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.

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