Monday, February 25, 2008

not the National Farmers Union

Just a quick one to report on the Farmers' National Assembly, cos I'm off again in a few hours (back at the weekend).

There were about 300 people there. Given that farmers' associations were sending their 'leaders' as delegates, I was expecting to be about the only woman there. It wasn't like that at all. About 30% were women, and there were loads of young people too. Not all the organisations were specifically farmers (eg there was one environmental group), but I guess most people there would have identified as campesinos/campesinas.

I was immediately bowled away by how friendly and open everyone was. No need for icebreakers for people to get to know each other. I felt really welcomed and comfortable. There were a lot of questions about my country, and there was that slightly weird thing about being considered exotic. One woman remarked how she never would have believed that she'd be having lunch sitting next to an English person. And two women asked for photos with me, having never spoken to me before.

There was a feeling of everyone looking after me. The first morning when I got up, about five people checked I'd got myself a coffee. I'm beginning to understand how the way people do that for the simple things, connects to their attitude to where I might be sent to be helpful. My safety seems to be incredibly important to everyone.

When we arrived, we got an induction about horizontal organising, and the need for everyone to chip in with toilet cleaning and gate duty, which felt pretty familiar.

The opening session was pretty moving. It started by naming all those from each region who had been killed by the army, paramilitaries, or guerrilla groups. "For their deaths, not a moments silence. Instead, a lifetime of struggle." "Our leaders are not dead. Their memories live on and provide a motive for us to continue the struggle." Then a 76 year old man, a woman and a youngster gave inspiring speeches. About the need for unity, about how "no one can take away your principles", and ending with the young person promising to continue the struggle.

Every group represented was called on to speak, then some presentations, then questions and answers. The session was 4 1/2 hours in all, with no breaks. I guess this is the culture that Fidel's 4 hour speeches came from.

They did add breaks into later sessions though. One particularly interesting one was looking at what the organisation's policies should be with regard to land rights, displacements, the environment, coca growing, the political solution to the armed conflict, education and technology.

The final session overran into dinner time in a way my stomach did not appreciate. So I was even less patient when the bloke with a particularly over-endowed ego chose to speak for 25 minutes about the history of the organisation, with a focus on his own involvement. Especially when he mentioned how great it was that there were so many women present "and each one pretty and beautiful". The smiles on the women's faces showed how far feminism has to go here. But at least the organisation's structure had been changed to ensure greater representation. (The assembly was organised by a group of men, with mostly big plenary sessions which favoured men speaking. Although when I mentioned this to one bloke, he explained that the women 'chose' not to speak.)

There was more of an openness to experiences and an emphasis on fun than there'd be at a conference at home. Before each session there was a 'mistica' which ranged from music to drama to a guided meditation which everyone seemed to take seriously. On Friday evening I was taught to dance, and I think I managed not to humiliate myself.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

End of the trip

When we got to Mina Gallo (about 7 hours walk from Mina Piojo, but stopping off on the way), we met up with the three folk we'd started our journey with. They'd been off doing workshops in various villages, and this time I got to observe them.

There was a bloke from Cartegena who owned a consultancy company that had got government funding for this work. The three of them did a workshop each.

I watched the presentation on the environmental and health effects of gold mining, and what simple measures people could take. What I think I understood, is that rather than evaporating off the mercury from the gold, when so much of it escapes and pollutes, they should add 1 litre of water and 10g of salt, attach to a 12v battery, and separate by electrolysis.

Only about 10 people had turned up (which led to a fair bit of moaning from the Cartegena bloke before they started), but those that did were 100% engaged in the topic and asked loads of questions. At one point someone said that miners there had a particular method there they took the ground-up rock/gold/mercury mixture in their hand and spat on it and rubbed it for the gold to came out. Given the toxic qualities of mercury that had just been explained (using a case study I remembered from biology A level, plus a congenital defect example from a nearby village where a baby had been born with no arms), should they be using gloves?

They all had a bit of a laugh about how difficult it would be to get people to change their habits and start wearing gloves. Apparently the response would be "And are you going to live forever?" I felt totally stunned by the concept that anyone rubs mercury into their skin on a regular basis.

The afternoon's presentation was about environmental law and was lots less engaging. I missed the planning workshop the next day, but it sounded brilliant. Apparently the lecture about attendance had worked and everyone did bring at least one other person. The part where they analysed what the problems of the community were, and what could be done about it went particularly well. Sometimes groups focus on how everything is the responsibility of the state, but this group was much more empowered and hatched lots of plans.

That night, I had a bigger interview panel for a "tell us all about your country" session. They said their impression from films was that everything was totally perfect. They wanted to know in particular about how the issues that most affected them compared: the strength of trade unions, suicide rates, drug and lottery addictions, poverty, hunger and racism. What seemed to concern the two men in their 50s the most was pensions, given that they were looking at a near future with no income.

The next day we walked 4 1/2 hours back to La Punta, and got the jeep to Santa Rosa. From the countryside with its one-channel reception unifying everyone's television experiences, I was back in a hostel watching a Prison Break marathon. However I had to be called away to go get dinner before it got dark, as apparently a couple of months ago there was quite an outbreak in violence between demobilised paramilitaries and drug traffickers, resulting in a few deaths a night for a while. Up til that point it had seemed like a quiet, quite dull, small country town. But the bloke from the NGO said he'd not like to travel through it on his own cos of all the ex-paramilitaries floating about. The town had obviously recovered though, and there was plenty of life on the streets after dark.

During my time in the countryside, the thought occurred to me "Will I see fireflies?" Which I didn't, until the night bus back to Bogotá, where I got a proper light show for the bit when I wasn't sleepy.

How mining communities organise

The Colombian army have had the habit for a few years now, of killing villagers and declaring them "guerrillas killed in combat". Sometimes they dress the bodies up in military clothes. Sometimes they place weapons on them (recently in the news a Sergeant Alexánder Rodríguez told how soldiers were asked to pay $10 themselves for each gun they placed, but were given 5 days holiday for every 'guerrilla' killed).

Often these are just random campesinos, killed to add to the army's statistics of dead guerrillas. Sometimes they are union leaders or community activists, standing in the way of state interests.

This was the case for Alejandro Uribe, head of the Community Action Council in the gold mining village of Mina Gallo.

The great thing about the mining area I visited, was the complete lack of multinationals. Those who discover a mine become the owners. Occasionally there is sole ownership, but shared ownership is more normal and is encouraged by agencies working with the communities, because then mines are less likely to be sold on.

I was quite intrigued by the relationship between the miners and the owners. Early on I asked about how profits are distributed, and got the vague answer than it depends on the mine. I kept my preconception that the owners were capitalists sitting on their bottoms somewhere while others created profits for them, until finally it was explained to me that actually the owners live in the community and work in the mines, much the same as everyone else. My questions about whether they were the boss of the mines, or about power inequalities in the village were met with smirks. Not really. It's the union that does the organising.

So far, so idyllic. (In so far as, if you have to live in basic poverty, miles from any basic healthcare or secondary education, I'm sure it's much nicer when no one else is making money out of your situation.)

But obviously, there is a multinational knocking on the door. To quote an Amnesty report, "This is an area in which the gold-mining company AngloGold Ashanti (Kedahda S.A.) has interests. Alejandro and other local miners had opposed the arrival of this company in the area."

He was killed on September 19th 2006. The army took away his body, and later declared that he was an armed member of the ELN, killed in combat. When 600 local residents travelled to the military base to demand his body was returned, they were told, "This is not the only corpse you're going to have, there will be more dead leaders."

His absence is still noted today in Mina Gallo. On posters and on a variety of commemorative t-shirts worn by residents. AngloGold Ashanti is also notable for it's continued absence from the area.

Journey to a meeting

My favourite meeting of those I've attended so far in Colombia, was held in the tiny gold mining village of Mina Piojo in the region of Southern Bolivar.

To get there, I got a taxi to the bus station in Bogotá, a 12 hour overnight bus to Aguachica, a 20 minute taxi to Gamarra, a two hour boat ride upstream on the river Magdalena to Cerro Burgos and a 30 minute taxi to Santa Rosa. In Santa Rosa we had breakfast and waited for the jeep which proclaimed itself to be 'Servicing the mining community'. Then, a tortuous two hour drive over the worst roads I'd ever been on in a vehicle. Incredible foot-deep tyre-wide ruts that took much concentration on the driver's part. At the moment it's summer and the ground was solid, but in rainy winter those bits would be impassible.

I was squashed between one of my travelling companions and a nurse travelling to service the tiny health centre up there. The nurse was all friendly and chatty, along those "tell me all about your country" lines. He asked me that question "What does your country export?" that I remember from when I was last in Latin America 12 years ago. I remember being stuck by my own ignorance when asked before, and I remember resolving to research the matter when I got home. Though I don't remember doing so. All the ideas he came up with (cars? computers?) I thought had probably moved elsewhere. I forgot that the arms trade was something we do excel at, and my mind was totally blank. Which I'm sure was strange to someone in a country where the evidence of the natural resources being exploited for the national economy is all around you. Even before I got here, I could list loads of Colombia's exports (flowers, palm oil, oil, gold, soap operas and cocaine). With the exception of soap operas, I can tell you environmental, social and human rights problems associated with each one. But other than weapons and what goes with them, and maybe some cars, I'm still not so sure what the UK does export.

At the time I glibly gave this answer, which I welcome you to critique as pitilessly as you see fit (go Nigel): "With our history of colonialism, given that we've robbed the natural resources of lots of other places, now we have the money which makes more money." Opinion or analysis welcome - post them below.

Then we arrived in La Punta: entry point to the gold mines in the mountains. Mules were hired that were in a far worse state than those we'd had on our mountain walking holiday. Life is clearly harsher here.

Then a four hour walk/mule ride along an up & down mud path that apparently is a nightmare in the winter (evidenced by the odd lost wellington boot sticking up out of the ground) and takes hours longer.

We stayed the night in Mina Vieja and set off again the next day. No mules to take our stuff this time, and a three hour walk. Pretty much all downhill, at times steep and tricky. Great views, going through woods stuffed with cool plants and fantastic butterflies, but also with the knowledge that the next day the return journey would be lots more work.

Then we arrived and I got some understanding of what life is like seven hours from a road.

We were told that we'd been expected yesterday. When the only communication is via people being given messages as they pass through other villages, misunderstandings are pretty easy. So a new meeting was fixed for 6.30pm. We watched an electric light being installed in someone's porch specially for the meeting. At 6pm we were called for dinner in the house which included a tiny shop and seemed to function as the village social centre. We'd all had a shower there, and plenty of other people seemed to use the bathroom facilities (small shed with a toilet and hose) too.

For dinner I was sat at a table in front of a tele and my first proper telenovela experience. I discussed with someone from my group how staggeringly, incredibly, bad it was. Only later to get up and notice most of the village sitting just behind me, avidly taking it in. Ooops. (Since then I've not only discovered that they are actually incredibly entertaining, but it's also been explained that the over-acting is a deliberate parody. If true, I guess that makes it okay.)

I liked the meeting because although it mostly consisted of all the men from the village, it was a very sorted woman that ran it. She started by reading out an agenda. And I was happy that a remote gold mining community, where probably pretty much no one had been to a secondary school, could still have a good meeting process. I also liked how a little way into the meeting, she was presented with her screaming child to breastfeed, and how effortlessly she multi-tasked.

I was there with a bloke from a national NGO which does capacity building work, and with three guys from the Federation of Farmers and Miners in South Bolivar. The meeting was for those agencies to encourage community development. I was a bit taken aback when one of the men from the Federation launched into a long rant about the environmental effects of gold mining and what the community should be doing about it, but it seemed to be well received. Everyone was in agreement around the importance of environmental protection. And I felt a bit choked when an old man from the community started his own rant about why you should plant fruit trees even if you're not going to be alive to benefit from them (ie because someone else will).

I also thought it seemed pretty blunt when the community were told that they should plan ahead because at the moment they can choose either that their children only receive a primary education, or that they send them off to secondary (only really possible if they have relatives near a school) in which case they rarely come back. When I mentioned later how harsh this had seemed to me, I was told that the NGO and the Federation are working on a proposal for a secondary school nearer by, and the point was the community needed to get involved in this.

The main other point was to encourage the miners to get more into growing their own food. The news that bananas cost 15p each in a nearby mining village (rather than 5p normally) caused a bit of a stir. By the time we left there was a committed and organised bunch of people with the beginnings of an allotment plan. That felt really positive.

Near the end of the meeting, the Federation bloke who'd been talking for ages, suddenly goes, "and now it's our international friend's turn to speak and to give us some thoughts on her visit here." I would have really appreciated some time to form some thoughts, but I had to make do with bland pleasantries. Something about differences, how we generally all had roads going right up to our houses and how I was learning a lot about what life was like for them. This was followed by some loud demands that I stay for a whole week to learn more. I find the thought really tempting. It was an incredibly friendly and comfortable place to be, with a brilliantly strong sense of community. I'd just worry about getting there by myself.

Later, I did have the time to form some more opinions. I thought about how my previous impression of gold miners was of colonialists causing environmental damage and problems for indigenous people. No indigenous people round here, although, okay, until the clean-mining equipment comes soon to the area, there probably is too much mercury and cyanide being released. But with their houses made only from local wood and plastic sheeting, with all goods being carried in by person or by mule, and with not a car driver or air traveller amongst them, it's the lowest-impact, most sustainable village I've ever visited.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Meeting Sound People, Part 1

I'd like to first point out the report on the Facebook march by people from my organisation. It explains some of the background stuff I haven't got round to telling you yet (though I do still intend to).

There's been a Brummie staying in the team house, and it's been very refreshing to feel such an immediate cultural understanding with someone. She's a photographer/journalist here to do bits of work for various trade unions/ lefty papers and with Mark Thomas who came on Friday to join her. He's here to research his book about Coca Cola and their complicity in trade union leader murders. Jess's work is pretty good. Take a look at for slideshows on climate camp, Saving Iceland and a great one on Venezuela, complete with stirring soundtrack.

I've been accompanying her to meetings a bit, doing a little translation.

We met with two people from the Hijos Colombia group. They were very cool. The group started when a handful of young people whose parents were politically active, some of whom had been disappeared, discovered they had common experiences. Right from the start the emphasis was less on being a support group, and more on awareness raising and a thirst for justice. Their precedents, Hijos Argentina and Hijos Guatemala, differ from the Colombian group as here the conflict continues.

The work they have done has included during the 2006 elections publicising which politicians had paramilitary links, and highlighting specific cases of disappearances. As they began to campaign and their profile increased, other young people got involved who shared their politics rather than their specific experiences of having family members persecuted.

For Jess, it was quite important to get their personal stories, cos that's how journalism works. We explained that. They explained that how the group works, is that it doesn't like to focus on the personal, because that creates a distinction between those in the group who have stories, and those who don't. And because they are not about being victims who the state can compensate for their loss. They are about being clear that these cases are symptomatic of the state's strategy to silence and eliminate the opposition, and that specific cases are highlighted only to show the generalities.

It was a little awkward, but for the sake of the story, we had to keep asking. So one of them started: Her mother was from Chile, her father from Argentina. They were exiled from Chile in 1973, moved to Argentina, where her father was imprisoned for two years and tortured, and were exiled again. And then they moved to "lovely Colombia". She spoke a bit about his political activism here. And then she stopped. Erm. A bit more awkwardness. How many times can we ask to hear about her trauma and misery before it becomes really rude?

So, we explained again about the importance of the personal so that readers can relate. And they explained again about the politics of the group (every time they did this, I found them just so, so impressively sound).

And then she looked to the bloke, and he started his story.

Earlier they had said that the first event they had done picked the cases of Nidia Erika Bautista who was disappeared in 1987, and Jaime Gomez, disappeared in 2006. These cases were chosen to show that disappearances happened in the past, are happening now, and will happen again unless the impunity stops and real justice (changing the system not just taking some individuals to court) is done.

It was only when Erik started talking, that we learnt he was the son of Nidia Erika Bautista. Since then I've googled her and found her case referred to as "one of the most important human rights cases in Colombia". And there we'd been, pestering that girl, whose parents we later learnt are actually alive and well. A little embarrasing.

Erik's mother had got involved in the urban guerrilla movement M19 after working for the press trade union and being politicised by colleagues getting disappeared. She was involved in the infamous Palace of Justice siege of 1985, though she didn't enter the premises herself. After that event, which was ended bloodily by the army storming in and over 100 people being killed (and remaining guerrillas and cafeteria workers being taken away by the army, tortured and disappeared), there was a crackdown on M19 members. Nidia was taken from her home by nine members of the army intelligence unit, in front of Erik's sister, on August 30th 1987.

In 1990 an army deserter gave information which led to her remains being found in a common grave, three hours from Bogotá. In 1995 a General was prosecuted and found responsible - the first time this had happened with someone so high ranking. After that, the family started suffering increased harassment and in 1997 they left Colombia to live in exile in Europe. In their absence, the General challenged the verdict, the case was moved from the civil to the military justice system, and two sargeants were freed after only serving six months for the murder. Various human rights groups got involved. The remains were returned eventually in 2002, but the struggle for justice continues.

One thing that was said that I really liked, was that an effect of the group coming together has been that the children of the disappeared from all different parts of the traditionally-splintered-left were getting to learn about each others' struggles and to see what they have in common. In doing so, they gain understanding and unity as they focus together on the issues of paramilitary-state links and impunity. Yey. The left can always do with a bit more unity.

Up the mountain to the hot springs

So, the idea of leaving home at 11pm and spending the night hanging about bus stations with the best prospect of sleep being a 4 hour bus ride, complete with pissed people singing, would not have been my plan just before a 12 hour walk up a mountain. However, everyone else seemed content with it.

We arrived in some village early morning, ready to meet Don Luis, our guide and the man with the mules. He loaded the mules with our bags as we set off. There was a sense of urgency right from the start, given it gets dark at 6pm and there was a long way to go. We might have been a bit more stressed if we'd known at the time that our guide had only been there once, two years ago, and wasn't so sure of the way himself.

Everyone else (5 Colombians and an Italian) had been acclimatised to living at over 2600m above sea level, while I've mostly been in Norfolk and then on a boat. So they were sympathetic if a little anxious at my inability to breath and its affect on my speed during that first hour, starting at just 2000m. It was bloody steep though.

Luckily Don Luis and a spare mule arrived soon after and took me lots of the way, so a day I feared would be quite lacking in fun involved mostly sitting on my bottom, impressed with the changing view: waterfalls, cloudforest and then páramo (an ecosystem particular to the high-altitude Northern Andes).

It was quite stressful at the end when it got dark and the mules started racing off ahead. Don Luis didn't want to lose them cos they knew the way better than him. Everyone else wanted us to slow down so they didn't lose us. But we all got to the hot springs eventually. We were greeted by Don Alberto, an old boy who lives up there on his own. Happily he turned to be an insanely top bloke, presenting us with soup and sugary mint tea on arrival.

We had two full days up there, trying to avoid getting sunburnt in the day (incredibly easy to do at 4100m. First time I've got burnt for years and years) and freezing at night as temperatures dropped well below zero. I was very pleased at my fellow campers' plan of enclosing the tents in big plastic sheets, making all the difference between extreme cold and very cold.

Travellers among you will know, that when people ask where you're from, often they respond to your answer with a little phrase to show recognition. I'm told this is generally "London", "Manchester United" or "Tony Blair". In 1995 when I was last in Latin America, the most common reponses were "Margaret Thatcher" and "Vacas Locas" (Mad Cows). I don't know how long he'd lived up there, but I was fairly bemused when Don Alberto brought up that old "Margaret Thatcher" chestnut. Incredible. Almost twenty years on and still what we're known best for.

Don Alberto talked to us about when FARC had control of the area (until a few years ago. Now they just pass through, and don't bother the hot springs tourists apparently). They'd impose a £250 fine on people who started fires, and now they are not about so much, there are lots more fires. We saw a fair few.

Going back down, like on the way up, there was a couple of waiting-for-each-other stops, and a 20 minute lunch break, but otherwise constant walking (though only for 8 1/2 hours this time). A world away from the dithering and hour long breaks of my walking group back home.