Agro-fuels and gold-mining: the human consequences

With Frog-Lover the fourth member of Espacio currently in Colombia – see her blog

A leader of Colombia’s largest paramilitary group once described paramilitary strategy in terms of clearing the ground for a model of “development” geared towards corporate interests.

He explained that once the paramilitaries had eliminated potentially subversive members of the population, imposed an authoritarian social structure, ensured that land once owned by peasant farmers became the property of large landowners and begun employment, health and education programmes in conjunction with state bodies, these right-wing death squads would stop being a “loose cannon of the State”, having “put in place the necessary structures for the victorious expansion of national and multinational capitalism and the ‘modernising’ State will be able to install itself with the cooperation of the private sector, non-governmental organisations and the “organised” communities.’ (Carlos Castaño, quoted by Colombian economist Libardo Sarmiento in 1996).

He was referring particularly to paramilitary strategy in the Magdalena Medio region of the country, where Espacio’s Frog Lover has been based for the last few weeks, providing solidarity accompaniment to communities there.

The region was taken over by paramilitaries – in full complicity with the “official” state forces – in the late 1990’s.

Although Colombia’s armed conflict is often misrepresented as being primarily to do with drugs, the well-documented, institutionalised links between the armed forces and paramilitaries, the recent “parapolítica” which revealed close ties between numerous top politicians and paramilitary groups and the numerous testimonies of collaboration between multinational corporations and paramilitary groups point to a different logic driving the conflict: the violent imposition of a model that geographer David Harvey calls “accumulation by dispossession”, which is being imposed, with differing degrees of violence, the world over.

When the paramilitaries arrived in Southern Bolívar, they made it clear to communities why they had come. In one part of the region – where local people make a living as small-scale gold miners – the paramilitaries killed one of the leaders of the Farmers and Mining Federation of Southern Bolívar, decapitated him and played football with his head before putting it on a pole looking towards the mining zone and telling the inhabitants that they were coming for the mines and they were going to hand them over to people who would work them better and make more rational use of them.

Today, gold mining in the region is controlled by multinational corporations, such as Kedahdah Anglo Gold. One of the current leaders of the Federation is Teófilo Acuña, who will be in Bristol on Wednesday, was last year was imprisoned at the order of the army battalion responsible for protecting the multinationals’ interests.

Monocultures of oil palm – a crop used for agro-fuels (also known as biofuels) as well as in the fast food industry – are another important interest linked to paramilitarism in the region as well as to international policies designed to keep capitalism going and provide what Bristol Rising Tide aptly desribe as a “false technical fix” for climate change.

In a country where eight million people are reported to by dying of hunger, the imposition of monocultures in place of local food crops is itself lethal – quite apart from the violence used to dispossess people of their land.

In the town in Southern Bolívar where Frog Lover has been living, it is planned that 16,000 of the available 24,000 hectares will be used for growing Oil Palm.
This does not leave much space for food crops. And much of this ‘available land’ is only available once wetlands have been drained, affecting fish and bird populations as well as destroying the livelihoods of local fishermen.

Frog Lover has met farmers in the region surviving on one meal a day since being forced off their land by a palm oil company, people working for palm companies paid poorly and paid late, and many who are angry and saddened that in such a fertile area they are having to import food from elsewhere.

The village of San Cayatano is one example of the misery caused by agro-fuel monocultures.

When Señor Numa, the owner of a 900 hectare farm died 23 years ago, the villagers waited five years for his relatives to claim the land before they started to farm it. They were there for fourteen years: around forty families, again growing staple foods.

It is still unclear whether the men who arrived claiming to have bought the land from Señor Numa’s sons actually ever did, although it is understood that they aquired the land for growing Oil Palm. What was clear were the threats behind the request for these families to leave the land. People were offered small amounts of money and were told that if they didn’t leave the good way, they would be leaving the bad way. Given the paramilitary presence in the area, people took this pretty seriously. The last man left was taken by the paramilitaries to be killed, but managed to escape.

That was three years ago. ‘Misery’ was the word used to describe life for them since. Unemployment is especially uncomfortable when there are eight children to feed. One meal a day becomes normal. Hunger universal.

Meanwhile, smallholders nearby have been persuaded by falling crop prices into growing Oil Palm through the EU-backed policy of “strategic alliances” between peasants and corporations (alliances that disguise grossly unequal power relations and the fact that the peasants take the risks while the company reaps the profit).

For the first three years, while the palms are growing, the farmers get a loan of 400 000 pesos (106 pounds) per month from the company – San Lucas – to cover the upkeep of the 10 hectares. It actually doesn’t cover much. At least two people are needed every day for keeping the area weed free. (If you are reported for having livestock on the land, the payment stops) If the workers are not family, they need to paid 40 000 pesos per day. If they are, they need feeding.

On top of this, when repayments start after 5 years, the 400,000 pesos per month will have to be paid back to the company.

Some farmers use herbicides, also supplied on credit from the company.

Most of these farmers currently have a loan of around 25 million pesos (6600 pounds) and many see losing their land as a real danger as a result of their debt. When their trees start bearing fruit, they will be at the mercy of global prices and the amount that San Lucas chooses to pass on to them.

It is not a company that has so far inspired much confidence. Three years ago they made an agreement with the community to sort out the local road which is impassible in the winter – children struggle to school knee deep in mud and arrive 2 hours late according to the teacher. The company also undertook to put in a drainage system to help against flooding. None of this has been done, and in fact the problem with flooding has been far worse as the drainage system from the company’s own land directs more water onto the old airstrip, and another palm oil company at the other end has blocked where it used to drain away.

This Tuesday, 15th April, mandatory biofuel blending comes in, meaning that 2.5% of fuel sold at the pump must contain biofuel. Espacio members in Bristol will be with Rising Tide at Tesco, Eastville from 4.30 – 7pm on Tuesday 15th, highlighting the impact of the agrofuels in solidarity with communities who are struggling to keep their lands. See:

Thousands march against state terror

protesters in Bogota

On Thursday we were on the streets of Bogotá as thousands of Colombians took to the streets again, this time in homage to the more than 15,000 victims of state terrorism in the country. We marched with campesinos from BP’s oil exploration region of Casanare, in the capital to attend the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes forum being held this weekend.

The slogan, ‘for our dead, not a minute of silence, only a lifetime of struggle’ was particularly poignant as we stood beside, Dolores, a woman we know from Casanare (not her real name) whose two sons were killed by the army last year and the neighbours of community activist Armando Montañez who shot dead last month after he and other members of the community were blacklisted by a sergeant of the 16th Brigade.

Many of the marchers carried photos of friends, family members and neighbours who had been killed by the state forces and state-linked paramilitaries. Some wore t-shirts baring the words ‘we are all Colombia’ in response to the ‘I am Colombia’ trade mark of last month’s government-backed march against the FARC guerrilla (see our report at

Despite the fact that bosses encouraged employees to take the day off for the previous march, on Thursday workers were threatened with sanctions if they didn’t turn up for work. Despite this, the streets were thronging with people and, although it’s difficult to estimate numbers when the mainstream press are concerned to play down the significance of the march, the streets were far more densely packed than on 4 February at which according to generous estimates over 8 million people marched across the world.

There was also widespread support for the march in other countries, including across Europe where Colombian exiles and groups in the network we’re part of – the Red de Hermandad y Solidaridad con Colombia – and other solidarity networks organized protests, vigils and street theatre. In Paris, around 600 people joined a vigil in the Trocadero, while at home in Bristol, other members of Espacio Bristol-Colombia, alongside people from Colombia Solidarity Campaign and others highlighted the situation in Colombia through a piece of street theatre (see the u-tube clip at and report at…37421)
The mobilization was convened by Colombian social organizations to demand an immediate end to the persecution of members of social organizations and trade unions, human rights defenders, journalists, students, peasant-farmers, indigenous people and all those engaged in democratic opposition and to demand the victims right to truth, justice and meaningful reparation.

For more than 50 years the Colombian conflict has been the cause of one of the most longstanding and devastating humanitarian crises on the planet, with hundreds of thousands of dead and ‘disappeared’ and more than four million people internally displaced within the country. The vast majority of crimes have been committed by paramilitary groups that act under the protection of the armed forces and senior figures in the Colombian state and which, in many cases, are financed by multinational corporations.

These paramilitaries and their allies have caused the death of more than 15,000 people, including 1,700 indigenous people, 2,550 trade unionists and 5,000 members of the Patriotic Union – a left-leaning political coalition. These victims have been buried in more than 3,000 mass graves, or their bodies thrown into rivers. Six hundred people have been murdered every year since 2002, when the government supposedly began a ‘demobilisation’ of the paramilitaries.

Since 2006, a number of public scandals have demonstrated the tight links between paramilitary groups and dozens of politicians, including members of parliament, regional governors, military officers and other state agents. Many of these people continue told hold public office or positions as diplomats.

On Wednesday, UN High-Commissioner for Human Rights’ delegate in Colombia, Javier Hernández, issued a statement warning that paramilitary groups continue to thrive in the country and that what the government now refers to as mere ‘criminal gangs’ in fact have “structures of command and control, arms, operational capacity and uniforms” and include at least 15% of those paramilitaries have supposedly demobilized.

Like the Hydra, the great sea-snake of Greek legend, ‘it could be that we have only cut off one head, from which another seven will emerge’ he said. The UNHCHR delegate also underlined the need to clarify the links between paramilitary groups and corporations and the importance of reparation for victims that includes the recuperation of their land (a large proportion of land in Colombia has been turned over to corporate interests through displacement at the hands of the paramilitaries which has subsequently been legalized by the state).….html
Over the last few years, there has also been an increase in extra-judicial executions by the National Army. Since 2002, national and international human rights organizations have reported the murder of more than 950 civilians who the army tried to pass off as guerrillas killed in combat.

Casanare, where we work, is far from an exception and the army continue to protect the interests of BP and other companies linked to oil extraction and exploration. Dolores told us yesterday that now, months after the murder of her sons, a Canadian company has begun seismic exploration on her land with asking her permission or giving her any compensation for the damage to her farm.

Espacio and COS-PACC, the Colombian social organization we’re working with in Casanare, have set up a scheme to protect threatened members of rural communities in the region by ‘twinning’ them with people in Britain, who undertake to follow-up their situation with the authorities and build up personal solidarity links as pen-pals, to remind people that they are not alone and disposable, as the strategists of state terror would like to have them believe. If you are interested in getting involved, contact us as

the 4 feb demo against the farc

‘I am Colombia’ were the words stamped across the rather artificially large chest of the woman who nearly ran us over in her four-by-four on Monday morning. No doubt she was on her way to the government-sponsored mobilization against the FARC guerrilla that took place in cities across the world today, despite condemnation from Colombian social movements, the left-leaning opposition and the mother of Ingrid Betancourt – the former Green Party senator who has been a hostage of the FARC since 2002.

I am Colombia’ were the words stamped across the rather artificially large chest of the woman who nearly ran us over in her four-by-four on Monday morning. No doubt she was on her way to the government-sponsored mobilization against the FARC guerrilla that took place in cities across the world today, despite condemnation from Colombian social movements, the left-leaning opposition and the mother of Ingrid Betancourt – the former Green Party senator who has been a hostage of the FARC since 2002.

Despite the uniform of white T-shirts claiming to embody Colombia and demanding ‘no more kidnaps’, ‘no more lies’, ‘no more deaths’ and ‘no more FARC’, the idea that the FARC are at the root of Colombia’s humanitarian crisis is almost as daft as blaming Joseph Stalin for World War Two. However, in a country where the media is a vehicle for government spin to a degree that makes even the BBC look subversive, and where critical journalists have a disturbing pre-disposition for ending up exiled or killed, historical and political analysis has been replaced by the nationalistic slogans currently gushing from the botoxed lips of television presenters.

The demonstrators had little to say about the far deeper issue underlying the conflict in Colombia – that of state terrorism and a ‘democracy’ that has claimed more lives than all the Latin American dictatorships put together. However, as the marchers drew a border around themselves and declared themselves to ‘be’ Colombia, they delineated the boundaries of another space, outside that border, a ‘non-Colombia’ populated by the thousands of non-citizens who every day face the possibility of being victims of state-sponsored violence.

These non-citizens are not armed outlaws but members of social organizations who oppose the policy of privatization of just about everything, the destruction caused by multinational corporations or the violence with which the state’s neoliberal development policies are imposed on poor communities. People like our friend Luis Eduardo García who just before Christmas had three consecutive death threats from paramilitaries (whose links with the state are extensively documented) because of his work with the Colombian food-workers’ union.

Also inhabiting this non-Colombia are the surplus populations who have no value to the government except as corpses who can be dressed in military garb to show that the army are meeting their macabre targets of guerrillas killed in combat. Dulcelina, who sent her two sons off to buy cheese from a neighbouring farm at midday on 30 March last year and was later presented with an army video showing their corpses wearing military boots, is one of many people we’ve spoken to who’ve told us of the how their loved-ones’ corpses have been manipulated in this way.

The recent testimony of an army whistle-blower has revealed that extra-judicial executions and the passing-off of civilian corpses as those of guerrilla is a policy that extends to the heart of the Colombian army, which recent years have given carte blanche to combat the guerrilla under President Uribe’s curiously-named policy of ‘Democratic Security’. Last month, Sergeant Alexander Rodríguez spoke out on the murder of civilians by the 15th Brigade of the Army, who subsequently presented the corpses as those of guerrillas killed in combat. To make their story credible, the soldiers changed their victims clothes and put a gun next to them. But in a world in which everything has a price and those with the least resources must pay for them, the soldiers’ were asked to pay 20,000 pesos (approx £5) each to the cover the cost of the gun. ‘If you want to pay, that’s fine – if not, it’s ok too, but think about the five-day leave you’ll get if you do’ the soldiers were told by their superiors.

The Commander of the Colombian Army, General Mario Montoya, as the head of a special commission into the accusations, responded by withdrawing Sergeant Rodriguez from active service – on the basis of his supposed lack of discipline – and by promoting the commander of the offending 15th Brigade. The strategy of accusing the accusers is a standard response of the Colombian state to charges against it.

It has become a mantra of the government and its supporters that human rights groups are ‘auxiliaries of the guerrilla’, a charge that is little short of a death sentence for human rights defenders in Colombia. The European network that Espacio Bristol is part of – the Red de Hermandad y Solidaridad con Colombia – was, along with Peace Brigades International and several prominent Colombian human rights NGOs, itself declared part of the ‘juridical wing of the FARC’ in an article in the national newspaper El Espectador on 15 December, despite the fact that some of the social organizations we accompany have themselves been declared military targets of the FARC as a result of their different views on how to respond to state terror and multinational capitalism.

In oil-rich Arauca, a region of eastern Colombia, social organizations have for decades been implementing their own alternative social and economic models but in recent years have suffered violence at the hands of the army and paramilitaries defending the interests of oil multinationals (see Amnesty International’s report at In January, they issued a call for international solidarity in which they stated that they were now being attacked by Fronts 10 and 45 of the FARC as well as by the state forces.

Despite the outrage inspired by the FARC’s policies, the question of what to do in the face of a state that thrives on a strategy of terror against non-violent opposition remains unanswered, indeed ignored, by today’s march. The Colombian state is responsible for many millions more murders and illegal imprisonments than the FARC but continues to consolidate its position in international public opinion as the ‘legitimate’ bearer of arms. As peasants and social activists face on-going extermination and stigmatization with little support from those who find it a more convenient option to focus only on the FARC, it is hardly surprising that a significant minority of people in Colombia see little option other than to take up arms in order to defend themselves and their communities.

The Colombian trade union federation – la CUT, Colombia’s left-leaning political coalition – the Polo Democrático Alternativo, and members of various social and human rights organizations also marched on Monday in a counter-demonstration that was all but invisible to the eyes of the mainstream media. They, too, were protesting against kidnapping but demanded that the government enter into a humanitarian agreement with the FARC and negotiate a political, rather than military, solution to the conflict in Colombia.

friends told they’ll end the year in a mass grave

On Wednesday night, we stayed with our friend Luis Eduardo Garcia who is a member of the Colombian food-workers’ union, Sinaltrainal, and a worker in the Coca-Cola factory.  At 5 o’clock on Thursday morning Guayabo went with Luis Eduardo and another member of Sinaltrainal, Jose Domingo Florez, to give out leaflets workers starting their shift, reminding them that that day, 6 December, was the eleventh anniversary of the murder union leader Isidro Gil, who was killed inside a Coke bottling plant during negotiations with the company.

On Thursday night, when Domingo got home, he found an envelope in his garage containing a death threat against himself, Luis Eduardo and the union president Javier Correa.  Further threats were received on Friday and Monday – and they make chilling reading:



Sinaltrainal launched a boycott of Coca-Cola in 2003 following the murder of eight unionized Coca-Cola workers – all during negotiations with the company.  Threats against Coke workers continue and have becoming all the more frequent in the city of Bucaramanga where Luis Eduardo and Domingo are based.

This is the fifth threat this year against members of Sinaltrainal in Bucaramanga, who have been told that in December they will be killed and buried in a mass grave.  On 10 February, Luis Eduardo and Jose Domingo and Sinaltrainal’s president Javier Correa received a threat, which was repeated a few weeks later.  Then, on 26 July, Luis Eduardo and Javier received a further threat, which was repeated on 2 November.

It is unlikely to be a coincidence that Thursday’s threat followed the distribution of leaflets commemoration Isidro’s murder.

6 December was also the 79th anniversary of the massacre of more than 1000 banana workers employed by the United Fruit Company – immortalized in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s nobel prize-winning novel One Hundred Years of Solitude.  United Fruit later became Chiquita Brands but the murders of workers didn’t stop and the company has admitted payments to right-wing paramilitary death squads.  Later that same day, Luis Eduardo and Jose Domingo went on to take part in an act of commemoration for the murdered United Fruit Company and Chiquita Brands workers, where they presented a photo gallery of all the unionized Coca-Cola and Nestle workers who had been murdered.

communities build their own ‘plan de vida’ amidst army murders

Casanare isn’t the only part of the country where the army is killing members of populations who don’t fit into a development model geared towards resource extraction by multinational corporations.  Last week we traveled to Catatumbo in the north-eastern region of Santander to hear evidence that social organizations had collected into murders by the army in the part of Santander near the northernmost part of the boarder with Venezuela.

This is an interview with a member of CISCA, the Committee for Social Integration in Catatumbo, which is made up of representatives of peasant farmer and indigenous communities and is building a local level model of society and economy called a Plan de Vida (Plan for Life).

We’re peasant farmers in Catatumbo who arrived in the region in search of work, through a process of land occupation.  Catatumbo is on the border with Venezuela and has rich deposits of coal and oil as well as great biodiversity.  The Catatumbo river runs through most of the region and is the main source of the Maracaibo lake in Venezuela.  The land is shared between farmers and the original inhabitants, the Barí indigenous people who have lived on thos land for centuries and who today work closely as a community with the campesinos – both in food production and in acts of resistance, so that both the Barí and campesinos can live on the land.

Through this, the Catatumbo Committee for Social Integration – CISCA – was born, the aim of building social proposals for remaining on the land and in defense of life, which integrates everyone in Catatumbo – teachers, workers, peasant farmers, the Barí people, women, children, old people – so that we can follow the dream of continuing to live in Catatumbo and oppose the Colombian state’s intention to remove the people who live here in order to exploit natural resources – to empty the region of inhabitants in order for the state, along with transnational corporations, to remain with riches like coal and oil and to implement new cultivation strategies, such as crops of oil palm, cocoa, caucho and higuerilla, which they have been proposing to us but which we haven’t accepted.

There’s extensive oil palm in lower Catatumbo [see our previous posting ], which reflects the fact that the area was under paramilitary control since 1999.  After the so-called paramilitary ‘demobilization’ in 2004, [] the oil palm crops were increased, as has the interest in oil and coal exploration and extraction by transnational companies and the Colombian government.  There is an important relationship between the paramilitaries and the current exploitation of natural resources [] and the repercussions this has had on the lives of those of us who live in the region.


We are in a region that has been abandoned by governments and hasn’t achieved the indicators of development that all human beings deserve as part of human dignity.  This abandonment is reflected in appalling roads to access the region, no possibility of selling our products, isolation, denial of the right to education, denial of the right to health – and to even talk of housing just highlights the impossibility of having a dignified home.  Because of this we’ve organized ourselves and begun to build a proposal called a Plan for Life (Plan de Vida), where the different communities begin to reflect about what it is we want, what we ought to have, what our rights are and to understand that there is a state that is responsible for what happens to us or what stops happening.  So, with the participation of the communities, the different villages, the Barí people and campesinos, we’re building a Plan for Life – a plan so that we can stay on our land, have life and live in Catatumbo.

However, the government has ignored all the iniciatives coming from the region and given us a military presence.  The only state presence in the region is Mobile Brigade No 5 and Brigade No. 30, and it’s being announced that from November Brigade No 21 will also be in operation.  Which is to say, a strong militarization for a region inhabited by only 250,000 people and made up on only 8 municipalities.  This offer of the state to the communities, in form of military presence, has mean numerous atrocities in the form of an increasing number of extra-judicial execution, which so far this year have amounted to more than 30.  There are 30 dead inhabitants of the region, who have had nothing to do with armed conflict, but who are presented by the military as guerrillas killed in combat.

We’re worried by the number of deaths and the way campesinos are being attacked.  We can’t walk on the paths alone any more because at any moment we could be shot and a ‘guerilla’ reported killed in combat, when it is a campesino who was going to market for their family, who was harvesting crops or just working on their farm.  This situation has been ongoing since February this year and represents a systematic decision to kill those who live in this region of Catatumbo.  To recount some cases…  Eliécer Ortega … is detained by the army and later appears in the Ocaña morgue reported as a guerilla killed in combat when he’s a campesino from the region. Carlos Daniel Martínez … the army arrive at this house and find him alone, a man of almost 50, and he’s killed in the morning and reported as a guerilla killed in combat.  The same in the case of the two young men who were detained by the army, murdered and thrown into the Catatumbo river – the bodies were found in the lower part of the river.  This could continue, there are more than 30 cases.

This is a great worry, because the army Brigades are ‘successful’ by killing campesinos and reporting them as killed in combat.  We want to tell the national and international community about all of this because what is happening to us is a decision to get rid of the people who live in the region of Catatumbo.  We know about the conflict in the region but we demand that they respect the civilian population, the non-combatants, the campesinos, the indigenous people, those of us who live in the region…. The only thing that we have is a bit of land to work and on which to raise a family.  We are not using arms, we are not saying anything other that that we want to live in the region and build a project for staying on our territory.

The national army is committing these atrocities against the population, and we have reported this to government bodies – the Vice Presidency of the Republic, the Ministry of the Interior and also to the Brigade commanders.  In the municipality of El Tarra, the community, the families of the victims, of those who have been executed by the army reported this behaviour to the high command of the Mobile Brigade No 15.

We believe that there should be some mechanisms so that the Colombian government and army understand that we have a right as Colombians to live in this region and to be allowed to live peacefully in Catatumbo.


The army Brigades are in the region under the pretext of counter-insurgency and of ending the guerrilla presence in the region.  However, we believe that underneath this military strategy there is an aim to guarantee the extraction of mineral and energy resources and natural resources in general… This military presence provides security for the oil companies, for the transnational corporations who are putting everything into coal extraction, those who are sowing oil palm, those who want to privatize the water, as well as providing a presence near the frontier to control the project of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.  It’s also a strategy to stigmatize those of us who live in the region, accompanied by the terror sown by the national army across the region of Catatumbo, village by village, saying that now the Black Eagles [paramilitary militias] are coming.

We think that this strategy of terror is being sown by the national army so that we are afraid, so that we leave.  In some cases, the army has directly asked the campesinos ‘why don’t you go, why don’t you leave the region’.  Which is to say that there is an interest in emptying the territory by whatever means – by criminalization, by legal cases against us, by detentions, by murders, by the strategy of terror, so that the people leave.  All of this goes hand in hand with whatever counter-insurgency strategy, so that there are the security conditions for the transnational companies to exploit the region’s resources.  That is how we understand it.

In the face of this horror, we ask the national and international community to be aware of our situation and ready to act because they are killing and displacing us in order to have a territory – a territory that is going to be practically wiped out as 15 thousand hectares of Catatumbo are being requested for open-face coal mining.  This will be an ecological disaster, it will end life in the region, end the culture of production and also certainly put an end to the Barí people, who despite having been in the furthest corners of the territory for years, the last bit that remains for them will be threatened by the exploitation of energy resources.

I want to thank you for giving us this opportunity to give your our voice and join it to the voices of the peoples of the world so that people know what is going on in the region of Catatumbo.  Here we are building resistance, building a project for life that will allow us to remain in the territory, that will allow us to bring up our families and participate in society….  The Colombian government may not be interested in the people, but only in resources and the riches of Catatumbo which can contribute to the enriching of transnational companies, but we are interested in life – for us the most important thing is to live life in harmony with nature.  For this reason, the indigenous people and campesinos of Catatumbo demand that the Colombian state respect our lives and our decision to remain in the territory.   We also ask for solidarity from all those who can hear us or read us, from those who know that we are building resistance, they don’t forget us, that they accompany us, that they are ready to act and help so that you are our voice in all places for the defence of life and the right to remain on the land.

A fraternal embrace from Catatumbo for everyone who is building resistance and the conditions for life in the world.

fake tan and ‘corporate responsibility’

We’re still up to our eyeballs in work and the rain hasn’t stopped. A couple of weeks ago we went back to the oil region to investigate an NGO that the oil companies set up and which trains rural community members in a more ‘entrepreneurial’ approach to farming, amongst other things. This was a wee bit nerve wracking as we had to go on our own (don’t ask – the Colombian organization we’re working with was meant to be coming to do research do, but things didn’t quite get organized according to plan). By now, we know what to do if we meet any of the armed actors in the region but nonetheless we were somewhat nervous.

I went sporting dark contact lenses and fake tan so that none of the farmers recognized me from previous trips to the region as I was trying to pass myself off as a right-leaning academic without any links to social movements. It must have worked because we spent part of the day with an NGO-worker who’d sat in on at a human rights workshop that I’d spoken at in the spring and he didn’t bat an eyelid. Guayabo Pastuso was also quite disturbed by my appearance and said he felt like he was having an affair my sister. He came along under the guise of concerned-partner-of-right-leaning-academic and did an excellent job of retreating to the loo every half hour in order to text our exact whereabouts to the social organization we’re working with in Bogota, just in case, although in the end everything was fine.

As one might expect, the oil companies have put tiny amounts of money into this rather dubious NGO in comparison with the huge amounts of funding given to the army in the region (who continue to extra-judicially execute civilians). I came close to blowing my cover when the NGO staff told us how the army had taken control of security in the region and there was no violence there now, just as we were passing the home of Roque Julio, the sixteen-year-old who the army tortured and killed, along with his father, on 19 march this year, but managed to keep smiling sweetly. Ho hum…

climate justice tribunal calls for social movements to unite against climate change and capital

Work seems to be never ending here and quite mundane for the last few weeks, which has been a bit of an impediment to getting round to updating the blog. I am sorry to report that I am still trying to find a strategy to make myself less attractive to the dog, who is still trying to mount me with relative frequency. He went through a brief period of relative calm when his owner started to get him trainer, but the trainer mysteriously disappeared and since then, the firmer I am with him, the more turned on he seems to get by what he appears to interpret as a dominatrix act.

It’s been raining for days and in the colonial part of Bogotá where we’re living the streets are frequently like small rivers and there’s a nasty smell of blocked drains permeating just about everything. Still, with a decent pair of wellies and an umbrella, life pretty much continues as normal (if you don’t mind the fact that your clothes never dry and start to smell of wee).

Higher up, on the outskirts of the city, where displaced communities have settled the steep mountain slopes, this sort of rain has the capacity to destroy people’s homes. Elsewhere in Colombia too, the poorest people in urban areas live in the places with the least protection against flooding, water contamination and so on, whilst small-scale farmers in rural parts of the country are most vulnerable to unpredictable weather conditions.

This week, we took part in a people’s Tribunal into Climate Justice. And this was one of the issues the Tribunal sought to highlight: that climate chaos (of which this unusually bad weather seems to be a symptom) is a social justice issue.

If you read the last update, you could be forgiven for thinking that Colombian social movements have gone tribunal crazy, with yet another tribunal – this time into climate justice – on top of the series of people’s hearings into crimes against humanity by specific multinational corporations that we talked about last time. However, the idea behind people’s tribunals is to define the responsibilities behind specific issues, as well as to move towards repairing damage caused and preventing future violations. And one difficultly with combating climate chaos is that responsibilities aren’t talked about enough.

Environmental catastrophes have the biggest effect on poorer communities, who are most vulnerable to floods, food shortages, disease, the extinction of species and so on. However, responsibility for climate change lies almost exclusively with the richest people and with a model of accumulation based on endless growth, consumption and the exploitation of nature, which has involved the privatisation of just about everything and dispossessing communities of collective resources – not only lands but even the atmosphere, which has effectively become the private property of a minority. As a spokesperson for the Process of Black Communities – one of the groups who organised the tribunal – put it, those who promote the dominant model of ‘development’ care very little for those they run over in the process.

Nowadays, those responsible for climate chaos accept the existence of the problem and even conservative analyses accept that climate change is due to human activity. However, they fail to accept the responsibility of corporations and their allies and this model of ‘development’ and wealth accumulation. The World Bank for example relates environmental problems to ‘poverty, uncertainty and ignorance’, and assume that businesses will automatically ‘do the right thing’ to tackle climate change, even though the figures make it clear that rich corporations are the main polluters (for example, research by Friends of the Earth found that just one company, US oil giant ExxonMobil and it’s predecessors, caused 4.7-5.3% of human-produced carbon dioxide emissions between 1882 and 2002).

Instead of accepting responsibility and challenging the model that causes climate change and dispossession the world over, governments and international institutions rely on the market and technology – part of the problem – to provide a solution.

Market ‘solutions’ to climate change tend to take the form of carbon trading under the Kyoto Protocol, with corporations from rich countries literally buying the permission to pollute – either through purchasing ‘carbon credits’ from poorer countries who pollute less or by funding ‘clean development’ projects – often involving monocultures of plants that absorb the extra carbon but destroy biodiversity and displace local populations. These market solutions treat nature as simply another form of capital with an owner and a purchase price, without any sense of the dangers of resource exploitation, the interconnectedness of nature and so on.

Technological ‘solutions’ involve the promotion of a variety of ‘clean’(er) forms of energy. One of the most popular ‘alternatives’ amongst corporations and governments is the promotion of crops for agro-fuels – in Colombia, these take the form of African Palm, which covers huge swathes of the Colombian countryside, and, increasingly, sugar cane and yucca. These monocultures have been imposed by the means of the violent displacement of small-scale farming communities and the production of food staples by right-wing paramilitary death squads linked to the Colombian state and corporations (see attached report for the Schumacher institute by a member of Espacio).

In theory, agro-fuels are ‘greener’ than fossil fuels as they are ‘carbon-neutral’ – i.e. the carbon emitted by burning plant oils is absorbed from the atmosphere by the plants when they are growing, they still emit carbon dioxide and contribute to climate change, as well as destroying biodiversity and the survival of rural communities.

Of course technology can sometimes be life-saving, but – as the Tribunal concluded – it will not bring sustainability and social justice where political and economic power remains in the hands of corporations and their government allies, who will ultimately defend the accumulation of wealth and the possession of political power in few but strong hands. A solution to climate change and other forms of dispossession means peoples’ sovereignty over resources and a radical change in the way societies define and organise their aims with regards to their means. The real solutions are social, political, economic and cultural, and will be proposed by communities fighting for their survival and social movements advocating peoples’ sovereignty.

Numerous participants at the Tribunal also pointed out that, if these struggles are to be successful, ecological activists need to join together with people involved in other struggles against the dominant economic and political model. One achievement of power has been to make social movements believe that we are involved in separate struggles around single issues (such as poverty, war, gender, sexuality, human rights, the environment and so on). There’s not point waiting for or trusting solutions coming from the establishment, which ultimately will defend the accumulation of wealth and the ongoing holding of political power in few but very strong hands.

Although people in Britain are mobilising around climate chaos and groups like Rising Tide do see this as an issue of social injustice and are critical of business-led solutions, it seems that the connections with social movements and communities fighting for survival in the ‘global south’ are still waiting to be made. In Britain the Rising Tide network probably does have a fairly unique approach to climate change, but the Tribunal highlighted that social movements in Colombia and other parts of the world have shared that approach for a long time.

In Spanish, people talk a lot about ‘articulation’ between social movements – which conveys the idea of social movements modifying part of their identity in order to take aspects of the demands and identity of other movements. So we’re passing on the call from Colombia that for international and cross-cultural links of solidarity against climate change and capitalist globalisation (not just because we’re tired of the rain and our clothes smelling of wee).

(Confession: quite a lot of this was copied and pasted from a report I wrote with Guayabo for Indymedia. See

beyond petroleum

We are, at last, installed in a flat in Bogotá. Although it’s not enormous, it’s in a beautiful old colonial house and opens onto a tiled patio overhung with foliage and bright pink flowers. The patio is also home to Tatan, a six-month-old German Shepherd who has proved to be an exceptionally friendly neighbour through his frequent attempts to hump my leg, chew my wrists and even tear off articles of clothing. Guayabo Pastuso is not quite as much a target of affection, although he claims that this is because I lead the dog on (he’s jealous of course).

Flat-hunting was a thoroughly demoralising process. Whilst the government are going all-out to seek foreign direct investment, it would appear that this only applies to selling off large parts of the country – renting a few square feet is far more of a challenge. Most landlords require not only a Colombian guarantor who owns property in the country (for which we had plenty of offers), but also that an independent agency undertakes a study of our solvency. The latter, however, is something of a farce as they insist that you give exhaustive details of all income, even if it comes from outside the country, and then only confirm income from Colombia and tell you what they could have told you without paying £15 for the privilege – that, since you have nothing in the country, you must pay a whopping deposit of 12 months rent, plus monthly rent payments on top of that.

In the end, Guayabo Pastuso’s ability to befriend older women saved us and we were directed to Bertha, who was more than happy to rent us a flat on the basis of a month’s deposit and my letter of introduction from the university. Far better than a commercial landlord as everyone in the house talks to each other (a sense of camaraderie has, I think, been fostered by the challenge of getting through the patio unscathed and unsoiled by the dog) and Bertha has been plying us with extra blankets since Bogotá is facing its worst weather in years.

Work has been going a little slowly so far as a result of flat-hunting and the seemingly unending amount of other administrative tasks we’ve had to do in order to get settled here. We’re both working with the Red de Hermandad y Solidaridad con Colombia which is a space for coordination between Colombian and international social organisations around themes such as the impact of transnational corporations, the problem that the perpetrators of most human rights violations (namely the state forces and state-linked paramilitaries) act within a climate of impunity, and a negotiated solution to the social and armed conflict in the country.

At the moment, we’re working primarily with an organisation set up by campesino leaders who’ve been forcibly displaced by the army and paramilitaries from the eastern departments of Casanare and Boyacá – several of whom were directly affected by the violence against social organisations organising against BP’s activities that some of you may remember was exposed by The Guardian in 1996. As well as providing “international accompaniment” (i.e. being a sort of human shield to deter the army or paramilitaries from doing anything nasty to people the Colombians we’re working with), we’re working with two others on a book into the effects of BP’s oil exploration activities in Casanare. Fortunately, a big chunk of the chapters Guayabo Pastuso and I are working on overlaps with my PhD research, but, even so, we’re going to be working like a pair of small bison for the next few months as the book has to be with the printers in December and we’re also meant to be in Casanare for a few days each month (plus there’s the minor issue of PhD chapters to write but I think it’s in hand…)

For those of you who aren’t up to date on BP’s murky record in Colombia (and who have been lax enough not to have kept your own personal press archive for the last 11 years) the story in brief is as follows….

When BP got to Colombia in the early 90’s, they signed a deal with the Ministry of Defence to contract the 16th Brigade of the army as their own private security force. The trouble with this (beyond the idea that a national army should protect foreign capital rather than the national population), is that the Colombian army has a rather long history of particularly nasty acts of violence against civilians, and the 16th Brigade has an especially dire human rights record, including murder, “disappearances”, torture, rape and forcibly displacing rural communities who happen to be surplus to the requirements of the oil industry and who will insist on farming when their land is on top of oil reserves.

BP also admitted to having employed the British-based private security company Defence Systems Limited to provide counter-insurgency training to the Colombian police and army units charged with the protection of BP’s installations. Whilst this might sound like a sensible precaution when some of Colombia’s leftist guerrillas have a tendency to blow up oil pipelines in protest against the appropriation of Colombia’s natural resources by foreign corporations, those of you who like to relax with a cup of cocoa and a counter-insurgency manual on a Saturday night will know that “counter-insurgency” tactics are often used to suppress the activities of the civilian population. Colombia is no exception here, and employees of DSL have confirmed that the training BP provided for the army and police was “lethal” and included the surveillance and intimidation of community leaders campaigning against the ecological damage being wrought by the company, as well as of workers who were trying to organise a union.

The result of all this, in the context of Colombian state policies, which favour multinational corporations and provide a climate of impunity for members of the armed forces and paramilitaries responsible for human rights violations, is that hundreds of people in Casanare have been killed or disappeared by the army and paramilitaries since BP arrived in the region and active social organisations have been destroyed.

Of course, when all of this came out in the media, there were more than a few slapped wrists within BP. The company rebranded itself as “beyond petroleum” and, since then, has successfully convinced plenty of people that they are now a socially responsible corporation. Things haven’t got much better in Casanare, however. It´s hard to know how many people have been killed this year, because fear means that murders often don´t get reported – but between January and May this year 11 extrajudicial executions at the hands of the army were documented in just two of the municipalities where BP operates.

The only big change is that it is now increasingly the army who are killing people, without the assistance of the paramilitaries. This is because a number of paramilitary groups have demobilised (often only to go on and form new paramilitary groups in urban areas), and President Uribe’s somewhat ill-named policy of “Democratic Security” has in recent years effectively given the green light to the armed forces to kill civilians under the guise of “counter-insurgency” activities and most of the civilians murdered by the army in Casanare have been presented as guerrillas killed in combat, with the army’s attempts to tamper with the evidence including changing people’s clothes to make them look like more convincing insurgents.

Our last trip to the region, during late July and early August, was with a delegation of people from different Colombian and European organisations who came to highlight the situation in Casanare outside of Colombia and to help document recent murders as well as the social and ecological impact of oil exploration. We interviewed numerous people whose partners or children had been killed or arbitrarily detained during Uribe’s presidency, such as Roque Julio Torres’ mum, who I visited last time I was here in April. Roque Julio was only sixteen when he was killed on 19 March this year, and was already in fear of his life because he was witness to two previous murders at the hands of the army. He was with his father, Daniel, when the army arrived at their farm and tortured both Roque and his dad before shooting them in the head and saying they had killed two guerrillas.

The massacre in the municipality of Recetor was another chilling tale of what can happen to surplus populations who don’t fit in with the state and corporations’ plans for “development”. In early 2002, when the 16th Brigade of the army had arrived to “provide security” for the area, a paramilitary group took over the nearby hamlet of el Vegon and called the community together for a meeting. Despite saying that they weren’t going to harm anybody, days later the paramilitaries began to call people by name and “disappear” them. Precise numbers of disappeared people are difficult to define as fear has prevented many people from reporting the disappearances, but it seems that more than 60 people were disappeared in the space of a few months, before the Brazilian oil company Petrobras, apparently under an agreement with BP, moved in to begin oil exploration.

One of the people I interviewed was an elderly woman who now cares for her grandson after both of his parents were disappeared. The boy, who was three at the time, was initially taken along with his father – and tortured to make him stop crying – before being returned to his mother. She then went to look for his father, and an eyewitness who escaped reported that she was disappeared by the paramilitaries as well.

Of course, I wouldn’t want to give the impression that BP is an especially evil corporation just because it is implicated in this sort of thing. Many multinational (and indeed national) corporations operating in Colombia have been shown to have tight links with paramilitary groups, as well as the army. For example, lots of you will know of the international boycott of Coca-Cola that was called in protest against the murders of trade union leaders during negotiations with the company’s Colombian bottling plants.

The weekend after our trip to Casanare, Colombian social and human rights organisations held the fourth of a series of public hearings of the People’s Permanent Tribunal’s Colombia Session into multinational corporations responsibility for crimes against humanity. The People’s Permanent Tribunal is an international alternative justice mechanism which aims to establish legal responsibilities in situations of mass human rights violations where there has been no response from official institutions. Whilst this most recent hearing was focused on the crimes of the oil companies BP, Repsol and Occidental Petroleum, previous hearings have tried multinationals in the mining, biodiversity and food and agriculture sectors. Those of you who got the updates from my second trip to Colombia might remember that I attended the food and agriculture tribunal in April 2006, at which Nestle and Coca-Cola were declared responsible for the murders of 9 and 10 trade unionists respectively and Chiquita was found guilty for having trafficked bullets and AK47’s to paramilitary groups. Whilst the People’s Permanent Tribunal can’t actually sentence anyone, the judges are experts in national and international law and work within that framework in order to highlight the truth of the crimes and their causes, so they can’t just be covered up and erased from historical memory by the governments and companies who are responsible.

The Tribunal was also a forum for victims’ families to get together and see that they weren’t alone in the their struggles for justice, as well as a space for discussion of proposals for a “movimiento energético”, a social movement focused on energy production and provision and including different sectors of Colombian society (indigenous groups, campesinos, afro-Colombians, urban populations, workers, students and so on). As well as campaigning for popular sovereignty over natural resources (a concept different from traditional socialist demands for national sovereignty, as it recognises the diversity of Colombian peoples and the autonomous models of society and development coming from different groups), this nascent movement is also thinking about alternative forms of energy production that might help avoid increased social and ecological destruction as a result of climate chaos. It’s difficult to build alternatives when the dominant political and economic model is being imposed through such enormous levels of violence but, despite this, the activities of social movements in Colombia go far beyond simply denouncing the human rights situation.

A few days after the Tribunal, we managed to have a break with some friends in the department of Santander. We spent a very relaxed few days in spectacular countryside walking in the hills and swimming in rivers (and drinking rather a lot of rum), before rushing back to accompany another trip, only to find that it had been cancelled because of lack of money.

On this occasion it was just as well the trip was cancelled as Guayabo Pastuso’s stomach decided to put up a prolonged battle against the invasion of foreign bacteria (I shall spare you the details), but lack of funds has been an ongoing problem for work with communities in Casanare. We’re meant to be leaving again this afternoon on a trip that coincides with the commemoration of three years since the murder of Oswaldo Vargas, a community leader who had been campaigning for BP to remedy environmental damage and invest in social projects, but we still don’t know if the money´s going to be avaiable for us to go. It’s worrying because, alongside wanting to show support to Oswaldo’s family, we’re meant to be doing human rights workshops (so that people know the options available to them when they’re threatened and so on) as well as working with communities rebuilding their organisational processes in the wake of the violence against local social organisations.

Ho hum. Sorry it’s not terribly cheerful. Guayabo Pastuso tells me that I should live up to international expectations of the British and end on a positive note, specifically by telling you about the fact that we’ve managed to find a decent cup of tea in the café around the corner. After a few years in England, the bloody Catalan thinks we solve everything with a nice cup of tea and a hot bath, whereas (although I never thought I’d say it) I’m far more inspired by the wide availability of coffee with various types of liqueur in it. Alongside the live music and free theatre, alcoholic hot drinks are definitely one of the highlights of Bogotá.

coke, nestle and chiquita tried for crimes against humanity

The weekend of 1st and 2nd of April was the first hearing of the People’s Permanent Tribunal’s Colombia Session, during which the multinationals Coca-Cola, Nestle and Chiquita Brands were tried for human rights abuses. The PPT is an international alternative justice mechanism which has the aim establishing the legal responsibilities in situations of massive violations of fundamental rights where there has been no response from official legal institutions. Whilst the PPT can’t actually sentence anyone, the judges are experts in national and international law and work within that framework in order to highlight the truth of the crimes and their causes, so they they can’t just be covered up and erased from historical memory from by the governments and companies who are responsible.

After hearing the testimonies and examining a mountain of written evidence the judges found Coca-Cola directly or indirectly responsible for the assassination of 10 trade unionists and Nestlé responsible for the assassination of 9. Chiquita was found guilty of directly trafficking arms to the paramilitaries. Chiquita is the successor to the United Fruit Company, the US company involved in the Colombian army’s massacre of several hundred striking banana workers on 6th December 1928 and the disappearance of several hundred more over the following weeks – a massacre which provided the inspiration for events in Gabriel García Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude”:

It hadn’t rained for three months and it was a time of drought. But when Mr Brown announced his decision a torrential rain poured over the banana region, taking José Arcadio Segundo by surprise on the road to Macondo. A week later it was still raining.
The official version, a thousand times repeated across the country through any method of communication the government found within its reach, ended up prevailing: there had been no deaths, the satisfied workers had returned to their families and the banana company had suspended activities until the rain had passed. Martial law remained in place, in case it was necessary to apply emergency measures because of the public calamity posed by the interminable downpour; although the troops were confined to their barracks.
During the day, the soldiers walked through the torrents in the streets, with their trousers rolled halfway up their legs, playing at shipwrecks with the children. At night, after the curfew, they broke down doors with their rifle butts, pulled the suspects from their beds and took them on a journey without return…. “Of course it was a dream”, the officials insisted, nothing has ever happened in Macondo. This is a happy town”. And so they erased from memory the extermination of the union leaders.

Garcia changed little in his account except the name of the company and the town in which the massacre was carried out and the fact that the army’s commanding officer did concede that 9 people had been killed. On 16 January 1929 US embassador Jefferson Caffrey sent a memo to the State Department saying “I have the honour to inform you that the number of striking workers killed exceeds one thousand”. And of course the story doesn’t stop there, or with the dead left by multinationals such as Coca-Cola and Nestle, despite the ongoing official denials.

A few days after the tribunal I left Bogotá with Maria from the campaign against Nestlé in Switzerland for the town of Bugalagrande, which is home to a Nestle factory and little else. We stayed with the biggest trade unionist I have ever seen and were fed to similar proportions by his wife. So much for being in Colombia making me lose weight…

The Sinaltrainal branch in Bugalagrande is one of the biggest and the union have long been involved in projects with the community, such as building a sports centre, providing a low-interest loans facility and running a community kitchen which provides cheap but healthy lunches to families without the means to feed themselves adequately and also tries to raise people’s consciousness about the causes of hunger. Despite the vast quantities of milk, biscuits, chocolate and soup produced by Nestle in Bugalagrande, there are still people nearby without enough access to any of it. Throughout the 1990’s, the union also worked with peasant groups on a project people’s control over their own food production and consumption, but then the paramilitaries arrived and did away with the project and some of the people working on it. We listened to some chilling testimonies from people who’d be threatened and saw how the factory had polluted the river that runs through the town (they managed to kill all the swallows in the area a couple of years ago).
Over the last few years Nestle have increasingly been employing people on a casual basis (though Adecco – the worst temping agency I ever worked for – although here Adecco actually put psychologists in the workers’ houses watch how they spent their money, presumably so they can try to justify paying them less). Even those new employees with contracts get none of the benefits (such as access to healthcare) that the older workers get, and their salary is a whopping 35% lower. Whilst we were there, the union voted to enter a more confrontational negotiation with Nestle to obtain equal rights for the new workers – last time they did this, in the late 80’s, one of the leaders was killed and the main protagonists were sacked. So things could get nasty again in the next few weeks.

I’ve also been getting even more used to public speaking in Spanish, to the point that it’s starting not to bother me anymore…. The day after the tribunal, I had to give a 15 minute talk about the campaign against Coca-Cola in the UK. I had prior warning for this one, although at the meeting in Bugalagrande Maria and I were both called onto the platform and asked to say something without any warning whatsoever – I think I’m going to have to store up some eloquent and rousing sound bites for when I’m called on to speak without notice as I’m starting to run out of intelligent things to say. The Dame Edna disguise hasn’t come out again – bright pink really doesn’t suit me so I’m reserving the glasses for emergencies.

Easter week was very quiet, except for the occasional priest singing tuneless hymns in the streets. Everyone was either praying or off partying in other parts of the country. I worked with Maria on a proposal for the campaign against hunger, which Sinaltrainal launched at the forum after the food and agriculture hearing, although we managed to have some fun too at a goodbye party for a couple of friends who have got grants from the Cuban government to go to medical school in Havana and at a meeting with Sinaltrainal which deteriorated into beer-drinking session (I have to put this in because my dad seems to be worried that I’m being too well behaved – which is only because I don’t offer up information on my bad behaviour for public consumption of course). Penance followed the parties though and I spent the entire weekend in supplication to the god of PhD’s finishing off a rough draft of a chapter and lamenting Colombia’s lack of Cadbury’s buttons Easter Eggs – I mean, struggles for food sovereignty are all very well and I know Cadburys are a big mean company, but I do like the way they engrave little bunnies in the chocolate.

six months since jhonny’s murder

The week after last time I wrote was a little bit calmer – I spent it working on the Coca-Cola campaign here in Bogotá and even managed to do a bit of writing for one of my PhD chapters (although no sooner had I finished than I saved an old version over it and had to write it all again – I blame the altitude). I also spent the day with one of the human rights defenders I got to know whilst I was here last time, who’s recently had a baby. We had a long discussion about the situation here and the ways it affects you emotionally – she’s had numerous death threats, including a funeral wreath delivered to her mother’s house, and told me about the first time someone she worked with was “disappeared”, when she was just 16, and the trauma of searching for him in hospital morgues and rubbish tips without finding his body, and how all the killings here are something she can’t get still can’t used to 20 years later, whether or not it’s someone she knows. It was good have an open conversation about that side of things, because often the immediacy of events doesn’t leave much time for that sort of discussion and I think I was more affected than I’d realised by finding myself at the funeral of another student within days of arriving in Colombia having left the last time just after the murder Jhonny Silva. It’s not something I ever want to get hardened to and whilst, so far, it’s not been anyone I know, the more time I spend here and the more people I get to know, the more likely it is that one day it will be.

Last Wednesday, 22nd March, was the six month anniversary of Jhonny’s murder and I was invited to Cali to take part in the assembly that had been organised by the university community. Whilst I was waiting for my flight in Bogotá airport I bumped into the lovely Euripedes, who some of you know (in which case he sends he says hello) – he’s a Coca-Cola worker and leader of the food-workers’ union Sinaltrainal in Baranquilla on Colombia’s Atlantic Coast (parts of which have been completely taken over by state-linked paramilitaries) and has also had death threats for the work the union are – not just “traditional” trade union activities but human rights work, popular education with around the problems of hunger and the practices of food and agriculture multinationals and projects to support communities’ sovereignty over their own food production and consumption. In Colombia, more people die from hunger than as result of the armed conflict and the dirty war being carried out against social organisations – although the two are linked, since the state terrorism is a way of dealing with resistance to an economic model that favours multinational corporations and rich Colombians over the needs of the majority of the Colombian population.

Under this system – which is being imposed on countries across the world in a process often referred to “globalisation” – as if it was somehow natural or inevitable – food (along with healthcare, education and so on) is seen as a business, not as a way of meeting people’s needs nor as an important part of culture. Locally-based, environmentally sustainable forms of food production and consumption are being pushed out of existence by competition from cheap (often processed and unhealthy) imports from abroad, whilst production in Colombia is increasingly controlled – from the seeds to the marketing of the final product – by multinational corporations and takes the form of megaprojects of crops for export, such as African palm oil, an important product for the fast-food industry. This is happening all over the world but in Colombia the paramilitaries displace entire peasant communities from their land in the service of this model. About 3% of peasants have been killed in numerous rural massacres, whilst the rest are displaced to settlements on the edges of the cities. The multinationals who take their place in food production often work with the paramilitaries to keep wages at a poverty level – this weekend Coca-Cola, Nestlé and Chiquita Brands are being tried by the People’s Permanent Tribunal for crimes against humanity, having been directly involved in the assassination and intimidation of unionised workers, in Nestlé’s case with the intimidation of workers who blew the whistle on the company’s repackaging of out-of-date milk imports which killed several children in the city of Medellín a few years ago.

I spent ten days in Cali, working on the campaign against impunity for the killing of Jhonny Silva. The lawyer for the case also travel to Cali for the assembly and reported on how the Attorney General’s office have changed the investigating officer 6 times over the last 6 months and talked about the various ways in which the legal system in Colombia works as a tool of state terrorism. We also heard from the Truth Commission which has been convened by the university community and human rights organisations to conduct an independent inquiry into Jhonny’s murder. The idea behind Truth Commissions is that they form an alternative justice process for judging state agents in situations of extreme violence where the state justice system is ineffective and that they act as a political tool by recovering refusing to let the state erase the historical memory of the violence and its victims. The People’s Permanent Tribunal serves a similar purpose. During my time in Cali, I met with members of the various organisations involved in the Commission and talked about how to carry the campaign forward, as well as with Jhonny’s parents, who have had several threats because of how outspoken they are being about his murder.

I also gave a report at the assembly about what we’d been doing in England – which was a bit nerve-wracking as, in typical Colombian style, I was only given a few minutes notice that I was going to have to speak in front of several hundred people. Still, people were pleased to hear about what we’d been doing and a rather high-profile few days followed on from that, during which I had to record interviews for TV and a for a documentary about our experiences on the day Jhonny was killed. Surprisingly, this was far more intimidating than public speaking– for some reason I was rendered completely incapable of saying “tear gas” in Spanish, so they had to re-take the interview several times, by which time everyone was laughing so much that none of us could speak. Yesterday (Thurs 30th), the university community organised a “Carnival for Life and Against Impunity” to commemorate six months since Jhonny’s murder and keep up the profile of the case. After so many interviews and the like, I wanted to lower my profile a bit – more because I’m here on a tourist visa than because I’m likely to become a target – but in the morning, when we were planting sunflowers in a garden of remembrance for Jhonny, his parents asked me to join them for the first part of the march before I went to the airport. Luckily, because it was a carnival, some of the students I’ve been working with were able to sort me out with bright pink Dame Edna Everidge glasses and a hat, which supposedly made me stand out a bit less!

Despite it being an exhausting few days in Cali, it was good to catch up with friends, some of whom I’d got quite close to last time I was here. I stayed some of the time with a friend who is a social movement leader in one of the city’s poorest barrios and a researcher for the Nunca Mas (Never Again) project, which documents all the human rights abuses in the country. We spent hours talking about theory, music, boys and what not, and even managed to spend a day swimming the river with her 8 year-old daughter and some of the students from the university. I also stayed with the family of one of the leaders of the university workers union – he has an armed escort (provided by the state to threatened trade unionist and others under an order from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights). It was a bit weird being driven around by two enormous men with guns in their belts – especially when one of them was very into his salsa and kept breaking into surprisingly high-pitched harmonies when his favourite tunes were played on the radio.

When I got back to Bogotá last night, it was to find that I had, in my absence, been cruelly evicted from my bed by a Spanish bloke and that the house, which has five beds and a few mattresses, was temporarily home to ten people from various European countries who are here for the tribunal into the food and agriculture multinationals this weekend. So it’s all a bit mad here at the moment. More in a few days/weeks…