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Colombia Trip Opened Eyes of Two Lynn Labor Activists

by David LiscioThe Daily Item
July 3rd, 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."

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