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Defending Tomorrow: The climate crisis and threats against land and environmental defenders

By staff - Global Witness, July 2020

For years, land and environmental defenders have been the first line of defence against climate breakdown. Yet despite clearer evidence than ever of the crucial role they play, far too many businesses, financiers and governments fail to safeguard their vital and peaceful work. 

The climate crisis is arguably the greatest global and existential threat we face. As it escalates, it serves to exacerbate many of the other serious problems in our world today – from economic inequality to racial injustice and the spread of zoonotic diseases.

For years, land and environmental defenders have been the first line of defence against the causes and impacts of climate breakdown. Time after time, they have challenged those companies operating recklessly, rampaging unhampered through forests, skies, wetlands, oceans and biodiversity hotspots.

Yet despite clearer evidence than ever of the crucial role they play and the dangers they increasingly face, far too many businesses, financiers and governments fail to safeguard their vital and peaceful work. 

Our annual report into the killings of land and environmental defenders in 2019 shows the highest number yet have been murdered in a single year. 212 land and environmental defenders were killed in 2019 – an average of more than four people a week.

Read the text (PDF).

A Deadly Shade of Green: Threats to Environmental Human Rights Defenders in Latin America

By staff - Center for International Environmental Law, et. al., Summer 2016

On 3 March 2016, a wave of indignation and repudiation swept the world, condemning the brutal and cowardly assassination of Berta Cáceres, a Honduran environmental activist and community leader who inspired thousands of people through her work promoting the rights of the Lenca people.

Her death came amid a growing number of attacks against human rights defenders, particularly campaigners peacefully defending the environment, the right to land and the rights of indigenous peoples. This situation is not limited to Honduras, but can be seen throughout the continent, in Colombia, Brazil, Peru, Mexico, Guatemala, and Ecuador. This long list is being added to by an increasing number of countries that seem willing to put economic interests before those of people and territories. Reports from numerous organizations confirm a steady deterioration of the situation, highlighting the fact that Latin America has become the most dangerous region in the world for environmental activists.

Various types of attack have been committed against campaigners and their organizations. They range from surveillance campaigns, harassment, and being discredited in the media and social networks, to physical assaults, acts of torture, enforced disappearances and assassinations. In addition, there is widespread corruption and impunity in many countries where relations between state and non-state actors are often ambiguous. We should note, in particular, the attacks against female human rights defenders, who face threats of sexual violence and smear campaigns based on their gender. All of this is exacerbated by the context of increasing criminalization of social protest, and use of the law to suppress dissent in Latin American and Caribbean societies.

Despite the grim outlook, there are reasons to remain optimistic. Civil society has never looked so strong, organized and determined. International solidarity strengthened by the globalization of exchanges between people and organizations makes it possible to bring these struggles out of isolation, and demand accountability to ensure the effective implementation of human rights commitments.

Read the report (EN PDF) | (ES PDF).

Pitch Black: The Journey of Coal from Colombia to Italy; the Curse of Extractivism

By various - Re:Common, April 2016

By presenting the horrors suffered under the domination of multinational companies, this work by Re:Common will dispel any lingering doubt that the current economic system based on extractivism is a war against the poor (what subcommander Marcos called the “Fourth World War”).

If someone who trusts the mainstream media and academic analyses thinks that at some point colonialism disappeared from the face of the Earth, this work, based on documents and testimonies, demonstrates otherwise.

For those who believe that progress is the most striking characteristic of our times, starting with the post-World War II period, the voices of the missing that populate these pages will convince you that present-day capitalism is a just a revamped version of the Spanish conquest of five centuries ago.

Throughout this work, all the variables of extractivism can be seen: from occupation of the territory and displacement of people to the role of the offshore banking and financial system, as two complementary and inseparable parts of accumulation by theft/dispossession. In the occupied territories, the displacement occurs in the form of war, with the participation of military, paramilitary, guerrilla and the greatest variety of imaginable armed actors.

The victims are always the weak: poor women and their children, elderly men and women, peasants, Indians, blacks, mestizos, the “wretched of the Earth,” as Frantz Fanon calls them. I want to emphasize, though it may seem anachronistic, and without reference to academic sources, how the extractive model coincides with colonialism, despite the different eras. This is not only due to the violent occupation of territories and the displacement of populations, but also to the salient features of the model.

Economically, extractivism has generated enclave economies, as it did in the colonies, where the walled port and plantations with slaves were its masterworks. This colonial/extractive model held populations 6 hostage in both 1500 and 2000.

Extractivism produces powerful political interventions by multinational enterprises, often allied with States, which manage to modify legislation, co-opting municipalities and their governors. It is an asymmetrical relationship between powerful multinationals and weak states, or better, states weakened by their own local elite who benefit from the model.

Like colonialism, the extractive model promotes the militarization of the territories, because it is the only way to eradicate the population, which, recalling Subcommander Marcos, is the real enemy in this fourth world war. Militarization, violence, and systematic rape of women and girls are not excesses or errors; they are part of the model because the population is the military objective.

To understand extractivism, we must consider it not as an economic model, but as a system. Like capitalism. Certainly there is a capitalist economy, but capitalism is not just the economic aspect. Extractivism (as stated by Re:Common) is capitalism in its financial phase and cannot be understood only as an economic variable. It implies a culture that promotes not work but consumption, which has (systemic) corruption as one of its central features. Put in another way, corruption is the extraction mode of governing.

Therefore, extractivism is not an economic actor; it is a political, social, cultural, and of course also economic actor. At this point, it’s crucial that the central part of this work describes human beings and the Earth as the subjects for looting, which is much more than the theft of the commons. Understanding dispossession only as robbery places property ownership at the center of the matter, in the place of people and land; e.g., life.

Read the text (PDF).

Canadian Neocolonialism in Colombia: Oil, Mining and the Military

By Asad Ismi - Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Monitor, July 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

In May, the board of Pacific Rubiales, a Canadian firm and the biggest private oil producer in Colombia, announced its support for a takeover bid by the Mexican conglomerate Alfa and U.S.-based Harbour Energy. Pacific Rubiales operates Colombia’s biggest oil field, in the province of Meta, and during the past seven years the company has become synonymous with a doubling of oil exports, from half a million to a million barrels a day. Oil came to account for half of Colombia’s exports and 20% of official revenue, making Pacific Rubiales the most valuable company on the Colombian stock market.

However, by January, the sharp drop in oil prices, and the firm’s trouble developing new oil fields, had cut share prices by 90% from their 2011 high. It was unclear whether Pacific Rubiales shareholders would accept the takeover offer when the Monitor when to print, but Alfa chairman Armando Garza Sada was optimistic: “We maintain our positive view regarding Pacific Rubiales’ excellent track record and on the strength of their people. Thus, by incorporating ALFA and Harbour Energy as new equity holders, we foresee Pacific Rubiales successfully developing investment projects in Colombia.”

The emphasis in the above statement is added, because outside the business pages of daily newspapers, there is nothing excellent about the company’s track record. Pacific Rubiales is just as synonymous with human rights and labour rights violations as with oil export success, and if new production is to occur, there’s slim evidence it will benefit anyone outside the corporate boardroom. Still, the problem in Colombia is much bigger than one company. And the case of Pacific Rubiales, regardless of whether it remains a Canadian firm, holds important lessons on the evolution of Canadian neocolonialism going back 20 years.

The Colombian Left: Brief Comments About Evolution, Revolution, and Devolution

By Macros Restrepo - Miami IWW, February 13, 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Eyes have been on Colombia recently with news of negotiations between guerilla organizations like the FARC and the Colombian government along with electoral attempts by the left to find a foothold in power. In South Florida, Colombia makes its impact both in our communities and the strong economic and political ties to the region. We are sharing a piece by Macros Restrepo that looks back at the process that led the left in Colombia to this moment and its impact on the potential for a more liberated society. His article highlights contradictions as sections of the left moving to integrate with the state and its living authoritarian practices. In exploring the counterproductive aspects of recent left history in Colombia he aims us at a better direction.  

The political left in Colombia faces major challenges from within as well as from outside enemies.

The murder of Carlos Pedraza in late January of this year once again puts the reality of armed violence against leftist social and political movements in Colombia up front. Pedraza, a member of Congreso de los Pueblos was forcefully disappeared on January 19 and shot to death with a bullet to the head 24 hours later.

Left leaning social and political movements are tangled in an old struggle, going back to the 1980s, to separate themselves from ongoing accusations of being nothing more than unarmed stooges or undercover agents of the remaining guerrilla movements, the FARC and the ELN.

These accusations from local, national political and private sector representatives, right wing media pundits, the military and paramilitary organizations continue despite the ongoing changes within Colombia’s political left.

Is This US Coal Giant Funding Violent Union Intimidation in Colombia?

By Rosalind Adams - Center for Public Integrity, July 22, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

BOGOTA, Colombia — Cesar Florez is often hesitant to answer his phone because there might be another death threat at the end of the line. Sometimes the threat comes in a phone call, other times in a text message or an email. In April, flyers were posted in the restroom stalls at Florez’s workplace, declaring him and his colleagues “permanent military targets.”

Until last month, Florez served as a local president of Sintramienergetica, a labor union in Colombia that represents the employees of Drummond Company, a U.S.-based coal-mining firm, in a country known for some of the world’s most severe violence against union leaders. Florez has been a Drummond employee for 17 years and active in the union for the last 14. Most recently, he worked as a marine operations technician in Drummond’s port near Santa Marta, where its coal is shipped out on barges.

But his position as a union leader has also meant he’s attracted a significant number of threats, including attempts on his life, which happen to spike around labor disputes, he said. In July 2013 the union went on strike, calling for a pay raise and to move from an hourly wage to a salary, among other demands. For 53 days the strike wore on amid tense negotiations, while the threats that Florez and his colleagues received only accelerated.

“They said if we didn’t lift the strike we’d be a target,” Florez said, describing some of the phone calls he received. “They said they already knew where my family was.”

Many of the written threats that Florez received bear the watermark of Los Rastrojos Comandos Urbanos, an active paramilitary group with ties to drug trafficking.

The Center for Public Integrity made numerous attempts to reach Drummond for comment on allegations that it has used the group to try to intimidate Sintramienergetica leaders like Florez; a spokesman said he could not respond to any questions on the matter. In a recent statement, the company’s lawyers asserted, “Drummond has never paid or otherwise assisted any illegal group in Colombia, whether paramilitary or guerilla [sic].”

Nonetheless, Drummond has been named in several lawsuits alleging financial ties to paramilitary groups since the mid-1990s.

Drummond — a closely held company based in Birmingham, Alabama, with revenues that reached $3 billion last year—has helped Colombia become the world’s fourth-largest coal exporter. Heman Drummond started the business in 1935 on the backs of mules that were used to haul loads of coal from its mines in Alabama. Under the leadership of his son, Garry, the company expanded, securing a contract to extract coal in La Loma, in the Cesar Department of Northeast Colombia in the late 1980s.

While its Colombian operations quickly became a significant revenue stream for the company, security issues and labor disputes have always been substantial obstacles for Drummond’s business. And, according to its workers, intimidation has become routine in a country where trade union leaders are often viewed as subversives.

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