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