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Chiquita Playing the Victim Card in Latest Legal Battle

By Kevin Edmonds | The Other Side of Paradise | August 22, 2013

In 2007, Chiquita Brands International admitted to making payments to an array of Colombian paramilitary and guerilla groups over the past ten years in exchange for a paltry fine of $25 million. One group in particular, the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia) or the AUC was designated as a foreign terrorist organization in 2001 – and one of the primary recipients of the payments. Claiming no wrongdoing Chiquita argued that it was being extorted and that it had never received “any actual security services or actual security equipment in exchange for the payments.”

At the time of the initial sentencing Assistant Attorney General Kenneth L. Wainstein remarked, in a seemingly straightforward manner, that “Like any criminal enterprise, a terrorist organization needs a funding stream to support its operations. For several years, the AUC terrorist group found one in the payments they demanded from Chiquita Brands International. Thanks to Chiquita’s cooperation and this prosecution, that funding stream is now dry and corporations are on notice that they cannot make protection payments to terrorists.”

It now appears that things are not as simple as Assistant Attorney General Wainstein initially thought. In April, Chiquita Brands International filed a reverse Freedom of Information Act lawsuit to stop the public release of thousands of documents handed over to the Security and Exchange Commission. The documents are said to outline in detail Chiquita’s illegal payments to terrorist organizations such as the AUC.

Despite the clear and existing evidence that Chiquita had engaged in criminal activity, Chiquita is arguing that under Exception 7(B) of the Freedom of Information Act, mandatory disclosure provisions do not apply to “records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes . . . to the extent that the production of such law enforcement records or information . . . would deprive a person of a right to a fair trial or an impartial adjudication.”

In an effort to portray the multinational corporation as the real victim in this case Chiquita’s lawyer, James Garland, argued that the disclosure of the documents “will make them available to the general public, including members of the press and individuals and organizations that seek to distort the facts surrounding the payments that Banadex (a subsidiary of Chiquita) made to the AUC under threat of force. Past experience with release of Chiquita’s documents has demonstrated that media campaigns based on gross mischaracterizations of released documents are certain to occur in an effort to entrench misconceptions of relevant facts in the minds of fact finders integral to the fairness of the proceedings.”

Furthermore, Garland has engaged in a campaign alleging that the National Security Archive is not an independent research organization, but instead is seeking to assist lawyers involved in a class action lawsuit against Chiquita in Colombia, on behalf of the victims of paramilitaries, in addition to an ongoing criminal investigation of former Chiquita employees in Colombia. The fact that the National Security Archive would not have found evidence of criminal wrongdoing if it had never happened in the first place seems lost on Garland.

However, this illogical line of argument is not baseless – as in 1997 Chiquita managed to overturn a brilliant investigation by the Cincinnati Enquirer on the basis of the “illegitimate” gathering of evidence. The investigation uncovered that Chiquita was engaging in widespread murder, bribery, arms trafficking, and knowingly poisoning the environment throughout Latin America, but the charges were thrown out. The newspaper was sued and the journalists had their careers cut short.

In 2007, ten years after the Cincinnati Enquirer investigation, the first batch of over five thousand documents, known as the “Chiquita Papers” were published and made available to the public by the National Security Archive. The documents were released by the Justice Department and the FBI in response to the National Security Archive’s Freedom of Information requests.

Michael Evans, Director of the Colombia Project at the National Security Archives remarked on the importance of the documents, stating that “This may well be the most important collection of records ever assembled on corporate ties to terrorism. This was a massive, years-long investigation that involved multiple federal agencies and resulted in the one of the first convictions of a major US company of financing a terrorist group.”

Despite Chiquita’s posturing, the most likely reason they are demanding that the additional documents be suppressed is because it would provide further the evidence of criminal wrongdoing in Colombia. Based on the first batch of documents, Evans highlighted that “we found very strong indications that Chiquita did, in some cases, receive something in return for their illicit payments – that there was a quid pro quo with both guerrilla and paramilitary groups. The evidence we found directly contradicted the U.S. Attorney’s finding, stated in the sentencing memorandum, that the company had never received “any actual security services or actual security equipment in exchange for the payments.  For instance, a legal memo written by one of Chiquita’s lawyers said that the general manager of Chiquita operations in Turbó, Colombia, had told him “that the Guerrilla Groups are used to supply security personnel at the various farms.”  It’s right there in a Chiquita legal memo written on Chiquita letterhead.”

Upon closer examination of the Chiquita Papers, it became clear that the Attorney General failed to read or truly understand evidence contained in the documents, with Evans adding that “Another document that we published in 2011 shows that Chiquita also paid right-wing paramilitary forces for security services. The March 2000 memo, again, written on Chiquita letterhead and based on a conversation with one of the managers in Colombia, says that a group known to be a front for paramilitary terrorists was formed to disguise “the real purpose of providing security” and that the “money [was] for info[rmation] on guerrilla movements.” The company manager also suggested that they “should continue making the payments,” because the company would not “get the same level of support from the military.”

It will be telling how much information is released to the public, as Chiquita Brands International has some friends in very high places. During the 2007 investigation in which Chiquita was fined $25 million, the company was represented by current Attorney General Eric Holder.

In effect, the current reverse Freedom of Information lawsuit amounts to Chiquita asking the United States District Court for the District of Colombia to hide documents which can potentially reveal the corporation’s involvement in criminal activities which have resulted in the death and assault of thousands of Colombians. The fact that the U.S. Department of Justice produced such a small penalty despite the evidence of criminal wrongdoing in 2007 should be disconcerting to all interested in human rights, as it is further evidence of the abuses of corporate political power.

Kevin Edmonds is a NACLA blogger focusing on the Caribbean. Edmonds is a former NACLA research associate and a current PhD student at the University of Toronto, where he is studying the impact of neoliberalism on the St. Lucian banana trade. Follow him on twitter @kevin_edmonds.

August 24, 2013 Posted by | Corruption, Deception, Timeless or most popular | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Progress or Promises? Free Trade and Labor Rights in Colombia

By James Bargent | Upside Down World | April 16, 2012

Rodolfo Vecino has a death sentence on his head. He has been told he will be kidnapped, tortured and his family will be murdered. Already this year one of Vecino’s colleagues has been killed – in January, Mauricio Arrendondo and his wife Janeth were gunned down in front of their children.

Vecino is the president of Colombian oil workers union (USO), which was last year declared a “military target” by right-wing paramilitaries for its campaigns against what the union says are the abusive labor practices of Canadian oil giant Pacific Rubiales. The union’s campaign began last summer; just two months after Colombia signed a Labor Action Plan (LAP) with the U.S. pledging to tackle the very practices used by Rubiales and the type of anti-union violence that USO has suffered. The signing of the pact unblocked negotiations over the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the countries, which had stalled over Colombia’s abysmal labor rights record.

A year on, and at last weekend’s Summit of the Americas, the U.S. declared it was satisfied that Colombia had complied with the LAP and was enacting the reforms called for. The decision opens the way for full implementation of the FTA in May, even as unions and human rights groups in both countries continue to accuse the U.S. of “rewarding promises not actions”. Meanwhile, USO’s campaign against Rubiales continues and it is far from an isolated case. Unions across Colombia maintain they face the same problems of violence, worker abuse and anti-union practices, all committed with seeming impunity.

Disposable labor

Protests against Rubiales began after workers at the company’s Puerto Gaitan site contacted USO and described how 12,000 sub-contracted workers – the overwhelming majority of the workforce – were enduring low pay, appalling conditions and instability while being denied the right to bargain collectively and associate freely.

Ending the abusive sub-contracting system commonly used in Colombia was one of the principal aims of the LAP. The practice began in the late 70s, when businesses began to take advantage of the fact that many of Colombia’s labor regulations did not apply to worker cooperatives. Companies fired their entire workforce then forced workers to sign on with contractors calling themselves cooperatives. As the workers were then classified as temporary employees and could be laid off without cause, the cooperatives forced them to accept whatever pay and conditions were on the table. It was also a useful tool for preventing unionization as any worker who began organizing or agitating could be immediately fired. “They lost their rights, they lost money [and] they lost their working stability,” said Andres Sanchez from Colombia’s National Union School (ENS). The practice continues today, utilizing Colombia’s army of the unemployed and underemployed as ready replacements for sacked workers.

The LAP called for Colombia to enforce pre-existing but widely ignored legislation banning the cooperatives. However, as the Rubiales workers testified, in many sectors little has changed. Because the cooperatives are now banned, most of the contractors have simply changed names and become Simplified Stock Companies or Temporary Service Companies. “The phenomenon continues the same,” said Sanchez. “It is the same dynamic, they do the same things, workers [still] can’t demand that they benefit from their labor and not the third party,” he added. According to Sanchez, over 2 million workers in Colombia are still employed through these sub-contractors.

In Puerto Gaitan, the sub-contracted Rubiales’ workers have been forced to accept what Rodolfo Vecino called, “truly humiliating and poverty stricken” conditions. “They don’t have the conditions of a dignified life, they don’t have dignified salaries, they don’t have contracts that genuinely give the workers respectable levels of stability,” he said.

The workers have also testified to being pressured and threatened because of their association with the union and being told they would not be employed again while they were still members. “Although I am aware of my rights,” said one worker in a letter to USO, “in this case my need to survive and stay in work is more important.”

The ENS and USO both say they have persistently informed the government of the continued use of the cooperative style sub-contracting but little action has been taken despite the harsh penalties now demanded by law. So far, one company has been hit with a $6.5 million dollar fine over its use of contractors in the African palm sector. However, the fine was only imposed after a 107-day strike and came a week before Colombia’s labor minister traveled to the U.S. to discuss progress on labor rights. According to Sanchez, several months later and the fine has yet to be paid.

The paramilitary right and anti-union violence

After five months of strikes, blockades, occupations and violent clashes between riot police and protesters in USO’s confrontation with Pacific Rubiales, Rodolfo Vecino announced he had been threatened by four men claiming to be from the Auto-defensas (Self-defense forces). According to Vecino, the men told him he had been “sentenced” because USO’s confrontation with Pacific Rubiales made him an “obstacle to development.”

The term Auto-Defensas refers to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), an umbrella group for Colombia’s right-wing paramilitary movement that controlled vast criminal networks and infiltrated the core of Colombia’s political and economic systems. Its stated mission was to combat Colombia’s leftist guerrilla groups, something it did in part by waging a dirty war against “guerrilla collaborators” – members of leftist political parties, community organizers, human rights workers and unionists. From 1986–2011, nearly 3000 unionists were murdered, and although most of the cases remain unsolved, in Colombia there is little doubt that paramilitary groups such as the AUC were responsible for the overwhelming majority of the killings.

The AUC officially demobilized in 2006 after negotiations with the government of Alvaro Uribe. However, the much criticized process gave rise to a new wave of illegal armed groups. These new organizations mostly consist of former mid-level AUC commanders and foot-soldiers that either never demobilized or simply re-enlisted after demobilization. For the most part they no longer fight the guerrillas – in some cases they even collaborate with them – but instead concentrate on drug trafficking and maintaining the AUC’s criminal networks and commercial interests. However, the end of the ideological war between the paramilitaries and the guerrillas did not lead to a significant drop in anti-union violence and Colombia remains by far and away the most dangerous place in the world for unionists.

According to Vecino, three of these groups operate in the same areas as USO – the Rastrojos, the Urabeños and the Popular Revolutionary Anti-terrorist Army of Colombia (ERPAC). He believes the continuing violence against unions is because of the links between businesses and the paramilitaries. “We believe there are links in the zone,” he said. “Today there are no political lines of definition of these groups but interests around drug trafficking [and] they sell themselves to the highest bidder,” he said. “If [the company] gives them money it wouldn’t be the first time multinationals have associated with paramilitaries or common criminals to strike against the union sector.” Vecino also claimed that some of the cooperatives have ties to armed groups and are used to launder drug money.

Pacific Rubiales has adamantly denied any contact with paramilitary groups. Jorge Rodriguez, the company’s head of corporate affairs, told news website Colombia Reports: “We are very sorry for the USO union. We reject any type of threat, any type of intimidation, not only to trade unionists but to anyone in the country.”

Andres Sanchez agrees with the theory that the new groups continue to act as the armed wing for powerful commercial interests, pointing to how Chiquita bananas and Coca Cola have been implicated in the murder of unionists. “It is a culture where some businesses have used violence as a way of solving labor relation problems,” he said. “In Colombia, the links between paramilitaries and business have not yet been uncovered.”

For most American politicians and unionists, anti-union violence was the biggest obstacle to the passing of the FTA with Colombia and curbing that violence the LAP’s greatest promise. In the first year of the plan, 27 unionists were murdered and 2 disappeared, according to the ENS. While that remains the highest murder rate for unionists in the world by some distance, it does represent a significant reduction; in 2010, 51 unionists were murdered and 7 disappeared. However, Andres Sanchez believes the drop in homicides does not tell the whole story. “The situation with the violence has shown changes in its logic,” he said. “Now, it is not necessary to murder a unionist to successfully freeze a union. We have seen that threats, injuries and displacement have increased … homicides have gone down a bit [but] the situation persists.”

In the LAP, the Colombian government pledged to increase protection for unionists by broadening the coverage of its protection program, clearing the backlog of applicants for the program and speeding up the application process. According to the U.S. government this is exactly what it has done. However, while the unions acknowledge there have been some improvements, they remain critical. “They say ‘no one in the program has been killed,’” said Sanchez. “So we say the program is badly designed, because they kill the unionists who aren’t in the program.”

The unions complain that the protection program excludes too many people and that the Colombian authorities have cleared the backlog and sped up the process partly by rejecting more people more quickly. According to Sanchez, this has involved turning down unionists who have received death threats. “They say that if they threaten someone it is a salvation because generally, the ones who are murdered have not been threatened, [and] the threat is to silence someone so it is not necessary to take measures after,” he said.

The approach has had a serious impact on USO leaders. Last August, USO received a letter informing them that protection programs for 23 leaders and a number of regional offices would either be terminated immediately or only extended temporarily. Three of those leaders were involved in organizing in Puerto Gaitan.

The LAP also pledged to tackle the impunity enjoyed by those responsible for the anti-union threats and violence. Less than 10% of the more than 3000 cases of murdered unionists have resulted in convictions. Many of those convictions came not from successful investigations but from confessions by paramilitary killers and, while the perpetrators of the crimes identified themselves, the intellectual authors remained hidden.

In 2007, the Attorney General’s Office set up a specialist sub-unit dedicated to anti-union violence. However, of the 195 murders that took place between the start of the sub-unit’s operations and May 2011, only 6 resulted in convictions. The unit did not obtain a single conviction for the 60 homicide attempts, 1,500 threats and 420 forced displacements in the same period.

The prosecutor’s office’s shortcomings in investigating anti-union violence were supposed to be addressed by 15 measures in the LAP, ranging from assigning more full time investigators to the unit to establishing victims assistance centers. As Congress approved the FTA in October, American union AFL-CIO reported that all but three of the obligations had either not been met, had been met insufficiently or there was no evidence of progress.

Progress for labor or for free trade?

Although he believes the LAP has failed to significantly improve the labor rights situation in Colombia, Andres Sanchez says the plan was an important step. “Yes, [the LAP] was to facilitate the unfreezing of the FTA,” said Sanchez, “but it was also a serious attempt.” However, he thinks the LAP will not be effective unless the government does more to involve unions in the process. “They are important measures,” he said, “expensive measures that could be effective but with this great vacuum of not taking into account the unions, they are measures that could fail.”

In the U.S, the implementation of the LAP has been monitored by the AFL-CIO, which has been critical of the government for using it to push through the FTA. “We don’t think the plan was sufficient to accomplish the goals but we do think it was a step in the right direction, a step towards meaningful change,” said the AFL-CIO’s Celeste Drake. “Unfortunately, with the continued violence against unionists and too little progress on cooperatives and other practices like collective pacts [worker agreements used to sideline unions], it is far too soon for the US government to declare victory on the LAP and move ahead on the FTA. Colombian workers will lose whatever leverage they have to make real progress if the US moves too quickly.”

On the front line of the struggle against the violence and abuse suffered by Colombian workers and unionists, Rodolfo Vecino says he has seen very little change since the LAP came into force. “At the moment it is innocuous,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what is written there, they are dead words, they don’t have life because there isn’t anyone who is putting it into place.”

James Bargent is a freelance journalist based in Colombia. See jamesbargent.com

April 18, 2012 Posted by | Deception, Solidarity and Activism, Subjugation - Torture | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Colombia: ‘Carbon credit’ scheme a cover for land grab

By James Bargent | Green Left | March 4, 2012

When the paramilitaries of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) arrived in San Onofre in northern Colombia in the late 1990s, they came after dark, dragging people from their homes and disappearing into the night.

Soon, they did not need the cover of darkness. People were executed in public plazas in broad daylight. Women and young girls were openly raped and abused.

Since the demobilisation of the local AUC bloc in 2005, 42 mass graves have been discovered in the municipality. Locals say about 3000 people disappeared and tens of thousands fled their homes and abandoned their land to escape what one survivor called a region of “concentration camps”.

Seven years on from the AUC demobilisation, San Onofre is now the site of thousands of hectares of teak trees belonging to one of Colombia’s five biggest companies, Argos S.A.

In February last year, Argos’ commercial monocrop plantation was approved for the United Nations’ Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) carbon trading scheme. This means it can sell carbon credits to industrialised countries trying to meet Kyoto Protocol emission reduction targets.

The company says the plantation will capture 37,000 tones of CO2 a year for 25 years – worth about $12.5 million in the current carbon market. It also plans to use another teak plantation in the nearby municipalities of El Carmen and Ovejas for the CDM.

Argos claims the teak plantation is helping fight climate change and contributing to the sustainable development of a conflict scarred region, but the project has proved controversial.

Survivors from the paramilitary era and land restitution campaigners claim the plantation and its CDM status is not only an attempt to cash in on the lucrative carbon credits market, but also legitimise a mass land grab that followed paramilitary violence, and prevent land restitution to a displaced population.

The municipalities of San Onofre, El Carmen and Ovejas are in the Caribbean region Montes de Maria. A heavy guerilla presence in the area led to the creation of AUC bloc, the “Heroes of Montes de Maria” in 1997. The paramilitaries soon gained complete social and economic control of the region by murdering, torturing and displacing local farmers with the support of local state security forces.

Between 1995 and 2005, 54 massacres were reported in the three municipalities of San Onofre, Ovejas and El Carmen and, says government agency Accion Social, 117,097 people have been displaced there since the paramilitaries first arrived.

The AUC era ended with demobilisation in 2005. However, in 2008 El Espectacor reported a new invasion, of “strange personalities” in bulletproof Hummers.

A land grab ensued, in which desperate, indebted or frightened people were pressured into selling property. Abandoned land was snapped up by speculators.

Next came big business. What had previously been an area of smallholder and subsistence farming rapidly became dominated by large-scale agro-industrial enterprises ― dairy, timber, African palm and teak.

As the land became more concentrated in fewer hands, the landscape of Montes de Maria began to change. Most of Montes de Maria is now owned by just a handful of large businesses, among them Argos, which owns an estimated 12,500 hectares.

Argos claims it bought its land in San Onofre directly from the owners in 2005, after the paramilitaries had left. However, the CDM validation report indicates it first bought land in 2003 and continued to do so until 2008.

Camilo Abello, the vice-president of corporate affairs at Argos, claims the company entered “a completely peaceful zone. The Argos representative who made the purchases was able to go into the zone because there were no paramilitaries, there was no violence.”

“Juan Carlos”, a San Onofre local whose family sold their land to Argos, disagrees.

Juan Carlos’ family owned land close to the El Palmar ranch, headquarters of the infamous local AUC leader known as “Cadena” and site of a mass grave containing 72 tortured and mutilated bodies.

“We had to sell the land because we were in an unbearable situation,” he said, “Our lives were in danger.”

Juan Carlos said his family had to ask Cadena permission to sell to Argos. He said that although he knew of no formal contact between the AUC and Argos, paramilitaries visited the farm while the Argos representative was measuring the land.

Government statistics show that nearly 2000 people were forcibly displaced in San Onofre in 2005, more than in the previous two years. More than 1000 people were also displaced in 2006 and again in 2007.

Murder and displacement rates have dropped sharply since, but government risk reports on San Onofre show a renewed and growing paramilitary presence in the area.

In El Carmen de Bolivar and Ovejas, Argos bought land from the speculators who flooded the region in the wake of the paramilitaries.

One of the main sources was a group of powerful businesspeople and ranchers called the Amigos de Montes de Maria. Locals say they pressured campesinos into selling their land and evicted families from land bought for agro-industrial projects.

Testimonies collected for two NGO reports said that in at least one case Argos bought land acquired by Amigos de Montes de Maria from demobilised AUC members who had displaced its owners.

Residents also report how one alleged demobilised AUC member, Silvio Flores, went to work for the company after it bought the land he managed on behalf of a member of the group. Locals claim Flores then began pressuring other campesinos to sell; abusing and threatening them, killing their animals and burning down houses.

In the report, residents of Ovejas also describe being threatened by heavily armed camouflaged men who claimed to be the company’s security.

Argos denies any involvement in pressuring people to sell or buying from displaced people. “What we did was buy from people who wanted to sell,” said Camilo Abello, “without any coercion or pressure”.

Abello also denied any links to paramilitary groups and claimed the company does not use any type of security at the plantations. According to Abello, the company is helping the region by creating jobs.

“We don’t think that we are taking advantage, on the contrary we are supporting the reconstruction of the fabric of society, we are investing in a post-conflict zone,” he said.

The issue of land ownership in Montes de Maria has been complicated further by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’ new flagship policy ― the Victims and Land Restitution Law.

The law is designed to address the desperate plight of the estimated 3-5 million Colombians forced from their lands into city slums and squatter camps by conflict and violence. Its main focus is the restitution of lands to the displaced.

Critics of Argos claim the company is using the teak plantations and their CDM status to ward off the danger of losing their lands because of the Victims Law. If Argos faces claims on its Montes de Maria land, it can retain the plantations by exploiting a loophole in the restitution process.

The Victims Law says land will not be taken from companies that are using it for agro-industrial enterprises if the company can prove it bought the land in good faith. Instead, the authorities will try to negotiate a financial agreement between company and claimant.

Colombian Congressperson Ivan Cepeda campaigns on land rights and has raised the issue of Montes de Maria land grabs to Congress.

“The operation [Argos] has done in Montes de Maria is a clear example of how the government’s proposed restitution with the Victims Laws is going to work,” he said. “All of this is a big, sophisticated operation to legalise the lands they have robbed from the campesinos.”

Cepeda is scathing of Argos’ claims to have acted in good faith when it bought the lands.

“[Paramilitary violence] did not happen in isolation,” he said. “It is a fact of public knowledge and frankly it is illogical and incomprehensible that these businesses did not know which land they were dealing with and who had lived on that land.”

He added: “[Argos’ project is] a business that it is presenting as clean when in reality it is a business drenched in blood ― the blood of campesinos that were the victims of massacres.”

The company itself says it welcomes the Victims Law and would cooperate fully with any claims on land owned by the company.

In October, Cepeda wrote to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon urging him to expel Argos from the CDM program and enforce the UN Global Compact, which commits associated companies to human rights, labour, environment and anti-corruption principles.

Ban did not publicly respond, but the CDM board chair Martin Hession said responsibility for the matter lay with the Colombian government.

“Primarily, it is for (them) to resolve issues like this as they certified the sustainable development of the project,” he said in an interview with Point Carbon News.

A spokesperson for the Colombian Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development said, “Only the CDM Executive Board can take this decision [to remove Argos’ approval].”

Compared with the horrors of the turn of the century, life for the campesinos of Montes de Maria is quiet. But with growing tensions over landownership and the resurgence of paramilitarism, violence and conflict still lurk beneath the surface.

“We believe that it is not going to stay calm,” said “Andres”, a campesino from Ovejas.

“It is going to continue, we are going to see deaths here, we are going to see pressure, we are going to see evictions and displacement because they are going to try to reclaim the land like a debt and we are not going to let them.”

[The names of the campesinos interviewed for this article have been changed to protect their identities.]

April 18, 2012 Posted by | Corruption, Ethnic Cleansing, Racism, Zionism, Science and Pseudo-Science, Subjugation - Torture, Timeless or most popular | , , , , | Comments Off on Colombia: ‘Carbon credit’ scheme a cover for land grab

Small-Scale Miners Face Crackdown as Foreign Companies Set Sights on Colombia

By Leah Gardner | Upside Down World | April 11, 2012

Police arrived at the Santa Isabel mine in Colón-Génova on February 21, 2012. The officers asked these local miners to attend a meeting to see if they could sort out their licensing request; However, when the roughly twenty-five miners arrived, they were read their rights and arrested.

About a week later, a report ran on television stating that police had arrested a group of illegal miners in Colón-Génova who were making over 150 million pesos ($CAD 84,500) per month and using their earnings to fund the FARC and Los Rastrojos, a paramilitary group.

The miners say they were shocked. “It’s ridiculous,” says Ferney Gamboa, one of those arrested. “A person here makes between 320,000 and 480,000 pesos ($CAD 180 -270) per month.” Miners then invest earnings into their farms and families, he adds. “We have no contact with armed groups.”

This assertion has been backed by local officials. Pedro Vincente Obando, the Secretary of the Governor of Nariño, said at a conference on March 27, 2012 that the charges were “false and dangerous.”

A Mining Country

Miners and the Comité de Integración del Macizo Colombiano, (Committee for the Integration of the Colombian Massif – CIMA), a rural social movement allied with the miners, believe that this is part of a federal government strategy to phase out informal mining and pave the way for foreign multinationals.

“We are seeing the criminalization of artisanal mining in this country,” says Luz Mila Ruana, an organizer for CIMA in Nariño. She adds that a subsidiary of the South Africa-based mining company AngloGold Ashanti has begun preliminary exploration activities around the Santa Isabel mine.

Miners say that while being accused of funding illegal armed groups was a shock, the arrival of police wasn’t much of a surprise. They have been waiting for nearly a year to submit their license application, but have been held up by administrative delays.

The Instituto Colombiano de Geología y Minería (Colombian Geology and Mining Institute – Ingeominas), the government body responsible for processing applications, stopped accepting requests for the legalization of traditional mines in 2011 after it reportedly received an overwhelming number of applicants. “Now they are saying we can submit in April,” says Gamboa. He doesn’t seem convinced.

Meanwhile, news of ‘illegal’ miner arrests is common in the Colombian media. Since the adoption of a new mining code in 2001 and new policies meant to crackdown on informal mining, the Colombian government has given unlicensed operations until 2012 to obtain the proper paper work or face arrest.

The national government has made illegal mining a political and military priority, arguing that unlicensed operations cause environmental damage and contribute to the ongoing internal conflict by financing armed groups. In November 2011, officials said they had closed 329 unlicensed gold mines, arresting 1,228 people.

Miners and CIMA organizers are convinced that these policies have little to do with the environment or national security, and much to do with the federal government’s plan to turn the country into a large-scale mining giant by 2019.

The CIMA and Canadian non-governmental organizations focusing on mining are quick to point out that the 2001 mining code was written in consultation with Canadian and Colombian mining companies — a process that was funded in part by a grant from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).

Since its adoption, foreign mining company royalty rates have dropped from 10% to .4%. Simultaneously, the number of mining permit requests and concessions have increased dramatically, with Canadian companies making up a large portion of mining exploration investment.

The vision of Colombia as an untapped haven for large-scale mining stands in stark contrast to the reality, in which millions of small and artisanal miners are already working throughout the country.

The nearly one-hundred men and women working at the Santa Isabel mine have been doing so with the permission of the local land owner for nearly forty years. Miners here work in small teams to extract tiny particles of gold from rocks dug out of shallow holes in the mountainside. To do this, they use water and large wooden sluices which hark back to the days of the California gold rush.

They do not use toxic chemicals, but many small-scale operations — and all large-scale ones — in the country do use toxins.  It is no wonder then that Colombia has some of the highest levels of mercury contamination in the world.

Ferney Gamboa argues that compared to his operation, a massive gold mine in the area would be far more detrimental to the environment. “A large-scale mine will have a much larger impact. These companies use cyanide and huge amounts of water.”

A Country in Conflict

As for the funding of armed groups, CIMA organizers believe that large-scale development projects pose the highest risk to empowering illegal actors. In 2007, Chiquita Brands pled guilty to violating US anti-terrorism laws after admittedly making payments to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a right-wing paramilitary group. A civil suit brought by families of the victims of paramilitaries is still ongoing. Drummond Ltd., an American coal mining company is currently facing a trial in the US for the same issue, while British Petroleum (BP) settled out of court with victims of paramilitaries that it allegedly funded in 2009.

Paramilitaries are notorious in Colombia for murdering community leaders and appropriating land through terror tactics. After a deeply flawed demobilization process between 2003 and 2006, these groups are still active today, although under different names. Colombia still contains the second largest internally-displaced population in the world, behind Afghanistan, with 87% of displaced people originating from mining and energy-producing regions.

The Colombian military is also present in extractive zones, with 30%, or 80,000 members, of the country’s public forces dedicated to protecting oil and mining industry infrastructure. This has also created problems for small scale miners and farmers. In 2006, military troops killed Alejandro Uribe and Carlos Mario García, miners who were outspoken critics of foreign extractive companies active in the Bolivar Department, including AngloGold Ashanti. The army claimed that the two men were guerrilla fighters killed in combat, an argument rejected by local communities and dismantled by investigative journalists and rights groups like Amnesty International.

This confusion between civilians and guerrilla fighters is not out of the ordinary in Colombia. The Coordinación Colombia Europa Estados Unidos (Colombia Europe United States Coordination – CCEEU) reports that 535 civilians were victims of unlawful killings by Colombian public forces between January 2007 and July 2008. In 2008, the false positive scandal revealed that military troops had murdered scores of poor urban youth and farmers, and then dressed the bodies up to look like guerrilla fighters in order to inflate the military’s combat success rate.

‘False positives’ pervade the Colombian prison system as well. The Comité de Solidaridad con los Presos Politicos (Political Prisoners Solidarity Committee – CSPP), a national advocacy group for political prisoners, estimates that 60% of the 7,500 prisoners in the country detained for political crimes associated with the armed conflict are actually social movement and union leaders who have been falsely accused.

Foreign multinationals deny contributing to or benefiting from the conflict in Colombia.  In response to small-scale miners fears of displacement in Colón-Génova, a spokesperson for AngloGold Ashanti Colombia states: “In the Department of Nariño, AngloGold Ashanti Colombia has built a good relationship based on support and collaboration with legal mining cooperatives, such as those established in Cumbitara and Los Andes Sotomayor, for example.”
The Colombian government maintains that it promotes partnerships between small-scale miners and multinationals, and that along with passing new regulations it is providing support to small mining operations to improve their standards.

Although some mining cooperatives have taken advantage of these arrangements, there are still many small-scale miners in Nariño who fail to see how new government policies can benefit them. “It’s hard to tell which is better, having the license or not,” says one owner of a licensed mine in the municipality of Sotomayor. “Once you have the license, the next step is keeping it.”

He argues that even with help from the Colombian government to improve their lighting system, new regulations like requiring owners to pay into workers compensation will be close to impossible to meet.

In Colón-Génova, miners are resolved to peacefully defending their livelihoods despite the challenges ahead.  They are currently working together with movements like the CIMA to fight what they believe was an illegal arrest and to legalize their mine once and for all.

Leah Gardner is an independent journalist focusing on human rights and corporate accountability. She currently lives in Colombia.

April 11, 2012 Posted by | Economics | , , , , | 1 Comment