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 Report on July 2010 Delegation to Colombia

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.

Jiguamiandó

            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.

Curvaradó

            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.

Yuca

            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.

Lumber

            In various places, we saw piles of lumber, evidence of ongoing forest destruction that accompanies the agribusiness operations.

Pan-American Highway

            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.

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Nicaragua Delegation Report: March 2010
by Pamela S. Boulware
Kendra L. Kingsbury

A delegation of three men, six women, and 5 delegation leaders of varying ages and backgrounds made up the core components of the Witness for Peace (WFP) Spring Break 2010 Nicaragua group.  Our goals were varying, but all added to the central mission of WFP, “to support peace, justice and sustainable economies in the Americas by changing U.S. policies and corporate practices which contribute to poverty and oppression in Latin America and the Caribbean.”  We arrived at the capitol, Managua and managed to travel along the Northwest side up to Esteli and Madriz and down the Southeast side through Granada during our ten-day stay.
    We dedicated classroom time to discuss the history of WFP and Nicaragua, including the cycles of military and economic violence, the neo-liberal model, debt, structural adjustment, free trade agreements including DR- CAFTA, labor, action planning, what the U.S. is currently doing to help out and what we’ve done in the past, as well as investment within the country.  Our trip also consisted of going to Centro Cultural Batahola Norte and taking a mural tour (this was just one of the many community centers we visited on our trip. This one in particular offers art classes to children, scholarships to those wishing to attend college, a library, and practical skills training for unemployed adults http://www.friendsofbatahola.org/), historical sites tour of Nicaragua, meeting with a Humboldt Center environmentalist, meeting with a Nicaragua economist, going to Esperanza en Acción (Hope through Action, a fair trade organization http://www.esperanzaenaccion.org/), and doing a home stay at the camp in El Regadio (consisted of meeting their community leaders, visiting one of their sole job market opportunities- the tobacco factory, and learning about and living with people of that community). We also visited the US Embassy and ProNicaragua, an investment agency that aims“To contribute to sustainable economic development of Nicaragua and facilitate the creation of new jobs in the country through the attraction of world-class foreign investment” (http://www.pronicaragua.org/index.php?lang=en). 
Emmanuel Wallerstein said it best; “trade made rich countries richer and poor countries poorer”. In the United States the concept of self is very important, i.e. what can I do to get ahead. Along with the sense of self, there is an abundance of resources, clothes, cars, loans and education. In Nicaragua there is a strong cultural difference in the centrality of community and a lack of choice because of resources. Does the United States take into consideration cultural differences such as these, the ideology of self, community, resources, and choice, when promoting or bringing in long-term development within Nicaragua? Instead of yes or no, reflect on this: The minority within Nicaragua would be the wealthy and government officials, while the majority consists of the poor. When decisions are made about a company being moved to Nicaragua, the minority negotiates with major companies leaving the majority to struggle with the effect of major developments such as the destruction of the forest and the pollution of drinking water within Nicaragua. 
As we have seen in Nicaragua, the minority invests a large amount of time bringing in large companies and the majority works hard to get the attention of minority leaders. Maria Ivania, a community leader who helped to start a health clinic in her home, helped her community obtain adequate electricity by going with community members and leaders to government offices as often as they needed to stress the need for electricity in their community. Maria’s community, which is a squatter community, is faced with having the land they live on taken away from them because the land is deemed not suitable to reside because of the danger of possible landslides. As a result of companies moving into Nicaragua, Maria’s community is also faced with the destruction of their woodland and polluted drinking water, in that companies are cutting down trees and leaking oil and other harmful chemicals in their water supply. The community is in the process of taking action against these acts.
 In Nicaragua the idea of community and the act of togetherness gives people hope that their way of life will get better. The majority, the poor, in Nicaragua want change so they take action and plan for improvement and there is an ongoing struggle to have the majority voice heard by the minority.



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WFP 25th Anniversary Delegation to Colombia
Report By: Kristin Yarris

From June 12-20, I traveled to Colombia along with a delegation of 20 people from all over the U.S. to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Witness for Peace. After traveling to Colombia separately, we all met in Bogotá for two days of orientation. This was my first trip to Colombia, and I loved the capital city, its mixture of colonial and modern architecture, busy streets, urban parks, and great vegetarian restaurants! On a walking tour of downtown, we passed the central government offices and Plaza Bolívar, which were heavily guarded by military police and where only a few weeks early thousands had protested a visit by George W. Bush. Despite a bombing a few days earlier, most residents of the capital report feeling that security has increased under the Uribe administration. However, during our trip, we learned how increased security in some major cities has come at the cost of increased repression for the majority of Colombians living in rural areas. After a group “discernment” process - where we conscientiously made a collective decision to travel to potentially-risky rural areas - our group headed south by plane to the Caúca region. We stayed in the charming Hotel Colonial in Popayán, but our days were packed full with visits to human rights, indigenous, and campesino groups, and trips to rural communities. We learned about the on-the-ground realities of military repression and economic insecurity in Colombia and the struggles of local groups working to develop sustainable and just economic and social alternatives. The groups we visited with made it clear that U.S. policy towards Colombia, particularly Plan Colombia and the proposed Free Trade Agreement, have fostered a neoliberal model of privatization and the reduction of social programs, dismantling the public health care system, and contributing to the repression of indigenous leaders and unionists (85 of every 100 trade unionists assassinated worldwide are Colombian). Currently, Colombia has among the highest income inequality in the hemisphere, with 25 million of a total population of 43 million living on less than $1 US dollar per day. In addition, military violence and economic insecurity have led to the displacement of 3.5 million people (Colombia is second in the world only to Sudan in the numbers of internally displaced peoples). Despite these grim statistics, the work of Witness for Peace in solidarity with Colombian partners working for human rights and social justice is encouraging: our delegation was constantly reminded of the importance of U.S. citizens visiting the country, witnessing the effects of U.S. policy first-hand, and giving voice to the struggles for peace and justice in Colombia by telling our elected officials, friends, and neighbors that Plan Colombia and the proposed FTA will only worsen the economic, social, and security situation for the majority of Colombians. We brought this message home during our final days in Bogotá, when we protested alongside our Colombian partners in front of the U.S. Embassy, shouting “No Al TLC!” (No to the FTA!) as we were cheered on by passersby on a main highway and watched suspiciously by Embassy staff. Our delegation closed with a dinner party honoring the 25th anniversary of WFP, where many Colombian partners joined us to share in a delicious meal and in recognition of the important work of Witness for Peace in solidarity with groups working for justice and peace in Colombia.

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