COLOMBIA – In 2011, Canada signed the controversial Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (CCFTA). It was – and is – controversial because for decades, the indigenous communities of Colombia have fiercely resisted what they call illegal mining projects on their ancestral lands.
Over the years, reports of mass displacements, death threats against indigenous leaders, disappearances and actual deaths have been reported by local and international media and by various human rights organizations. Guerrillas, paramilitary forces and state forces have all shared responsibility. But none of this has elicited a response, much less any kind of condemnation, by any of Canada’s political parties.
The 2011 CCFTA legally requires Canada’s federal government to submit annual reports, which must include a section on human rights violations and concerns that could affect trade relations. Human rights organizations have blasted Canada for not writing a word about the conflict in its 2013 and 2014 reports. This included making it difficult for local human rights organizations to submit their own reports before the deadline, which left many of them out entirely.
Prime Minister Harper’s Conservatives haven’t given any signs that they will acknowledge any of it this time around for their upcoming 2015 report.
But this hasn’t deterred international organizations supporting the decades-old indigenous resistance. A recent statement released by members of Nahuacalli, an international embassy of indigenous peoples, condemned the violence and asked Colombian authorities to investigate the human rights violations which peoples of the Nasa Nation have suffered in recent months.
“The situation in Colombia has been one of concern all along,” said Tupac Enrique Acosta, founder and coordinator of the community-based organization Tonatierra in Phoenix, Az, in a phone interview. “It now is an assault by the Colombian government on indigenous people, who are claiming their territories as was agreed upon.”
Acosta, of the Izkaloteta Nation (descendants of the Aztecs), is referring to more than 250 unhonoured treaties which the Colombian government signed over the years, promising to return ancestral land to various indigenous communities. Some of these have been signed as reparations for past human right violations. One example is the 1991 El Nilo massacre, which left 20 Nasa Nation members dead, including children, at the hands of state police.
To date, only about half the lands have been returned. This is the base for the resistance, which formally organized in the 1970s, and which has concentrated for the most part in Cauca, a province in South-Western Colombia.
The Conflict in Colombia
There are about 87 tribes in Colombia, which comprise about three per cent of the total population, according to the CIA Factbook. These are heavily concentrated in the southern provinces of La Guajira, Nariño and Cauca.
In the 1970s, the Cauca Regional Indigenous Council (CRIC) was formed with the objective of recovering thousands of acres of ancestral lands, which rested in the hands of a few landowners. It began organizing the native community and then mobilized it.
“By the 1990s and 2000s, it gained an impressive force,” said Jose Vicente Otero, CRIC’s cooperation and foreign relations coordinator and member of the Nasa Nation, in a phone interview. “And this has practically become the strategy for our survival, as the only option for our development.”
The national army, as well as vigilante paramilitary groups who claim they are defending the motherland by defending the multinational mining companies that operate there, have responded to this strategy over the years with brutal force.
In 2011, a Walrus article reported that by then, more than five million citizens had been internally displaced, pushed in large part by daily death threats towards community members.
The article also mentioned a 2008 report by a Canadian standing committee on international trade, which found that “many of the opportunities for foreign investment in Colombia were being underwritten by government-abetted atrocities.”
Indeed, recently a paramilitary outfit known as Rastrojos Urbanos, sent a threatening letter to several CRIC members, including Otero, who’s also a journalist reporting on the conflict. He sent a copy of the letter dated Feb. 1, 2015 to the Two Row Times.
Among other things, the Rastrojos warn that they have been spying “for years” on CRIC and other organizations. It gives about 15 names of leaders, including Otero’s, whom they warn “have pending matters with us.”
“We demand that you drop your positions and abandon the territory before we find you. You know you’re military targets, and we won’t forget it until you stop getting in the way of progress in this country… Don’t say you weren’t warned,” concludes the letter.
Despite all this, the resistance has managed to grow past the 100,000-member mark.
“There are groups in other regions of the country, but the indigenous resistance, through its history, in its permanency, has been through CRIC,” said Otero.
The Liberation of Mother Earth
Dubbed the “Liberation of the Mother Earth,” their movement seeks to reclaim the once-fertile land that has been usurped by either private landowners or guerrillas whom they claim have set up illegal sugarcane and cocaine plantations. Taking back the land is a way of defending it and of asserting their traditional way of life.
“It’s a simple but profound concept,” explained Acosta. “Indigenous peoples are reclaiming our right to identity and self-determination based on being nations of Mother Earth.”
The latest round of occupations began last December in two large farms in the municipality of Corinto, according to an article on the CRIC website. The objective is to end up occupying four of the large farms in the area which make up about 2,000 hectares. These are very large lands that often belong to one or two owners, most of whom live outside of Colombia and put up their farms for rent, said Otero.
Occupying the lands was not always the first choice. What the indigenous community continues to demand is that the lands be sold to the government so that they may then be given back to the various native groups with claims. But since asking nicely hasn’t proven fruitful, they’ve turned up the heat.
“Occupation is one of the methods of pressuring both the government and the so-called landowners,” explained Otero. “We don’t know how long people will stay, but if they’ve already begun planting corn and maize. They’re probably planning to stay a long while.”
Other tactics have included blockading the Panamerican highway – a 50,000 km system of roads connecting the entire South-American continent. Though some government officials and wealthy landowners have responded with hostility by making derogatory remarks about indigenous people, civil society has shown itself mostly supportive, said Otero.
Canada’s CCFTA is only another link in a long chain of interventions. Various reports have documented and denounced the role of Canada’s government in reshaping other country’s mining laws over the years.
Mining Watch Canada, for instance, reported that the Canadian International Development Agency financed a technical assistance project in the 1990s. It effectively “dismantled the state mining company, criminalized the artisan and small-scale mining sector, subordinated local land use plans to mining interests, and limited the role of environmental authorities.”
Over the years, Canadian companies have also come under fire. In February of last year, Cosigo Resources Ltd., a Vancouver-based gold mining company, was facing bribery allegations in Colombia. It was claimed that, in order to set up their drilling operations, the company tried to bribe indigenous communities that resisted their attempts to eliminate a nature reserve on the Yaigoje Apaporis National Park, in Taraira.
But Andres M. Rendle, Southamerican operations director, laughed and denied the allegations in a phone interview. He claimed they had stopped all operations once the Colombian ministry for the environment told them the area was off-limits as a national park.
“But then half of the indigenous communities came to us asking why we’re not working in that zone,” he said. “They said, ‘We don’t care that they put a park there, we want to work!’”
Rendle, whose company profile says he has a “military and corporate security background,” said they ended up hiring many of them as tour-guides for $25-a-day. He claimed this is what was “misinterpreted” as bribes, and insisted the matter has been put to rest.
Otero, the Colombian journalist, said it’s well-known among indigenous communities that private sugarcane plantation owners and even some “big multinationals” pay “taxes” to paramilitary groups in return of “protection.”
“It means a social cleansing. Getting rid of indigenous people getting in their way,” he said, though he clarified he had not heard of anything like that regarding Cosigo Resources.
Still, many reports have linked other Canadian multinationals with environmental destruction, militarization and human rights violations over the years. It’s also been well documented in several Amnesty International reports, among other organizations.
Otero urged the public to pay close attention to the situation in Colombia and to ask our governments to stop turning a blind eye to their plight.
“We have survived, resisted and cared for mother earth for the benefit of humanity,” he said. “Please help us by asking the government to respect the rights of indigenous people and to honour the agreements that have been made so that our communities can live in peace.”