Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Colombia's mining boom overshadowed by human rights violations

It's been quite a while since I posted here.... Let's just say that PBI has kept me quite busy. One of the things keeping me so busy was a report on the human rights implications of Colombia's mining boom (PDF), published last week. Below is some good media coverage of the report, with several quotes from yours truly, on the English-language news site Colombia Reports. I have an idea or two for original new blog posts, so stay tuned! -Moira

Colombia's mining boom overshadowed by human rights violations: NGO

The apparent success of Colombia's mining boom is being overshadowed by human rights violations and mass displacement from mining areas, international human right organization Peace Brigades International (PBI) said Monday.

"80% of the human rights violations that have occurred in Colombia in the last ten years were committed in mining and energy-producing regions, and 87% of Colombia’s displaced population originate from these places," a report by the organization published last week said.

According to PBI spokesperson Moira Birss, mining activities are frequently accompanied by a disregard of the constitutional rights of minorities and threats and attacks on leaders of these communities.

"Community leaders who oppose mining projects, or the organizations that accompany those leaders and communities, have at times been targeted with threats and even attacks in what would appear to be a result of their opposition, as was the case with the priest who was killed in Marmato," said Birss, referring to an area where mining company Gran Colombia Gold and the local community are at odds over who has the rights to mine for gold.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Protecting their mother: Afro-Colombians fight to reclaim their land from palm oil

Upodate: a version of this blog was published on August 30 on the Women's International Perspective.

Palm Oil plantation next to Camelias.
Photo by Charlotte Kesl

The first thing I notice after disembarking from the canoe that carried me across the Curbaradó River and scrambling up the bank are palm oil trees. Their rows of short, stout trunks topped by long green fronds stretch as far as my eye can see. I am visiting the Curbaradó River basin, located in Northwest Colombia near the Panama border, precisely because of the bitter struggle between afro-descendant farming communities and the palm oil companies that had taken over the land after the communities were violently displaced, yet I am taken aback by the overwhelming presence of palm oil trees, destined to become ingredients in cosmetics and snack foods

I soon turn my gaze to the military checkpoint a few meters from the river bank. I also know to expect this, and after years traveling in Colombia’s conflict zones, it doesn’t faze me much. My companions and I are waved through their gate made of guadua, a bamboo relative. The soldiers are part of the perimetral protection that Colombia’s Constitutional Court ordered last year as part of a process to restore the land to its “ancestral” inhabitants—those displaced afro-descendant farmers.  

A few more meters down the path I see a white flag suspended on a very long wooden pole. Shortly after, we approach a sign just behind a line of barbed wire fencing announcing the Humanitarian Zone of Camelias. We enter through the gate, passing between two houses suspended a few feet above the ground. I later learn, after hearing some gruesome snakebite tales, that the height protects from snakes, as well as from flooding during the rainy season.

Interviewing Cristobal.
Photo by Charlotte Kesl

After finding the house where we’ll be staying and guarding our groceries from all the tropical bugs in clear plastic tubs, I sit down to talk with Cristóbal Reyes. His baggy dark blue oxford shirt doesn’t hide his slight frame, and he regularly checks his watch to see if it’s time for us to leave to accompany him part of the way back to his home in Nueva Esperanza (New Hope), in the neighboring Jiguamiandó River basin. He doesn’t hesitate, however, when I ask him to tell me about the violence that led to the displacement of all the Afro-descendant and mestizo campesinos – small-scale farmers—in Curbaradó and Jiguamiandó river basins, starting in 1996.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Justice... delayed

A couple of weeks ago I was all set to attend my second criminal hearing in Colombia, though this time accompanying the defense lawyer, not a lawyer on the prosecution side (representing the victims is a role permitted in the Colombian justice system), as I did in 2010 in the San Jose de Apartado massacre case. Now, two is more attempts later, I’m seeing first hand some of the frustrations that many of my human rights lawyer friends have expressed about the Colombian judicial system.

I say that I attempted to attend two more hearings because neither of them actually happened.

The first hearing was to take place in early June in the southern department of Putumayo, a region inhabited by several indigenous ethnicities and referred to as the “gateway to the Amazon.” The hearing was to be for a case against two Nasa indigenous men accused of “rebellion,” a charge that alleges collaboration with the guerrillas.

However, for the second time in a row, the hearing was postponed. The lawyer wasn’t notified of the change, though, until we were already en route.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Hello again, again from Bogota

It’s been a while since my last post, hasn’t it? My excuse for that is the recent rash of big changes in my life: a return to the U.S. after my four month stint back as an accompanier with Fellowship of Reconciliation, a fabulous new job with Peace Brigades International’s Colombia project, and my move across the country from San Francisco to D.C.

As I write this, I've just arrived in Colombia, again. As the new Communications and Outreach Officer (I know, a kinda long title) for PBI Colombia, I’ll be participating in the project’s yearly assembly in Bogota during the next couple weeks, then conducting site visits to several of the field teams. PBI is a human rights accompaniment organization like FOR but on a much larger scale, with field teams in Bogota, the petroleum region of Barrancabermeja, the Uraba region where I spent my first year with FOR, the city of Medellin, and an in-process expansion to the southern city of Cali. 

The move to D.C. has gone smoothly, all things considered. D.C. has never been a place I’d had a hankering to live in; in fact, until really recently I more or less refused to look at D.C.-based job postings and bemoaned what I thought of as the "Beltway bubble". But then this job came along, allowing me to continue doing the work I love of supporting communities and organizations in Colombia doing incredible and inspiring human rights work, and I couldn’t pass it up. Besides, PBI is unique among most organizations with D.C. offices in that our staff is overwhelmingly based in-country, which helps keep me out of, or at least on the very edge of, the Beltway bubble.

Given my new job, I’ll be continuing to write about human rights in Colombia, but from a style a bit different than you’re likely used to from my previous posts and articles: it will be more about the communities and organizations PBI accompanies and the problems they face and less direct political analysis. As always, I’d love your feedback, and suggest you also check out PBI Colombia’s blog, where I will be editing and, at times, writing, as well as our Facebook page.

Thanks for your support!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Protect Threatened Afro-Colombian and Mestizo Communities in Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó

This urgent action is from the Latin American Working Group on behalf of a community I work with. Please take action!

Community leader Don Petro
photo by Charlotte Kesl
Many of the communities living in the Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó river basins in Colombia’s northwest Urabá region have come under great threat this past week.

Will you send a message to the Colombian government today to ask for their protection?

After being violently displaced in the late 1990s, the Afro-Colombian and mestizo communities in Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó created "Humanitarian Zones," or areas where the peaceful civilians who declared themselves neutral in the conflict could be clearly differentiated from combatants and protect themselves and their families from the violence. Since then they have been working for a peaceful return to their lands, but continue to face often violent challenges from paramilitaries, cattle ranchers and oil palm companies that want control of these territories. Click here to watch a short video about their history and struggle.

National and international courts have ordered the Colombian government to give back the land to these communities and protect them from violence. While almost none of the land has been returned to the communities, the Colombian Army had been providing some important protection around the outside of the humanitarian zones.

But last week the Army retreated from several of their established and agreed upon protection posts. Around the time that the Army pulled back, a group of 20 paramilitaries armed with assault weapons was reported to be near the humanitarian zone of Andalucia-Caño Claro. Within days, paramilitaries armed with machetes tried to stab a community member, who narrowly escaped by running off into a field. And now the communities fear that an attack is imminent. 

Click here to ask Colombian government to protect them now!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Resisting Violence through Sustainable Agriculture in Colombia

This article originally appeared on The Women's International Perspective.

A hand-made sign lists 12 varities of bananas grown in the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó. Photograph courtesy of the author.
In the middle of one of the most fertile regions in Colombia, amidst a five-decade armed conflict, a small peasant community manages to serve as a model of civilian resistance against violence and displacement. But as I saw when I returned in February to the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, located in the northwestern province of Antioquia, their sustainable agriculture projects not only defend against violence but also create life.

“These are proyectos de vida, explains Javier, the Community member who manages the Community’s new agriculture center. These projects of life, as the name indicates, are more than an effort to reduce the Peace Community’s ecological footprint, to eat locally, and to reduce reliance on outside food sources. They are called proyectos de vida because they also serve as a survival mechanism against violence and a strategy against displacement.

With nearly two hundred Peace Community members killed since 1997 and thousands of human rights violations committed by guerrilla, paramilitary, and state armed forces, the Peace Community’s survival depends on a constant struggle to defend life. “We have to create our own principles and laws about land, and collectively defend the land,” Javier explains to me on my recent visit. “It is because of resistance, collectivity, and community that we have managed to stay.”

The Peace Community developed the agriculture center in the last year to serve as a hands-on agricultural research and learning facility for the development of food self-sustainability. The center includes a plant nursery, medicinal plant garden, worm bin for composting, and several acres dedicated to experimenting with the various varieties of crops grown in the region such as a banana field with 12 varieties of the fruit. Springs are being protected in order to conserve water sources, some of which feed into fish breeding ponds.

“Many peasants believe that what comes from outside is better than what we have. But no,” explains Javier. “That is why we have been working so hard in the agriculture center…to care for [what we have] and [to learn] how to care for our own resources, including farm animals.”

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Soccer fever: what's violence got to do with it?

The stereotype of Latin Americans as soccer fanatics is, in my experience, pretty spot on, and members of the Peace Community are no exception. The men, and some of the women, religiously watch national league games, as well as, of course, games in which the national team plays. Many afternoons, kids and some of the younger men gather for pickup games, and periodically a tournament gets organized between teams of the different neighboring villages.

But, claims Raúl (name changed), a community member and avid soccer player and watcher, the soccer fever of today is nothing like in the 1980s.

I am sitting with Raúl, a visitor from a neighboring village named Daniel, and my teammate Jon under the tin roof of our neighbor’s house. It rained all night and is still raining, so most folks haven’t gone to work in the fields and are hanging out under a few porch roofs, passing the time telling stories and jokes until the rain lets up and they can go chop weeds in their cacao orchards or finish up the thatch roof on a new community building.

“In the 1980s,” he says, “La Union had an excellent team, fully loaded with great players from goal keeper to forward. That’s because everyone was very disciplined,” Raúl says Every afternoon, even after working a full day in the fields, guys would meet at the soccer field on the outskirts of the village to practice, rain or shine. And training would start very young so that by the time they were teenagers, boys would be good enough to play on the men’s team.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Not just peace-building, but life-building

Returning this February to the Peace Community after over a year since my last visit, I was reminded that one of the most amazing things about the Community is that it has not only served as a model of civilian resistance in the midst of an armed conflict for 14 years, but that in such a context it manages to designs and implement alternative development models, or what it calls proyectos de vida—life projects. 

A sign lists the 12 types of bananas grown here
The newest proyecto de vida that I discovered upon my return was a centro agricola, or agriculture center, founded in the time I was away. The Community designed the center to serve as a hands-on agricultural research and learning center for the development of conservation food self-sustainability. The center includes a plant nursery, medicinal plant garden, worm bin for composting, and several acres dedicated to experimenting with the various varieties of crops grown in the region—like a banana field with 12 varieties of the fruit. Springs are being protected in order to conserve water sources, some of which feed into fish breeding ponds.

“These are proyectos de vida, explains Javier, the Community member who manages the center. “Many peasants believe that what comes from outside is better than what we have. But no. That is why we have been working so hard in the agriculture center here in the community, learning to care for [what we have], how to have a seed bank, how to care for our own resources, including farm animals. Sometimes people come with so many things from outside that at the end of the day turn out harming us.”

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Nice to meet you, I’m a Kyrgyz nuclear physicist

No matter where I go in Colombia, conversations almost always start with the other person asking me where I’m from. Even before I open my mouth to reply and my gringo-tinted accent reveals my foreign origins, my blond hair gives me away.

I tend to be most inundated with this question when I go dancing with Colombian friends in spots rarely frequented by foreigners. When I get asked to dance by an unknown Colombian, the first phrase out of his mouth is always a question about where I'm from. That is quickly followed by a comment on how well I can dance (though without saying what he's surely thinking: that I dance well…for a gringa), then by questions about how long I've been here, what I'm doing here, and if I like Colombia.

After dancing a few songs in which the dialogue is always the same, I often find myself getting bored, if not with the dancing then certainly with the conversation. To spice things up, I’ll sometimes invent a new identity for myself, saying that I'm from Sweden, or that I'm a psychologist.

Monday, January 31, 2011

The hired help

Not long before I left Bogotá the last time, in March 2010, FOR (the organization I work with) found itself having to find a new apartment for its volunteers in Bogotá. One of the first things we put on the list of requirements for the new place was a permanent doorman. Though we had had a part time doorman (actually, a doorwoman) in the previous apartment, the apartment was robbed in 2006. It's still unclear exactly what happened, but it probably didn't help that the doorwoman was part time and all the neighbors had keys to the front door.

Having a doorman is not uncommon in Colombia. Many, if not most, middle class apartment buildings, and all upper class ones, do. Most also have empleadas: part-time, or in the case of many upper-class households, full-time, maids. So do all offices, including the office FOR shares with a Colombian NGO. Éxito, the chain store that I consider a slight nicer version of Walmart (though I’ve never actually been in Walmart so it’s just a guess), sells, next to the towels and sheets, uniforms for you to purchase for your empleada.

Despite doormen and empleadas being ubiquitous, I still don’t feel entirely comfortable having a doorman (note: I sweep my own floors). My little building employs two men who alternate shifts every 24 hours. No one besides them has keys to the front gate and door, so even when I come home at 4am after a night of dancing, they have to open the front door to let me in; I'm sure I have awoken them several times. I feel badly every time, but I have no other way to get in.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The oft-ignored incidence of sexual violence in Colombia’s conflict

Six every hour, 149 per day, 54,410 per year.
That’s how many women on average, according to a recent study, were direct victims of sexual violence in Colombia from 2001-2009 in areas with presence of armed actors (military, paramilitary or police).
Violence against women has remained a seldom-discussed consequence of Colombia’s conflict. This study, however, seems to be generating a bit more attention to the issue. So too, hopefully, is the recent denunciation by ONIC, the National Indigenous Orgainzation in Colombia, of the trafficking of indigenous girls.

Indigenous adolescent girls, ONIC Secretary Luis Evelis Andrade revealed, are being kidnapped from their villages, raped and/or forced into prostitution. Some girls are returned to their homes after a few days. Others never return.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

What makes a city? Or, The sounds of Bogotá

It turns out that a friend I had been hoping to see upon my return to Colombia moved to Houston a few months ago, so I won't get to see him. When I asked, via email, how he was liking life in the USofA, he admitted that he's finding Houston hard to adapt to. Among the most difficult things, he said, is the fact that he feels like people look at him like he's crazy if he attempts to walk somewhere, instead of racing from air-conditioned house to air-conditioned office to air-conditioned car to air-conditioned house, ad infinitum

As a Colombian, he wrote, “The concept of city that I have is very different than this. I believe that a city is a network of genetic, cultural, phenotypic, and environmental information of a specific area that is totally dynamic and symbiotic, and inhabited by our species.”

His email arrived just after I had finished writing in my journal about the noises of Bogotá. That morning, I had been awakened by some combination of the hot morning sun rendering my curtains useless, taxis roaring down the street outside my single-pane window, the local bar blaring merengue as workers cleaned up from the previous night's almost-New-Year's-Eve revelry, and the head cold that had come to settle in my nose. I turned over and tried to fall back asleep, but to no avail.

Despite my desire for a few more winks, the chaos that awoke me exemplified one of the things that I have come to identify with Latin American cities--or at least Bogotá, since it's the one I know the best: the cacauphony of sounds continously bouncing off the dirty concrete walls and cracked sidewalks.

On any morning spent sitting in my apartment or walking to the corner store (of which there really is one on every corner, if not more than one), I am likely to here many, if not all, of the following sounds: