Friday, 25 July 2008

Final Session of Permanent Peoples Tribunal in Bogota

The Final Session of the Permanent Peoples Tribunal containing a judgement of the activities of multinationals in Colombia has just finished here in Bogota. This three day event was the culmination of a two year process involving six preliminary sessions on the food industry, mining sector, biodiversity, oil industry, public services and indigenous peoples.

Around 2, 000 people attended the tribunal at the National University in Bogota, including many who had travelled large distances in social movement delegations from all over Colombia. It was all due to take place in a large auditorium but as an orchestra needed the space to practice in the mornings these sessions were transferred to a nearby outdoor sports hall. It was almost impossible to follow the speeches in this change of venue, even for native Spanish speakers, so after the first day, when the charges from the preliminary audiences were presented there, the programme was changed to ensure no more speeches would be delivered there. Not being able to attend the recent indigenous peoples hearing due to a clash with the first gathering of the Colombia Friendship Network this section was particularly interesting, and included information on the negtive impacts of ecotourism projects in the Guajira region on the Atlantic coast, palm oil plantations in the Choco and Orinoco, which as well as causing mass displacement desecrate indigenous holy sites, and the murders of indigenous peoples in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta - 400 were killed last year.

Although invited to attend, only two companies responded in any way, the tourist agency Aviatur who claimed that there was no space for public debate at the tribunal, although there was this opportunity during the preliminary hearings, and Metroagua. The charges were also sent to the embassies of the countries where the multinationals HQ are (Spain, US, UK, Holland, South Africa and Switzerland) but none of them responded.

The afternoon sessions on the opening day consisted of talks on the background of multinationals in Colombia, from the 1928 massacre of workers by the United Fruit Company (now Chiquita brands) to the upsurge in paramilitarism and privitizations of the 1990s, through to the impunity and consolidation of the present day. We were overwhelmed with figures such as the estimated 300,000 killed by political violence during the last 10 years and the 5 million missing from the 2005 census, who have left the country or are in internal exile. We were told of the extensive support in the planning of the war from US, UK, Israeli and South African 'experts', with experience in repression of civil populations. In this final phase massacres by the paramilitaries and army is being replaced by targetted assasinations and a policy of 'assisencialismo' (a kind of development or welfare model) which involves the depoliticisation of communities through NGOs and religious groups.

We were told of the 11 'priority zones' comprising 58 municipalities - Cordoba, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Catatumbo, Southern Bolivar, the Bajo and Medio Atrato in the Choco, the Northern Cauca, Tumaco in Narino, Arauco, the Southern Zone covering much of the Amazon, and Putumayo. These areas of strategic importance have also seen the highest rates of political violence in recent years.

The increasing inequality was highlighted by figures showing decreasing salaries whilst GNP has been rising at a rate of around 7% recently. Whilst prices are rising constantly - in my few months here the price of public transport has risen 10% - the minimum wage remains at 15000 pesos (4.30GBP).

Day 2 kicked off with a march from the HQ of the Colombian state-run oil company Ecopetrol, which has been collaborating with foreign oil companies in human rights abuses in areas such as Arauca and Casanare, and marched around town back to the National University. Around 700 attended the march, the change of time and place meaning many didn't make it. We were then treated to regional music and dance outside the auditorium, which continued throughout the daily Bogota downpour. In the afternoon other Latin American struggles were presented, including the Cochabamba 'water wars' in Bolivia where US utilities company Bechtel were kicked out through popular mobilisations, resistance to mining companies in Honduras where many municipalities have declared themselves 'mine free', and resistance to multinationals in indigenous communities in Ecuador. We heard the familiar story of the entry of foreign multinationals leading to displacement, employment deregulation and environmental degradation.

On Day 3 groups discussed topics such as the environment, oil, coal, tourism and labour rights, which were presented to all in the afternoon and a few proposals were made. This included a boycott of the travel agency Aviatur, which is already selling package holidays to foreigners for winter 2009, the exchange of seeds between communities affected by the invasion of GM crops by companies such as Monsanto and the need for improved communications between groups.

This was followed by the presentation of the final judgement, a summary of a 40-page document, that recapitulated much of what we had already heard. Some more stats I gathered were the 17 million living in poverty and 6m in extreme poverty, and the 0.3% that own over half the land. Colombia was compared to countries that have also suffered the ravages of the multinationals such as Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The delivery of the verdict was enlivened by the taking of the stage by around 15 masked students, including a piper who performed for us and a spokesperson who read out a statement highlighing the importance of the 'revolutionary process of the Colombian people to create a socialist society' and calling for the 'liberation of our peoples'. Despite a stern telling off by the head judge this intervention was generally well received and led to more shouting of slogans by some fo the groups present.

In the next few weeks some of the internationals present will be visiting regions to see first hand the devastating consequences of the actions of companies from their home countries.

Today there was a demo by some of the relatives and their supporters of those disappeared following the 1985 Palace of Justice siege, most of whom were cafeteria workers. Former Colonel Alfonso Plazas is on trial for his role in some of the disappearances. There was a small counter-demo supporting Plazas and a large media presence at the court.

Click here for photos.

1 comment:

Peter N. Jones said...

Thanks for the review. It is particularly interesting to read about the impact of ecotourism to indigenous peoples. I wrote about this some time ago (Does Your Summer Vacation Impact Indigenous Peoples) and am glad to see that this is getting wider recognition. Many people think that tourism is a good thing for bringing people and money to indigenous peoples, but obviously there are many negative consequences as well.