Thursday, July 30, 2009

4 Days & 4 Places

Cali, Colombia
[photos to come... patience]

4 days, 4 very different places. From observing a human rights community meeting with the UN, to going back to La Toma for their community assembly to discuss their mass eviction on the 6th August, to the other side of the valley where last week death threats were last week painted onto the walls of the village, to a rural project linked to New Generation in London where last night army troops had decided to occupy a farmhouse. Just another week in the Cauca.

After a heavy night, it was with relief that we weren't the centre of attention at this meeting, with the UN, in La Maria. We watched as local groups submitted reports about local situations to the delegation present on their high table, and spoke about their local issues.

On Monday we headed back to La Toma, the place with the forthcoming mass eviction, for a community meeting to which we were invited when we were there before. We arrived to find a packed covered area, with around 300 people. However our inviter was nowhere to be seen, making it slightly awkward to make our presence. The meeting itself was heavily front-centric, with very little opportunity for community input. There was a call-out for a march to Bogota, which was met with rapturous applause. An interesting idea, but takes the mobilization out of the local area. There was little room for suggestion of anything resembling local action in the community. And nothing suggesting mobilization on the eviction date of the 6th August. Nonetheless, the importance of unity of this black afro-colombian community with indigenous and campesino communties was noted in the struggle against mining multinationals.

Later in the afternoon we walked 45 minutes down a steep narrow mountain path to the community of Gelim, site of proposed evictions. Here there were workshops going on, when we arrived the local residents had split into groups to work on building a picture of local work and resources, and histories thereof. We caught up with them later after a delicious dinner, meeting in the school yard in a large circle. Here we heard how the community are ready to defend their territory by force if needed, if the eviction happens.

Since 2004, mining has been a main form of earning a living in the area. In 2005, Kedadha began their interests in the area, coming to a local meeting painting the wonders of the company. Since then, they have had a strategy to penetrate the community, including the mining rights through intermediaries Jesus Ario and Fernando Ruis. Law 70 of 1993, article 44, grants the legal right to public consultation before mining takes place... of which none has taken place. The community feel backed into a corner - both metaphorically and literally, into harder to reach pockets of territory that has been theirs for 409 years.

On Tuesday morning we received warnings from 2 sources not to visit Cerro Tijeras, our next stop on the other side of the river. In the end we decided it safe to visit the lower part of the village. The area is the site of recent fighting between the FARC and the military. We wanted to see the graffiti that had recently been painted in the town, signed by the Black Eagles paramilitary group. It read "We are coming for you sons-of-bitches leaders. Thieves 8 days to give yourselves up sons-of-bitches thieves. Black Eagles. Death Melba, Enrique, Leandro, Leonardo, Meraldino". Another read "Manipulative snitch leaders. Dead. Black Eagles". It is highly unusual that the Black Eagles do this without also leaving written threats, usually a letter posted under a door. This, additional to the fact that the army are right here in the village leads to the suspicion that it was the army that painted the threats rather than the Black Eagles. We then visited the village of Olivares, where the ex-governor Enrique has now received so many threats (including being mentioned in the above threat) he has left the village for fear of his life.

Wednesday we headed to Dagua, an hour from Cali, back in Valle del Cauca, to visit Cais Maloka, a project up in the hills towards the coast. They are linked to Nueva Generacion in London, a Latin American collective working cross-culturally to raise awareness of local issues, stimulate change and promote their culture. In Colombia, they are working on building a collective farm, working with children and young people to become change-makers, and through principles of Participatory Action Research. We paid this beautiful finca a visit, and having heard that the army had stationed themselves illegally in the upper farmhouse, to see what was going on, with a local human rights defender. We found that they'd left, but left behind a "Colombian Army" towel as evidence, along with various bits of litter.

Sitting around an open fire, I watched the cloud-line sink below us. It's so hard to marry the totally tranquil serenity up here with the knowledge of what's going on in this an countless other areas in Colombia. People are afraid to talk to each other about politics, to come to meetings. Meanwhile, the water supply has been privatised and bills push higher and higher. You might understand that when you live in a city of a million, having to pay for water, but when you live surrounded by natural sources of water it really boggles belief. Not only that, but the natural water that there is, is being drained to feed the pine mono-cultures that belong to the shareholders of Smurfitt-Kappa Carton, that Irish company I mentioned. It's here that I see the real effects of capital, punishing a population for daring to try and continue existing.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Caminando La Palabra (Walking The Word)

On The Bus From Santander de Quilichao, Cauca, Colombia

For the purposes of continuity, I'm writing this on the bus, after Hermanos Lebron, on the way to a UN caucus. Actually I'm in Cali much later on, being far too tired after 4 hours sleep and dancing all night to have written this then. Plus my battery wouldn't last, the damn thing only gives about 40 minutes of charge these days. So since the last post at La Toma we've done a 2-day 40km march with 10,000 people for a Minga, and travelled to Popayan to meet groups there. And danced all night at a Hermanos Lebron gig. A heady mix of party and politics in appropriate proportions.

Walking boots donned, I finally felt glad that I've lugged them 25,000 miles around the hemisphere without having used them for more than a 2-hour hike half-way up the volcano on Ometepe. Packing the essentials - tent, sleeping mat, sleeping bag, mozzie net, spare clothes - I thought I had a light pack... it started to bite after an hour. Probably a bit unfit too...

So being a little late for the start of the march from Santander de Quilichao, we jumped on the roof of a Chiva (eye-spy's book of modes of transport was filling up with ticks). We waited for the bus to fill up - I have never yet in 10 months in Latin America seen a bus leave before its full. After what couldn't have been more than 5 minutes on the road through town, the driver pulled into a layby in front of a restaurant. And got out, and sat down, and ordered his dinner. No-one complained, or said anything to the driver, just patiently waited. This seems to be a distinctly Latin trait - tolerance. It's interesting how this translates into a history of dictatorships. You can also see the effect on kids, who seem far more well behaved despite a more lax disciplinary attitude.

colombia solidarity campaign secretary andy higginbottom interviewed by caracol tv

Having waited 25 minutes for the driver to finish his lunch, we hit the road again and caught up with the march soon enough. We joined at the front of the march, but quickly fell back with the pace being pretty fierce. National TV news crew Caracol interviewed Andy and Rogelio, with a 5 second soundbite of Rogelio's appearing in a 30-second slot about the march on the peak-time national news that evening. The march's route deliberately passed through several towns and indigenous reserves and presently experiencing conflicting armed interests. One house was riddled with bulletholes from a confrontation several days earlier between the army and the FARC. The town we stopped the night in had FARC stencils, and while the thousands of marchers were resting and enjoying the evening in the streets, several dodgy looking folk around were pointed out to us by local friends as known "demobilised" paramilitaries - now just in civilian clothes - but everyone knows them as paras.

Along the way I met Aida Quilcue who until recently was leader of the Cauca Regional Indigenous Council (CRIC). Last December, her husband was murdered in an attack seemingly meant for her. On 11th May this year, her 12 year old daughter was leaving her house when she saw men pointing handguns at her from a car parked outside. She fled back into the house, while they drove around the house until they realised she was there protected by Indigenous guards. Aida was due to come to the UK to speak in June, but had to cancel. She is due to come in September - watch this space.

We also met with Feliciano, a spokesperson for the Minga, indigenous to the Cauca. He spoke something that touched me very deeply, through a concept I admire and respect. He spoke of the liberation of mother earth, with it concepts of the importance of living in harmony with nature rather than tearing it up. He spoke of the evolution of the politics of the indigneous, as seeing a marked turning point with the 1991 Colombian Constitution, from a politics of protest to proposals through protest, from reaction to proaction. And in 2005 the campaign for the liberation of mother earth began - taking, protecting and liberating "tierra" - the earth, the ground, the soil. Francisco, from a human rights NGO Asociacion Minga, spoke about how in this area there is a permanent war between public forces and the people that has been totally invisibilised.

After staying the night, we were up and ready to smack pavement with our boots by 6am. Another 20-odd km, and we made it to Corintho, making 40km in total. Phew. Here, everyone gathered in the town square, and listened to brief speeches of all the indigenous governors from the local area. Together at the end they made a joint statement, supporting the Minga and its continuance, denouncing local acts of violence against the communities, and refusing to enter into new agreements with the government until previous agreements to protect the population are fulfilled.

On Saturday we made for Popayan, a historical colonial centre about 3 hours south of Cali. Here we met with two groups, one with the Minga, and another that exists parallel but outside of the Minga. The first was CIMA, a local group in the National Agrarian Association (CNA). Here we heard a round of presentations of local represenatives about their local issues. He heard about 4 people killed in a massacre in Peregosa in 2000, and 10 campesinos killed in January 2001, both as revenge attacks for mobilisations in 1999. Paramilitaries give out pamphlets with threats in the area. In August 2007, Smurfit-Kappa Carton de Colombia (who on their own website claim to be advancing their most "aggresive and important expansion in their history"), an Irish-based multinational, bought up huge areas of land, in some cases forcing the sale, for monoculture exotic pine forest plantations.

The local soft drinks group Postobon, in negotiations with the government, recently acquired the rights "to protect" two local lakes, the Lagunas de Magdalena and Cauca. Funny that, a soft-drinks company with a line in environmental protection of water sources. Doesn't quite seem to add up to me.

We also talked about the changes of land use over the last 15-20 years. Back then, the area produced 7,000 tonnes of food, and was almost self-sufficient. Now, that has reduced to 1,500 tonnes, and today the area imports 7,000 tonnes of food from abroad. Seems totally crazy, doesn't it, that an area so rich and fertile has to truck, ship or fly food from other parts of the world to feed it. But that's the story of Colombia, a country that imports thousands tonnes of rice from the United States!

Later we met with the Process of Popular Unity of South West Cauca (PUPSOC). They describe their work as parallel to the Minga, and in concert to it. However, they are critical of the Minga's involvement with the Peace Laboratories of Europe, formed in the Cartagena-London agreement of 2002. Effectively, state funding to construct peace, which involves a certain doublethink given the amount of European capital being pumped into Colombia, which must be seen as intrinsically linked. Especially when the third component to the Peace Laboratories is to strengthen productive industry. This article by Gearoid O'Loingsigh looks into this in detail.

We talked about local issues. In the 3 communities of Mariel, San Sebastian and La Vega, described as the crown of the Colombian Massif, Kedahda (a subsidiary of AngloGold Ashanti) have mining concessions for 3,600 hectares. This follows exploration in the 1980s by Japan International. This is described as Phase 2 of Plan Colombia: the social phase. In Valencia, a community of 800 inhabitants, there are 1600 soldiers stationed. Other local issues revolve around water - "the eyes of the future" - and the importance of defending local supplies against privatisation.

Phew. After all that, catching my eye on a poster advertising Cuban salsa band Hermanos Lebron made me very excited, having listened to them heavily on the road trip through Mexico. They were playing that night in Santander. Phil, a English guy working with groups here, and I bought ourselves a bottle of rum and hotfooted it on the 2-hour bus trip. £2 to enter, we met up with our dance partners and salsad the night away - no way to learn like in the field! The only dark spot came later on, danced out, moving to get some food, when suddenly I realised that the lush Digital SLR camera that I'd borrowed was suddenly not in the case anymore. Ouch.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

117 Families Facing Eviction

La Toma, Suarez, Cauca, Colombia

So after an hour's sleep on Wednesday morning, we arose at 5.30am to head to La Toma, near Suarez, to meet the afro-descendant community there. We left El Mesón by chiva bus, accompanied by a Guardia 50 strong. They accompanied us down to the river Cauca, where we took a boat downstream to Suarez. This part of the Cauca river was dammed in 1984-6, in the midst of a ream of incompleted impact assessments by the government. This raised the level of the river by 350m, flooding huge swathes of the most fertile land in the Cauca valley, causing displacements of thousands of campesinos.

Arriving at Suarez, I think the best way to explain what's happening there is by reproducing this Urgent Action. If you have time, please help by sending an email with the demands to the emails below.

From the human rights team of the Process of Black Communities and other organisations:

6th August is the date fixed for the eviction of the black community in La Toma, in the Suárez municipality in north Cauca, Colombia. La Toma´s Afro-descendant inhabitants have been declared ´squatters in bad faith´ in a legal possession order taken out by Raúl Fernando Ruiz Ordoñez and Jesús Sarria. Yet the presence of black communities on these lands dates from 1636, since when they have worked small gold mines which is today the only means of subsistence for hundreds of families.

The black community´s territory in La Toma district consists of 7,000 hectares, some 6,500 hectares of which, including the cementary, are sought by Anglo Gold Ashanti for exploration purposes. The company has found a fast-track to an immediate start to operations, via two mining concessions together making up 403 hectares. They are concession EKE-151 (314 hectares) held by Raúl Fernando Ruiz Ordoñez, and concession BFC 021 (99 hectares) held by Héctor Jesús Sarria. Neither of these concession holders are linked with the community, nor have they carried out any mine exploration or exploitation activities. Rather, in the light of the known interest of Anglo Gold Ashanti, these two gentlemen have initiated a legal process of expropriation that will stop the afro-colombian miners from developing the work that they have carried out for generations in this district.

Anglo Gold Ashanti and the Canadian owned company Cosigo Resort have been pressurising to take over other territorios in Suárez, and the neighbouring municipalities of Buenos Aires and Santander. None of the moves by these mining corporations respect the the right of the black communities to consulta previa (previous and informed consent) the guarantee set out in ILO Convention 169, as recognised by Colombia´s constitution, and elaborated in Law 70 passed in 1993.

This is not the first wave of evictions from this region. Back in the 1980s the construction of the nearby La Salvajina dam and reservoir system displaced hundreds of families to the urban slums of Agua Blanca in Cali and other cities. The environmental, economic, social and cultural impacts of this hydroelectric project have still not been addressed by the operating company CVC (Corporación Autónoma Regional del Valle del Cauca) or the Colombian state. In 1994 the Salvajina project was taken over by Energía Eléctrica del Pacifico-EPSA (in turn owned by Spanish multinacional). EPSA tried to divert the Ovejas river that runs by La Toma in order to augment Salvajina´s gnerating capacity.

Before Salvajina, the Afro-Colombians native to this region sustained themselves through fishing, agriculture, la balsería and mining; after the dam´s construction much of the best farming land was flooded under the reservoir, there were also drastic climate changes both of which led to a crisis in traditional farming. For most of the black community the only remaining means of making a living was through artesanal gold mining. Besides the predicted environmental impacts from the opne cast mining that Anglo Gold Ashanti and similiar multinationals want to undertake, this artisanal mining would disappear and the black communities would be displaced entirely from their territories.

In Judgement No 005 of 2009, Colombia´s Constitutional Court stated a number of transversal factors tending to cause the displacement of afro-colombians including structural exclusion, the pressures generated by big mining and agriculture, and the deficient legal protection for the collexctive territories of the black communities. The Constitutional Court drew special attention to the situation of the black communities who are the ancestral inhabitants Buenos Aires and Suárez as an emblematic case; these communities are a clear and living example of the risks pointed out by the Court of the vulnerability of territorial rights, the loss of social and cultural control by the communities, the violation of their right to previous consent, and the absence of registration of ancestral territories that even now have not been recognised as collective property titles.

The Constitutional Court ordered that there be effective participation of the communities, and set in motion a plan of monitoring that would take into account the general factors and the specific risks identified in its judgement 005. The Court ordered that the territorial rights of the afro-colombian communities be protected through the design of a plan to be implemented by 30 October 2009, characteising the lands as ancestral territory, of ethnic signficance and part of the patrimony of these communities. The artisanal gold mines constitute one of the last common goods still conserved by the black communities of northern Cauca. Their eviction from La Toma would be one more link in the historic chain of unjust expropiations that should be blocked by determined action by all the communities. We call on all Afro-Colombian organisations, leaders and other social sectors nationally and internationally to take action to demand:

1. That the Colombian Ministry of Mines and Energy revokes the mining concessions EKE-151 held by Raúl Fernando Ruiz Ordoñez and BFC 021 held by Héctor Jesús Sarria, on the grounds that has not been previous and informed consultation with the black communities living on these territories..

2. That the Ministry of Mines and Energy definitively stops the order to evict the black communities of the Corregimiento (district) La Toma, located in Suárez municipality in the north of Cauca department.

3. That the Ministry of the Interior, Justice and Social Action immediately fulfils the the Constitional Court Judgement No 005, by formulating an action plan of attention and protection of these communities, putting in place the measures organised by the Court to protect the territory and the patrimony of the communities.

4. In the case of any process concerning the exploration and exploitation of mining resources, and other projects and political or
administrative measures that might affect the black communities, the application of Consultation with Previous, Free and Informed Consent in accord with ILO Convention 169 and the national Constitution.

5. That the Ministry of the Interior adopts measures for the protection of the life and security of community leaders in the region.

Please send to the following emails a personal message with the above demands:
  • Minister of the Interior and Justice, Fabio Valencia,
  • Minister of Mines and Energy, Hernán Martínez,
  • Address for matters relating to Black, Afro-Colombian, Palenquera and Raizal communities, Rosa Carlina García,
  • Human Rights Director of the Ministry of the Interior and Justice, Rafael Emiro Bustamante,
  • Vice-Minister of Justice, Miguel Antonio Ceballos Arévalo,
  • Vice-Minister of the Interior, Viviana Manrique Zuluega,
  • Secretary General of the Ministry of the Interior and Justice, María del Pilar Serrano Buendía,
Send copies and for any other information,

Translated by Colombia Solidarity Campaign. Campaign adds please also send a brief message with the above demands to the Colombian Embassy in the UK.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Organise & Resist: the Minga

El Meson, Cauca, Colombia

So I experienced my first taste of the Minga. It's pronounced Ming-ga. It's funny, in colloquial British a minga is what you call someone unattractive, and in Spanish from Spain means cock. In Colombia, the Minga de Resistencia Social y Comunitaria is the Minga of Social and Communal Resistance, currently Colombia's most bristling social movement. Originating in the Cauca region of the South-West of Colombia, it started as the collective name for the indigenous groups and their physical collective presence. So a Minga is the gathering itself, rather than just an abstract collective noun. A good intro is here, the cover story of the last Frontline Latin America. Which, if you're interested in Latin American politics of resistance, is a superb publication and well worth the £6 subscription.

Last weekend was the Minga de Pensamiento in Bógota, Colombia's capital city, perched up at 2640m, making it the 3rd highest capital in the world after La Paz and Quito. That also makes it pretty chilly, having to wear my hoodie in the daytime for the first time since the Mexican hills in November. The Minga de Pensamiento is the ideological forum of the Minga. Since the Minga marched to Bogota last October, they have expanded their remit to include Indigenous, Afro-descendants and campesinos (farmers), and are nationalising their presence.

The Minga have 5 key points of agreement as springboards for action and mobilisation.
1. The right to life and human rights
2. Sovereignty, earth and territory
3. Plunder, displacement and economic models
4. Incompleted agreements
5. The agenda of the peoples

cuidad de bolivar, bógota

So on Saturday, we split the plenary forum from the morning into these 5 groups, to travel to different parts of Bógota for 'fireside' discussions. I went on the human rights tulpa to the Cuidad de Bolivar, in the South-West outskirts into the foothills that surround Bogota. The meeting room soon filled with over 100 participants, with an impressive amount of young people present, as well as gender-balanced. Discussion ensued around what we are struggling against (in terms of violations against human rights) and who is responsible for these violations.

"In spite of all the riches in the country, the open mine right here in our community is benefitting only the rich".

We spoke about visibilising and denouncing human rights violations - e.g. assassinations, disappearances, death threats, arbitrary detention - which are still happening at an increasing rate. We spoke about collective suicide by removing the blood from Mother Earth. We spoke about the struggle against impunity - the legal system totally failing to cope with the violence and this effect on memory. Part of the role of justice is recognition of crimes, and this has a role in constructing collective memory. This is what the campaign "forbidden to forget" (Prohibido Olvidar) work to do.

We then spoke about proposals, with a few clear ones emerging. The first was for the Minga to develop their own set of human rights norms, recognising the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a largely white-Western-liberal created set of norms. We spoke about the creation of a national Minga Guardia. Currently in Cauca, the Minga organise a Guardia - local people volunteering to take responsibility for protecting their territory - armed only with sticks but with moral supremacy. The proposal would widen this nationally, and also encompass the new expanded remit not exclusive to indigenous groups. We also spoke about modes of communication, opening new spaces to operate, communicate and organise.

Sunday we regrouped, shared summaries together, then were treated to a punk band that almost felt New Labour with the bright lights school hall feel. And then some beautiful folk guitarist afterwards. Later we took the nightbus to Cali for the next stage, around the Cuaca and Valle region.

Arriving Monday morning into Cali, we headed straight for the Resguardo de Honduras, an Indigenous Reserve where leaders have been killed and threatened by paramilitaries and the military over the last few years. 17 days ago, 3 locals were killed, claimed by the military as 'in combat'. This is a case in point in the midst of a national "false positives" scandal, where victims of assassinations are dressed up in combats and claimed as FARC deaths in combat in order to fulfil kill targets. Meanwhile, AngloGold Ashanti, a South-Africa-based mining multinational, and Repsol, a Spanish oil company, are both active in the area.

community assembly

Arriving from the bus from Cali to the nearest town to the Resguardo (Reserve), we changed buses onto a Chiva. This is a monster bus with open sides and no aisle, crammed to busting point, including the roof. Meeting us was a local Guardia Indigena escort about 50 strong. At the endpoint of the bus, we were met by another 50, who joined us for the 45 minute walk to Chorrera Blanca. We arrived at 4pm, in time for a round of introductions, in front of a community assembly of over 200 locals, again well represented in terms of age and gender.

On Tuesday the assembly began proper. Repression started in the Indigenous areas here in the 1980s, with the presence of the armed forces in indigenous territories. Then the massacres began in 3 reserves. Then they began building military bases. Disappearances followed, along with the forced displacement of a few families. More recently, the paramilitary group AUC (United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia) entered the area in late 2000. In 2007/8 threats to local leaders began - presidents of action groups, teachers, governors - threats sent by text message, spoken by phone, and written. Local human rights organisations such as Nomadesc, accompanying us, document these threats.

this man cooks for 500 people at a go! and the rice is amazing! i struggle making rice for 6.

Meanwhile, AngloGold Ashanti have 1600 hectares of mining rights in the area. Clearly, to get under the ground, they need to clear what on the ground out of the way. We have seen internal documents of AngloGold that outline figures on the amount of people that will have to be displaced in the area. AngloGold Ashanti (AGA) is actually based in South Africa, with AngloAmerican (based in London) selling their majority stake last year. South African mining capital comes straight off the back of Apartheid, with AGA set up in 1895. With the end of apartheid, AGA's interests shifted abroad to see where it could exploit, and its interests would be most easily facilitated through pliant governments and legislation. Enter Colombia into the picture.

queueing for grub

By 4pm we were ready to leave, but the governor was refusing to allow the Guardia to accompany us to the next area, 2 hours walk away. Despite this, 200 people accompanied the 5 guardia that ignored orders, walking with us to El Mesón. The late afternoon breeze cooling the fading scarlet sun against a stunning backdrop of collosal thousand metre valleys juxtaposed the relentless torture these communities have experienced for the last 30 years.

We went straight into someone's house for the classic Colombian meal - served at breakfast, lunch and dinner - of soup (variations - this time was bean soup) with rice, beans & grilled beef and a glass of panela - unrefined sugar water. At least in Colombia, unlike a lot of Central America, they don't use sachets of Maggi monosodium glutemate flavourings. Then after, as we were checking out or lodgings, the sky opened up and we were surrounded by thunder, lightening, and a trillion gallons of rain came down with what seemed like a double dose of gravity. Sitting on the veranda, watching this unfold next to a roofed hamlet square - the size of a football pitch - under which a local band were setting up, while others toiled with the fact that the place's electricity had just gone out, made for a spectacle firmly etched into my brain with fond memory.

After the rain subsided, we were treated to some live folk music, before a circle meeting with the locals, going around introducing ourselves and hearing about local issues. Key issues here were about water and power - community fundamentals - with ESPA, the Spanish water company recently privatising the water supply. Funny, in a tiny village surrounded by natural water sources, the locals struggle to get access to it. And despite privatisation, the local energy supplier gives an average of 6 days supply a month - but bill for the full month.

And afterwards, the band resumed for a jolly good knees-up. After plenty of aguardiente - local moonshine - and dancing and talking all night, I crawled into bed at 4.30am with renewed vitality after a pretty emotionally grueling few days.

local cheeky chappie

Friday, July 17, 2009

In At The Deep End

Bogota, Colombia

At last. It's finally time to get stuck into what actually motivated the whole trip in the first place for me, and began planning in 2006: spending some time on the ground in Colombia. After 4 years of solidarity work UK-side with only a 2-week whistlestop delegation to Colombian universities in 2005, I wanted to spend some time here and really feel what I was working for and with. And to question what I was doing the solidarity work for, when there's a million useful things in the world to get involved with, and particularly when local activism seems far more important and necessary. After that time in Panama, I had actually almost given up on Colombia. It seemed like things just weren't moving that way for me, as I'd intended to spend a few months here.

Well, my timing in the end was synchronous with a 3-week human rights commission from the Colombia Solidarity Campaign in the UK, that started today. Plus, something to keep me busy and my mind off other complicated and painful personal matters. It all added up to be a go-er: having been in Venezuela reminded me of the urgent need for real information from the bottom up in a world saturated by reactionary corporate news that protects vested interests and the status quo, and got me fired up again.

I heard an analogy a while ago of the role of international solidarity work that I'm particularly fond of. It's easy to dismiss any kind of political work as a drop in the ocean and thus futile - but to me this sounds like the voice of aging armchair cynics. There's 3 angles - the first 2 involve the same metaphor of building a window. First, solidarity work builds a window for the outside world, the international community as individuals, organisations and movements, to see the reality of what is happening mediated through an independent perspective without corporate funded media interests that frame the perspective their own way.

Second, the window thus constructed allows those inside to see the outside watching - the reflex to the above point. This point is fundamental - to provide solidarity is to say we are here with you in your struggle against violence and dispossession of your ancestral lands, both literally for a short period of time in person, but also in contact permanently and able to denounce acts of violence and intimidation internationally. It is this brotherly/sisterly demonstration of solidarity and human unity with people on the ground living in and organising & defending against the various instruments of the state, parastate and global oligarchy that is immensely powerful at countering the various mechanisms of divide and rule.

Third is putting pressure on the state to live up to its obligations under international human rights conventions and treaties it has signed up to. Under international law, it is the state that is responsible for "granting" these rights to its citizens - or at least defending them. Irony notwithstanding, human rights are nonetheless an instrument and point of reference to try to hold the state to account for its actions, or inactions. So, whilst the window metaphor is a little de-personalised and sealed-off, I think it's a good starting point to try and understand the role of international solidarity in supporting struggles against the common and diverse enemy - capital and its hoarders. I suppose my own fourth point is to build lasting friendships through interaction and cultural exchange.

Today was the first day of action, with meetings from 9-7. Nothing like being in at the deep end after a year of no meetings... The main order of the day was the first of a 3-day workshop entitled "The political conception of the struggle for the earth and territory, and scenarios, and tools for action". The day brought together a range of social movements from across the country, including the Process of Black Communities (PCN), the National Agrarian Association (CNA), and the Cauca Indigenous Commitee (CRIC), given as examples of how this workshop included Afro, campesino and indigenous movements, as well as academic involvement.

The ideological landscape was laid in a talk entitled "Dispossesion, Violence and Economy", coming from the idea of accumulation by dispossession, using a theory of "plunder" / ejection where resources are liberated at zero cost through the economic model / system. 2428 people in Colombia own 44 million hectares - that's 53.5% of the land in a country of 40 million people - which is an average of 18,000 Hectares per person. The next talk explained how the Spanish colonial mentality of administrate, control and dominate has never really ended, through a detailed analysis of the concept of territory.

And I've started coming down with manflu. Excellent, when listening to hours of Spanish - and taking notes - isn't hard enough to concentrate on, my body throws this into the mix as well. Nothing like a challenge though, eh? In at the deep end, adelante.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Breaking point

This is the hardest post I've had to write. The thing with a blog is that you can put your life on a pedestal for all to see. That's what I want this to be, like a diary that other people can snoop into. One perception of this is that I'm bearing all for all to see. Well, I think it's more accurate to say I'm providing a selection of insights, rather than even trying to provide a comprehensive overview of everything. This would be far, far too long and really rather boring. And there are also some things I'd prefer not to share. So this is another selection of highlights - and lowlights.

So since getting back to Colombia from seeing my uncle in Venezuela and arriving in Santa Marta, it's been a busy week. The plan was to head to Parque Tayrona, which I had to pass through rapidly on my way from Cartagena to Caracas. This National Park, on the Carribean coast, would be a highlight of the trip, many people had told me how lush it was and I had high expectations. I also had in mind my rule of expectations - the higher they are, the harder they are to fulfil. This was a golden case in point, but by antiserendipitous circumstances alone.

I met a great guy in Hotel Miramar, the cheapest hostel in central Santa Marta, the only other person in the dorm. He was also up for missioning to Tayrona - not a huge coincidence as Santa Marta is a well-heeled stop-off for folks going there. I got on great with him - I instantly liked him when I heard him talk. The way he spoke with the volume turned down slightly below average gave him a humble quality that juxtaposed his other characteristics of being a school teacher and from the U.S.

The next day we packed up and headed towards Tayrona. I received an email from my then girlfriend 3 days earlier very briefly saying she was still in Tayrona, but failed to mention where exactly, oblivious to the fact that I would also be coming at this time. So, I knew the chances of finding her to be slim, she could have left, and the park is huge, but I thought that if we were in the same park I should at least go through the motions of checking if she was there. I assumed she would go to a campsite mentioned in Lonely Planet, of which there were 4 along one route.

So we missioned on foot, quickly stopping off at each campsite to have a quick check. I found her at the fourth site, totally suprised to see me. A couple of hours later she broke up with me. Unfortunately, sunset having passed, I had to spend the night there. Early, the next morning, I left again, and started the long journey to Bogota. The next day an old friend from uni would be arriving there on a 2 week holiday, who I was planning to hook up with anyway.

So travelling alone. This was always the plan anyway. I can't decide if it was naive of me to think that this wouldn't happen. In the last year, my what-would-today-be-7-years-relationship with my girlfriend was tested to breaking point. Onwards.

Monday, July 13, 2009


After a fairly gruelling 19 hour journey, I'm back in the promised land. I've occupied the cheap but elegant large mock-antique sofa in the centre of the courtyard of Hotel Miramar in Santa Marta, listening to my rocking new mix on my headphones. I don't have a portable music player, so I can only listen to tunes when I have power to plug into. I'm glad I have decent headphones. They want 5000 pesos - about £2 - to use the wifi here - jokers! - so I'm trying out my new wifi cracking software. No luck yet.

I left Caracas on Monday night by bus, aiming for Merida. I chose to stop off here on the way back to Colombia, having heard that there are rocks to climb. I've used my harness and boots only once in San Francisco, and they take up a fairly sizeable part of my bag, so might as well give em some use. Arriving 5 hours after schedule at 1pm, I trekked down Calle 24 towards the cable car - the highest (4700m) and longest (7km) in the world - but also closed for repairs. I'm quite happy with safety-zealousness when it comes to cable cars. Right at the end, Hotel Paty was just what I was looking for, small, cute, family run and cheap - 30 Bolivars (£3).

Tuesday afternoon went on a mission to Jaji, a village a few km away in the hills. Merida is set in the middle of two ridges of the start of the Andes, 1700m up and 19˚ as I'm accurately informed by the welcome sign. Quite spectacular and very lush. Wednesday afternoon, I took a bus on my own to the outskirts of town to find a rock. The workmen working nearby to Roque de San Pedro were highly bemused at the idea of bouldering. Without ropes, I don't really want to climb more than 5ft off the ground, so the idea of bouldering is to traverse horizontally. First one guy sent me up to the top of this hillock clambering through undergrowth, only to return, quite happy with the rock at ground level. It was great to stretch all those muscles I haven't used for about 9 months since last doing it, and I'm still feeling it.

Leaving Venezuela, I can't leave out my thoughts on Chavez. Before coming here, I was fairly supportive of Chavizmo for 4 reasons. First, reforming democracy, he has empowered decision-making at the local level. Second and third, education and health have seen almost 100% literacy rates return to Venezuela and provided (basic) universal free health care. Fourth, his middle finger to the U.S. hegemonic system and development of ALBA (Alternative American trading bloc) is something I like to see.

The other story is the one generally presented in the international media, especially in America (North and South): Chavez is a crackpot despot who is enforcing his tyrannical will on the Venezuelan people. He has only managed to spend on social goods because of the unprecented high oil price in the last 5 years, and it will all come crashing down so he must be got rid of at all costs before it's too late.

Well, I think it's fair to say that my uncle and I were on different sides of Chavez's fence, but after all, I think we're both much closer to the fence than I thought at first. Although I certainly wouldn't want to make too much of it, vague parallels can be drawn to Castro's highjacking of the Cuban Revolution in the 50s (and beyond). Chavez's model of socialism is certainly heavily imposed, and the opposition don't like it, crying election fraud, which I don't know whether or not to believe. Nonetheless, I'm still (just) on the Chavez side. But it's a golden example of how one the most progressive leaders in the world is still a far, far from perfect solution for a political system, particularly one contextually mired chest-deep in neo-liberal hegemony.

It seems the wifi cracking software needs to see someone else's packets being sent in order to snoop in on it. Hmmmm.

Friday, July 3, 2009

A Tale of Two Cities

Caracas, Venezuela

Sitting at my uncle's dining table overlooking Caracas, it's quite hard to imagine what life in Caracas is really like. Last week I heard he would be going on holiday very soon, so my window of opportunity to spend some time with him and his Venezuelan family was closing by the day. After a 2-day bus journey I made it into the mad world that is Caracas.

After a couple of nice days is Cartagena, it was time to say goodbye to my girlfriend for a while. After 10 months on the road together pretty much 24 hours a day, this was the moment she had been waiting for perhaps a little more than me. Our last night together was certainly not from a Hollywood script. As we set off for an evening stroll, the big screen showing back to back Jacko hits was actually quite a nice bar where we stopped for a drink.

Smoking a cigarette outside, our host from the hostel we were staying - but moved to try and have a more romantic last night - bumped into us. She took it well, and invited us to join her for a spot of aguardiente on a bench on the main promenade leading up to the big clock tower of the old - beautiful - part of the city.

As an amusing anecdote, while we were talking, her dogs went crazy at this fairly dodgy looking street fella, which was unusual for them, which made him even more dodgy. 10 minutes later, another guy walked up to us, fumbled underneath the edge of the bench casually, explaining that he was just picking up something he left there earlier (all of these conversations were in Spanish, naturally). He walked away casually, and delivered his Coke to the dodgy guy.

Anyway, anecdote aside, the conversation with the lady was deep. Having been in Colombia 2 days, I was trying to put it all together for myself. I have read, studied, listened and talked about Colombian realities for the last 4 years in the UK. Actually being here seemed to juxtapose everything that I'd read. It's fine to walk on the streets in the evening. It all seemed rather cosy and a world away from civil war.

The lady's story brought it all crashing back into place again. She explained how her family were indigenous folk living near Medellin in the 1970s. Because her mother worked for and was quite friendly with some of the posh folk, one night they told her that that the shit was going to hit the fan that night. She put her children, aged 3 and 4, underneath the house (which was raised slightly on stilts) in the evening and went to bed as normal. The lady then explained how before dawn, she heard how gunmen murdered practically the whole village, including hearing her parents being shot dead directly above her, at the age of 4. Somehow she managed to find her grandparents and escaped, I don't remember the story very clearly after this point. This kind of put the romance for the evening on the back burner and we didn't really recover it.

The next morning at 7am I took a local bus to the bus station which was over an hour away, and bought a ticket (bargained down to $17.50) for a "direct" bus to Maicao, on the Venezuelan border, supposedly 10 hours away. One change and 14 hours later, I arrived in Maicao. On the way, the bus passed through Barranquilla, then Santa Marta, and the Tayrona National Park, the latter of which I'm heading back to in a few weeks because it is apparently stunning - jungle backing onto white sandy Caribbean sea.

As the bus pulled into Maicao, a local dude had jumped on board and organised the next leg, to Maracaibo, where I was planning on staying the night. Which was actually great timing, because it was already pushing 9pm, with a good "couple" of hours left. He took my bags and slung them in the back of a very large Chevy estate car. Luckily I was expecting this, as this is the only form of transport from here to Maracaibo, the nearest city on the Venezuelan side of the border.

This was a pretty cool journey, cruisin through the South American evening listening to tinny Argentinian pop music. Well, cruising in between the 10 times we were stopped on the road and asked for ID by various layers of Venezuelan authority.

I arrived into Maracaibo bus station at around midnight. Luckily I knew there were some cheap hotels near the back of the bus station, and headed over. Trouble was, I didn't have any Bolivars on me. The official exchange rate is about 2.5 to the dollar. But the black market exchange rate is around 6. So, the hotel owner of the cheapest place said he'd change my money at 3. When I only had a $50 note, that's quite annoying. Luckily after a little while, a guy from the next door hotel popped out to see what the commotion was about. He was a solo traveller from the US, a young teacher with lots of interesting stories. He helped me out bigtime, and saved me a lot in the process.

The next morning I started the next 12 hour journey after breakfast and a quick money change. The other confusing thing is that last year they took 3 zeros off the currency to make it a bit easier, but everyone still talks in thousands. The bus I took was the most luxurious bus I've ever got - huge amounts of room, almost fully reclinable chair - and of course like a fridge.

The only notable part of the journey was crossing Lake Maracaibo. It's a huge inlet from the sea, sitting right on top of an equally huge oilfield. The weird and beautiful thing was the patchwork quilt of green algae over the surface, it looked real trippy, like you could walk on it.

Arriving into Caracas, I hit a really lucky break. As we were getting our bags of the coach, a friendly looking fellow passenger asked where I was going, and offered me a lift. I gave him a once-over, and he was travelling with 3 children. Looked harmless enough. We piled 7 of us into his son's car and raced away from what turns out to be on of the most dangerous places in Caracas.

Caracas is built into a valley. As it's population grew to over 10 million, so it sprawled out it fingers into the surrounding valleys and up the hillsides. Consequently, it afford stunning views almost everywhere you turn.

2 quick observations about Caracas / Venezuela. One is that you can fill a 20 gallon tank of petrol for less than a dollar. The other is that food costs almost the same as the UK. Pretty weird.

Yesterday I managed to convince my uncle to let me out into the city on my own. I was accompanied by his wife most of the way, but then convinced her too that I really didn't need to be shadowed around and really wanted to amble around on my own. I checked out Bolivar's birthplace (he sure wasn't from a poor background) and hung out in the Plaza Bolivar soaking up the atmosphere and watching folk, like most people in Plaza. Not many tourists around, in fact didn't really notice any white folk at all. But nor did I get any sense of insecurity, danger, or a bad vibe at all. But I like it without the tourists, so best to keep up the charade. Tell everyone it's really, really dangerous!

In between being allowed into the city - actually it's more practical, as there isn't any public transport from my uncle's house - I'm learning html and php web languages. Might as well make myself useful... gotta go, gotta stir the famous Heston Blumenthal bolognese - the all day cooking meat in milk one. Mmmm mmmm. Dammit, didn't write about Venezuelan politics.... ha, the elephant in the room. Next post, I promise.

Sorry for the lack of photos, my camera got eaten by the postman sending it from Nicaragua to Panama. Will get another soon...