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.

1 comment:

Libanesa said...

Un saludo muy calido y solidario desde Inglaterra para la comunidad entera de Yarima. Estan en mis pensamientos y les quiero apoyar con mi energia desde aqui para que su valentia y determinacion logren activar los cambios fundamentales que estan pidiendo.