by Patrick Bonner
Our 2010 trip to Colombia, sponsored by Witness for Peace Southwest, was partly to the same communities as in 2009, but also different.
A bit of background:
In 1997, a combined series of aerial and ground attacks by paramilitary forces and Colombia’s 17th Brigade, called Operation Genesis, displaced 15,000 people and killed more than 100, mostly Afro-Colombians, from the region of Colombia near Panama referred to as the Bajo Atrato. This region includes the basins of the Jiguamiandó, Curvaradó and other tributaries that flow into the Atrato River. The army claimed to be pursuing guerrillas. But when some of the displaced attempted to return, it became clear that the objective of Operation Genesis was to depopulate the area so that logging companies could cut down the forests and agribusiness companies could steal the land for cattle ranching and plantations, especially oil palm.
The displaced people have made several attempts at returning, only to be violently displaced again. Their current effort consists of establishing a toe-hold by building clusters of houses and calling them Humanitarian Zones, off limits to any armed groups. At the same time, they continue to pursue the return of all their land through the courts. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has told the Colombian government that it has to respect the Humanitarian Zones. The government gives lip service to this right, but the land has not yet been returned and the Humanitarian Zones face constant threats.
The companies and paramilitaries have brought in laborers from other regions. Instead of paying those workers a living wage, the companies give them some of the land to use, land that is not theirs to give. Those workers are referred to as repopulators.
In that region of Colombia, Afro-Colombians, as well as Mestizos who live with the Afro-Colombians and share their life-style, have a right under the 1991 Constitution to own land collectively. According to implementing legislation, known as Law 70, which was passed in 1993, the communities elect councils and representatives to be their voice in dealing with the national government and other entities. The communities had begun implementing this process when they were displaced in 1997.
Recently the agribusiness companies have been attempting to take over the process and install their own puppets. Earlier this year, Colombia’s Interior Department recognized the results of a phony election in the Curvaradó region that had been arranged by the companies. But the Supreme Court overturned that recognition and ruled that a census of the region needs to take place followed by new elections. The communities want international observers for this process. The agribusiness companies and their allies do not want international observers. It is expected that the census and election will take place soon, but as of August 2010, I have not received notice that it has been scheduled.
The paramilitary allies of the companies make death threats against the true community leaders. They also threaten members of the Interfaith Commission for Justice and Peace, a Colombian organization that accompanies the communities and provides a voice and link between the communities and the outside world.
In the Jiguamiandó river basin, we stayed two nights in the Afro-Colombian Humanitarian Zone of Pueblo Nuevo.
Last year in Pueblo Nuevo, we met two Embera Indigenous representatives who had hiked eight hours to meet with us. They told us about the Embera’s struggle to save their reserve from devastation by two mining companies. (More about that below.) They invited us to visit the reserve and see their sacred mountain that was being threatened. Our trip this year was a response to that invitation. It turned out that the logistics of getting to the mountain would be prohibitive. But we were able to get as far as the Embera community of Alto Guayabal, a two-hour canoe trip from Pueblo Nuevo.
In January of this year, the Colombian army bombed near Alto Guayabal. A man from the community was badly injured and paralyzed for life. A baby died a couple weeks later. The community believes the baby’s death was a result of the bombing. We later met with a representative of the Colombian army’s 17th Brigade. He said he knew people were affected by the bombing but denied that the baby’s death was a result. We asked why they bombed the area and he said it’s hard to know when civilians are in an area.
After two days in the Jiguamiandó river basin, we went by canoe and four-wheel-drive vehicles to the Curvaradó basin. We visited Camelias and Caracolí, two Humanitarian Zones we had visited last year. And we ended with a visit to the new Humanitarian Zone in Llano Rico. That Humanitarian Zone is dedicated to the memory of Argenito Diaz, a community leader who was killed by paramilitaries in January this year.
While in Camelias, we also visited a Biodiversity Zone. The Biodiversity Zones are areas set aside by the communities in an attempt to restore the forest to its condition before the agribusiness companies destroyed it. The task is daunting. The agribusiness companies drained away much of the water that had sustained the trees and other plants. We were shown a tiny bit of marsh which at one time had been a navigable stream. The companies introduced invasive plants that displace the natural flora. The community attempts to help the forest restore itself by weeding out some of the invasive species.
The agribusiness companies have a problem. Oil palm is subject to a plant disease that has destroyed many of their plants. (Thinking butterflies spread the disease, they killed off most of the butterflies in the region.)
Now they have discovered that a type of yuca, known as bitter yuca, can produce oil for biofuel. It’s called bitter yuca because, after growing for about seven months, it is no longer edible. Other types of yuca can grow for a couple years and become large while still being good to eat. Yuca is the Spanish word for cassava. It’s a staple food in Latin America and in parts of Africa.
While they have not given up on oil palm, the agribusiness companies are now promoting bitter yuca as a cash crop. Whatever their cash crop, those companies are destroying forests and stealing land.
In various places, we saw piles of lumber, evidence of ongoing forest destruction that accompanies the agribusiness operations.
The Pan-American Highway stretches from Alaska to Panama. And it goes from Colombia to Argentina. But there is a gap where Panama meets Colombia. This is another part of the Bajo Atrato region, slightly north of where we were. The Uribe government of Colombia made it a priority to close that gap. This mega-project will include a bridge across the Atrato River. The communities in the area oppose the project with good reason. The region where Colombia meets Panama is one of the most biodiverse places in the world. National parks on both sides of the Panama/Colombia border seek to preserve the biodiversity. Until now, there have been no roads in the area, all travel being on foot or in boats. But we were told on this trip that Uribe convinced the new President of Panama and, in effect, it’s a done deal. The environmental destruction will be enormous.
Mining and “Free-Trade”:
The Embera Indigenous people are trying to prevent mining companies from invading their land. The Afro-Colombian and Mestizo communities we visited are also against those mining operations. They live downstream and know the contamination from the mines would destroy the rivers on which they depend.
The two companies that want to mine copper, gold, and molybdenum on the Indigenous Reserve are Muriel and Rio Tinto. Muriel is an obscure U.S. company. Rio Tinto, a British and Australian company, is one of the largest mining companies in the world. Muriel is based in Denver, Colorado. The U.S. headquarters of Rio Tinto are also in Denver.
Some parallels and personal conclusions:
The Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) was ratified in 2005. It includes El Salvador along with the other Central American countries, the Dominican Republic, and the United States, but not Canada. A Canadian company, called Pacific Rim, wants to mine for gold in El Salvador. But the Salvadoran government, to protect its diminishing supply of usable water, has placed a moratorium on mining operations. So Pacific Rim formed a subsidiary in Nevada and used that subsidiary to sue the government of El Salvador under the “investor protection” clause of CAFTA, claiming the loss of possible future profits.
The proposed “free-trade” agreement between Colombia and the United States has an “investor protection” clause similar to that in CAFTA and NAFTA. If the U.S./Colombia trade deal is ratified by the U.S. Congress, I expect that it will be used to undermine the right of the Embera people to protect their home. It will also further consolidate the land theft by agribusiness companies in the Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó river basins as well as in other parts of Colombia.
Please continue to tell your congressperson, your senators, and the Obama administration that you are against the U.S./ Colombia “free-trade” agreement.