Knowlson Trust Award Travel Report- August 2008
From Bristol to Bogota
From Bristol to Bogota
Thanks to a £200 grant from the Knowlson Trust I was able to make up the money to buy a ticket to Colombia this August. Further donations from Colombia Solidarity Campaign enabled me to stay for a month, and carry out voluntary work all across the country. This was grass roots, solidarity work – the kind I see as the most effective way for people from West/North/Developed World to invest their money and time into helping those affected by our nations’ imperialism and exploitation of other peoples’ land.
The route of NGOs, governmental aid organisations and the like, appears to me to be hindered by bureaucracy and political manoeuvring. These restrictions ultimately serve to limit a person’s ability to collaborate, participate and help; it also could potentially harm the situation of communities and individuals through this external/foreign influence.
In this sense the work I carried out was unimpeded by these potential pitfalls. Grass roots solidarity work in the context of the situation in Colombia means working with communities (afro-Colombian, indigenous, campesino, workers, students etc.) in a horizontally organised, participatory capacity. This means that you do not arrive as a Westerner imbued with superior knowledge ‘coming to save the day’, but rather as an equal. You are a participant in social struggle, whose voice is heard, yet is there primarily to listen, learn and assist using any skills s/he might have that will be useful to the community.
In this way my abilities as a documentary filmmaker and photographer, my fluency in both Spanish and French, and my experience of operating within horizontally organised structures where utilised by various communities and organisations to witness, document and communicate internationally their situations and ideas.
Human Rights Abuse and State Repression in Colombia
The president of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe, has been in power since 2001. With him has come the reinforcement and enhancement of EU and US backed neo-liberal reforms to the country’s social and economic structure. As seen across many Latin American countries since the 1970s, the imperialist influence of Northern nations on their social and economic policies – ensuring deregulation and privatisation of public land, resources, utilities and companies – has brought with it military repression, the exploitation of both humans and nature, and massive human rights abuses.
Colombia is probably the best example of this situation in the present-day. The use of paramilitary and military forces to repress and control populations and communities, linked with the criminalisation of dissent or opposition, has ensured that Colombians now live under a quasi-dictatorship, or democradura (democratic dictatorship). These tactics lay the country open to the entrance of multinational companies that – with law reforms, deregulation, and corruption – have an easy time exploiting cheap labour, extracting rich natural resources, and securitising territory for profit.
It is with this in mind that I travelled around the country living with and attempting to understand communities affected by the presence of EU and US multinational companies. These ranged from British Petroleum that, at the moment, are dynamiting indigenous territory in Casanare in order to explore for more oil; SABMiller a beer conglomerate who, at present, are attempting to secure and privatise water resources; Anglo-American and BHPbillinton who own the largest open face coal mine in South America: El Cerrejon – a mine that has displaced both indigenous and afro-Colombian communities, while other indigenous communities remain subsisting on the bare minimum, surrounded by privatised land that once were their hunting and fishing grounds.
The links between multinational activity and paramilitary and military abuses is very high, and is basically formulaic: A multinational arrives, with the aid of economic and legal reforms from the Colombian state; any resistance to their burgeoning influence in the area is met with death threats, co-option and pay offs; all this leads to assassination, displacement, the destruction of communities, and exploitation of workforces.
Something has to be done and the resistance has been working hard for many years. That is why, as part of a European network, I worked for a month taking testimonies, translating into and out of Spanish and English, and communicating my findings with the international community. I continue here in Bristol doing the same. A pertinent example of this fight would be of a product that is synonymous with aggressive global capitalism and whose label can probably be seen at this moment by anyone reading this text. Coca Cola.
Coca Cola’s Crimes in Colombia
The Coca Cola Company’s products include: all manner of Coca Cola drinks, Fanta, Schweppes, Sprite and Oasis among thousands of other beverages. The conditions of Coca Cola workers in Colombia remain extremely precarious. Around 480 Coca Cola workers are unionised, with 300 belonging to SINALTRAINAL, the Colombian food and beverages union. For 5 years the union has been conversing with the Coca Cola Company, about the wealth of disappearances, tortures, threats and assassinations of their members at the hands of paramilitaries. The union will not be silenced nor forget their dead comrades, neither will they allow the misdeeds of the Coca Cola Company to be covered up by bribes.
I had the great honour of meeting Javier Correa, a Coca Cola worker at the Bucaramanga bottling plant, and president of SINALTRAINAL. Working with these very brave men and women was a tremendous inspiration as they confirmed the continuation of the boycott of Coca Cola products, a difficult decision to make in the face of death threats and worsening labour conditions implemented by the company. Javier called for greater unity between Colombian social movements against multinational companies, and appealed for continued international solidarity with the resistance. This is where grass roots solidarity workers step in, returning to the UK with first hand experience of the social struggle, armed with information and up-to-date news ready to campaign and create awareness of the nefarious, corrupt actions of Western multinationals.
80% of Coca Cola workers are sub-contracted and therefore labour legislation does not apply to them, making it impossible to become part of a trade union and thus fight for their rights. SINALTRAINAL have attempted to organise sub-contracted workers, but this has resulted in the lay off of “conspiring” sub-contracted workers.
The Coca Cola Company, as a result of international awareness of the deaths and threats to its trade unionists in Colombia, have spent $4 billion attempting to clean up its international image, contracting PR and CSR gurus such as Ed Potter, Director of Global Labour Relations. This has not helped, for the persecution of trade unionists and their families continues. Living under hazardous conditions, speaking out against the politics of the Colombian government and the multinationals – within the discourse of the ‘war on terror’ to which the regime of Uribe has aligned itself, with its war policy of ‘Democratic Security’ – ensures that trade unionists are branded as terrorists. “The stigmatisation of trade unionists has grown deeper”, explains Javier, “28 have been killed so far in 2008”.
SINALTRAINAL want to show that the eyes of the international community, not just human rights organisations, are on the Coca Cola Company. Social movements, international groups, and governments need to pressurise the company to change its practices. “The fight has to be more global than ever before.”
The Resistance Continues
The resistance goes on, with the continued necessity for international solidarity. Under Uribe’s regime of terror these are vulnerable times for the workers and trade unionists of the Coca Cola Company. Students and workers, social and indigenous movements need to unite to fight against this company and the multitude of multinationals that are displacing and murdering Colombians for the extraction of natural resources, the exploitation of workers and the securitisation of territory. The wall of impunity that surrounds multinational and governmental actions must be broken down and so too the invisibilisation, by national and international mainstream media, of SINALTRAINAL’s work and the plight of Coca Cola workers.
My voluntary work here in Bristol has been helped immeasurably by my trip to Colombia. Having seen with my own eyes the effect that Western companies have there, means that I can speak with greater authority whilst relating the situations of the communities with which I have lived and worked. This could not have happened without the generous sponsorship of both the Colombia Solidarity campaign and the Knowlson Trust. Grass roots solidarity work relies on funding such as this to survive, and long may it continue. I hope my efforts will contribute towards social change that encompasses a just and sustainable peace in Colombia.