Tag Archives: Africa

Colombian Activist Who Opposed Gold Mining Project Shot Dead

This is a story originally published by NTN24 on Nov 5 2013

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“Environmental activist Cesar Garcia was shot dead on his farm in Tolima Department on Saturday. Photo: El Salmon Urbano

BOGOTÁ, COLOMBIA – A Colombian environmental activist who led the opposition against a proposed gold mine in Tolima Department was assassinated over the weekend, local media reported.

Cesar Garcia, who was a leading voice against the ‘La Colosa’ gold mine project, was found shot in the head on his farm in the municipality of Cajamarca, Tolima Department on Saturday afternoon.

The South African multinational mining firm Anglogold Ashanti wants to create a so-called ‘mega-mine’ in the La Colosa municipality of Tolima.

The gold mine, still in the feasibility study phase, would be one of the largest open pit mines in Latin America, according to reports.

The Colombian government granted Anglogold Ashanti permission to begin the feasibility study despite widespread local opposition to the proposed mining project, according to reports.

A group called the Environmental Committee of Cajamarca has denounced the murder, and has requested that the Ministry of the Interior do more to protect people who speak out in the area.

The group also demanded the Prosecutor’s Office begin an investigation into Garcia’s murder and bring to justice those responsible.

Anglogold Ashanti has been slammed by human rights groups for its conduct in Latin America and Africa.

In May of this year, a court in the African country of Ghana served the firm with a writ for alleged health issues caused by chemicals the firm uses in the extraction of gold from a mine there, according to Ghana media reports.

The area in Tolima where the company wants to create a large-scale gold mine is a rice producing region, and inhabitants there worry the chemicals used in such a mine will pollute their ground water and other resources, reports said.”

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Bojayá: Forgotten by Urbanity, Remembered by the community.

The final part of the three part series on the 11th anniversary of the massacre/Genocide of Bojayá published at Colombia Politics. 

Other interesting links worth checking out is this documentary on the experience of people displaced from Bellavista by the violence, this photo-report on the bellavisteños who were displaced and are trying to make a new life in Quibdó. I’d also like to again emphasize that much of my research for this post came from the Commission of Historical Memory of Colombia and their report on Bojayá, “The Massacre of Bojayá: The War Without Limits“. I would also encourage bilingual readers to check out these series of radio interviews with survivors of the genocide who are memorializing in their own words.

Bojayá, Chocó: The forgotten Colombia

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The communities of Bojayá, in Chocó, and Afro-descendent and indigenous peoples more generally, still face serious challenges and oppressions by the Colombian state, armed actors, and multinational corporations.

Chocó continues to be a FARC, ELN, and (neo-)paramilitary stronghold where groups fight over gold, land for agribusiness, drug trafficking routes, and the obedience of the population living on the rich land.

It is still a central point for the conflict, and produces a disproportionate amount of displacements; most displaced chocoanos end up in Quibdó, or in Medellín where they experience the additional issue of systematic racism and discrimination against people who are rural, chocoano, or displaced.

Chocó is ironically one of the richest areas of Colombia in terms of resources and since the 80s has been the apple of the eye of forestry, agribusiness, but especially mining companies.  Conflict between the communities and multinationals like AngloGold Ashanti has encouraged President Santos to rethink the mining codes.

Chocó also has some of Colombia´s worst indicators in terms of development. Literacy rates a relatively poor, and poverty is over 60%. In the Atrato region, 95% of the population has basic unsatisfied needs, according to government figures.

All these challenges are taken on by the organizations which promote the rights of the indigenous, Afro-Colombian, and displaced populations of Chocó.

These groups include  the “Association of the Displaced People of the 2nd of May (ADOM)”, the “Diocesis of Quibdó” which works through the Comission for Life, Justice, and Peace, “The Regional Organization for the Emberá-Wounaan or OREWA, the “Association of the Indigenous Chiefs of Emberá, Wounaan, Katió, Chamí and Tule” or ASOREWA, and the “Major Community Council of the Integral Peasant Association of the Atrato” or COCOMACIA who have their roots in the struggles for protecting the land against large forestry companies in the 1980s.

These groups do their work despite threats by armed groups.

What does Bojayá mean for Colombia?

We talk of Bojayá as if it were our crisis and the FARC were our terrorists who we must defeat.

And although the story of Bojayá is similar to that of much of Colombia in which local communities and their ways of life are disturbed and uprooted by national dynamics – who are not interested in them but only in what their suffering can get them-  we must understand that although we are all Colombian or even human, there are significant racial, class, rural/urban, and cultural divisions which means that we cannot appropriate the voice or the suffering of the people of Bojayá.

The people of Bojayá have been mistreated and exploited through a process of objectification and silencing since colonization – first they were under the thumb of the colonizers, then the national government who only wishes to extract their riches or speak for their community as part of its counterinsurgency or reparations plans, and now it is menaced by armed groups and multinationals.

The question is whether, when we commemorate the massacre (as we did last week), we allow the community space in which it can be heard on its own terms – or whether the urban, modern Colombia is forced to remember the other, rural (and largely ignored) Colombia only on important anniversaries, when a show can be made?

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The Bojayá massacre, Uribe, and Plan Colombia

The second instalment of three about the massacre of Bojayá and the lack of attention its’ anniversary has received this year, which was graciously published over at Colombia Politics.

For more context on the massacre of Bojayá, check out the first post.

Bojayá massacre, Uribe and Plan Colombia

IMAGEN-11677964-1 Photo: El Tiempo

The massacre of Bojayá represented a low point in war in terms of mistreatment of the civilian population in Colombia, but its horror marks an important moment in the nation´s recent political history ocurring at a turning point in the battle against the FARC guerrillas.

Plan Colombia and elections

The genocide occurred in May 2002, while in February the then President, Andrés Pastrana Arango had called off the four year long peace talks with the FARC, citing a lack of political will on behalf of the guerrillas,

The tragic events in Bojayá occurred during an election campaign in which a fringe-candidate with a “mano dura”/hardline law-and-order agenda, Álvaro Uribe Vélez, emerged on the national stage. The massacre served as political fodder for the then candidate to further paint the FARC as genocidal narcoterrorists needing to be militarily defeated.

Uribe later won the 2002 elections in the first round/without needing a run-off, an historic first in Colombian politics. As President, Uribe (and Pastrana as well beforehand) used the genocide as part of a campaign to get the FARC on “terrorist” lists in the European Union, the United States, Canada and other countries so as to legitimate a military rather than a political solution to end the armed conflict.

Meanwhile, in 1999 Andrés Pastrana had negotiated with Bill Clinton a multi-billion dollar aid package which, although partially focusing on economic development, was mostly military aid. The deal, which was at first framed around fighting narcotrafficking and the War on Drugs was known as “Plan Colombia” and made Colombia the no. 2 recipient of US military aid in the world, behind Turkey.

Following the attacks of September 11th 2001, and after the genocide and the election of Uribe in 2002, the Plan Colombia money was used also to fight the FARC and was seen as a strange convergence between the interests of the War on Drugs and the War on Terror.

Plan Colombia funcs were used to professionalize the army, leading to an historic high in military spending, known domestically as “Plan Patriota”/the Patriot Plan. This plan expanded the presence of the Army into the most marginal and peripheral areas of Colombia in order to fight the guerrillas. The knock on effect of this expansion was to  increase – rather than reduce – violence in the Chocó region in subsequent years.

As Plan Colombia was rolled out, concern grew within the State Department and the US Congress about links between the Colombian Army and the Paramilitary AUC who fought against the FARC.

Survivors´ voices ignored, or forgotten?

Uribe had been warned of the US distaste, and in response, as part of a “reparations” package, constructed ‘The New Bellavista’ (a new church and housing development). All this was done to a more modern and western style, totally foreign to the Afro-Colombian tradition of the local population. And strangely when inaugurating the “New Bellavista”, President Uribe gave his speech exclusively in English.

Many community members (whose language is of course Spanish), felt that the government was using Bellavista – as a community and a project to “show off” as part of its reparations agenda. An affront then, that it seemed as though the government was directing its initiatives to improving its international image and not the people who had actually been affected by the massacre.

Worse still, many of the economic aid projects established by the government and the NGOs were seen as unsustainable; creating dependency rather than development. All of the initiatives in ‘New Bellavista’ were considered by the displaced population in Quibdó to ignore their needs.

Last year, as the 10th anniversary of the massacre was marked, much attention was given to how the community still lacks a medical centre and other basic needs. This, despite the Constitutional Court having declared the community entitled to such investment as part of the reparation package. So, 11 years on and the community stills appears forgotten, the victims of the war not properly attended to, or represented.

There is, too, very little comfort to be taken from the way in which justice has been dealt. 36 members of the FARC-EP, including members of the Secretariat, have been involved in judicial processes concerning the massacre, but only 8 have been convicted. No charges have been brought before the AUC paramilitaries, and least of all now given the legal benefits afforded to them as part of their 2003-2006 demobilization.

Part three of this report will look at the challenges the community still faces, and offer a view for the future.

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The Genocide of Bojayá: 11 years of impunity

This was a guest-post I did for Colombia Politics on the 11th anniversary of the massacre of Bojayá. The first in a three part series. The majority of my research for it came from the amazing work on Historical Memory dune by the Grupo de Memoria Histórica and their report, “La Massacre de Bojayá: La Guerra Sin Límites”/”The Massacre of Bojayá: The War Without Limits”. The initiatives by the BMH this year attempted to create a space where the community is heard in their own words, and I strongly encourage you to check it out if you understand Spanish.

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Photo: Mauricio Moreno, El Tiempo

Thursday marked the 11th anniversary of the massacre of Bojayá in Chocó, Colombia. Anywhere from 79 people, the majority of whom were minors, were killed when the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP), the Marxist guerrillas, launched an explosive into a church in the community of Bellavista where 300 people were seeking protection from a battle between the revolutionaries and the paramilitaries.

Every year, chocoano communities commemorate the massacre, and use it as a space to advocate for their rights facing current challenges of poverty and marginalization. For the tenth anniversary of the massacre, it was all over the media, yet this year, there is scant word from any of the nation’s major newspapers including El Tiempo, El Espectador, Semana, etc.

This massacre had huge implications in national politics, Colombia’s image abroad, its relationship with the United States, and most importantly, it evidences the huge gap between ‘The Two Colombias’, and how one promises reparation, and the other is still waiting for it 11 years after one of the country’s worst tragedies.

The massacre bears not only memorializing, but also understanding as it is a microcosm for state abandonment, and the interests and dynamics of how paramilitarism and the guerrillas work within peripheral, marginalized, underdeveloped, and overexploited regions of Colombia like Chocó.

bojaya2The FARC shot the cylinder-bomb which exploded in the church, allegedly, because the counter-revolutionary paramilitaries were using the church as a human shield during the combat. Many of the civilians fled into the church given that it was the only concrete structure in the town where people could be protected during the armed confrontations between different armed groups. Apparently, the order to shoot the cylinder-bomb came from as high as members of the Secretariat (who some analysts now say they would like to see in Congress instead of continuing in the armed struggle), and the decision to use this illegal and non-conventional weapon was made despite the fact that the weapon is made for static objects, and the paramilitaries were moving.

In other words, it was quite clear to many powerful leaders within the FARC the tremendous danger that using this weapon posed for the civilians caught in the crossfire.

Despite many early warnings by the UN, and a variety of NGOs, it seems that the Colombian Army was complicit in allowing the incursion of paramilitaries in the territory that set off a several day long armed confrontation in the Middle Atrato region of Chocó which eventually culminated in the massacre.

The Colombian government refused to acknowledge its responsibility. The FARC-EP say that it was an “unfortunate accident” and it blamed the paras for using the civilian population as a human shield. The government and the paras said that this proves the ‘barbarity’ of the ‘narcoterrorists’.

The use of the improvised explosive, or pipeta in Spanish, constitutes the use of irregular weapons by the FARC and is therefore a war crime and potentially a crime against humanity. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other international NGOs as well as Colombian ones have condemned the FARC’s use of the weapon as such.

The massacre, and combat between guerrillas and paramilitaries which had begun in late April of that year, are part of a much larger trend in which Chocó has become a focal point for the armed conflict since 1997.

The war over the Middle Atrato can be considered as a continuation of the war for Urabá. After the federation of paramilitary groups into the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (las Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia or AUC) in 1997, paramilitary groups tried to take the Atrato region of Chocó as it was a key corridor for moving drugs, arms, and people from the Urabá region and the Caribbean coast (which by the 90s had become a paramilitary stronghold) into the Pacific region of the country.

Previous expansions of the counterinsurgency in the territory such as the Cacarica and Genesis Operations in 1997 have been linked to the expansion of agribusinesses such as the mono-cultivation of African Palm Oil.

At the same time, the strategic corridor and lack of state presence in Chocó also makes it a very coveted territory by the guerrillas.

The massacre can be seen as part of a much larger pattern of the insurgents taking over the territory, then the counterinsurgents, then the insurgents…

This left, and continues to leave, the people of chocoano communities in a state of vulnerability as the presence of one armed group or the army provokes reprisals and suspicions from the other side.

However, the communities in Chocó were anything but passive objects in the crossfire; since 1999, communities such as Bellavista, have declared themselves ‘Peace Communities’ (Comunidades de Paz) and they have rejected the presence of all armed groups, including even at times the Colombian Army itself.

The massacre led to mass displacements of 5,700 people, and consequently a cultural alienation for the predominantly Afro-Colombian communities affected, who had to leave their traditional territory.

Many of the survivors had to flee the town of Bellavista immediately after the bomb exploded. Many have yet to return to the community, some only returned 8-10 years later. Many of the community’s practices of saying farewell to the dead were unable to occur, leaving a lack of spiritual closure.

Survivors of the massacre however, are not victims. 11 years on and that the community continues to wait for the reparations it is entitled to, and justice in terms of recognizing the complicity of ALL armed actors. The community has, though, organized in several civil-society groups and continues to demand this justice, reparation, and memory.

Many members in the community see the massacre as genocide and a continuation of their historical  displacement from Africa; many consider the battles over their territories as ongoing colonialism.

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’Because We Really Care’: Dissolution of CIDA, how it challenges myths about Canada, its impact on Colombia

“Charity…is the opium of the privileged” – Chinua Achebe, Rest In Peace.

I wanted to give a quick reaction to the news that the Canadian International Development Agency, or CIDA, the body of the Federal government in charge of administering Canadian overseas development aid, is going to be folded into the Department for Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT).

There have been a mix of reactions in the Canadian foreign policy Twitter and blogospheres; Director of Partnership Africa-Canada Ian Smillie says that this is a further step away from Canada’s legacy of being a leader among giving assistance to ‘poor countries’; whereas another Canadian foreign policy heavyweight, Roland Paris from the UOttawa, argues that a merger may not in and of itself be a bad thing. Surprisingly some CIDA officials are lamenting the merger, whereas Lloyd Axworthy is welcoming it.

The rationale of the merger being presented by the government is to put development on “equal footing” with trade and diplomacy, and to have a more unified, consistent Canadian voice promoting Canadian ‘values and interests’ abroad.

Overseas Development Assistance, or ODA, in Canada is the legacy of Liberal governments trying to create a very particular image of Canada internally and externally. One of the founding moments for ODA was the Ceylon Conference in which CIDA’s predecessor was established by Nobel laureate Lester B. Pearson. Under Liberal Prime Ministers Jean Chretien and Paul Martin, Canada’s was quite firmly committed to ODA in Sub-Saharan Africa. Canada, with it’s lack of colonial baggage and bilingual capacity/ties to the Commonwealth and La Francophonie, was always in a ‘good’ position to bolster ties with Francophone and Anglophone African countries through ODA. With the War on/of Terror and Canada’s participation in the NATO mission, Afghanistan also became a development priority. We Canadians framed ourselves as honest and disinterested brokers wanting to do what Americans couldn’t – be the benign and benevolent Westerners who wanted to promote growth, peace, and equality without any  vested interests.

This construction of an innocent and humanitarian Canadian foreign policy has been part and parcel of the discussion surrounding CIDA’s end. Take for example, this interesting commentary from the CBC piece (this is not an editorial or an opinion piece, I might add):

“A confidential draft document obtained by CBC News last fall outlined the broad strokes of a foreign policy shift toward focusing Canada’s international efforts primarily on one goal: forging new trade deals and business opportunities in the rapidly expanding markets of Asia and South America.

The document made scant mention of Canada’s traditional roles as peacemakers in war zones like Afghanistan or foreign aid providers in disasters such as Haiti. It also did not mention using trade deals to pressure countries such as China on human rights and other matters of democratic principle.”

The allusion to “peacekeeping” and “democratic principles” are not an accident. Perhaps the author of this article at the supposedly objective CBC is, like Smillie and Axworthy, in my opinion, a believer in the old form of Canadian aid and it’s ties to our national identity as somehow being altruistic abroad. However, whether Liberal or Conservative, it’s quite clear that this has never been the case, and Canada’s ODA has always come with conditions, and has always been influenced or driven by the extractive sector. During Chretien’s time this was painfully obvious during the First and Second Congo Wars, and the multiple blunders of Canadian industry, DFAIT, and other actors in the DRC. 

In other words, many of those, like Smillie, lamenting this change as a further erosion of Canada’s legacy of “leadership” in Africa with respect to ODA, are romanticizing an era which never really was in reality, but was integral to our identity as a country of people ‘who really care’.

This development ideology stands in stark contrast to the one of the Harper Conservatives. They have confidently, some would say aggressively, shifted Canada’s development interests away from “the poorest of the poor”, to use that extremely problematic language, to aligning Canadian development and diplomatic interests closer to commercial ones. The CIDA merger, I believe, is a significant moment as part of a larger pattern. CIDA, for the Conservatives, was perhaps a Liberal relic that really had no place in their vision for ODA.

Throughout the last few years, this change in ideology in Canada’s ODA has manifested itself in a variety of scandals and controversies, as the Conservatives were perhaps considered to be ruining something that Liberals and progressives saw as a dear part of Canadian national life (helping poor people in far away places). Moments of note include how former Minister for International Co-Operation (the head of CIDA) Bev Oda wrote in a “NOT” for a grant to KAIROS, a well respected NGO who had been doing advocacy around the Israel-Palestine conflict, a strict no-no among new CIDA guidelines for Canadian NGOs.Under Oda, there was also a slight creeping of social conservatism into the development agenda, such as when Canada refused to fund abortions as part of a G8 Maternal Health initiative.

Current Minister of International Cooperation, Julian Fantino (L), and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, John Baird (R).

Current Minister Julian Fantino, for his part, drew a lot of heat for freezing assistance to Haiti, a longtime charity ‘darling’ for Canada, due to a lack of ‘results’, and for CIDA giving funds to NGOs that are associated with the anti-Queer movement in Uganda/on their webpage describe homosexuality as a kind of deviance.  

The most significant change, for me however, is the cozying up of Canadian commercial interests with Canadian ‘humanitarian’ and development initiatives, and the leaving of a Liberal policy of helping “the poorest” in Africa to assisting countries that we need to get resources from in Latin America. Obviously, the Liberals’ development agenda, as mentioned above, wasn’t much better, but the Conservatives is definitely more blatant in what it’s after.

This has really taken shape in two key developments. Firstly, the dropping of many impoverished lower-income African nations such as the DRC from CIDA’s list of priority countries, to a slim list of 20 ‘countries of focus’ for bilateral assistance which will collectively receive 80% of Canadian aid.  The list includes many extremely unequal upper/middle-income Latin American countries such as Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia. This was again, moving away from the Liberal CIDA policy of having smaller aid projects sprinkled around every corner of the earth (so everyone would know how amazing Canadians are, clearly) to consolidating development into a few key areas (of course, aligned with broader Canadian interests).

Well, what exactly are those other Canadian interests? This leads to the second shift, which is probably the most telling and controversial out of all the changes – that CIDA would be subsidizing public-private-NGO partnership pilot projects in South America and Africa. In other words, CIDA would be basically disbursing aid money through the CSR branches of Canadian mining companies along with NGOs.

Colombia, as usual, being one of the most unequal, poor, and violent countries in the region fit beautifully into this scheme. With the apertura economica or “economic opening” of Colombia under former President Alvaro Uribe and the beating back of the rebels from formerly marginal areas in the countryside rich in minerals/the “pacification” (read: counterinsurgency campaign) of the countryside, Colombia’s resources were ready for Canadian extraction. To make a very very long story short, Canada signed a Free Trade Agreement with Colombia, Colombia made the list of the top 20 “priority” countries for CIDA, and the largest producer of gold in Colombia is a Canadian corporation, Gran Colombia Gold, which has been accused of having ties to paramilitaries. I leave it to you to make what you will of those four things and how related or not they are to each other.

CIDA has also been accused of tinkering with Colombia’s mining code, and industrializing and handing over to foreigners a gold and mining industry that has historically been run by low-income artisanal miners.

Here is a little gem from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA)’s report on the Canadian extractive sector in Colombia:

The report cites reliable sources that link ten Canadian companies in Colombia to the genocide of indigenous Colombians, to complicity in eight murders and one attempted murder, to other significant military/paramilitary repression, to large-scale displacement, and to environmental destruction on a massive scale, as well as to union-busting, strike-breaking, and worker exploitation.

… Never before have Canadian companies in Colombia been denounced as so destructive. They are now open to criminal charges of genocide, murder, complicity in murder, environmental damage, displacement of indigenous populations, and the violation of labour rights.

So what does this CIDA merger mean for Colombia? Probably what it will mean for other countries who also have, for better or for worse, a growing Canadian presence – aid will be more explicitly in the service of the Canadian extractive sector, and all of its alleged associated abuses, and not the ‘people’, to put it bluntly. However, let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that aid was ever about ‘the people’. Until 2008, most of Canadian food aid was tied. Afghanistan was an aid priority because we invaded and occupied it. The extractive sector has had huge influence historically over Canadian interests in the Great Lakes Region of Africa. Aid has always been a political tool for furthering Canada’s political and economic interests and making us look good with respect to sensational issues such as extreme poverty and war. To romanticize the era of Liberal peacekeeping and a ‘poorest of the poor’-centred CIDA is to deny that, to a certain extent.

CIDA under the Liberals was arguably just as bad as under the Tories, the question is one of representation and symbols. Under Harper, CIDA is no more because what CIDA stood for made no sense to him; aid to him should be about explicitly furthering Canadian economic/political interests. Under the Liberals, this was mostly the same except it was couched in a sinister and self-congratulating discourse of humanitarianism, benevolence, and how kind and wonderful Canadians are. However, many countries which CIDA focuses on, don’t need aid. Colombia is rich in resource and has one of the strongest economies in Latin America; however it’s rural communities exist in an almost feudal state of exploitation by mining companies, local and national oligarchs, guerrillas, neo-paramilitary groups, the army, and drug cartels. Whether it’s CIDA or the FARC, many communities in Colombia are just told about how they should be run, and never given true self-determination. What these communities and nations need, in my view, is a fundamental structural change in power relationships; that would be a discussion that really gets at the heart of poverty in somewhere like Colombia. But this has been absent from the debate about CIDA’s merger, which you would think would have something to do with poverty. The discussion is about what CIDA means to Canada. The discussion is about how some of us are not comfortable with what the Tories are doing which is being explicit about something that, actually has always been quite Canadian – making our charity all about what benefits us, and not those who we give it to.

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