Working to support communities threatened by state and corporate violence
In Colombia the interests of transnational corporations are imposed through violence. State-linked paramilitaries drive communities from their land to clear the ground for mega-projects such as oil in the regions of Arauca and Casanare, coal mining in the region of Catatumbo and palm oil along the Pacific Coast.
Espacio Bristol-Colombia is a collective of volunteers working in solidarity with activists and communities who face threats of murder and imprisonment as a result of their struggles for land rights and alternatives to corporate globalisation. This project has been created in partnership with COSPACC, an organisation set up by displaced community leaders from Casanare, who oppose BP’s oil exploration activities.
BP’s continued presence in the region has created a humanitarian and ecological crisis. This one year project aimed to facilitate and strengthen Espacio Bristol-Colombia’s ongoing work of helping to create safer spaces in which resistance and building alternatives to the fossil fuel and agro-fuel industry in Colombia takes place. We believe that climate change cannot be tackled without supporting communities in resisting energy ‘mega-projects’ and in their demand for popular sovereignty over energy resources.
We also believe that climate justice work must include strengthening the voices of Colombians involved in challenging the root causes of climate change, building lasting solidarity links and exchanges of knowledge and experiences between Colombian and British grass-roots social movements.
Physical solidarity accompaniment
The presence of ‘internationals’ is used as a strategy to deter repression by the Colombian State who impose fossil fuel ‘development’ projects onto communities and then use repressive techniques to ensure that their operations are not met with any demands for social investment. This violent repression is carried out by both the Colombian Armed Forces and by paramilitary groups and has resulted in more than 4.5million people – 10% of the population – becoming internal refugees.
Four Espacio Bristol-Colombia volunteers spent a total of 23 months in Colombia as part of the Network of Solidarity and Friendship with Colombia http://www.redcolombia.org/
With the support of Artist Project Earth, we were able to provide training, financial support for the volunteers’ visa and travel costs and a debrief session upon return to the UK.
In Colombia they accompanied social organisations in Arauca and Casanare, regions where BP and Oxy operate; Sur de Bolivar, a zone earmarked for uranium mining; in Valle de Cauca, a region covered in sugar cane for ethanol production, amongst others.
In north-west Colombia, in the mountainous region of Catatumbo, Espacio volunteers have accompanied the grass-roots organisation, CISCA, in their vital work to rebuild the social fabric after 6 years of violent paramilitary occupation during which, routine massacres forced a third of the population to flee.
This reconstruction of the social fabric is enabling them to build autonomous local level development plans which are sustainable, in balance with the natural environment and meet their own needs and desires. They call these ‘Planes de Vida’ and are in opposition to externally imposed ‘development’ plans based on the exploitation of oil, coal, and palm oil plantations.
However there is still much fear and anxiety. People know that the first killed are those involved in community cooperatives or local community councils: “It is important that people like you come and accompany us as then we don’t feel so alone and vulnerable in the work we are doing.” – A young Catatumbo leader
The presence of internationals and their support networks back in the Global North shows communities that there will be a response if violence returns and this helps people feel more confident in becoming part of community-organised life.
Awareness Raising in the UK
These first hand experiences have been a source of knowledge and inspiration to carry out awareness raising work back in the UK. One volunteer coordinated the production of a small booklet http://bioduels.blogspot.com/2009/05/my-leaflets-ready-at-last.html that discusses the effects that agrofuels and oil production have on Colombians as individuals, communities and as a country. This is then used as an educational tool to encourage discussion and critical thinking.
Another volunteer has given talks based on her experiences accompanying communities who live surrounded by sugar-cane plantations, used for ethanol production. In her talks she re-contextualises climate change and global energy politics in terms of climate justice, particularly focusing on ‘green’ solutions such as biofuels.
Pen-Pal Protection Plan
This project involves people in the UK ‘twinning’ with a threatened Colombian and letting the authorities know they are watching over their safety. This project, created in partnership with COSPACC, emerged in response to the human rights violations that the communities in Casanare face due to their resistance to BP’s oil exploration and extraction activities.
The money gifted by APE has been fundamental to getting the project started, paying for three workshops with Colombian penpals and for postage of the letters.