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 @


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.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Fiercely disappointed

For the last month I've been accompanying a women's organisation, while they have been helping me talk to people about agrofuels.

This accompaniment has involved visiting their various comedores populares (canteens in working class areas) and being a visible foreigner there, and going with the coordinators when they visit the working class districts.

This is an organisation which has had three workers murdered by paramilitaries, and an enormous catalogue of threats and harassments made against members.

The solidarity provided by international accompaniment helps to decrease their sense of isolation as well as increase their reputation as an organisation with international support, so the state and the paramilitaries are less likely to mess with them.

The canteens were set up as a service to the community. They provide very cheap lunches for 2000 pesos (58p). I've been round a fair few of them now, and I generally ask how many people eat there – which ranges from 40 to a bit over a hundred – and then I do some mental arithmetic and worry about their finances.

Until it stopped in 2004, they got subsidies from the UN World Food Programme. Currently the coordinator's post is paid by core funding, and the two cooks' wages and all other costs are meant to be covered by the canteen's income.

So I would sit there calculating... 40 meals at 2000... say if the cooks got paid 40 000 (the daily wage of manual labourers in Villa Elvira)... that leaves absolutely nothing for food, electricity, water or rent. No wonder they are getting into debt.

I don't know why it's taken me so long to find out what the wages actually are. But after all this time I've been whinging on about how badly the palm companies pay their employees, I am fiercely disappointed to discover that the social organisation I'm working with, the one that's fighting for social justice, PAYS ITS COOKS LESS THAN A THIRD OF THE MINIMUM WAGE!!! 150 000 pesos (£43). Less than 5000 (£1.40) per day. For cooking, cleaning and washing up from 6am to 2pm, six days a week.

Many of the cooks are single mothers. Is there at least a policy of letting their dependants eat for free? Afraid not.

At least the palm companies almost pay the minimum wage. Although, as in many countries, the minimum wage is not the same as a living wage that actually covers basic costs.

I had already been a bit disappointed in how hierarchical the organisation was, and how firmly class determines who has the power. Not for the first time I am glad my accompaniment organisation is one which sees its role as solidarity not neutrality, giving us the freedom to question and challenge. So I wasn't stepping out of line by asking, “What do you think might happen if there was a strike to demand the minimum wage for the cooks?”

I was told that at a recent assembly, when the upper echelons were off agenda setting, those left discussed the fact they hadn't been paid for 2 months. They joked about a strike, but concluded that that would be like striking against themselves. Nice that they have such a strong sense of ownership.

I talked with one of the coordinators about decision making in the organisation. We discussed how there is no culture in Colombia of giving constructive criticism to your friends. Only of criticising your enemies. People aren't used to learning from feedback. She said that although they talk about working conditions and pay among themselves, it is not a discussion they have had with those who make the decisions. The comment that they 'lack the tools' for this discussion, given they don't understand how the organisation's finances work, particularly depressed me.

It really is so easy to replicate the same unjust systems we fight against. They may be doing their best (One of the managers I've met is extremely dedicated and committed. Most days she leaves the house at 6am and returns at 8 or 9pm. And then sometimes goes out again for a meeting. Plus working weekends with no concept of TOIL. Way harder than I'd ever work) and have some great results in terms of empowering women in general. But they lack some basic social justice within their organisation.

So although there is no culture of constructive criticism here, and although I am aware of my tendency to put my foot in it, I hope I shall be brave enough to talk to management about how paying less than a third of the minimum wage is, well, wrong. No matter how their finances work.


Update: I did ask the coordinator about how come they pay so little. I was told that it they don't pay 'wages' because they are not a company, they are a social organisation. The money is a 'contribution'. I suggested it was difficult to survive on 150 000 pesos. She explained that it's not meant for people to survive on. They are free from 2pm to do other work. They cannot be responsible for people's economic welfare.

I've been reflecting a bit on how justification can be an ugly thing. And that exploiting your volunteers and having issues around decision-making, power and class are problems common to many NGOs.

I'm taking advice on my next move. I'd like to write to their funders, if I can be confident it would have a positive effect.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Solidarity raises your wages

When I spoke to the nuns just after the palmworkers strike in Puerto Wilches ended in February, they were upbeat about having been in a riot, but they painted a pretty dismal picture of what the 30 day strike had achieved. Despite the fact that it got so much solidarity and support from locals, nationals and internationals.

I have been staying in Puerto Wilches for the last two weeks, with intention of finding out what had happened since. It's horribly hot here, which made me ill and then took away my motivation to do anything that isn't sleeping.

So I've given myself a deadline to get the interviews done so that I can leave and go live somewhere cooler, with a better mattress less overrun by biting ants, and which I don't have to share with an 8 year old boy when more family come to stay, who's in the habit of kicking me in the face throughout the night.

After an eleven hour sleep, (which seems a lot even for me), I got myself up this morning with some determination to go find some people to interview.

Since then, things have been going surprisingly smoothly. We asked around for the bloke who was one of the leaders of the strike. Shortly after, he turned up where I was staying. And rather than listening to the tale of woe I had been expecting about the strike achieving nothing but an increase in repression, the word 'triumph' was repeatedly used.

Before the strike, those working indirectly for the palm company Monterrey through cooperatives (set up and controlled by the company so they can avoid various legal requirements such as paying for social security) got fined like this:

  • 6000 pesos (£1.70) for each seed bunch they cut down which had less than five seeds fallen loose – ie was not considered ripe enough.
  • 6000 pesos for each seed bunch left uncut with more than five seeds which have fallen loose – ie too ripe, although it may have ripened in the time between the worker passing the palm and the supervisor checking it.
  • 3000 pesos for each kilo of seeds found on the ground below the palm trees.
  • 6000 pesos for each seed bunch cut down by one worker, but left behind by another instead of loaded onto the cart.
  • 2000 pesos for each seed bunch stalk cut more than 2 cm long.

So basically there were four or five things you can get wrong every time you cut down a seed bunch from 2 metres above your head.

These fines ate into the wages of the workers, along with having to pay for overpriced tools, transport, raw materials and social security payments. A healthy-looking 700 000 pesos (£200) monthly wage therefore shrunk to 250 000 (£70) take-home pay: just over half the legal minimum wage.

To give you some idea of the purchasing power of 250 000 per month, consider that's just over 8000 pesos (£2.30) a day. Consider the palm worker may well be the only wage earner in the family. Consider people here tend to have a lot of children (5 or 6 is the average number).

Some common costs

Lunch: 4000 pesos.
An exercise book (and each schoolchild needs about 15 in a year) 1000 pesos.
A pen: 700 pesos.
School uniform: 50 000 pesos.
School sports uniform: 34 000 pesos.
School annual enrolment (eighth grade): 80 000 pesos.
Rent: 150 000 pesos per month for a two-bedroom house.

ie, A pen or an exercise book is an hour's wage. Lunch is half a day's work.

Food costs

Due to the 47 000 ha of oil palm here in the municipality of Puerto Wilches (about a third of the rural land) not leaving much space for food crops, bananas which used to be given away to neighbours for free are now imported from Venezuela or Ecuador.

Transport costs make fruit and veg prices high, which is a source of frustration for people given they live in such a fertile area.

A pound of potatoes: 1200 pesos (35p) in Puerto Wilches, 400 pesos in the nearby city of Bucaramanga.
A pound of tomatoes: 1500 pesos (43p) in Puerto Wilches, 400 in Bucaramanga.
A pound of plantain: 600 pesos (17p) in Puerto Wilches, 250 in Bucaramanga.

The Threats
As for the repression experienced due to the strike, well, it's not as bad as it could have been. Blokey I spoke to was verbally threatened by the police during the strike. He had a fairly exciting story about being shot at and a load of them involving themselves in a motorbike chase where they followed the assailants back to their base at the police-station. They reported it but the police have somehow chosen not to follow it up. There was also a young guy who left town for a month when him and his mum were threatened after his active involvement in the strike. He's back now though.

The Triumphs

For the Monterrey workers:
  • The fine system has changed so the 6000 fines have been reduced to 2500 pesos, half paid by the company and half by the cooperative. The other fines are now 500, also half paid by the company.
  • Workers now are allowed a 3% margin of error before the fines start. Supervisors give you the opportunity to cut the stalk to the right length before a fine is imposed.
  • The tools that had to be bought from the company are now sold much nearer to cost price: roughly half the cost they were.
  • Wages have increased by 28%.
  • There is a review committee of workers and company reps who meet monthly to look at how the fine system is running.
  • The company pays for a full-time consultant to lend expertise to the cooperatives.

All this means that the strike has lead to an increase in income of about 40% for workers in this sector. Up to around minimum wage levels. I think that's quite an impressive triumph.

Plus positive results breed others. This strike has inspired other nearby, which is now on its thirtieth day.

And there are less tangible consequences of over 3000 striking workers coming together every day for a month. A new organisation has started up with a focus on encouraging the cultivation of staple foods. People have a sense of success and unity that's nice to see. Right perked me up it has.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

A tough call

I have had quite a tense couple of weeks trying to work out how I am getting home. Trying to find a yacht owner willing to let me hitch back across the Atlantic was much easier than for the outward journey. Despite my complete lack of sailing experience, there were a few boats who would have had me. (These are the sites I used to look.) Everyone was leaving in the first two weeks of May from either Saint Martin or the Virgin Islands, in the north-east tip of the Caribbean. The dream of swimming, snorkelling and learning a new skill to help future fossil-fuel-free travel meant I adjusted to the idea of leaving four weeks earlier than I had meant to.

However trying to get to any bit of the Caribbean without flying proved too much of a challenge. Strand Travel told me that no cargo ships accepted bookings for such a short leg. Odd given that on my way here a couple had got on in Martinique to travel to Cartagena.

The Cruise People were a bit more helpful and at least found me a 13 day voyage to Jamaica which had already left by the time we spoke. (And they are cheaper than Strand.)

My conscience had seemed quite prepared to do a little flying jump from an island I could get a freighter to, to whatever island a boat was leaving from. It reasoned that such a short flight wouldn't go right up into the stratosphere, where littering CO2 directly to the greenhouse gas blanket is more of a problem than down in the biosphere where it might get recycled into something useful like a tree.

My conscience was less sure about flying all the way there, and even less sure when it learnt there aren't any direct flights and you probably have to go via Miami.

I gave up flying in 1998, and since then have done two return flights to the Middle East for Palestine solidarity work which I considered to have a positive karma debt. One friend told me that given some people fly to work and others fly to Spain every weekend, my decision to fly or not on this one trip is irrelevant and is part of activists' problem of deliberately depriving themselves, which he sees as fundamentalism.

That did slightly convince me for a day. Cos I did really want to go.

Then I spoke to my parents, who sounded disappointed. Dad said, “Well, you've got to do what's right for you”, paraphrasing something George Fox said to William Penn, with the same effect.

Today I've just had to go through it all again, as I got an email from the family I was gagging to sail with, who originally did not have room for me. Now they do. Look at how much fun they're having! Ooomigod. What an incredible way to spend a year of your childhood. Happy happy blond children. And enough of them to make loads of party games viable.

So I looked into flights, squirmed some more, and eventually came back to the same conclusion:

I may regret not taking up this opportunity, but I think I would regret flying more.

For me, making that flight would be like saying that my life and my choices will not make a difference. And I know that they do. I know this because people tell me so. The person who told me I was part of her decision not to fly on holiday to Bolivia, and the person who told me she now flies to Europe less often because of me, have become part of my reason not to fly to the Caribbean.

Obviously all forms of transport I might make my journey on are going anyway, and my decision is pretty abstract and symbolic. But it is a symbolism I find I don’t want to let go of right now.

Although, granted, I may change my mind again tomorrow.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Photos of cute children

Wow, it's been a long time since I last wrote. I have a few partially formed bits I'm working on, but nothing solid enough to post yet. And now my friend Sar says she's been worrying about the quiet, so here are some pictures of cute children to pass the time. The first bloke was my roommate for 5 weeks. Credit to Jess Hurd for the last one.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Snapshots of Regidorian lives

Alberto had been farming some land with no legal protection, so when asked to leave by the landowner, he had no choice but to become yet another landless campesino in the municipality of Regidor, Southern Bolivar.

He has spent the last two weeks clearing some land next to a road. He intends to plant food crops such as corn and yucca. It is owned by an oil company as it has a pipeline beneath it, and although he could be told to leave it at any point, given that this oil company have tolerated all the others doing the same thing, he is hopeful he might be able to stay there for a few years.

The next time he is moved on, perhaps he will be able to find another disused corner somewhere near enough to walk to. Although in a few years time his food crops will have even more Oil Palm to compete with.

Nicolas paid 7 million pesos (1300 pounds) for some land. Unfortunately, he’d been tricked and the person he had paid wasn't the owner. So he continued in his landless state.

Unlike many I've met in his situation, he was an exceptionally cheery fellow. The disused corner of land he's been farming for the last two years is on a small island. I asked if the owner minded. It turned out the land belonged to the family of the person who had brought me there to meet him. So we can presume he’s safe there for a good while.

This is one of the many, many bits of land I've been shown which now floods in the winter. Two years ago, the water would drain away. Now that a palm company has blocked up the drainage stream so that their own land remains dry, these four hectares owned by Davíd can no longer be used to grow corn. He receives no compensation for the lost harvests which used to bring in around six million pesos (1500 pounds) a year. Like many others have done, he explains to me how the power of the palm companies means no one wants to make a fuss. (Nearby a couple of weeks ago, the army took a man away. People don't know why, but it adds to their general desire to keep quiet.)

This is one of the fifty displaced families living in Regidor. They came two years ago, fleeing paramilitary violence in another area. The husband works for a palm company, earning between 10 000 and 16 000 pesos (2.80-4.50 pounds) for a ten hour day. The wife tells me that palm is the only work he could find, and his social security is not paid so he would like to move to another firm who do pay benefits. His earnings do not cover their costs, and they have a debt of over 200 000 pesos (55 pounds) for food.

None of the displaced families are doing well economically. Due to Oil Palm, land is expensive and there is little available to grow food crops.

Diana and Omaira share our back yard. Diana has physical and learning difficulties and Omaira has a degenerative disease. Neither of them find walking easy. They spend pretty much all day every day sitting in the shade. Diana has her lunch brought to her by her sister's family. Omaira's comes from a niece.

There should be state support for people such as them who need it. But local politics rarely works like that. Here the families of those who actively supported the current Mayor's campaign, get the support they are entitled to. Those who didn't, don't.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

A death threat brings it home

Yesterday, in the office where I'm writing this, my friend turned up with the bit of paper we had known about for days. Such is communication in these parts, the death threat emailed to various recipients on April 4th, had only come to the attention of us in Regidor on the 9th, and we only had it in our hands on the 11th. It turns out the death threat does not list my friend by name, but it is very clearly him referred to as "Leader of Regidor, obstacle to a good municipal government". Drawing on a particular turn of phrase often used by the local mayor.

The threat is addressed to four people (one by name, two by profession and my friend specifically referred to) and various organisations, with the subject "Get out of the Magdalena region".

As it got passed round those who had arrived to read it, I got to witness a scene that must be frequently played out throughout Colombia.

Since hearing about the threat to his life, my friend who previously always seemed so cock-sure and relaxed, now fidgets constantly. As people read the details, they realised that the group as a whole was also included, and the fear spread round the room.

They discussed the fact that the threat was very serious. The consequences that my friend leaving would have on their work. Who would want to get involved now, and risk becoming the next target? Would the micro-credit scheme have to fold? What would that mean to the lives of those with loans? If he left, would the work continue? If he didn't, what were the risks for him? Can a community response be organised to increase everyone's safety?

I listened with a sense of detached and objective interest. I felt pretty sure that their weighing up of risks would be a wise one and that he would leave before anything bad happened to him. So it interested me to watch the effect that words sent in an email a week before could have on a community. The potential for a positive response that would strengthen the community, like what happened after Alejandro Uribe's death. The possibility that this threat-as-opportunity attitude would not win out.

In a way it made me angry and frustrated that it can be so easy to spread such fear. Someone somewhere creates an email account, sends out a threat, and communities are crippled, organisations fall apart.

But I understood too, that this email works because it is not just an empty threat. People know how close the nearest paramilitary base is. People know who in their community have been killed in recent years. And when we heard that for the last two days two paramilitaries have been seen talking on the phone in the alleyway by my friend's house, I started to feel a lot less detached.

Postscript: I wrote all that a few days ago, but thought I'd wait until we'd left Regidor before posting it, so's not to overly worry my Dad. Not that he should worry anyway. My international status makes me pretty safe.

It turned out that the 'threat-as-opportunity' mentality has won out impressively well. My friend was pretty pleased with the way the community has rallied round him, and we went to a fair few meetings to discuss the community's response before we left.

Given that the death threat also named some catholic priests and the EU-funded Program for Peace and Development, there has been political power on our side, and the threat has made national news. It is the first time I've seen a death threat reported in the media since I got here. (And I know there have been more.)

The press release my organisation sent out has been translated into English. Mysteriously, when it asks you to write to people in the Colombian government to complain, it misses out most of their emails. Here they are for your convenience:,,,,,,,,,, anticorrupció, reygon@procuradurí,,

Don't worry that it's been a few days since the threat. It's still incredibly helpful for the government to know that people abroad are noticing these things. Colombia's international reputation is important to them, especially as their human rights record is part of the debate currently thwarting their hopes for a free trade agreement with the US.

And don't worry about writing in English. You can always copy in the demands in Spanish (the four points after 'Solicitudes').

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Decree 2007 remains intact

In 2001 the last mayor of Regidor passed Decree 2007 which meant that land here can only be sold from campesino to campesino. This was specifically to make it harder for the palm companies to obtain land.

The current mayor, with family ties to the palm industry, unsurprisingly wants this to change. A meeting was set up of the committee which has the power to undo the decree.

It was an open meeting. A friend of mine spent time going round various communities informing them of the importance of their attendance at this meeting, to show their support for keeping this decree. Over sixty of them turned up, including almost thirty from San Cayatano, a community who have already lost their land to a palm company.

To start with, we heard the mayor explain why we should get rid of this decree which is against the interests of campesinos. The two people who then spoke in favour of it got interrupted, shouted at, and personally insulted by her. My friend was told he had manipulated people by encouraging their attendance.

To his great disappointment, not a single one of the sixty people who had travelled in from the surrounding area to attend the meeting, spoke out in support of the decree. Which was quite some testament to how scared people are. As I've mentioned before, the mayor's family does have a reputation for its paramilitary connections. The small community of San Cayatano has lost seven people to the conflict in the last ten years. Five killed by guerrillas around ten years ago, and two killed more recently by paramilitaries. So people perceive the risks as very real. My friend who did speak out, was directly confronting the very people who had arranged the three threatening phone calls he has received. The next day he told me how nervous he was feeling.

Fortunately, with all the shouting and the poor facilitation and the tendancy of meetings to involve lots of talking and opinions and little decision-making and action points, Decree 2007 remains intact.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

There are good guys and bad guys

I’ve run in to both the defensoría (Public Defender who collects human rights complaints) and the fiscal (Public prosecutor who processes legal complaints) from Rio Viejo on a number of occasions now. They both seemed pretty friendly, and I hadn’t formed much of an opinion on either of them.

I made an appointment to talk to the defensoría about the complaints he’d received about palm companies.

He started with an analysis of the problem of palm, which included the fact that the wealth is not owned by the community. When corn is grown, those harvesting it get paid in kind in addition to their wage. After a corn harvest, the leftovers are available to whoever wants to go collect them. Birds eat corn and form part of the ecosystem.

Nothing eats palm. It does not contribute to region’s biodiversity. Workers are paid the same ‘going rate’ (12 -15 000 pesos), but without a bag of corn cobs or whatever food stuff they were harvesting, they are significantly poorer.

Because for the first two to four years no seeds are produced, and full production does not start for another five years after that, oil palm is only a business for those with significant capital to invest.
Wealth and the power that goes with it, are further concentrated in the hands of the few. Who don’t always use it fairly. Most of the palm companies do not make the social security payments they are meant to, making their employees vulnerable. One company which often pays late, points its workers to the loanshark at the gate on pay day. He charges 10% interest, and is suspected of being mates with the management, and of using the same money the workers should have got directly.

Sharing his analysis it was already clear the defensoría was a good ‘un.

Then he told me about a particular case of a farmer whose land is completely surrounded by palm company land. They had blocked his rights of way to his land with ditches and fences. They unilaterally cut down the trees dividing the land (which would normally happen only by mutual agreement), which fell onto and damaged the farmer’s fence. His cows got out, and some were killed while others received machete wounds.

He made a complaint to the defensoría. A counter-complaint was made, concerning the fact that he had opened up the fence that was blocking his right of way (see photo).

The fiscal, whose office is next door to the defensoría, is apparently not one of the good guys. He is prosecuting the farmer for damage to the fence, but not the palm company for any of its infractions. “This is how Colombian justice works” the defensoría tells me. Bribes being a staple of the criminal justice system, and palm companies being in a far better position to afford them.

It struck me how enormously frustrating being one of the good guys must be. He spends his time receiving complaints about injustices, but has no power to get them processed. His neighbour the fiscal came in while we were talking, was all friendly and jovial with the defensoría, who gritted his teeth and was friendly enough back. All the times I’d seen such friendliness between them before, I had no idea what lay beneath it.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Postscript to March 8th Hijacked By Patriarchy

I met up with the woman who organises the women’s group here in Regidor. I particularly wanted to get the low-down on what she made of Women’s day on March 8th being hijacked by men. Turns out it really was a hijack. The women’s group was meant to be co-running the event with the town council. They had intended something more educative, and had planned presentations and a visual piece about domestic violence. She was out of town for the few days before, and arrived back just in time to watch the event be dominated by men, with no proper time even made for her to explain the work of the women’s group. So maybe it wasn’t just me who found it annoying. Although she seemed more resigned than irritated.

She told me a problem with the women’s group is that people are not able to attend meetings. Child rearing is the main focus of most women’s lives. And they tend to have a lot of them. Their husbands are not so partial to helping out even for the duration of a meeting. So they are stuck at home.

Apparently, some women are not allowed to leave their houses much at all. Husbands may have trust issues. There is not such of a culture of visiting female friends. And while this small town has a surprising number of pool halls, they contain only men. There are precisely no public spaces for women to socialise in.

I guess that means some victims of domestic violence are isolated to the extent that they don’t even have anyone to hide the bruises from. Literally never leaving the house. The thought does my head in to be honest. Our Asian neighbours in Birmingham may not leave the house to walk to the corner shop, but they get driven about for plenty of social visits. Although I guess in every culture there are some women stuck at home and suffering.

While women everywhere face similar problems when weighing up whether to leave the short-term certainties of a home and some family income for the unknown, which may or may not bring longer-term benefits, in a country such as this, making that break is particularly difficult. The lack of economic independence is even more critical when considered together with a lack of social welfare and a quantity of children. And strong social norms lead to women accepting their lot and staying quiet.

March 8th could have been a great opportunity to have educated women about their rights and sources of support. As it was, 400 women having a rare chance to socialise together had more significance than I realised at the time.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Love & Machismo

When I got here, my standards for pulling were

1) Not in a monogamous relationship
2) A decent gender analysis
3) No moustache

I soon realised this would equate to six months of celibacy. So 2) was downgraded to "Vaguely decent gender politics", then to "Not machista" (A particular brand of sexism and male chauvinism they have here), then "Not overly machista".

After two months, the bloke I found at least conformed to 1) and 3). The jury was still out on 2).

What might be warning signs in the UK, I made allowances for, given the cultural context. I was told off for saying I didn't need his hand to help me make the very easy step from river bank to canoe-ferry. Apparently when he hadn't offered it before, people had shouted “Give her a hand”, and me refusing it made it look like we were arguing.

Early on, I pulled him up on a comment about women being experts at manipulating men. But I thought it wasn't worth ending a relationship over, especially when continuing would be such a rich learning experience.

In the UK, a relationship with a particularly alpha male had taught me an invaluable amount about the patriarchal society I live in. How men who are more tied up in it have an expectation that their needs will be fulfilled by women.

Here that tendency is far more pervasive. And men whinging on about their needs not being met is something I find a proper wind up. There's a whole genre of music seemingly devoted to the subject (corridos), but in any genre I catch lyrics of men singing about how she's left him (so ask yourself why!) and how they can't live without her love.

At the Assembly of the Federation of Farmers and Miners of Southern Bolivar, a woman was explaining how the experience of their micro-credit scheme was that women were more responsible. The same man got up to speak who had just joined the lunchtime women's meeting I'd been in. He listened a while to us organising a women's event, and then interrupted to speak at length to ask how we could help with his grandchildren's educational needs. So I was expecting a level of ignorance, but his comment (and some vociferous clapping from a few) left me convinced I must have heard wrong. No, apparently he did actually say that it's not that they don't give women a space, it's that they go past the space they've been given.

Then there was a musical interlude. Someone who'd done some great performance poetry earlier, undid any respect I had for him by explaining how the next song was for all men who had ever cried over a woman, as he believed there wasn't a man alive who hadn't. The song was about if you treat a woman well and give her flowers ("woman like those details"), she'll respond to your caresses. ie tips on how to get women to meet your needs, given that's what they're here for.

It occurred to me that what all these men crying over women are actually lamenting is the loss of their needs being met. That might seem a bit harsh, but I feel the idea is supported by my experiences.

Blokey told me he loved me an hour after our first snog. I told him that given he hardly knew me, he was confusing love and lust. He denied this repeatedly, and was more forthcoming with the keenness than anyone I've ever been with.

There was pressure to return the keenness. For the first time, I was instructed to tell someone I loved them. (I explained why that was a daft instruction, and I'd tell him if and when I felt it.) When he answered his own question "Do you know what it means to me to be lying here next to you?" with the word "suffering", I failed to avoid laughing out loud. I think the response that he expected was probably more sympathetic and ego-stroking.

I'm only here for two more weeks, and it would have been very simple to opt for the easy life and lubricate our time together with some expressions of keenness that I didn't feel. Responding to demanding behaviour with what is being asked for can be less tiring than resistance.

Which helped me to understand where his comments about women being manipulative come from. "A woman's feeling that she must get around a man is the hallmark of male dominance." (Steven Goldberg) Manipulation is what you resort to when you lack the power to confront directly.

While his expressions of love and enthusiasm continued being expressed, I was not feeling like our relationship was particularly good quality in terms of closeness, connection or communication.

When he told me that his partner (who had left him 6 weeks before) was returning to him the next day, he didn't seem to get the point that that was us finished. He told me I should learn to do it the Colombian way. That there's nothing more beautiful than secret love and stolen kisses.

I was amazed that my obsession with honesty and integrity in personal relationships had not come across to him still. To me, it's such an enormous and integral part of my identity. If that's who I am, and he so clearly hasn't got me, who has he been 'in love' with? Conclusion: Someone who was meeting his needs.

My integrity had already been compromised by the complications of how much things are very different here. He had originally wanted us to have a secret relationship because in this town it is looked on badly if you get together with someone less than three months after your last relationship. He wanted me to hide it from my Christian landlady/friend and her short-tempered husband. I did tell her, but she asked me to hide it from her husband and from the town, as her fellow church goers would judge her for letting it happen and she would lose respect and social standing.

I was left feeling pretty sad. That relationships here are so full of lies, which complicate and prevent closeness. He seemed to view what we had as something special, and given the lack of connection felt at my end, I feel sad for him his benchmark is so low. And sad for his partner that she's back with someone so demanding and misogynistic and deceptive. And given he definitely was "not overly machista" and is in many ways a pretty top bloke, very, very much sadder for all those Colombian women who have to put up with so much worse.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Even less like the National Farmers’ Union

There were criticisms I didn’t voice about the National Farmers’ Union (Coordinador Nacional Agrario) assembly as I didn’t want to be too rude. Although it functioned well as a networking space and a morale booster, it basically consisted of three days sitting in a big room listening to people talking. For the one small group session we had, my group had over 30 people, of which only a small proportion (and only one woman) spoke.

The Assembly of the Federation of Farmers and Miners of Southern Bolivar was organised to promote more active participation from delegates. I wondered if that was because two women were involved in the agenda setting. When I asked one of them, she took no credit, but went off on a long rant about how CNA was built top down while the Federation had started from its bases, meaning it has a much more participatory and horizontal structure today. She considered it a better organisation for her to work with, unlike the CNA which remains uncomfortably hierarchical.

I found the sessions more interesting. Partly because I now understand much more of what’s going on around me, but also as they were focussed on forming proposals together rather than listening to egos rabbiting on.

Another difference from the CNA assembly was that for the first time since I got to Colombia, I got to witness a bit of state intimidation.

I was called out of a session to be part of the international presence standing around the army sergeant who had come in, wanting to be introduced to all the leaders of the event, and to attend the gathering. When I arrived, he was being pretty insistent, and was demanding the ID of the person who was politely trying to dissuade him. It was beautiful to watch how quickly this power balance shifted when extra people joined the group. A little more on the defensive, the sergeant changed his track and began to talk about how he merely wanted to take this opportunity to make a connection with the Federation, because they both had the same goals of being in favour of community development. And anyway, it was a public event and he had every right to be there.

Very interesting to watch the dialogue. Colombians tend to have this indirect way of dealing with conflict, so the sergeant was never directly contradicted. Even when his points were really rubbish. It was put to him that there was a time and a place for making such connections, and this was not it. And it was not a public event anyway.

Alejandro Uribe, the Federation member killed by the army in 2006 had quite a presence at the event. He was mentioned many times, including being sung about. It was said that if he hadn’t been killed, and if people hadn’t reacted in the way that they did (now I’ve heard it was 5000 people mobilised in Santa Rosa for 45 days), many more people would have been killed since.

I wondered whether it was worth explaining to the sergeant that given the army had killed a close mate of many of the people present, surely he could understand that people might find his presence intimidating.

Someone from the EU-funded Program for Peace and Development got the Vice-President’s office on the phone and handed it to the sergeant. While he was being told off from on high, a member of the Christian Peacemakers’ Team asked a similar question: Would it be useful to mention Alejandro’s death and the dialogue with the army which has followed. The Colombians present gasped in horror, and were emphatic that that would just inflame the situation.

Brilliant that they were so in control of the situation then. I would have made a right mess of it. Subtlety and indirectness really not being my strength.

After a few minutes on the phone, the army sergeant left. Tail between his legs.

Back in the session, it was explained what had happened, and also that the Federation’s president Teófilo Acuña (who I wrote about in my post “My first Accompaniment”) had had to leave early that morning. The army were overheard the previous day trying to guess which one was him, and the same informant I previously mentioned was still in town.

Apparently that informant had been outside the gathering half an hour before the sergeant made his entry. He had tried to get in, and then came back with some police who asked those on the door why they weren’t letting him in, and on seeing a group of miners being allowed passed, they said they needed to get in because “four guerrillas had entered”.

As with the sergeant, the assertiveness of my Colombian colleagues won through and the police gave up and left. So this year, the intimidation did not affect the Assembly’s proceedings too greatly, other than the absence of its president. Last year the first half day was wasted while the army would not let them begin.

By the way – the lovely Teo is visiting Britain this month. Speaking dates in London and Bristol. Will keep you informed.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Gotcha: Typical of me.

The most surprising thing I've seen in my time here was when I was eating my breakfast at the Assembly of the Federation of Farmers and Miners of Sur de Bolivar. A bloke came in wearing a t-shirt with a reproduction of the 'Gotcha' Sun front page from the Falklands War.

Enough shame that we fired on the Belgrano when it was retreating. Enough shame that 323 people were killed. Enough shame that a national newspaper chose to celebrate it so coarsely. But I hadn't realised the shame continues with the existence of a 'Gotcha Publications Inc' celebrating that celebration. And that enough people concur so that a t-shirt ends up marketed and bought in Colombia.

Well, the culmination of all that shame got me a bit fired up. I happened to be sitting next to an Argentinian, so I explained the wrongness of it to him. But that didn't cure me of the need to go on about it some more. So I called the poor bloke over to ask if he wanted to know what his t-shirt meant. His lack of an affirmative answer didn't stop me. And sadly his obvious and intense discomfort at being given this information in front of an audience somehow didn't help me stop either. As will come to know surprise to anyone who knows me.

Half an hour later he returned in another t-shirt.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Feeling comfy

Sorry to have lost sight of the blogging mission lately. I'm still living in Regidor and we had Semana Santa (holiday week) where things all slowed down and I did more swimming in the river (very annoying little biting fish take away some of the fun, but it's incredibly warm and delicious) and even a little tea-drinking and gossiping with my landlady. And since then I haven't quite got back into it. But I intend to be much more on the case this week and will hopefully post something every day.

I've had a really strong sense of blissful contentment here. It comes from how quickly I feel I've made proper friendships and connections with people here.

When Colombians ask what I think of their country, I normally say something about how I friendly and open I find the people. It seems like a platitude, but it's utterly sincere.

The openness doesn't just manifest in how people are welcoming and helpful and want to find out all about me and my life. It means that although I am in a culture which is radically different from my own in many ways, I feel I am accepted. In the past when I've been in other countries, I've found it a strain that I've not been comfortable being myself. I've known that many of my opinions and much of my behaviour would shock people, so I have kept quiet and adapted.

Here, I've been able to talk to people I've only just met about why I never want to get married, or about my non-monogamous relationship back home. Without knowing first how religious they are, or what their opinions might be. Because of a sense of however strongly they might feel about a subject, they would still be non-judgemental and interested in how I'm different. Not quite everyone, obviously. But this has been my experience so far.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Tale of Two Landless Villages

The villagers of El Piñal, like many rural communities, do not have it so easy. There may be a health centre building, but it has no staff or medicines. There may be a primary school with two out of three of the teachers needed, but for a secondary education, students have to walk an hour to get the bus. In the winter they need a canoe to cross the 300 metres which is under water. They leave the house at 5am, returning by 3pm having not eaten in that time. This year there are 58 primary school pupils, but no one is travelling to the secondary school in Regidor.

Drinking water has to be transported by hand or donkey for 1 1/2 kilometres.

The man bitten by 'Doguidoca' snake (who was very lucky to get the antidote in time, as that's a very poisonous snake) now has problems with his sight. He paid to see a specialist once, but can't afford to again.

Many things are difficult, but for the moment they have somewhere to farm.

Twenty years ago, when FARC controlled the area, the owner of the 500 ha farm next to the village abandoned it to flee the conflict. The first villagers to start farming his land asked for and were given permission.

Now more than fifty families depend on this land for survival. Mostly they have smallholdings of 5 ha, some with up to 10 ha. They grow palm trees for roofing, and staple foods such as corn, yucca and plantain.

I've heard the figure a few times, that there are 8 million people dying of hunger in Colombia. It seems difficult to believe in a country with so much fertile land, but this is a result of the displacements caused by the conflict, and the lack of food sovereignty. In El Piñal, while access to healthcare, education, drinking water or a decent road are a problem, I think we can assume that hunger is not so much.

But this village lives with a great sense of insecurity. Five years ago an Oil Palm company approached the owner. The community strongly asked him not to sell, and he did not.

He has not visited the area for twenty years, so most of the community do not know him. They had no idea if he would say 'no' again. They do know that losing that land would be the end of their village. Resulting in a future of displacement for those fifty families. Meaning the choice between urban or rural poverty, and with most families joining the 8 million hungry.

Meanwhile, San Cayatano is already some way down that road.

When Señor Numa, the owner of a 900 ha farm died 23 years ago, the villagers waited five years for his relatives to claim the land before they started to farm it. They were there for fourteen years: around forty families, again growing staple foods.

It is still unclear whether the men who arrived claiming to have bought the land from Señor Numa's sons actually ever did. (A lawyer from the EU-funded Program for Peace and Development is providing a ray of hope by investigating this.) What was clear were the threats behind the request for these families to leave the land. People were offered some money (although 2800 000 pesos (775 pounds) for 5 ha is not much) and were told that if they didn't leave the good way, they would be leaving the bad way. Given the paramilitary presence in the area, people took this pretty seriously. The last man left was taken by the AUC (paramilitary organisation linked to the state) to be killed, but managed to escape.

That was three years ago. 'Misery' was the word used to describe life for them since. Unemployment is especially uncomfortable when there are eight children to feed. One meal a day becomes normal. Hunger universal.

It is understood that the land was acquired for growing Oil Palm, though it is currently being used for cattle.

Other than their lack of land and their geographical proximity, these two villages have some other links. Six years ago, the father of Regidor's Mayor is alleged to have blocked a water inlet, to drain his own farm. This dried out both the shallow lake by El Piñal and the canal by San Cayatano. The members of both communities who had made a good living from fishing were no longer able to.

It's this same man, believed to have drug-trafficking and paramilitary links, who is allegedly behind the acquisition of Sr Numa's land, and who is thought to be trying to buy the land by El Piñal. The current owner may well be a nice man who does not want to leave his previous neighbours hungry, but a request to sell from someone believed to have ordered the killing of two business associates, may not be so easy to refuse.

Poverty Headache

My friend Kenis has a headache. A serious headache. An inflamed nerve which has meant a three-day stay in hospital. When I saw her back at home last night, she looked just like someone who had been in serious pain for days.

The pills she has been prescribed are not available in this small town. They might not be available in the nearest bigger town either. So her husband is intending to go straight to the nearest city. They have been told the 2-week course of medicine will come to around 130 000 pesos (35 quid). That really does not seem like much when I write it in pounds. But for people here who can only just cover the costs of their everyday lives. Where a monthly electricity bill of 5000 pesos (1.40 pounds) seems like a lot, such an additional expense is, like the headache, crippling.

I'm loving living in this town. I love many of the things that seem to come with a lack of wealth in a place: The strong sense of community, the friendliness of people, the huge amounts of mutual aid and solidarity constantly going on, and the delightfully low-impact lives people have with their lack of opportunity for consumerism. Easy to romanticise how the close & helpful community leads to happier, less isolated lives than many lead in British cities.

But Kenis' headache reminds me how it's not actually that fun to live with no safety margin so you can barely cope with the cost of a health problem or a failed harvest.

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Smallholder Palm Growers of Villa Elvira

In a country where so many people have lost their land, the winners of a state lottery to divide up the airstrip formally owned by a drugs trafficker were pretty lucky. Two hundred had put their names forward back in 1991. Thirty nine people got 10 hectares each.

I met one of the unlucky ones. He had lost his land 20 years ago when he had to sell it as the conflict meant it was not safe to stay. Ever since he's hired himself and his machete out for manual labour. He said working for the palm companies is good work. The only difference between them and the smallholders is that he gets paid monthly rather than weekly.

It was one of the first interviews I'd done. Not having such a stock of questions up my sleeve, I simply asked "Anything else?" He told me that we're put on this earth to suffer, until the day God chooses to end it. Until then we suffer like the Lord suffered. We work to get our daily bread. And we suffer.

So, as I say, those that won the land are the lucky ones.

However, I worry how long this may be the case for the 22 smallholders who have chosen to plant Oil Palm in the last few years. (The Afro-Colombian community has asked that we don't call it 'African Palm' anymore, as Africa already has enough negative connotations.)

I spoke to a number of them. Many used to grow corn, but the price was so low that it didn't cover the costs. The land is on a floodplain, and some farmers had lost their harvests due to flooding.

So the promise of a crop with a higher commercial value drew them in.

For the first three years, while the palms are growing, they get paid 400 000 pesos (106 pounds) per month to cover the upkeep of the 10 hectares. It actually doesn't cover much. At least two people are needed every day for keeping the area weed free. (If you are reported for having livestock on the land, the payment stops.) If the workers are not family, they need to paid 40 000 pesos per day. If they are, they need feeding.

Some use herbicides. I asked how much they cost, and was worryingly told that the farmer didn't know. The company gave it on credit.

At the time, I got the impression that the monthly 400 000 was a payment from the company. Actually it will also need to be paid back when repayments start after 5 years.

Most farmers currently have a loan of around 25 million pesos (6600 pounds). I asked one if he was worried about losing his land. He wasn't. But others I am working with are not so calm and see it as a real danger. When their trees start bearing fruit, they will be at the mercy of global prices and the amount that their company San Lucas chooses to pass on to them.

It is not a company that has so far inspired much confidence. Three years ago they made an agreement with the local community to sort out the local road (which is impassible in the winter. Children struggle to school knee deep in mud and arrive 2 hours late according to the teacher), and to put in a drainage system to help against flooding. None of this has been done, and in fact the problem with flooding has been far worse as the drainage system from the company's own land directs more water onto the old airstrip, and another palm oil company at the other end has blocked where it used to drain away.

The palm trees which are under water for the winter do not grow as fast, and are unlikely to be as productive, if they manage to survive.

I was told that the meeting we were going to, called by the Corporación Ambiental (Environment Agency equivalent), was to address issues such as this with the Palm companies. It was very well attended. The EU-funded Program for Peace and Development paid expenses for the campesinos to attend. They generally sat at the back. At the front sat those representing local government, the palm companies, the Program for Peace and Development, and a few different state agencies such as the Public Defender's Office (Human Rights lawyers employed by the state) and the Personaría (Local ombudsman’s office, first port of call for complaints).

Instead of the Corporación encouraging the campesinos to inform us what the issues were, or tackling the points raised by the Public Defender, and then coming to some agreement involving some sort of action, there was much talk that didn't lead to anything concrete.

Mostly those at the front talked, and most of what was said had no relation to the problems the campesinos face. We did hear how brilliant one palm company has been in driving up environmental standards. We heard some local politics squabbles being aired. And we heard from one palm company how much common ground it believed it had with the EU Program. Obviously most campesinos were too intimidated to speak out. Those that did had good points that were promptly ignored. Disappointing.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Update on what I’m up to

One of the things I wanted to do most in my time here was live with a family somewhere rural. My two stated reasons for being out here in the Northern tip of Southern Bolivar, are 1) to provide the community with some protection from army & paramilitary violence through the presence of an international and 2) to research the effects of Oil Palm monocultures on people’s access to land. The group I´m accompanying get followed to meetings by a paramilitary informer, and this area is set to grow pretty much only palm, with very little space left for food.

I can’t say that the family I’m staying with are above averagely warm and friendly for Colombians. But only because _everyone_ I meet is so enormously friendly. This family have been really welcoming. I am constantly told to feel at home, and I do. After saying at first I could stay for a month, I wondered if I should have been more vague in case I didn’t want to. But now I don’t think that’ll be a problem.

There's a son who I share a room with who is a top bloke. He's just told me he's 13, but he's the size of an 8 year old, so I may have to verify that. His sister's 12 and is still too shy to talk to me, so I will make more of an effort.

Not eating in restaurants (which give the choice or rice with cow, chicken, fish or eggs if you ask nicely) is such a bonus. As is being given fresh fruit juice several times a day.

The internet café doesn’t have firefox, and is slow beyond dial-up speed.