Monday, August 17, 2009

El Petronio

It was a tough call. Last time I was in Cali, 2 weeks ago, I was sketching out my plans. The Mompox Film Festival was, like Parque Tayrona, one of the only clear things I really wanted to do while in Colombia - other than the last few weeks' commission - and look what happened there. So, no great surprise then, the Law of Plan B prevailed. It was described as unmissable - thousands of people dancing and stomping to marimba bands for 4 nights in a row.

I've just about caught up on my live music drought. Hermanos Lebron, the Cuban salsa band, in Santander de Quilichao last month was a start - but these last 4 days have been utterly amazing, reminiscent of Carnival in Panama. Last night had me actually welling up with tears, for the second time in as many years. Maybe it was the 'viche'... Around 9pm, this group appeared on the revolving stage, as the last were revolved away behind them, a troupe of about 60 kids, aged between 4 and 16. Playing marimbas, drumming, stamping, and singing, they made an emotional impact on me that I won't forget.

Petronio Alvarez is the name of the 13th Pacific Music festival of Cali. Busloads of Afro-Colombians from Choco, Buenaventura and communities all along the coast converge on Cali to witness this spectacular event. For 2 days, back to back bands from 6pm to midnight compete in various categories to see who gets to play on the final day. Saturday is the special invitations days, where famous bands & old winners play and Sunday is the final. The revolving stage ensures there is little more than a couple of minutes between acts.

We were lucky enough to have colour photocopied some press passes, and had access to the central arena. This free festival takes place in the Plaza de Toros - a huge bullring. The stage is set up at one edge of the ring, and about 40,000 people fill up the tiered stands. In the bullring we packed in about a thousand people on Sunday. The atmosphere is crackling with excitement, and the dance moves are incredible. I remember turning around at several points to see literally the whole panorama from top to bottom moving and arm-waving in step.

To me it seems like there are two types of bands - the marimba bands that generally have a lot of drums and those with violins. It's my theory that because this is only the second year with violin bands, that they need another few years practice and audience appreciation until they get better and faster - the rhythm is just a bit too slow on the whole and doesn't really get the crowd going as much as the drums - when they get going something magical happens and I just can't put words to it.

And then at midnight every night the whole place decants to Calle Pecao in the centre, and the Parquedero (the car park) around the corner. Last night there must have been 2000 people in the car park all shaking and moving to miramba sounds from a fat, very loud sound system.

The pacific drink of choice is viche - it's my informed guess that this is made from fermented sugar cane juice - it has that grassy earthy sweetness that French Agricole style rhums do - with a punchy rough kick. It's known as a Pacific aphrodisiac (on Saturday a beautiful latina testified to that) and they sell it in reused plastic bottles - proper homebrew.

Last night nearly didn't happen. We turned up at 6pm on the dot, along with 25,000 other people. The VIP (performers and press) queue was a mess, the cops just standing around and the security shouting at a raging mob of 250 people baying at the gates telling people to get organised and into queues without any success. Pisspoor organisation. After being in this writhing mob for an hour, finally made it into the outer enclosure, and were greeted by a 100 person queue to get into the inner arena. Finally at the front, the security guy took my pass out of the holder, said to me "es una copia" and put it into his hand with a wadge of at least another 50. My mate had just made it inside ahead of me, he passed his copy out (mine was a copy of a copy) and after another 20 minutes queueing made it in for the final night. I could only last until 2am this morning, I think some of the last viche I had was a little more potent than normal and dragged myself to bed.

Monday, August 10, 2009

How To Blow A Week's Budget in 24 Hours

1. Have a real pint of real ale - at Bogota Beer Factory - the first in over a year, while catching up with a mate you haven't seen in 4 years. 9,000 pesos (£3)
2. Have a cocktail in a bar on your first blind date. 12,000 pesos.
3. Taxi home. 8,000 pesos.
4. Buy nearly brand new Lumix camera, probably stolen, to replace the Digi-SLR that got stolen which you were borrowing because yours got stolen in the post. A bargain second hand at 115,000 pesos (£40)
5. Buy flowers for your friend's parents to apologize for waking them up and scaring the crap out of them at 2am because your key snapped in the lock of your own door, after walking around for an hour unsuccessfully trying to find mobile phone credit, but at least avoiding sleeping in the street. 5,000 pesos.
6. Buy a piece of acrylic to cover the hole in the door that you broke in the hope that the door wasn't double locked. 2,000 pesos.
7. Buy a ticket for the nightbus to Cali to go to a Pacific music festival. 55,000 pesos.

No dinner for a month then.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Colombia Solidarity Campaign - Comission 2009

Here is a clickable summary of the six parts of my report in order - as brief as I could make it.

1. In At The Deep End - 16th-17th July, Bogota
2. Organise & Resist: The Minga - 18th-21st July, Bogota, Cali & Cauca
3. 117 Families Facing Eviction - 22nd July, La Toma, Suarez, Cauca
4. Caminando La Palabra (Walking The Word) - 23rd-26th July, Cauca
5. 4 Days & 4 Places - 27th-30th July, Cauca
6. 19 Days And Still Standing - 31st July-4th August, Cauca, Caldes, Tolima

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

19 Days And Still Standing

mining community at La Marmota

weighing up 2 days work

Well, a day off after 19 days of meetings on the trot. Nothing like it after a year long break from it all. And I spend it writing about meetings. Sucker! Back in Cali, in the tropical heat...

So last Thursday after leaving Cais Maloka, we came back to Cali, where we had a couple of meetings with some local trade unionists. Then that evening, we took the 5 hour bus to Manizales, in Caldas, ready for our meetings with communities around Riosucio, where AngloGold Ashanti are active.

Friday was a packed day, with 2 days worth of stuff squashed into one, as the next day we were invited to Cajamarca for a symbolic action of resistance against AngloGold. We were whisked to the first Indigenous Reserve of Escopetera Pircie, for breakfast with the local human rights groups. The general format for meetings is that we have a go-around, everyone introduces themselves and gives a summary of what their interests in the meeting are. I've got my patter pretty down by now, and it's funny how the 4 of us change our intro depending on what order we are sat in.

This area, the department of Caldas, is a particular hot-spot thanks to its geostrategic location in the middle of the gold triangle of Bogota-Medellin-Cali. Nonetheless, the usual topics came up, AngloGold Ashanti active in the area, Smurfitt-Carbon also active with their massive mono-culture pine forests, and water issues. 3,500 people have been displaced from the Reserve in the last 20 years and there have been 450 assassinations recorded. Since the 2003 Inter-American Court of Human Rights case about the area, there have been 167 assassinations. 80% of these have been declared "crimes of passion" by the state. All this, and the area is now declared a "post-conflict zone". So AngloGold can come and sweep away the remaining people and tear up the stunningly beautiful countryside to create open-cast gold mines for their shareholders to line their pockets. Post-conflict...

After breakfast, we were taken to the town centre, and into a building with stunning views of the surrounding hills through the large windows. The visit was very ceremonious, with generous helpings of a panela-clove drink that reminded Andy of cough syrup. A lady in long white robes stood at the back of the room blowing cigar smoke over the heads of the audience with a cleansing wave. The meeting was opened by the governor, contextualising present day defense of territory and biodiversity within 500 years of resistance to imperialism. Now, the community's position on mining is a clear no to multinationals. However, a more complex explanation of how they are resisting was lacking.

After lunch of rice, plantain, potato, yucca and chicken wrapped in banana leaf, we got back in the 4x4 (paid for by a recent EU project) and were taken to the San Lorenzo Reserve. Here we met 25 local community representatives, 90% men, in a school classroom. The conversation here was a little more pointed, looking at strategies of resistance. First, the local tradition of mobilization means that they seem to be ready if things kick off. The trouble is that the plunder is usually given a veneer of legality, so that by the time evictions come they are backed by the long arm of the law. Really, mobilization needs to be pro-active and national, rather than local and reactive. Second, the role of the guardia has the potential, at this stage seems more like symbolic resistance rather than arming the barricades. And thirdly, the role of indigenous medicine, which I would like to know more about, but didn't get the opportunity to explore further.

reason number 8 against large-scale gold mining: water pollution

Back to Manizales, we then had meeting 4 on day 16 in a row. Initial impressions were cagy - in a fairly grand hotel meeting room, with folk that seemed generally more middle-class than we are used to working with. One reason I enjoy working with the Colombia Solidarity Campaign is that the focus is really on grass-roots movements - indigenous, campesino, afro communities, generally rurally based folk. Nonetheless, having meet with the communities, it was interesting to see the more NGO-type groups organising around local issues. Genuine social change can happen when the middle class unite with the base, so interesting to see the angles here, and good to see the themes of territory, displacement, multinationals and human rights violations on the agenda.

Saturday morning, up at 5am, and the day exactly one year ago I left the UK. We said goodbye to Rogelio and Lucia, leaving 2 of us, as they headed onwards and we caught the bus to Cajamarca. Cajamarca is in the region of Tolima, also within the Bogota-Cali-Medellin triangle, and where AngloGold Ashanti have been most active in trying to win over the community. Specifically, we were going to a local school, where AGA delivered a load of paint to brighten up the school. The community decided to return the paint, did a whip-round in the village, bought their own paint and today were painting the school. A huge symbol of grass-roots defiance and resistance to corporate attempts to buy off the community.

Later in the afternoon, after interviewing a few of the locals involved, we headed back into the town to meet with local activists in the community. The angle into mobilization against AGA here is socio-environmental. What AGA have up their sleeves is plans for one of the world's largest open-cast gold mines - right in the middle of some of Latin America's most stunning countryside and fragile war-battered communties. They have had numerous schmooze-the-community events, and recently a helicopter dangling a strange probe was seen flying at low level around the valleys.

The key demand of the community is a full independent socio-environmental investigation into the impact of the mine. Part of this would include the potential effects on the El Machín volcano - open cast mining involves use of vast quantities of dynamite - whilst within 15km lies Number 2 on the world list of volcanoes in most danger of erupting, which would cover the town of Cajamarca in at least 20cm of lava. The other demand is what the law demands - a public consultation - amounting to a regional referendum of all areas involved. Another legal element is the mining concessions that include protected forest areas - how would these forests be protected if turned into an open-cast mine?

Sunday we spent the morning in the town square interviewing locals on their views on the mine. Their opinions ranged from the environmental to the social - all opposed - a key concern noted was the impact on town society. Workers would be brought in from all around the country, undermining local trust networks, and bringing social ills such as prostitution, robbery and burglary. One wisely noted that not a single open cast gold mine in the world had brought any benefits whatsoever to the local community. Later we met with the local mayor. Basically he didn't want his neck on the line, and played a very middle of the road line. Unsuprising, but disappointing.

Monday we hit the road for Marmota, backtracking through Manizales to Caldas, as this was mentioned when we were there as being a very interesting and sad case study of multinational exploitation in gold in the area. Rather than restate the facts - this article gives an excellent history, published in Canada, where Colombia Goldfields, the company involved, is based. No UK involvement here, but an excellent example of why mining multinationals are bad news.

And now, I'm alone in Cali, ready to head to La Toma for the planned eviction on the 6th. It's been a marathon, but absolutely enchanting to get to know rural Colombia with an insider's perspective, not on the tourist trail and have an emotional connection. It's a magical place, replete with a turbulent history of 500 years of oppression and imperialism, still strongly redolent of Spanish colonialism despite celebrating 200 years of "independence" next year. But resistance is strongly rooted in the blood of Colombians, Afro-Colombians, campesinos and Indigenous alike. The seeds of hope of a brighter future are spreading, slowly, and cannot be extinguished, no matter how many U.S. military bases they build.