Aviva Chomsky is professor of history and Latin American Studies at Salem State College in Massachusetts. She is also a founder of the North Shore Colombia Solidarity Committee, which has been working since 2002 with Colombian labor and popular movements, especially those affected by the foreign-owned mining sector.
Hans Bennett: What happened to the community of Tabaco in 2001?
Aviva Chomsky: Tabaco was an Afro-Colombian village in the northernmost Guajira province. It was the largest of a network of small indigenous and Afro-Colombian villages, the only one with paved roads, a school, a post office, and other government services. In August 2001, this village was violently displaced as part of an expansion project by the Cerrejon coal mine, the largest open-pit coal mine in the world. The mine was then jointly owned by Exxon and a consortium made up of BHP Billiton (an Australian company), Glencore (a Swiss company), and Anglo-American (a British company).
As one resident described the events: "We didn't know what was happening. All of a sudden we saw the police, the riot police, and the army surrounding our houses and people coming into the town in trucks, in bulldozers. We went into our houses to watch what was happening and they began to raze the town, to raze the houses. And we were shocked, we didn't believe that the mine could be doing this."
HB: Has anything been done to compensate the Tabaco community?
AC: When our delegation was there in November 2006, we interviewed 61 heads of households from families displaced from Tabaco, all living under squalid conditions in the nearby town of Albania. We heard the same story again and again. We are peasants, we are farmers, people told us. We used to be productive people, we used to support ourselves and our families. We were not rich, but we worked our land and we provided our children with what they needed. Since the company took our town and our land, there is nothing for us to do. There is no work.
In May 2002 the Colombian Supreme Court ruled that the people displaced from Tabaco must be relocated in such a way as to be able to reconstruct their community -- meaning that they needed land to farm and the public infrastructure that had been destroyed. They are still waiting for this decision to be enforced. One resident told us, "We have exhausted all of the possibilities in Guajira, in all of Colombia. We've gone to the courts, but they won't help us because the mine has so much power."
The company claims that they followed a process of individual negotiations, offering people money to give up their houses and land. When we met with company officials in August 2006, they told us that only eight families had refused to sell and that they were still making offers to these eight.
Tabaco's residents described these "negotiations" to us. They told us that starting in 1997 the company began to make people offers to turn over the title of their land, but promised that they would be able to continue to farm on it. That the company needed the titles for legal protection, but they would never actually use the land. A lot of people did "sell" because they thought they were selling only the title, not the right to use the land.
Then around 2000 the "negotiations" started getting more coercive. The company threatened people that if they did not sell, their land would be expropriated and they would get nothing in return. The government began cutting off services to the town -- the health center, the school. The priest sold the church that the people themselves had built. So more people agreed to sell.
Some people from Tabaco have been forced to leave the region altogether. But the people who remain are organized. Tabaco in Resistance has a very clear set of demands: they want to be recognized as a community, for the company to negotiate collectively with their representatives, and to be collectively relocated and compensated for their losses. They want to achieve a settlement that will allow them to reconstruct the social and economic fabric of their community.
HB: How is the Cerrejon company responding to these demands?
AC: We met with Cerrejon officials twice in 2006. In August our delegation met with a group of about 15 officials from different departments of the operation. In November we met with the president of the company, Leon Teicher. Interestingly, Teicher and other officials acknowledged that "mistakes were made" in Tabaco and that they want to avoid such mistakes in the future. Clearly, they are unhappy about the international scrutiny of their human rights practices. They say they are willing to negotiate with three of the other villages currently in the path of mine expansion. But they refuse to negotiate with the people displaced from Tabaco or with those from any of the other communities affected by their operations.
HB: What is being done to apply international pressure?
AC: We are working internationally on many different fronts. We have people in Australia, England, and Switzerland who have attended the owning companies' shareholders meetings to bring the issues of the communities into public light there. We have sponsored tours by members of the affected communities in all of these countries, as well as in the U.S. and Canada, where we receive a lot of the coal. In Salem, Massachusetts, where I live, and where our power plant imports coal from Colombia, the city council, the mayor, our state representative, and our congressional representative have all written letters to the mine asking it to recognize Tabaco's right to relocation. We've also met with power plants in Salem, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. New Brunswick Power has also written to the mine urging it to negotiate with displaced Tabaco residents. Dominion Energy, the owner of our plant, made a somewhat vaguer statement calling for a "just resolution" of the issues.
In Denmark and Holland, two major importers have suspended contracts with the U.S.-owned Drummond coal mine in Colombia because of the murders of three union leaders there. This also sends a strong message to other foreign-owned mines in Colombia that their human rights practices are important to their clients.
HB: How does this relate to the anticorporate globalization movement?
AC: These mines are a perfect example of corporate globalization. All of these mining companies are multinational enterprises. In Colombia they have been key players in implementing the neo-liberal agenda. One piece of this was working with the IMF and World Bank to rewrite Colombia's mining code to grant more privileges and profits to foreign companies. The Cerrejon mine used to be half-owned by the Colombian government and it was privatized as part of this process.
Practically the only state presence in Guajira where the Cerrejon mine is located is the army. Schools, roads, health care, and other social services are almost nonexistent. Paramilitaries operate freely and profits flow out freely. It's a neo-liberal paradise.
Creating people-to-people ties, or "globalization from below," has been an important part of the anti-corporate globalization movement. We need to be able to create a global movement to deal with the power of these global companies. When we bring people from Nova Scotia to see the mine that their coal comes from, or bring people from Guajira to the power plants thousands of miles away that burn coal from the mine that displaced their villages, we empower all of us to work for a world that values people and their rights over the profits of multinationals.
HB: In December 2006 Sintracarbon (the National Union of Coal Industry Workers) entered into internationally monitored contract negotiations. The union's website explains that "violence against trade unionists in Colombia is widespread and often increases during contract negotiations. This time the union is taking the courageous stand of calling on the mine to address the rights and needs of the Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities in the region...." What has been happening since?
AC: As a result of our November delegation, we formed an International Commission to monitor the contract negotiations that began in early December. We've been receiving daily updates from the union as to the progress of their negotiations, which we've been translating and distributing to members of the Commission and also posting on the union's website that we made to support them in the negotiations. The Commission includes representatives from labor, social, and community organizations in the U.S., Canada, England, and Switzerland.
During our November delegation, we took Sintracarbon representatives to visit the communities affected by the mine and they decided to include a demand that the mine recognize the communities' rights to collective negotiation, collective relocation, and reparations in their bargaining proposal. This is something quite unprecedented. Union members were appalled at the conditions in these communities. It may seem surprising, but the union and the communities have been separated by a huge gap: the mine won't employ people from the surrounding communities, partly because they want them to disappear and partly because the mine employs people with a fairly high level of education and technical training -- it's an open pit mine and most of the people who work there are mechanics or heavy machinery operators. People from Afro-Colombian and indigenous villages have no way to get the education and skills needed to do these jobs.
I think unions in the United States are still struggling to figure out how to engage with globalization. How can they deal with issues of global justice and human and social rights at the same time that they're trying to protect their members' jobs and privileges? The progressive unions that we've been working with in the U.S. and Canada are extraordinarily impressed with how Sintracarbon is going beyond workplace issues and working with the communities that are resisting their own employer.
Too often, we get overwhelmed by the enormous power of multinationals, by how implacable the global system is. Here we have some of the most powerless people in the world -- indigenous people with no resources, no electricity, no water -- and some of the most vulnerable, a union in a country with the highest rates of assassination and repression against union activists in the world -- taking on some of the most powerful multinationals in the world today. We have a lot to learn from their example.
Hans Bennett is a Philadelphia-based photo-journalist mostly focusing on the movement to free Mumia Abu-Jamal and all political prisoners. His website is: insubordination.blogspot.com.
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