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