Tuesday, May 26, 2009

My leaflet's ready at last

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



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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

What you can do

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

What you can do

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Drummond coal kitchen workers' strike

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

Sunday, January 11, 2009

A rant about nationalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Israel is a racist state."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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