MAC: Mines and Communities

Colombia is a dangerous place to be a trade unionist

Published by MAC on 2008-04-27

by The Guardian

Colombia is a dangerous place to be a trade unionist. Teofilo Acuña is president of the mining federation of Sur de Bolivar, an area in which violence and disappearances have escalated since the arrival of multinational mining companies three years ago. AngloGold Ashanti and its subsidiary Kedahda SA have legally frozen 3.7m hectares of Colombian land and applied for mineral exploration. But the communities of Sur de Bolivar live on a portion of this land and survive on small-scale gold mining and subsistence farming. They are engaged in a fierce struggle to defend their territory

'Only united can we affirm our right to life, peace and permanence in the territory,' reads a sign written by the Agro-Mining Federation. I couldn't have known as a child that by the age of 13 I would join the ranks of the displaced, and that as an adult I would be the victim of judicial persecution and be hiding from death threats as a result of my trade union work.

I was born near the Venezuelan border in 1962, son of a campesino [subsistence farmer], and when I was six months old my father received a government grant for virgin land in the inhospitable jungle,surrounded by mountains,of Sur de Bolivar, the southernmost region of the Colombian state of Bolivar. We were colonisers.

When I was 13 years old some local latifundistas [owners of vast tracts of land] stole our land. They had already killed our neighbours and threatened us and other campesino families. So we were forced to flee.

The area of Sur de Bolivar is full of displaced people, many escaping violence and/or moving because of economic necessity. It is a fertile region with great biodiversity, where gold mining was introduced in 1981. At the age of 19 I became a miner.

Until 1985 Sur de Bolivar had little in terms of social investments - no schools, health services or water - nothing. In that year we had the first march of the campesinos from Sur de Bolivar to the state capital Cartegena to draw attention to our lack of infrastructure. There were 8,000 of us and we travelled six days by boat and bus to reach the city.

Success! Shortly after our march we signed agreements with the government. But to our fury these were not honoured, and we had no choice but to create our own solutions. We formed a local council for community action and drew up a development plan, as well as initiating a number of associations that included mining.

By 1994 the Colombian mining and agriculture sectors were in crisis. At this time, and because small-scale gold mining was expanding in the region, we formally established the Association of Mining of Sur de Bolivar, the Asoagromisbol. It is now 15,000 strong and known as the Agro-Mining Federation of Sur de Bolivar, the Fedeagromisbol.

That same year the government declared our mining titles illegal. We appealed to the government and, relenting, they granted 100 hectares for each of our 25 associations as a sort of amnesty for small-scale mining. We supplied the requisite paperwork, but again the government retracted, stating said that 70% of the areas we applied for were already claimed by one owner, the Palacio family. We swiftly learned that the multinationals, Conquistador Mines (Canada) and Corona Goldfields, were interested in our area.

We lost our land. We began to fight both the multinationals that were trying to lay claim to our mines and government reforms that included the introduction of a new mining code.

We discovered that the new mining code had been written by Dr Luisa Fernanda Aramburo, the lawyer for the Palacio family who had falsely claimed our land. This is one of those corrupt practices in Colombia where land is allocated as a kind of arbitrary gift for vested interests. We started reporting this malpractice to the appropriate officials, and throughout 1994-95 we mobilised against it.

In 1996 we staged a big demonstration to reclaim our land. The response was more paramilitary soldiers and their massacres and assassinations. This savagery culminated in the beheading of one of our leaders by the paramilitary who then used his head as a football.

At the time I was working as a miner and organiser for the now officially registered Federation, which included proposing ideas to local and national governments. In 1997 the paramilitaries, condoned by the Armed Forces, killed our vice president.

A year later there was a big mobilisation of campesinos and miners. As a result we managed to block the government’s mining reform, freeze the purchase of land in certain areas and secure government investment in small-scale local mining.

The government said that to obtain this investment we must temporarily put our land on the market and they would return it to us. Although worried, we agreed to do a pilot project in one area. "No," said the government, "we’ll lift the ban on 10 areas." But then we discovered that the officials working on our project also worked for the multinationals.

Since March 2006, when the community said no to the multinational interests of AngloGold Ashanti and its subsidiary Kedahda SA, there has been strong military presence in the Sur de Bolivar. Miners and their communities have been threatened, houses burned down and even food for school lunches stolen in an attempt to "persuade" us to welcome the multinationals.

In September 2006 the Colombian Army murdered Alejandro Chacon, my friend and a local mining leader. The army claim he was an ELN guerrilla who was killed in "combat". A legal enquiry is ongoing.

Six months later we were in the Federation office, about to attend a meeting with the national government to sign agreements, when the Army stormed in. They arrested and beat me along with the secretary and the defensor del pueblo [the local ombudsman]. I was imprisoned. Thanks to local objection and international pressure I was released after 10 days, but the case is still open.

My arrest was a result of army "intelligence" that claimed I was organising anti-multinational meetings and demonstrations after the death of Chacon. Further, I participated in the International Caravan [a protest march throughout Colombia with international participants]. All this was perfectly true, but perfectly within the law.

Five days after my release I received an email threat calling me a terrorist and a guerrilla, and stating that I would pay for what I had done along with the others involved. The threat was anonymous, but I believe it came from the army because while in prison I heard a soldier say: "He is never going to be released. This will be his end."

I fled and now live far away in Bogotá. To get to my community in Sur de Bolivar takes 19 hours by bus, boat, car, jeep and mule. The community supports me so I can continue my work.

Despite my absence the army keeps on harassing Federation meetings. At one time the SIJIN [a special investigation group within the police] were following my older children. Two months ago I went back for the first time to attend a Federation meeting, but was once again threatened and had to leave. The Federation also received threats against local priests, development and peace workers.

Despite these death threats, we will not give way to the multinationals and the expropriation of our land. We will continue to campaign for peace in our territory - gold is our life and should not cause our death.

[Teofilo Acuña was talking to Saundra Satterlee]

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