Tuesday, May 26, 2009

My leaflet's ready at last

Since getting back from Colombia, I've been working with people from Espacio-Bristol, Biofuelwatch and Platform to produce a leaflet about the effect that agrofuels and oil have on Colombia. The pages of the leaflet can been seen here, and the text is below. Email your address to verybod [at] hotmail . com and I can post you up to 50 copies.



Agrofuels or ‘biofuels’ are fuels made primarily from crops grown in large-scale monocultures. Since April 2008, all fuel at UK petrol stations is required by law to be mixed with 2.5% ‘biofuels’.

Agrofuels, far from being climate friendly, accelerate climate change because of deforestation and other ecosystem destruction and because they rely on agrichemicals linked to high greenhouse gas emissions. They also lead to hunger, and to farmers being forced off their land.

Colombia is one of the countries increasing its production of oil palm and sugar cane to meet agrofuel demand. As part of this expansion, trade unionists have been murdered and communities forced off their land at gunpoint by paramilitaries (illegal groups linked to the state).

This leaflet explains some of the social problems agrofuel expansion is causing in Colombia.


Victor makes £8 for an eight-hour day harvesting palm fruit from the tallest trees. Workers weeding around the palm trees may earn just 80p a day.

Harvesting is difficult and dangerous work. One 18 year-old boy died after working for fifteen days injecting palm trees with monocrotophos (an insecticide illegal in many countries) without any safety equipment.

Workers are forced to form fake cooperatives to work for the company, in which workers pay the costs of tools, social security, crop damage, etc. This means that workers, rather than the company, absorb all the economic risks. This system was first imposed by Colombia’s Indupalma company after a trade union was weakened by the murder of five of its members in 1995.

After meeting all these costs, Victor’s monthly take-home pay is under the minimum wage, but 40% more than he earned prior to a recent strike.


The community of San Cayetano in the Bolivar region is an example of people going hungry because of oil palm.

Forty families had been farming land near their village for 20 years when an agent of a local palm company offered to buy them out. What he offered was under the market value for the land, but he included the threat, “If you do not leave the good way, you will be leaving the bad way”. Given the violent paramilitary presence in the area, people took this seriously and left their land. The last man to leave was seized by paramilitaries, but managed to escape.

That was three years ago. ‘Misery’ is the word they use to describe life since then. Unemployment is especially uncomfortable with eight children to feed and no state benefits. One meal a day has become normal in this community.


Currently 350,000 hectares of land in Colombia is used for oil palm production. With the huge rise in demand for agrofuels, the Colombian government is intending to increase the amount of land dedicated to both palm oil and sugar cane monocultures to seven million hectares. These plantations are linked to ecosystem destruction and to exploitative and inhumane working conditions.

As pressure on land intensifies, subsistence farmers are violently displaced. Once landless, the same people may return as poorly-paid workers for oil palm plantations on their former land. Meanwhile, local people are denied control of more and more land for growing food, and ecosystems are destroyed.

People from rural Colombia speak of their sadness and frustration at being surrounded by such fertile land, and yet seeing their food imported into the area. Much of Colombia’s rice, wheat and corn comes from the US and the EU where the agrofuels are exported to, leaving Colombia contributing to the energy needs of others while having less control over their food production.


The EU is promoting the use of agrofuels, both through subsidising them in Europe and by directing foreign aid into the production of agrofuels in the Tropics. This is because the EU’s own agrofuel crops are insufficient to meet its energy needs.

Globally, food prices are going up, partially due to the rise in agrofuel monocultures. Changes in land use and increased demand for crops means that people’s food needs are now in competition with fuelling vehicles.

The violent expulsion of farmers and the destruction of forests to make way for palm plantations is not unique to Colombia. It is a global problem with similar situations occuring in Indonesia and other parts of the world. This has a major impact on climate change as more rainforests are cut down and peatland dried out. Even so-called ‘sustainable’ sources contribute to this effect by increasing the demand for land.

What you can do

A strong grassroots movement against agrofuels is needed. One with the power to stop the policies which are devastating communities and the environment in countries such as Colombia, and which are making climate change worse.

We also need a drastic reduction in our energy use, particularly car travel and aviation, as well as high mandatory fuel efficiency standards.

To organise a public meeting to educate people about agrofuels, contact info@biofuelwatch.org.uk for speakers and videos. Visit www.biofuelwatch.org.uk to sign up to action alerts and campaign news, and to take part in letter-writing campaigns. Discuss what you have learnt with your friends and family.

Espacio also invites volunteers to help with our work supporting communities and social organisations facing violence in the context of agrofuels and other damaging projects in Colombia. See www.espacio.org.uk to find out what you can do to support Colombians.



Pretty much everything we consume involves the use of oil. As the more accessible oil fields dry up, others are explored with higher environmental and social costs.

Colombia, with its violent civil conflict, is one of the many countries where the social costs of the oil industry are high.

BP has been present in Casanare, Colombia since the 1980s. In 1996, BP was exposed in the British media for funding a Colombian army brigade notorious for human rights abuses and links with paramilitary death squads.

Although in the wake of the scandal BP signed up to non-binding Corporate Social Responsibility guidelines, people living on land strategic for oil exploration and activists protesting against the company’s activities continue to be murdered.


Oswaldo Vargas was one of the social leaders whose opposition to BP cost him his life. Oswaldo was involved in a demonstration against BP’s failure to comply with agreements made with the community regarding social investment.

Shortly afterwards, several members of ACDAINSO, the community organisation Oswaldo was part of, were threatened, including threats telling them to “stop messing with BP”. Then, on September 2nd 2004, when Oswaldo arrived home from a meeting with BP, two men shot him dead in front of his young son.

After further threats, two murders and one attempted murder of other community activists, members of ACDAINSO decided to close down the organisation.

The previous year Jorge Guzmán, who was responsible for BP’s community relations had stated that he was “tired of ACDAINSO”. This problem had now disappeared.


Other oil companies in Casanare also benefit from the violent suppression of the local population.

The Colombian army’s 16th Brigade arrived in Recetor in December 2002. The following month paramilitaries (illegal groups linked to the state) entered the area and were seen meeting with soldiers.

In February the disappearances started. The paramilitaries collected people ‘for interviews’, but around sixty people never returned home. The climate of fear meant that many of these disappearances have not been reported, but two mass graves have been found.

With the town’s teacher, doctor, various students and community leaders disappeared, the social cohesion of the area was destroyed and it was unlikely that local residents would complain about poor employment and environmental standards.

Shortly afterwards, the Brazilian oil company Petrobras arrived in the area and began to explore for oil. Local paramilitary leader ‘Salomón’ has stated that these acts had the objective of clearing the way for oil exploration.


National paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso has stated to the Colombian prosecutor’s office that all the oil companies in Casanare made contributions to his group, the AUC (United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia). Some have been accused of complicity in human rights abuses, such as Occidental Petroleum and the Santo Domingo massacre.

Meanwhile, 47% of Colombia’s population live below the poverty line. Although the country is rich in many natural resources, the involvement of multinational corporations means that local people do not benefit. Instead they watch the wealth of their region being taken out of the country.

The move towards companies signing up to voluntary codes of conduct has been a move away from binding legislation. The oil industry has actively sought and obtained changes in Colombian legislation in order to make more profit with fewer social and environmental ------obligations.


Colombia's case is by no means isolated. Similar abuses happen in other oil-rich countries, maximising company profits while fulfilling our demand for energy.

For example, through its Tangguh gas project, BP is underwriting Indonesia’s military occupation of West Papua - where a sixth of the population has been killed.

BP and other companies have been lobbying hard in Iraq and working with the US and UK forces to break into fields previously held in public ownership. Despite massive opposition and the likelihood of intensifying conflict, BP is in the process of signing a contract for development of the super-giant Rumaila field.

BP’s global operations have an enormous impact on driving climate change. The emissions resulting from the oil and gas the company extracts are equivalent to 5% of global greenhouse gases from fossil fuel consumption – twice that of the UK.

What you can do

Twin with a threatened activist or community member in Casanare through the Pen-Pal Protection Plan that Espacio is coordinating with the Colombian organisation COS-PACC. For more information see www.espacio.org.uk.

Help create safe spaces for sustainable alternatives by volunteering in Colombia. This provides protective accompaniment to those resisting the take over of their lands and resources by multinational corporations. See www.espacio.org.uk.

Free West Papua: UK-based campaign led by exiled West Papuans, campaigning to stop Indonesia’s occupation of their country and BP's part in it. www.freewestpapua.org

Baku Ceyhan Campaign: Campaign highlighting the impacts of BP’s $4 billion pipeline through Azerbaijan, Georgia & Turkey, including escalated local conflict, corrosion and loss of livelihoods. www.baku.org.uk
Hands Off Iraqi Oil is a UK coalition opposing foreign exploitation of Iraq’s oil reserves. It uncovers UK government pressure backing BP’s demands for lucrative contracts.

Campaigns on BP involvement in Canadian tar sands - highly polluting fuels that emit 3-5 times the CO2 of crude oil.

PLATFORM campaigns on BP’s role in Iraq, tar sands, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline and elsewhere.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Drummond coal kitchen workers' strike

My friend is out in Colombia at the moment, blogging away. She's just been helping out at a strike of kitchen workers at a coal mine. Before the strike started (which they won two-year direct contracts from, but no improvements in wages or conditions as yet), she wrote this report about their lives, which I thought was very worth a read.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

A rant about nationalism

I'm just back, all fired up, from the counter-demo to the 'Support Israel' rally.

Part of me knew it would be a horrible confrontation, of people shouting and not listening, that mirrored the Israel-Palestine conflict in a depressing way. But I wanted to go because I wanted there to be a 'Jews for Justice for Palestinians' presence.

I wanted to show that not all Jews support Israel, especially not when it chooses to bomb densely populated areas and kill hundreds of human beings. I wanted people on the pro-Palestinian side to see this wasn't a Muslim-Jewish thing. And I also hoped to be able to challenge those that were supporting Israel, to spend a moment thinking about what they were actually supporting.

So I covered some cardboard with old flipchart paper, and made placards that said
"So you support shooting at ambulances?"
"You support using cluster bombs? Depleted uranium? White phosphorus?"
and "An eye for an eyelash?"

I hoped this might provoke some thought, though I was aware many people's responses would be
"Well, yes, when they are carrying terrorists"
"The IDF denied use of white phosphorus today"
and "Terrorism must be stopped"

If I ran the world, the counter demo would have been full of moral and challenging placards, and maybe we could have done a lot of dignified staring. It's not my world, and so I had to listen to all my least favourite chants until I couldn't stand any more nationalism and had to leave.

When I first arrived, I was pleased that 'our side' had a loudspeaker. I liked the sense of strength. And I liked not having to listen to any pro-Israel nationalism which I'm sure I would have found even more upsetting.

I understand that these chants serve a purpose. To make people feel unified and strong. To help release anger. And I could deconstruct the words of each one in a way I'm comfortable with.

"Stop the killing. Stop the hate. Israel is a terrorist state."

Well, if you define terrorist as 'deliberately targeting civilians to achieve objectives through fear', having been to Palestine, I would say that people's experiences definitely, definitely show that that is happening. Though the counter argument is that civilian casualties are merely collateral, and not deliberate like a suicide bomber's target. I'd say this shows an ignorance of the IDF's actual behaviour on the ground.

"Israel is a racist state."

Well, technically, it does have a fairly different set of laws for one ethnic group, so yep.

"From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free."

Palestinian citizens of 1948-Israel are second class citizens, and have a different set of laws that apply to them. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are stateless and occupied. I'd love them all to be free and live with equal rights to everyone else from the river to the sea. And if some of them want to refer to the land they are in as 'Palestine'. Fine. But god I HATE this chant. When I was more active in this issue, I heard a lot from Israelis "But they want to drive us into the sea. We are protecting ourselves. We have a right to be here." And I would say, "Honestly, go meet them. They don't think that. They just want justice and equal rights and then this can be a small blip on the thousands of years of history where Jews and Arabs have mostly peacefully coexisted (when you weren't nicking their land and trying to dominate them.)"

How much does that chant undermine my argument? I hate that chant enough when it's not directed at a 'Support Israel' audience. Why can't people think through the helpfulness of their actions?

But at the top of my 'Least Favourite Chants' countdown, is
"Down, down Israel."
Again, I can kinda get behind the concept, given I'd also like to tell Israel off for its naughty slaughtering behaviour. But I had a clear concept of how a big group of British Muslims with keffyahs worn as headbands chanting that, would appear to people who believed that Israel is under threat and needs supporting.

What use is nationalism? What use is identifying with one group of people, and deciding they are worth more or more deserving of life and security than any other group? I know it's a little clichéd, but really, can't the discourse focus on being pro-human rights and pro-justice rather than pro some nonsense nationalist identity, when we're all humans together?

One term I don't like though is 'pro peace'. The 'Support Israel' rally did get some points for its 'Peace for the people of Israel and Gaza' placards, but I question what peace is meant by the people actively supporting Gaza being bombed. My experience is that 'peace' for Israelis generally means 'You stop killing us, and we'll all be fine.'

New research shows that when Palestinians stop killing Israelis, that doesn't stop Palestinians from getting killed.
And 'peace' for Palestinians is not about an absence of fighting. For Gazans it has been about ending the blockade, and it's also about getting justice for the Nabka, for land thefts, for false imprisonments, for deaths, for injuries and for so much more.

Peace cannot come about through more bombings. It'll come one day. But it'll need a whole lot of listening and reparations.

One chant from today I liked: "What do we want? Justice? When do we want it? Now?"

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Indonesian villagers need your support

The village of Suluk Bongkal has just been attacked by the Indonesian state and by a subsidiary of a palm oil plantation company. You can go here to sign a letter and see how to do more. Here's a quote from that website:

The village of Suluk Bongkal was attacked by the police and by over 500 paramilitaries, armed with fire-arms and tear gas. A helicopter dropped incendiary devices which eye witnesses reported contained napalm. Although the nature of the bombs has not yet been confirmed, hundreds of houses immediately went up in flames. Two toddlers were killed, 400 villagers fled into the forest. Others were detained and 58 people remain in the village, under enormous psychological pressure and cut off from the outside. On 20th December, a helicopter dropped stones on tents set up by refugees from the village.

The violence is linked to Sinar Mas, one of the largest pulp and paper and palm oil plantation companies in Indonesia. This particular plantation belongs to Sinar Mas subsidiary Asia Pulp and Paper (APP), which reportedly owns the helicopter used in the attacks.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Deary me. It has been a long time. I got some abusive posts today about how smug I'd been in this post. I actually meant to come across embarrassed and ashamed, but obviously I hadn't managed.

Anyway, it meant that I then went and had a look at my stats to see where they'd come from. Turns out they'd googled 'the sun gotcha t shirt', so not surprising they didn't like my politics.

And that meant I noticed a surprising amount of people are still accessing my blog. So I'm prodded to write some more.

I'm still intending to write some more about what I learnt in Colombia (I say that now, so Paul can take the piss some more if I haven't by the next time I see him.)

In the meantime, I'd like to suggest you all watch this, which I've found to be an educational and an inspiration.

This also made a lot of sense to me.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Ingrid etc

If you've wandered in looking for an analysis of the Ingrid Betancourt etc rescue, you're better off going here or here.

Friday, June 27, 2008

The Voyage Home

[I may be back in the UK, but I have four more half-written pieces which I'll be posting up over the next month or so, so do come back.]

This ship is way, way bigger and way way friendlier than the first. It now occurs to me that the captain of the last vessel was maybe a bit depressed, which led to the less-than-joyful atmosphere on board. This captain's loads more cheerful. He gave us a barbecue & party which I understand is more common ship behaviour than not to have one like last time. After the meal, the captain and the three oldish German passengers left. I chatted with the Russians and Ukrainians on my table until I got bored of the sexual innuendo (not long), and then went to hang out with the Filipinos. I know I wouldn't want to spend an evening being the only woman drinking and dancing with a bunch of Colombian men, so it was like a breath of fresh air being in such a surprisingly unsexually-charged atmosphere. Everyone so polite and respectful. Marvellous.

The ship has the capacity to carry 2100 containers, including 350 refrigerated. Both the captain and chief mate said they took no interest in what was inside them, they just knew there were some avocados.

This ship can burns to 90 metric tonnes of fuel per day. A lot, huh? For those about to suggest that it doesn't sound any more environmentally friendly than aeroplanes, my response is that if there were no passengers, the cargo ships would still go. The increase in demand for air travel has a direct effect on the amount of planes in our skies. What affects freight transport is how much stuff we buy.

A thousand pounds for the ticket seems like a crazy amount to me, and was far, far crazier to all the Colombian taxi drivers who asked me about it (the last one did a satisfying amount of incredulous thigh-slapping during the conversation). But if you consider the fuel costs around 600 dollars a tonne, and that merely going through the Panama Canal costs 120 000 dollars for a vessel this size, given the paperwork and hassle involved, it's not surprising that most vessels do not bother to take passengers.

My favourite fact about the boat is that the seven Ukrainian and three Russian staff only have three names between them (3 Sergeys, 3 Igors and 4 Oleksandrs). The ten Filipinos get a name each.

[Photos of the BBQ courtesy of one of the Oleksandrs. The only Ukrainian on board who spoke Ukrainian.]

Monday, June 16, 2008

The story of the land won

The new Colombian constitution in 1991 gave black and indigenous communities a cool new load of rights. They can now claim collective land rights for land their communities had historically inhabited. Plus they have the right to be consulted before any state or private projects which affect them.

Even if they are not on their land, merely nearby, palm monocultures affect the local population due to the environmental degradation they cause. Deforestation means a loss of fauna, and water sources are polluted or dry out from overuse. In this case, the two oil palm companies were indeed setting up on land which afro-colombians were forcibly displaced from.

Therefore they had a strong enough case. Not that that made it particularly easy to win. It took a good few years, and a lot of help from a particularly wonderful civil servant, but eventually they got a resolution giving them the legal rights to all 2900 ha of it.

That was the story I had heard so far. And where were they now? Well, disappointingly, not much further. The legal resolution giving them the land neither spells out the land's boundaries, nor a timeframe for the palm companies to vacate it. They are still there. The oil palm (the proportion not yet killed by bud rot – perhaps half) is at it's most productive stage. They are in no hurry to go.

When the afro-colombian community had lived there, they had no legal title to the land. The state considered it theirs, and were happy enough to let the palm companies in. Now the state has legally handed it back to the afro-colombians, it is taking no responsibility for getting the palm companies to leave. Given that it generally takes power and money to get things moving here, it's not currently clear what the community can do. Granted, evicting squatters is generally a civil matter. It's just that normally the state haven't helped them break in.

Squatting is one of the biggest problems these communities on collective land titles are facing. It may be difficult to evict palm companies with government officials in their pockets and links to paramilitaries. It is equally difficult to ask the coca growing drug-traffickers to leave nicely.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Where palm helped the poor... for a while

[In a few hours I'm off to get on my cargo boat. It's been quite a rush this week, as the boat is leaving three days earlier than the original schedule. (When you sign up for a trip, it is made clear that this might happen.) I'll be writing more on this story when at sea, and I may get to post it if the Dominican Republic stop is in the day and I have enough time to go swimming too. Back in UK around 27th June.]

I have been chasing a story for the comic book my organisation is creating about Colombia. We hope it'll be like the brilliant Joe Sacco's Palestine and will explain the history and issues of this country in a readable and digestible way. Chapters will be about stuff like the murder of Coca Cola worker Isidro Gil, and the social effects of the cocaine trade.

Obviously there is a bit of a bias towards stories about people getting killed by the state and paramilitaries, as that does tend to happen a lot here. So I was hoping to find a feel-good story for a section on agrofuels.

I heard about a case where an afro-colombian community had won 2900 hectares of their land back from two palm companies. The person who first told me about it didn't know what the current situation was: whether the community was going to keep the valuable palm on their land and sell the companies the fruit, or whether they would uproot it. The next person I went to for details didn't know either, and said I would have to ask them.

So I travelled south on a two-day bus journey, to Tumaco in Nariño. It took a little while to warm to the bloke from the community which had won the land. I found it quite difficult to extract information from him, especially the details needed to bring a story to life. He was not a man for detail. When he took us from Tumaco town to a village on his community's land, and I asked him “Who are we seeing next?” he replied, “A colleague.” Really not an ideal interview candidate.

Luckily, all the people who gathered round us in the cafe in that village were easier to engage.

There has been oil palm in that area for the last 25 years so the five farmers we met were second generation palm growers. They are still in debt though, as they had to replace the original palm trees. Palm had been good to them until recently. They were probably the first campensinos I had met who were putting their children through university. I was struck by how much on this trip I heard people talk about how their basic needs are not being met. Drinking water. Healthcare. Education. But for these farmers, the income generated by oil palm had made a big difference to their standard of living and quality of life.

Until recently. But here in Tumaco I saw first hand the way that monocultures are vulnerable to disease. Bud rot is decimating the oil palm population. I saw large areas where affected palm had been felled. I was told the yellow leaves on much of the palm that remained, meant those trees were also dying.

This is devastating to the campesinos who grow palm. All those we met were affected. Mostly with 100% of their palm dead or dying. They will have no income until the first harvest of whatever crop they next plant. In the meantime they will have to take their children out of university. And do lots of worrying about their debts.

When I was in Regidor being taken around the countryside to interview people about palm, I felt good that my guide, president of the Movement of Landless Campesinos, could also use my trips to network and build up his organisation.

My guide this time had just been to a seminar about 'piñon' the next agrofuels monoculture idea which could replace the dead palm. These farmers were desperate to know what they can do next. One is planting a bit of cocoa. Another said it was not worth the hassle as the crop is so easy to steal. Growing food crops is just not profitable enough due to transport costs. Yes, it leads to greater food sovereignty. But as someone told me, you still have to buy salt. (And pay for your children's school fees. And healthcare. Clothes are also useful.)

The new agrofuels idea appears to be one of the few choices they have which will meet their basic needs. The other being a supposedly bud rot resistant new variety of palm which costs three times more than the last variety did.

In Colombia I’ve heard mention of ‘planes de vida’ (‘life plans’) a fair bit. This is distinct from the more familiar term ‘local development plans’ as they reflect the fact that people here are questioning what is meant by ‘development’. ‘Planes de vida’ involve planning with local communities what changes they want which better reflect their values. This afro-colombian community is one of those which use the term, and yet they are stuck within an economic system where choices seem limited and leave them vulnerable to crop diseases and to fluctuations in international commodity prices.

Monday, June 9, 2008

For those in/near London

I was asked to forward this. It all sounds pretty interesting, but of particular note is the June 19th showing about displacement in the Choco region of Colombia. Much of the reason people have had to leave their land in this area has been the growth of oil palm.

Refuge In films 2008
Refuge In Films Festival 20th – 22nd June 2008

Contact: Beatriz Villate +44 (0) 7903 494 703. E-mail: refugeinfilms @ gmail.com


For the second year running, Nueva Generation presents Refuge in Films, a film festival dedicated to raising awareness about refugee and migrant issues. In 2008, the festival is being entirely developed by a group of young people. By giving a voice to young refugees, the festival will address issues of representation of refugees and migrants in the film industry and will be a space of celebration, contributing to a more tolerant society.

The festival has been curated by a group of young people from New Generation and RefugeeYouth that come from different countries: Colombia, Somalia, Ethiopia, Iraq, Eritrea, Zambia, Congo, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Palestine, Kosovo, Algeria, Angola, Guinea, Mauritius, Bangladesh, Italy, Spain, France and England. They met fortnightly over four months to watch films and discuss the pictures from different angles and came up with an amazing programme soon to be published!

Refuge in Films 2008 has developed a Film Challenge in which young people have produced short films about immigration and refuge in collaboration with WorldWRITE and Grain Media. Young people aged between 15-25 years old have produced three films that are to be shown during the festival.


Refuge in Films 2008 will have a preview on the 19th of June in Casa Latino Americana, Kilburn presenting a trilogy of the Colombian anthropologist Marta Rodriguez about displacement in the Choco Region of Colombia.

The grand opening of Refuge in Films 2008 will take place on Friday the 20th of June in Poplar, at the St. Nicholas Church Hall, where young people from New Generation, RefugeeYouth and Leaders In Community are getting together to enjoy a night of celebration and the screening "Sling Shots Hip Hop" 2007 (Sundance Film Festival 2008) by Jackie Reem Saloom. The film will be followed by a musical performance created by young people based on the film. It will be a night in which young people form different communities in London will get together to share their diversity.

During Saturday 21st and Sunday 22nd June, Refuge in Films will present a programme of films at the British Film Institute on the Southbank and alongside the films there will be different visual workshops for young people at the BFI Southbank's Delegate Centre. On Sunday 22nd we are screening "The Lighthouse" By Mariaa Sakyan 2005, (London film festival 2007) in NFT1. This screening will be part of the programme of the BFI Southbank for June.

In addition at the Tricycle Theatre, on Saturday the 21st June at 4pm, in partnership with Sandblast we are presenting "Sahara is Not for Sale" (2007) by Luis Arellano and Joaquin Calderon, at the Tricycle theatre in Kilburn. And on Sunday the 22nd Sling Shoots Hip Hop 2007 by Jakie Reem Saloom, will also be shown.

Refuge in Films has been invited to screen some films at the launch of Refuge Week Wales at the Riverfront Arts Centre, Bristol Packet Wharf, Newport South Wales on Saturday 14th June. We are presenting three short films, produced by young people: The more the Merrier (2008), Being Roma or Die Trying (2005) and A Road in My Life (2007) plus the films produced on the film Challenge.

British Film Institute, BFI South bank Belvedere Road, South Bank, London SE1 8XT
Tricycle: 269 KILBURN HIGH ROAD, NW6 7JR
Casa Latinoamericana: Priory House, Kingsgate Place, NW6 4TA
St Nicholas Church Hall, Aberfeldy Street London, E14 0NU

Saturday, May 31, 2008

No riot for the nuns

I went to see the cool nuns again. They were even more bright-eyed and sparky talking about the strike in Yarima they are now supporting, than when they had recounted being in a riot with the strikers of Puerto Wilches.

Yarima is a corregimiento [district of a municipality which includes a village of the same name and smaller outlying villages] in San Vicente in the department of Santander. It's fairly near Puerto Wilches, where people were giving their own strike credit for inspiring this new one.

The nuns were liking how the Yarima strike is lots more organised than the Puerto Wilches one. This is easier as it's a much smaller community and people all know each other. They have an evaluation meeting at the end of each day to look at what they could do better. (I really like the sound of that myself.)

There has been a great sense of solidarity from the area. Yarima has a big advantage over Puerto Wilches in that oil palm is newer, and it is not as widespread. This means more countryside left for sympathetic farmers to grow useful stuff, like food. When these farmers pass by,they leave the odd sack of corn or yucca or half a dead cow.

The strikers said they are actually eating better now than they did when they were working. Now the wonderful generosity of the local farmers mean they get three hot meals a day, and there has even been food left over. When they were working in the fields, their food would be cold, less frequent, and less of it.

Being well-fed is great, but the cash they are lacking after forty days of striking certainly does not mean their lives are now easier. They have no money to pay for their rent, for any medicines their family need, or for their children's schooling. Many can no longer make the down payments on their motorbikes, which will leave them without transport.

According to the nuns, the strikers' policy has been to block the roads to any vehicles connected with coal, palm, oil or rubber, and letting all other vehicles pass. The idea of targeting other industries was to put pressure on the government to help move on the negotiations.

The strike hit the national news early on, as the president of the oil workers' union (USO) Jorge Gamboa Cabellero suffered an assassination attempt while visiting the strikers. That's how it was reported in the press anyway. The nuns made it sound less certain. Whether the two armed infiltrators who had been taking photos of the crowd were actually intending to kill USO's president as they moved towards him, I'm sure we will never know. The crowd at the time were fairly convinced, swiftly surrounding the men and disarming them. Jorge Gamboa says he owes them his life.

The palm workers were originally striking to demand better working conditions, similar to the situation in Puerto Wilches. Their main demands were for:
1) the system of employment through cooperatives to be abolished and the companies to employ their workers directly, complying with their legal responsibilities such as social security payments
2) a rise in pay which has been frozen for years.

Below Google & I have translated part of the background information they gave with their list of demands. [I recommended Google translator if you interested in reading any of these Spanish links in English.]

Because the palm companies had still not responded to the workers' demands, three days ago the local community called a civic strike in solidarity. This has widened out the issues, making links to other local problems, such as the degradation of both the environment and infrastructure (eg roads) caused by the companies taking natural resources from the area. The health centre is in a state of utter disrepair, and the community notes how wealth is being extracted from their territory while their circumstances are getting worse.

The Governor of Santander visited yesterday. He made some agreements with regard to social investment, but nothing relating to improving the palm workers' conditions.

When I started writing this, I named it 'No riot for the nuns', but since then I've learnt that the riot police turned up this morning and there was a confrontation. Tear gas. Rubber bullets. Two thousand people. Fifteen injuries. People seeking refuge in the church (pictured). But let's presume the violence was all one sided and it wasn't a 'riot'. And I don't think the nuns were necessarily there. So please excuse me for not thinking up another title.

If anyone would like to email me a message of solidarity (by posting a comment), I can send it on to the nuns and they can take it to the strikers. If it's in English, make it shortish and I'll translate. I'm sure it would mean a lot to the strikers to know people are thinking of them.

Workers' List of Demands: Background

[The first paragraph deals with the change of land use since palm arrived in the area in 1985 and how this led to land theft, forced displacement, and people's conversion from farmers to palm labourers, working on the same land previously belonging to their families. Then it discusses how labour rights have degenerated over time, especially with the formation of workers' cooperatives.]

Today, the outlook for our community and our workers is dark. We watch as the environment deteriorates from the aggressiveness of crops that do not respect the rivers, streams or gullies. The indiscriminate felling of forests has brought us serious problems of erosion and the destruction of water sources, with disastrous consequences for the extinction of flora and fauna. Autonomy and food security have been lost as we have gone from being the food pantry of Magdalena Medio to consumers of traditional products brought in from other regions such as yucca, corn, plantain, fruit, and meat and milk derivatives that we previously produced. These are required for our nourishment and that of our children. In addition, we now have to pay the extra costs for transporting these foods.

The cultivation of palm throughout these 20 years has only generated the unbridled exploitation of our workforce and our land, without any compensation apart from the miserable wages we earn. The long hours of work only serve to line the pockets of the executives at the expense of the suffering of our people. We watch as our men and women hand over their youth, health and even life in this work, without seeing any improvement in their quality of life as was promised at the start of this project. The technical and technological training did not happen, the social investment did not happen, and neither did the decent work with fair working conditions which we inhabitants of this region deserve, as the owners and generators of so much wealth.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Responses to 'Fiercely disappointed'

I'm grateful for having wise friends who responded to my last blog in ways that moved on my thinking.

From a friend with Pakistani heritage:

i wonder if you are judging the organisation too harshly - not in terms of their patriarchal and class hierarchy, but i think what the manager says is fair. In the wider social setting - doing the work that the women in the canteen do - they probably would have a lot less "pay" for longer hours (i am guessing). The fact that they work half a day (by local standards) enables them to work elsewhere also. Working many jobs is not uncommon in developing countries. I have a cousin who works 5 jobs. He leaves home at 6am and returns at between 1-2am. 7 days a week. Its not living as we would like to think of it - but the reality for the majority of the world.

I guess i am saying be careful not to judge people by your own standards of living...


From a friend who works for a labour rights NGO:

I would say that you should definitely NOT talk to funders, at least not until you have actually spoken to the workers themselves to see if they actually want you to crusade on their behalf.

Writing to funders could have several consequences: one is that they decide to up their funding to ensure a minimum wage is paid, more likely they will either ignore it or possibly pull funding. their funders are likely to react to an international observer contacting them as a potential PR issue, and defensiveness is very often the approach.

I know it's disappointing - we want the groups we work with to replicate the justice they are calling for in their own structures, but this is often not the case. You need to look at an issue as a whole - where would the extra money come from - higher fees for food, more funding (from where?), from cutting the number of staff? Are staff at higher levels paid really high wages and could they take a pay cut to ensure minimum wage for canteen staff?

As you said in the email while they are discontent with their salaries they also feel some sense of ownership over the project, and maybe they feel that they are willing to work on a semi voluntary basis. This is where the real difference between the palm companies and the social group lies. People are often willing to make sacrifices for something they believe is for the good of themselves and their families, but why should they do the same for a multi national company that doesn't give a shot about anything but extracting the maximum profit they can.

So I would say that the only thing to do for now is try to have this discussion with workers themselves, but you need to understand the financial workings of the organisation too. In that way you can hear if they have their concerns or demands and provide them the information they might need themselves to push for higher wages. If they want to do that, then maybe you can have a role in supporting and facilitating this process. Social justice is often not just a matter of numbers, but a matter or process. If workers can speak to their managers and raise their issues, and more importantly their concerns can get heard, then that's really what's important. I would say this is where you might have a role. But be careful of taking actions that could really make things worse, and make sure that if you do take action in solidarity, it is based on the wishes of those you are showing solidarity with and not on disappointment with reality or simple outrage at injustice.

Hope that helps - sorry if I misunderstood and you've already done these things.


I had the following reactions to my friends' emails:

- Primarily I've been worrying about how much sleep my friend's cousin gets.

- I agree I was judging the organisation by my standards and the ideal that people should at least be paid the minimum wage. The reality is that even the state doesn't pay all its workers the minimum wage. I guess the economy as it is just doesn't support it.

- I've transferred some of my anger at the injustice in this organisation, to the injustice out in the world in general. Seems fairer not to just pick on them. These same problems are everywhere. Actually this organisation has a reputation for walking the talk more than most. At least it includes its beneficiaries in its structure, and meets with them. Unlike many of the more paternalistic NGOs here, which spend their time meeting with other NGOs.

- I was quite amused/shocked to realise that while I had spoken to a few of the coordinators about this, I never spoke to a single cook about anything at all. We generally just smiled shyly at each other. Various reasons for barriers - class, communication, confidence... So I would have been making that classic mistake of speaking out on behalf of people who hadn't asked me to. Which led me to feel compassion and empathy for the managers cos this behaviour is unfortunately normal and I'm no angel either.

- From what I know of the people concerned, writing to the managers is unlikely to bring about anything positive. And writing to funders is very risky as well as inappropriate. Given I have now left the area so I can't go back and talk to the cooks, I conclude it's better for me to accept there are some things I have no power to change.