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Corn for Coca: Colombia Delegation Report

From June 12-23, 19 people traveled to Colombia with this Mid-Atlantic/Northwest delegation to get the insiders' scoop on the looming Colombia free trade agreement and the ongoing impacts of Plan Colombia. The group digested a smorgasbord of expert analysis and inspiring stories from a diverse array of human rights lawyers, health care workers, economists, indigenous groups, US governmental representatives, and small-scale farmers.

Delegates were awed by the relentless struggle of farmers striving to block a trade agreement expected to destroy their livelihood, unionists who organize under threat of death, indigenous groups fighting for land rights, and coffee farmers who expect to be fumigated again soon. The group returned to the US to advocate for a more just and humane US policy towards Colombia, to relate the powerful stories just heard, and to explore unanswered questions.

Published articles on the delegation:

Poignant delegation quotes and photos:

"With the free trade agreement, how will we sell our products? No one will buy them. And then what will we do?" --Virgilia, campesina in Cauca


"Plan Colombia? It's a Machiavellian plan, a murderous plan, a diabolical plan." --Unionist leader, National Association of Health Care Workers of Colombia (ANTHOC)

"After each protest we organize, five or six of us get killed." --Unionist leader, National Association of Health Care Workers of Colombia (ANTHOC)

"We believe we are currently at imminent risk for being killed or disappeared...It is better for a few indigenous people to die for defending our rights than for all of us to die for remaining quiet." --Organizer, Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC)

"Yes, I studied in the School of the Americas. It was an agreeable experience." --Colonel Chortle, Colombian military


Reflection from delegate Diana Hedlund

In June of 2008, my view of the world changed forever. At the request of my 22 year old daughter, I neatly packaged up the concerns of my mind and left the comfortable surroundings of my home in Salt Lake City, to join her and 19 other caring, interested, and interesting adults, from 11 different states, to travel with WFP to Bogota Colombia.

Our delegation slept in comfort and ate well, but our days were long and often so full of learning, that my heart ached. In the course of just over 8 days, we heard stories from Colombian people, who's lives have been altered in one way or another, by the actions and decisions of others. What I heard, helped me to understand that simple choices I make each day, connect me to these people in profound ways.

I have now returned to my comfortable life in Utah, but my heart and mind remain in Colombia.

I no longer pass a flower stand without wondering the age of the young (possibly pregnant) woman who might have spent all day in the fields earning a wage that could barely feed her or her family, just to cut a bouquet for me.

I can no longer casually go to the market to purchase a bunch of bananas for my breakfast. I now know, that the land where those bananas were grown might once have belonged to the displaced farmer who sat across the room from me in Colombia, pleading, "please go back home and tell them to stop fumigating our fields."

WFP changes lives. My life was changed, and weeks later I am still discovering just how profoundly.

I Never Had a Better Cup
John Kotula

Originally published in The Providence Journal on July 25, 2008

EARLY ON MONDAY MORNING, June 23, I was lying flat on my back on the sidewalk in front of the Cannon House Office Building, in Washington, D.C. For the most part I was keeping my eyes closed, but occasionally I peeked to see the legs of office workers hurrying by on their way to federal jobs. I was trying not to think about how many pigeon droppings might have landed on the patch of sidewalk where I was lying.

There was a sign around my neck that read, “Victim of Plan Colombia, Slain Colombian Union Organizer.” Near me there was a man in a business suit clutching a fistful of dollars. His sign read, “American Companies profit from the Free Trade Agreement, Colombian Farmers Starve.” Other figures represented landless Colombian farmers, the Colombian military grown fat on U.S. military aid, and the Spirit of Colombia crying for the fate of the country.

Witness for Peace, a nonprofit organization that seeks to influence U.S. Latin American policy, organized this tableau. Members of the organization gave out free coffee and leaflets to the busy office workers hurrying by.

In the eight days before stretching out on the sidewalk, I had traveled to Colombia with a delegation also organized by Witness for Peace. The 21-member delegation met with Colombians with a broad range of political and human-rights involvements, including educators, health-care workers, community organizers, lawyers, researchers, union representatives, peace advocates, farmer cooperatives, coffee growers and the military. There was also a meeting with the chief human-rights officer from the U.S. Embassy.

I am a 63-year-old artist from Peace Dale. During the trip I drew a sketch in my notebook of a skull sitting in the middle of a plate of spaghetti. I titled this cartoon “Spaghetti Colombiano.” There are many strands to unravel if you want to understand the situation in Colombia. You start following one and discover that it is intertwined with all the others.

For example, I attended a meeting with a group of farmers who have formed a coffee-growing cooperative named COSURCA. Many of the men in the room had previously grown coca, the leafy green plant that is the basis of cocaine. The men were smart and articulate, but they defied the image of the narco-trafficker. They were just poor farmers with families to support. They hoped that by growing organic coffee for export to the United States they could avoid the illegal but highly profitable route of coca cultivation. However, they were fearful and frustrated because they found themselves in the cross-hairs of two U.S. policies; the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and Plan Colombia.

The FTA is in trouble in Congress. It seeks to implement in Colombia the same policies that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) brought to Mexico. There is a growing agreement among economists, labor leaders and human-rights advocates that NAFTA has been bad for Mexico and has not brought the promised benefits to the United States. Senators and representatives are hesitant to expand this model. If it were to become law, the FTA would open Colombia to investment and this investment would favor big business. The members of the coffee cooperative fear that they will not be able to compete and that their lands would become tempting targets for the big companies. They are well aware that the Colombian government, the military and right-wing paramilitary groups have a long history of forcing people off their lands, especially poor, indigenous and black people, displacing them to make way for large-scale production for export.

While the trade pact is pending, there is a more immediate threat to COSURCA. That is fumigation. Plan Colombia contains massive funding, going to the Colombian military and North American contractors, to spray coca fields with chemicals — industrial grade Roundup — from Monsanto. There are strong reasons to be afraid of the health risks associated with long-term exposure to these chemicals. On top of this, researchers who have studied this intervention see little sign that it is reducing cocaine production in Colombia or the availability of cocaine on the streets of the United States.

Nonetheless, U.S. officials and the Colombian government are wedded to trying to spray their way out of narco-trafficking. The coffee growers who spoke to my delegation no longer grow coca, but their farms have been fumigated several times in the last few years. They have protested and an investigation is pending. In the meantime, the fumigation represents a huge setback to a fledgling business. Trees have been destroyed and the cooperative lost its organic certification for some of its beans. They are incredulous that this “mistake” keeps happening. It is easy to become suspicious that there is an ulterior motive behind the spraying. Could it be that someone with power does not want this little company to succeed? Is there someone waiting to take over the land?

While hearing this story in the offices of COSURCA, I sipped a cup of coffee brewed from the cooperative’s organic beans. I never had a better cup of coffee.

During the week leading up to the Fourth of July, John McCain traveled to Colombia. McCain went to show support for the president of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe, the Free Trade Agreement and Plan Colombia. McCain’s 20-hour visit was mainly a photo-op and a chance to contrast his positions on Latin America with those of Barack Obama.
There is in fact a sharp contrast between where these two candidates stand on policy toward Colombia. This is one more area where a McCain presidency would mean a continuation of President Bush’s policies that take care of the powerful at the expense of ordinary people. Obama is at least willing to question and renegotiate the FTA and Plan Colombia. Without exception, the Colombians I spoke to thought the FTA, while making a few rich Colombians even richer, would hurt working people. They also thought that aid to Colombia would be better spent if it supported humanitarian efforts rather than military ones. As U.S. citizens, we need to listen to this advice.

John Kotula is an artist living in Peace Dale

Colombia Trip Opened Eyes of Two Lynn Labor Activists
David Liscio, The Daily Item

Originally published in The Daily Item on July 3, 2008

LYNN - Two North Shore labor activists on a June fact-finding trip to Colombia were surprised by the rampant U.S.-backed fumigation of coca plants, a policy that removes thousands of acres from the country's cocaine industry but also kills healthy coffee crops.

Lynn native Tom O'Shea, a General Electric Co. employee and member of IUE-CWA Local 201, and Rosa Blumenfeld of Somerville, an organizer for the Lynn-based North Shore Labor Council, visited with human rights advocates, small farmers, labor leaders, lawyers, unionists and the indigenous people of Colombia.

O'Shea spent time with a small farmers' coffee collective in the southwestern region of Colombia called Cauca. "Much like the indigenous people, these farmers have been under fire from a Colombian/U.S. policy known as Plan Colombia," he said, referring to a U.S. initiative that aims to prepare Colombia for a free-trade agreement.

According to O'Shea, part of Plan Colombia is to eliminate the illegal cocaine drug trade by fumigating the coca crop. "The fumigating process is done by spraying a concentrated form of the chemical we know as Round Up on the coca plants," he said. "In the past seven years, thousands of acres of coca have been eliminated by fumigation, but in the process they have also eliminated thousands of acres of legitimate crops, mainly coffee. The coffee farmers we talked to told us how the chemicals were poisoning them, their children and their land. They asked us to talk to our congressmen and senators and have them stop the fumigations."

The farmers hope to grow certified organic coffee, a viable crop and can lead them out of poverty and subsistence living.

"Several farmers we heard from told us how they had worked for years to achieve organic status only to get fumigated and loose everything," said O'Shea, who decided to visit Central America to see firsthand the effects of U.S. policy. "Once the land has been fumigated it takes three years for it to recover. There has to be a better solution than fumigation."
While O'Shea, 48, and Blumenfeld, 21, were in Colombia, a U.S. report was released that indicated the country's coca crop was 27 percent larger than the year before. "Obviously the policy of fumigation is not working," O'Shea said.

Blumenfeld, a native of Vancouver, Canada, whose mother, Erma, was born in Bogota, started working with the North Shore Labor Council in September 2006 and has since emerged as a lead organizer. She has been focused on injustices in Colombia and other regions where organized labor makes few inroads and the poor often suffer from the decisions made by government and industry.

Blumenfeld became involved last year with raising awareness of mining operations in Colombia that scar the land and harm those living nearby.

"This trip was a series of educational experiences, with very full days spent hearing testimony from indigenous people, lawyers' collectives, unionists, campesinos (small farmers), and agricultural cooperatives in Bogota, the capital, and in the southwest department of Cauca," she said. "We were part of a group of 21 people from Witness for Peace, a politically-independent, grassroots organization that's committed to nonviolence."

Blumenfeld said the organization's mission is to support peace, justice and sustainable economies by changing U.S. policies and corporate practices wherever they contribute to poverty and oppression in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The pair met with indigenous leaders representing those who have occupied the same tracts of land the past 10,000 years. "Much like the native Americans in the U.S., these indigenous people hold the land and water in high regard. Their goal is to maintain their traditions by being stewards of the land," O'Shea said. "To them, that means farming their traditional crops, crops they have grown for centuries, co-existing with nature and living in harmony."

O'Shea said Colombia is a desirable location given its stable climate, proximity to the Equator, and 12 hours of daylight most of the year.

"It's not surprising that multi-national agricultural corporations want what Colombia has to offer," he said, noting the buzzword these days is biofuel. "One plant that is being processed for that purpose is the oil palm, which grows very well in Colombia. The corporations want to plant as much oil palm as they can. The indigenous people want to stay on land they have occupied for thousands of years and grow their traditional crops. This is where the rub comes in. The government of Colombia with the help of the U.S. favors the multi-national corporations."

The result is a battle over land. People are being killed. The Colombian government uses its military to pressure indigenous people from their land. The natives want to tell their story to representatives of the U.S. government but they're uncertain whether anyone is willing to listen.

While in Colombia, O'Shea met a local woman who carries a wooden staff, an ancestral custom symbolic of a group leader. "As a weapon it could never stand up to an M-16, but her faith in the spirit and in humankind made that staff seem invincible," he said. "I was humbled by her beliefs."