Saturday, 5 February 2011

Mass arrests of Zapatistas in Chiapas

116 Zapatistas living near the tourist resort of Agua Azul, who I visited and reported on in early 2008, were arrested on February 3rd during a protest against their eviction from the tollbooth leading to the tourist resort. The Zapatistas had controlled the tollbooth for the past 2 years but on February 2nd state-backed priistas (supporters of the right-wing PRI party) backed by the police seized control of the tollbooth.

The following day the Zapatistas occupied and blocked the main road from San Cristobel to Palenque, but were removed and arrested by 500 state and federal police, then taken to the police station in Palenque. The State Attorney has said crimes such as murder, bodily harm, false imprisonment and an attack on the road network are being investigated - one priista was killed and two injured in the clash at the tollbooth. Trying to justify the mass arrests the authorities falsely claimed the Zapatistas had blocked the road leading to the tourist resort and that 17 tourists were being held hostage.

The Zapatistas had been expressing increasing concern about the intentions of the priistas and the Partido Verde (Green party) to develop the Agua Azul waterfalls and its surroundings with the funding of foreign multinationals into a mass tourism complex contrary to their own attempts to preserve the natural beauty of the area. On January 26th the Zapatistas had warned about an eviction of the tollbooth. Workers at the Fray Bartoleme de las Casas (Frayba) human rights centre in San Cristobel have also been documenting attempts by the priistas to invade the land occupied by Zapatistas since 2002 at Bolon Ajaw near the waterfalls.

Here is a translation of the statement issued by the members of the Other Campaign from San Sebastian Bachajon on February 4th:

'We publicly condemn the state government of Juan Sabines together with his collaborators in the bad government, and the following for organising the violent takeover of the Agua Azul tollbooth with the support of a 100 police from different security branches of the bad government - Francisco Guzman Jimenez, Carmen Aguilar Gomez, Juan Alvaro Moreno, Manuel Jiminez Moreno, Juan Jimenez Garcia, Miguel Ruiz Hernandez, Jesus Ruiz Hernandez, Manuel Deara Gomez, Sebastian Ruiz Alvaro, Melchorio Perez Moreno. Two years ago the organisation recovered the tollbooth as the government had seized control of it with a view to enrichment from multinational ecotourism investment and is now doing the same again after putting people in prison.

On February 3rd 121 members of the Other Campaign were violently arrested accused of various crimes in keeping with the ideology of Noe Castanon Leon, Juan Sabines' Secretary of State, to again violate human rights to claim control of the tollbooth.

These are those most responsible for what has happened, and there are currently two missing whose whereabouts we don't know. As an organisation we demand the immediate release of our comrades as we aren't criminals, those mentioned above are.

We are an organisation struggling and searching for a better world hoping to continue living in peace and tranquility to protect the natural resources of mother earth which have been handed down to us. We are an organisation with the dignity to show the government that we are not alone, we request the solidarity of national and international organisations in seeking the release of our comrades, detained for defending their land, its resources and autonomy.'

Fro more visit:

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Assassination of indigenous in Cauca

Since death threats were made a month ago against social movements and individuals in the south-west of Colombia three more indigenous have been killed in the region. Here is a translation of an action alert by human rights NGO Nomadesc:

The organisations below denounce the serious situation facing indigenous communities in the north and west of Cauca. In just two weeks three indigenous have been assassinated and another is in a serious condition in intensive care in Cali. This area has become heavily militarised in the last two weeks. As reported previously, on October 22 a threat was sent to CUT Cali (trade union committee) and Nomadesc from the Municipality of Santander de Quilichao. Five organisations were mentioned, including the indigenous reserve of Cerro Tijeras and six people who participated in the recent Minga were named. The threat was signed by the paramilitary group 'Aguilas Negras Nueva Generation' (Black Eagles New Generation).

The recent Minga denounced the continuing human rights violations suffered by indigenous communities, communities of African origen, farmers, workers and students.

1. On October 29 MARLY CAROLINA HUILA GUAMANGA was assassinated in the village of Damián in the indigenous reserve of Cerro tijeras, Suárez municipality, Cauca.

2. On November 11 REINALDO BOMBA was assassinated in the village of Bella Vista in the indigenous reserve of Cerro tijeras, Suárez Municipality, Cauca.

3. On November 13 NILSON CAMPO was assassinated and EGIDIO OVANDO HUILA seriously injured in a place known as 'the tank' in Damián in the indigenous reserve of Cerro tijeras, Suárez municipality, Cauca. Both of them were travelling by motorbike when they were attacked by an as yet unidentified armed group. According to information from the community NILSON CAMPO was shot 5 times and attacked with a machete. He was shot three times in the abdomen, and once in the cheek and ear.

The indigenous 'comunero' (a joint holder of land tenure) was responsible for the local fish cooperative, and had been treasurer of the indigenous council of Honduras reserve in 2006 and captain of the council in 2007.

It is to be noted that these events happened in the middle of the night or early morning. The culprits would appear to be paramilitary groups that carry out their attacks in camouflage wearing black armbands.

Here is a link to a Guardian article about Colombian farmers suing BP in the High Court for damage caused to their farmland by the oil company's pipeline.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Food Sovereignty in Valle del Cauca

The mountains around Tulua, two hours north of Cali, were notorious for paramilitary violence until a few years ago, and many still fear returning to their farms. Paramilitaries like H.H were responsible for thousands of murders and disappearances in the area, many of whom haven't been found.

Tulua is a large regional centre with a population of around 200,000.The nearby village of La Marina has seen increased military activity recently and army helicopters overhead are a daily occurance. The FARC have retreated into the mountains stretching into neighbouring departments and the area I visited hadn't seen any clashes recently.

Three years ago some local farmers who live in one district two hours by vehicle from Tulua town, decided to form their own agricultural cooperative with the aims of supplying their food needs and increasing organic production. It has become the norm throughout Colombia for farmers to focus on one or two crops and cattle and buy produce from local markets, with obvious drawbacks. In lean periods they have to rely on the one or two crops they produce with subsequent malnutrition.

This cooperative is trying to diversify by cultivating carrots, tomatoes, peas, beans, cabbage, beetroot, radishes, yucca and lulo fruit as well as raising hens, pigs and cattle. Many also cultivate coffee. The unreliability and low value of organic cultivation in a tropical climate with frequent insect infestations, forces many to rely on chemically treated produce as well as supplement their income from working as day labourers for wealthier farmers. Organic produce doesn't sell for much more than the chemically grown equivalent so time spent weeding and planting repellents isn't profitable and works out at far less than the 15000 pesos they could earn as day labourers.

To avoid having to sell produce to intermediaries in the main markets, it is sold at the weekly farmers and organic market, which is laid on by the authorities. However, this entails selling their produce early on Saturday morning so they have to come to Tulua on Friday evening and sleep out under the market canopies.

Such small-scale farmers' initiatives are supported to a certain extent by government bodies, such as the Corporacion Autonoma Regional del Valle del Cauca, which exploit the media potential of their projects, but often fail to follow through on their promises. They have supplied greenhouses but failed to provide the suitable engine for the sugar-mill as promised. The poor state of the mountain roads vastly increases transport costs given the necessity for frequent repairs - the local authorities have repeatedly failed to make any improvements. There is also no health post in the community.

For all the government's rhetoric and glossy brochures about supporting small farmers, as the recent farming scandal shows, it is only the already wealthy landowners that benefit from its policies. The small farmer, pushed out onto mountain sides far from regional markets, is limited to ekeing out a living with the hope of the right weather and absence of infestations.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Community leaders in Cauca receive death threats for opposition to multinationals

A few weeks ago social movements and individuals received the latest death threats from paramilitaries for their opposition to the attempts of mining multinational Anglogold Ashanti to establish a presence in the northern Cauca region:

'The government continues to fulfill its agreements and commitments

You are defenders of the guerilla, requesting land to plant coca to strengthen the indigenous and the guerilla who don't appreciate the efforts of President Uribe.

With the help of 'Families in Action', 'forest rangers', and 'democratic security' (government policies and programmes) a group of men and women concerned with what is happening in the country, have decided that is again necessary to take up the struggle against those who are camoflaged in social organisations like the CUT (Central Trade Union Committee) Valle, Nomadesc (a human rights NGO), human rights defenders, NGOs, enemies of our democracy.

Those bureaucrats won't let the Cauca region progress by not allowing multinationals into the region who benefit the comunities of Suarez, Morales and Buenos Aires.

Some of these organisations have made agreements with the owners of land titles, requesting evictions from mining zones in exchange for money, as in the La Toma district, and we have a document as proof of this.

We have today decided to declare these bureaucrats a military target... (a list follows of organisations and individuals)

Aguilas Negras Nueva Generacion (Black Eagles New Generation)'

The message was faxed from a phone shop in Santander de Quilichao, which is near Suarez, to NGOs in Cali. At least one resident of La Toma has already had to leave his home because of multiple death threats, but others named remain in the area. Paramilitaries have been responsible for assassinations and intimidation in the region for 10 years - last December Edwin Legarda, husband of an indigenous leader, was killed and their daughter survived an assasination attempt this May.

The north of the Cauca region has been populated by indigenous and black communties for hundreds of years. Blacks were brought to the region by Spanish settlers to work as slaves in 1636 and following the abolition of slavery in 1850 managed to buy land titles with gold. They have continued artesanal mining, agricultural and fishing activities to this day. Whilst indigenous communites have managed to get some recognition of ancestral land rights in 'reserves' (resguardos) black communities have been denied such collective recognition here as they have attained elsewhere, like on the Pacific coast in places like Tumaco. The demography of the traditionally black communities has changed in recent years as many have left and 'Paisas' (those from Antioquia) have bought up land and brought in equipment to excavate quarries and dig shafts. Some suggest their investments in mining are an attempt to launder profits mfrom the drugs trade. The mercury and cyanide used in these processes has polluted the streams and the nearby Rio Ovejas the communites rely on for fish stocks, which have decreased.

Recently, mining multinational Anglogold Ashanti has been trying to acquire land titles in the area and was awarded two in Suarez municipality- in Asnazu and La Toma districts. La Toma is a large hilly area of 7,500 hectares home to around 7,000, many of whom are vehemently opposed to the mining multinational and feel bitter about the awarding of the titles.

At a packed public meeting in Suarez a few weeks ago attended by hundreds, with many on the street listening in, representatives of various government ministeries defended the decision to award the titles and concessions by quoting a law that appropriated a land title from a member of the community who didn't comply with some requirement regarding land use. Other lawyers refuted this, citing a lack of the necessary consultation with the community and a ruling from the Constitutional Court this year that called for legal protection of the collective territories of black communities in La Toma. The government was called on to implement a plan of protection and assistance for the black communties in the area. The representative from the mining ministry tried to wriggle out of its obligations to the black communities by arguing that it wasn't aware of the existance of collective land rights at the time of the awarding of land title and it couldn't do anything about it now. The illegality of the removal of the land title from the original owner and its awarding to someone else with no connection to the area, who then sold it to Anglogold, had to stand.

Concerns were also expressed on environmental grounds with no kind of safeguards put in place. Even if the residents weren't forceably evicted from their homes, the damage done to the environment by the kind of large-scale open cast mining Anglogold practises would make any fishing or agricultural activities unviable. Accusations of crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Court were also made should the government faciliate the eviciton of the community.

It appeared that the mining giant were heeding local concerns as rumours were circulating that Anglogold would withdraw its interest from La Toma. It even called a public meeting in La Toma which around a hundred attended, keen for the company to give a legally binding renunciation of its title. This, of course, it didn't supply, merely affirming the rumours that it wasn't planning any activity in La Toma. The impeccably dressed Anglogold representative gave a brief speech, distancing the company from the death threats and reminding us of the 120 million pesos it has invested in the community, before dashing off. Others talked about Anglogold's record across the globe, where communities have been devastated without compensation and spoke about the legacy of the nearby Salvajina hydroelectric plant owned by Spanish multinational Union Fenosa, which displaced thousands in 1985, who have yet to receive anything. Hardly any locals are employed at the plant with most of the work done by professionals brought in. For the time being at least, Anglogold believes it is more profitable to press ahead with the Colosa project in Cajamarca, Tolima.

There were rumours that some community members had been paid to convince the community of the benefits the multinational would bring and to sell land titles, accusations bitterly rejected by some. Some from the community who had worked for the company elsewhere defended their actions through the lack of local job opportunities.

Although the community has mobilised strongly to resist Anglogold, many fear the multinational will continue to be an unwelcome feature in their lives and on their land.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Assassination of community leader resisting hydroelectric plant

Last week, as part of the Minga, social groups from Santander department, mobilised at the construction site of a hydroelectric plant, one of a network of 7 to be constructed across Colombia. The 1000 strong gathering was called to oppose the privitisation of the Rio Sogamosa, which hundreds of families depend on.

Issues discussed included the right to life, agreements not fulfilled by the government, land sovereignty, economic models as well as the privitisation of the river. When the police prevented an attempt to occupy a bridge, the participants, including over 300 women from the Social Movement of Women against War and the Organizacion Feminina Popular demanded their legitimate right to protest and to oppose the selling off of their natural resources.

A few days later local community representatives had a meeting with one of the companies subcontracted to build the dam. President of Puente Sogamoso village council where the Minga took place, Honorio Llorente Melenez, voiced concerns about the potential social and environmental impact of the megaproject on the community.

A few hours later Honorio was shot dead as he was leaving a bar with some friends. His murderer changed his top and was picked up by two motorbikes before they headed towards the main road through the region, passing an army base a kilometre away.

Honorio had lived in Puente Sogamoso since 1986, and started working for a Palm Oil company two years later. He had always been a trade union member and became treasurer of the Puerto Wilches branch of Sintrainagro. He was fired in 2007 and was due to have a meeting with the company about compensation for his dismissal at the Employment Ministry.

Honorio was involved in the campaign for the defence of the Sogamoso river and the threat the hydroelectric plant posed to those living along its banks. He had also been active in the recent Minga.

His assassination was no isolated event but one of many of those committed to protecting natural resources and communities. Three other local community representatives have been killed in Santander this year with regional authorities taking no steps to ensure the safety of these representatives and take action against the armed groups responsible for their murders. A coalition of regional and national social movements is calling on the government to take action against the continuing persecution of social movement representatives and human rights defenders.

The memory of Honorio and others, whose lives have been cut short whilst resisting the depradations of big business, is another humbling reminder of the courage of those determined to protect communities aware of the risks they take and in the face of these powerful outside interests.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

The Caribbean Minga

The 'Minga de Resistencia Social y Comunitaria' (Gathering of Social and Community Resistance) which took place last week in three places in Colombia, builds on the indigenous minga last year when thousands of indigenous spent a month marching from their homelands to Bogota to demand land rights and social justice. They faced massive police repression during this mobilisation and at least one person was killed with dozens injured and arrested.

This year the minga was broadened to include other social movements and took place in the west converging on Cali, in the centre in Bogota, and in Cartagena on the Caribbean coast. Small farmers and artesanal miners from the south of the departments of Bolivar and Cesar, converged on the village of Gamarra on the Magdalena River on Monday 12th to hold their annual 'Festival of the River' event, a celebration of the region's culture with song and dance, as well as a commemoration of the violence the region has and continues to experience. This April a community leader who opposed new palm oil plantations was assassinated by paramilitaries.

After a communal lunch outside the home of a local, a caravan of coaches transported the delegation consisting mainly of farmers' and miners' families to Cartagena where we set up camp on the grounds of a recreational ground on the edge of the city. People quickly organised themselves into different teams to deal with the running of the camp like kitchen, toilets and cleaning. Hammocks were slung along the fences outside and mattresses laid in the sheltered central structure with sloping thatch roof and open sides.

The next day as regional musical and dance groups performed, the local police and authorities with media in tow showed up and organisers spent much of the next few days dealing with them. With spirits high the youthful gathering didn't let this sideshow disrupt the festivities and a constant beat was sustained for the rest of the day. Groups dressed in regional costume performed cumbia and vallenato folk music with an assortment of drums, accordion and guiro.

In the afternoon we were bussed to the beach with the excitement palpable as it was the first time many had seen the sea. After dip we returned to find out the mains water supply to the recreation ground had been cut off so no shower to wash off the salty residue from the seawater. For the rest of the week there was twice-daily provision from a water tanker.

The following day three groups visited different barrios of Cartagena for an exchange of experiences. Some from the rural south of the region were shocked to hear of the urban poverty of the barrios, having their illusions of the 'good life' in the city shattered. We heard about the experiences of some indigenous Senu who had been displaced from their land and settled on a small plot of land in the deprived Membrillal district on the edge of the city in 2002. Originally 140 families crammed into this area but many have since moved away in search of work elsewhere. Their sense of identity has been weakened much through this dispersion of the community. We heard the familiar story of extreme poverty - unemployment, hunger and poor provision of health and education. We walked past a school built by the humanitarian NGO Plan International, which attempts to plug the gaping holes of a state that neglects the needs of the majority. Meanwhile on the other side of town modern luxury hotels and office blocks have sprung up to cater for tourists and the business elite. Locals are still able to visit some of the nearby beaches, but even this is under threat with local authority plans to privatize these. Parallels were drawn with the seizure of land for palm oil plantations on the banks of the Magdalena in the south of Bolivar.

Prolonged showers on Wednesday night meant a disrupted night's sleep for all but didn't dampen enthusiasm during Thursday's festivities in the city centre. With a strong police presence folklore groups performed for several hours right on the edge of the Walled City and many locals and tourists stopped by to watch and take part in the dances in the 'Plaza de la Paz'. Amidst this festive atmosphere, banners were held and leaflets handed out to remind onlookers of the accompanying political message of the communities' determination to remain on their land and for justice for the violence unleashed on them.

The week culminated with a march from the edge of the centre into the Walled City, where the farmers and miners joined social movements from the coastal region including a group of indigenous Wayu, in a mobilization against hunger and poverty. Around 2,000 were closely escorted by police in a two-hour march with no respite from the intense heat and dust and with water sellers doing a roaring trade. Representatives from trade unions, the Polo Democratico left-wing party and student collectives all condemned the rising unemployment, lack of opportunities for the youth, expensive basic services, privatizations, official corruption and human rights violations. Many had drifted away, no doubt exhausted like me, as the march entered the Walled City in the fading light and ended in the Plaza de San Pedro Claver, the 16th century monk who ministered to slaves brought from Africa. We were treated to a lengthy mass with much praying, but the priest did praise the value of solidarity as well as songs by a local musical celebrity and there were some who still had the energy to boogie. The militant message of the march with its demands was perhaps lost in this final ceremony but the message had already been made repeatedly and very publicly earlier in the day.

With little contact between the city and its hinterland the week's activities managed to bring together and dispel mutual illusions. Due to media portrayals many in the city perceive the south of the region to be exclusively guerilla and paramilitary territory whilst those living a tough life on the land are often unaware of the extent of urban poverty. The common cultural heritage with many in the south having moved inland from the coast was highlighted through song and dance.

Throughout the week the authorities pressurised organisers and the police were a constant intimidating presence but they failed to deter the peaceful message of those who eke out a living from the land. Despite the challenges faced in the first 'Minga Caribe' mobilisation, the expansion of the annual Minga to include non-indigenous groups is a defiant stance of the social movements against a regime which has continuously tried to divide them and a crucial step in the strengthening of this network

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Migrant Solidarity in Calais

Having heard about the stepping up of police harassment and attacks on migrants in Calais over the summer I thought I'd hop across the channel myself to show solidarity. In the wake of the French authorities' vow to clear Calais of migrants by the end of the year the CRS (the French riot police) had been given the green light to pressure migrants into leaving by beating them, throwing tear gas in tents, destroying their tents and belongings, even resorting to gas the one water tap for 500 people. Those showing solidarity with the migrants experienced a piece of this aggression, being pushed around, insulted, detained temporarily and prevented from documenting the CRS abuses - you make our jobs (migrant-bashing) harder and we'll make your lives tough was the message.

On my first visit, around a month ago, it was clear that our presence, whilst not stopping the raids and detentions, at least mitigated the violence of the bully boys, who in typical cowardly fashion, didn't hesitate to throw their weight around when just one or two volunteers were present, but were a lot shyer with greater numbers and cameras present. The frequent raids on some of the squats at night or in the early hours, with migrants being released soon after, were blatantly designed just to intimidate them into leaving Calais.

The announcement, a few weeks later, that Calais was to be 'cleared' of migrants within a week had more of an effect with most leaving the largest Pashtun jungle, although others sleeping rough or in squats generally stayed. Despite the destruction of the Pashtun jungle to much media fanfare, by the end of the week the squats and those sleeping rough were still there with the police preferring to concentrate resources on preventing migrants returning to the jungle and continuing with the intimidation, warning migrants that their tents or squats would be destroyed the next day. Cops in plain clothes even visited one squat, shouting insults and threatening to beat up the migrants.

Although there was no full-on immediate 'clearance' that first week, the police weren't tolerating any public show of resistance, clamping down heavily on the small-scale demos on the Friday and Sunday, using the handy French law banning any demo that the authorities haven't been notified of in advance. Volunteers were even summoned for questioning and held for four hours regarding one of these demos, which saw farcical tug-of-war with a banner scenes. Even those who weren't at the demo were held for questioning. In the second week some of the smaller jungles were cleared and those sleeping rough in the centre under bridges were targetted with police forcing them to take all their belongings, bedding and shelters with them at short notice, without any indication as to where they should go. Again farcical scenes ensued with their property going round in circles. One of the squats was demolished restricting even further the migrants' options. The final stages of the 'cleansing' of Calais are in progress now with these migrants being increasingly targetted and talk has moved on now to charter flights to Afghanistan, which immigration minister Besson promises are imminent. This is probably what Afghanis fear most as for many it will mean being caught up in the nightmare of the never-ending 'war on terror' and having to pay back the debts incurred to get to Europe with no means to do so.

At times Calais felt like a town under occupation with hardly a few minutes going by without seeing a national police car or CRS van full of riot police. Calais was swamped with cops. Calais may be cleared of migrants for a while to suit the immediate needs of domestic British/French relations, but, short of a costly permanent police presence in Calais and other ports, migrants will begin drifting back fleeing wars and abject poverty in their homelands searching for something a little more secure in the UK, which most choose as they already have contacts there or at least know English.

Instead of seeking real global solutions to these causes of migration, massive sums are being spent for short-term political gain. As is often the case with mobilisations, most will blame activists and volunteers for the exorbitant expense of the police operations, secure that they will never need to undertake hazardous journeys across borders in search of shelter and security.