A few weeks ago I and two of my teammates (Kim Lamberty & Julián Gutierrez) traveled to Santa Rosa in the southern part of the Bolivar province to attend a round table discussion between a federation of small miners and government representatives. The Southern Bolivar Agricultural-Mining Federation (FEDEAGROMISBOL-- la Federación Agro-Minera de Sur de Bolivar) have been trying to schedule a meeting with the government for months now. The first meeting was planned for mid-September, and we found out the night before that the government had cancelled. So it was re-scheduled for a few weeks later. The government didn't go to that one either; nor did they bother to let anyone know they weren't coming. Hundreds of miners, some from as far as a 10 hour journey away, had already made the trip and weren't very happy about being stood up. They organized a commission of 150 representatives, who traveled to the Ministry of Mining office in Cartagena to demand an audience. Finally, on 6 November, both parties met together in Santa Rosa.
The Federation brought a huge agenda, which they didn't get through in its entirety, but they did broach several key topics. The Federation presented a human rights report from the past 2 years, documenting 35 instances of human rights abuses which resulted in over 100 deaths. One of the dead is Alejandro Uribe Chacón, former leader of the Federation and instrumental in organizing the miners to advocate for themselves. Death threats continue-- leaders of the Federation, priests from a local diocese, and members of a development organization that work in the region received threats twice so far this year from a paramilitary group, promising to "exterminate them like dogs." Paramilitaries continue to move and act with impunity. Often, local police know just enough of their plans to be conveniently absent when killings and kidnappings occur. In this, and many other cases, trying to make a living for yourself and your family on your land is enough to attract the attention of armed actors. More on this dynamic in a bit...
At the end of the day, people seemed energized and pleased with the achievements of the meetings. The biggest step forward came in the formation of a joint human rights investigation committee, made up of representatives from government entities and members of the Federation, who committed to look into the human rights abuses reported by the mining communities. Another positive outcome is the promise to put a bank in the region to be accessible for miners to sell their gold. (The government hadn't been pleased that the miners were selling their gold on the black market; the miners didn't have a bank to sell it to.) Some speculated that the government representatives felt a bit sheepish after failing to attend so many previous meetings, which made them a bit more prepared to work with the miners and their requests. Whatever the reason, it seemed like a constructive discussion.
So why so much paramilitary activity in the Sur de Bolivar? The answer is chillingly simple-- the veins of gold underground attract not only local miners, scraping to make a living, but also powerful corporations such as AngloGold Ashanti, a South African mining giant. Their subsidiary, Kedahda, is actively purchasing land in the Sur de Bolivar region. (see an article about Kedahda's activity in Colombia) Small mining communities determined to keep their land represent a threat to the interests of AngloGold, and while they haven't been directly linked to fomenting violence in Colombia, they have admitted to paying off rebel groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in exchange for access to gold mines there.
The story is sadly similar the world over, and free trade agreements like the FTAA and the proposed Colombia Free Trade Agreement (which could be voted on in the U.S. Congress as early as this week) open the doors to corporations intent on increasing their profits, with little incentive for small farmers and miners just trying to survive. The "disposable poor" continue to be stripped of what power they have, so that the already rich can get even richer. But power comes in many forms, and economic power is just one of them. Communities such as the miners in the Sur de Bolivar know that they have a power to which corporations have assigned little value-- the power to organize and stand up for themselves. As the familiar quote goes, indeed, it is only the small groups of committed people who have ever brought true change to the world. The Federation and the families they represent face a huge, uphill, David-vs.-Goliath battle, but their efforts give witness to the strength of those small committed communities who work for nothing less (and nothing more) than the right to a life with dignity.
So this is what CPT does-- we go to meetings like this one in Santa Rosa, so that community activists can meet without fear of violent reprisal. We can't be everywhere at once, but our presence signals the attention of the international community, and hopefully, reminds those who would perpetrate violence that their actions will not go unnoticed.