicking. He is now being sued by ESMAD for supposedly attacking the police.

Five days later, with wounds visible on many present, worker and community leaders spend the day in a meeting with a delegation of government representatives. BP did not arrive despite promising to attend. The government representatives spent the morning listening to the grievances of the communities and workers who for the first time in 20 years of BP operating in the oil are speaking out clearly, saying enough, this situiation has to change.

It is important to me that the salaries increase so that my kids can study and have a better life and future than what I have.” Community member and wife of worker accompanying the strike.

The government represenatives spent the afternoon trying to confince the workers to lift the strike so that the dialogue could continue calmly. The workers responded saying that they have shown good will repeatedly and BP has refused to listen to them, even refused to accept this as a labour conflict.

We will lift the strike when BP sits down to negotiate with us and we reach a just agreement”

The workers, with their strong sense of belonging to the region, are demanding that BP discusses not just labour issues but also environmental and social investment issues. They are very worried by the contamination of the streams and rivers, and feel totally abused by the lack of social investment in the area by BP.

It is the first time that workers for the BP have managed to organise themselves in a union. In the late 1990’s, B.P. was exposed by the British media for complicity in human rights abuses. The company had contracted the 16th Brigade of the Colombian army to protect its oilfields, despite the Brigade’s dire human rights record, which includes murder, “disappearances”, torture, rape and the forced displacement of communities. B.P. also admitted to having employed the private security company Defence Systems Limited to provide counter-insurgency training to Colombian police and army units charged with the protection of B.P’s installations. This training was described as “lethal” by a DSL employee and included the surveillance and intimidation of peasant leaders who were mounting protests against BP’s ecological damage, denial of labour rights and lack of social.

As is common in our country, the presence of these economic projects are accompanied by state violence and a strong paramilitary presence.” USO Urgent Action (USO is the national oil workers union)

In Casanare, a department with a population of around 500,000 habitants, there have been 9900 selected killings, and 2600 people disappeared between 2000 and 2007 according to COS-PACC, a human rights NGO.

We would wake up wondering who would be killed today. Things aren't as bad now but there has already been people on motorbikes without license plates watching us for hours at the picket line. We are worried. I really hope that there doesn't need to be a murder for BP to negotiate” Dina, local community member.

The USO holds BP and the Colombian State responsible for any possible human rights violations and that could occur. The situation is also urgent as hundreds of workers have not received their salary for a month now.

They are asking for national and international support; both solidarity actions and actions to pressure the company to sit down and negotiate with the union.

The Colombia Solidarity Campaign have called for an emergency picket of the BP HQ, London, Friday 26th February. The workers assembly gave a big cheer when I passed on this news and one women took a copy of the email to go door to door showing people how people were supporting the strike and encouraging all in the village to support the strike too.

Please send letters of support to prensa@usofrenteobrero.org and a copy to espaciobristol@redcolombia.org