Economy & Trade, Headlines, Human Rights, Labour, Latin America & the Caribbean

COLOMBIA: Miners’ Woes Heard – If Faintly – in US

Helda Martínez

BOGOTÁ, Mar 20 2007 (IPS) - The pattern of persecution of miners in Colombia overlaps with the map of operations of foreign corporations, especially U.S. companies, Colombian trade unionists told a U.S. legislator.

“We believe it’s a deliberate distortion to present the problem of human rights violations in Colombia as the result of a simple struggle between good guys and bad guys,” lawyer and trade unionist Francisco Ramírez told IPS. “What is happening here is a war of economic interests.”

Ramírez was speaking before a Mar. 3 meeting between trade unionists and U.S. Democrat Representative James McGovern in the Colombian capital, to which IPS had exclusive access and in which the workers said they were “tired of our people being killed, of the constant abuses and the impunity.”

Three days later, a federal judge in the U.S. state of Alabama, Karon Bowdre, announced to the press that on May 14 the U.S. mining company Drummond would be put on trial for the murders of three trade unionists in Colombia.

Valmore Lorcano and Jaime Orcasitas, president and vice president of the Sintramienergética mine workers union, were murdered in March 2001. The two men worked for Drummond in the northern Colombian department (province) of Cesar.

Six months later, the same fate was suffered by Gustavo Soler, who had assumed the presidency of the trade union after Lorcano’s death.

“Given the impunity that reigns in Colombia, and the origin of Drummond, we brought legal action in the courts in that country,” Ramírez, the secretary-general of the Union of Workers in the Mine, Energy, Metallurgical, Chemical and Related Industries (Funtraenergética), told IPS.

For its part, the attorney-general’s office “took into account the testimony of Rafael García, former information systems director in the Department of Administrative Security (DAS), under arrest in Bogotá, who last year accused one of Drummond’s lawyers of paying alleged members of paramilitary groups, who were responsible for the workers’ deaths,” Ramírez told McGovern.

In Drummond, in El Cerrejón and in other coal mines, at least one worker a year is murdered, which reveals the lack of humanity and prevention on the part of the multinational mining corporations and national companies, said the workers in their presentation to the lawmaker from the state of Massachusetts.

El Cerrejón, the largest open-pit coal mine in the world, is owned by the British-Australian BHP Billiton, the British-South African Anglo American and the Swiss Glencore International corporations.

In the past 20 years, the worst persecution of the labour movement in the world has been seen in Colombia, they added.

Because the tragedy is only getting worse, we consider it our duty to address the U.S. Congress to inform them of the direct or indirect responsibility of some subsidiary companies of U.S. firms and of the Colombian state in this list of violations of labour, trade union and human rights, said the labour activists in their presentation.

In Colombia, a country of 43 million, five million people depend on mining for a living, according to figures from Funtraenergética. Between 15 and 18 percent of the mine workers are under the age of 18, and 22 percent are women, who mainly work in gold mining along the Pacific coast.

Colombia is rich in minerals, including oil, coal, gold, emeralds, silver, nickel, limestone, iron, copper, zinc, lead and gravel.

The union representatives showed McGovern, using maps and documents, the patterns and forms that harassment and violence against mine workers take in Colombia.

They pointed out, for instance, that 87 percent of the nearly four million people displaced by Colombia’s armed conflict over the last two decades were fleeing municipalities in mining regions. In addition, 89 percent of the trade unionists who have been murdered were active in those same municipalities.

Hundreds of thousands of people of African and indigenous descent have been forcibly displaced from mineral-rich territories like the department of Chocó, which stretches along the Pacific Ocean in western Colombia up to the Panamanian border in the north. The region is rich in gold, silver, platinum and other natural resources, said the trade unionists.

A similar situation is faced by the Uwa indigenous people in the central-eastern Sierra Nevada de Cocoy mountains, who see oil as “the blood of Mother Earth.”

But the California-based multinational Occidental Petroleum corporation, with the backing of the Colombian state, is destroying ancient forests as it explores for oil, the trade unionists told McGovern.

La Guajira, Cesar and Norte de Santander, northern departments that border on Venezuela to the east, are rich in coal, as are other regions that the unionists said are suffering from forced displacement and persecution of labour activists.

The conditions faced by mine workers and unionists worsened after the adoption of a mining code in 2001 and of a national mining plan for the 2002-2006 period. These measures fomented private investment and put small-scale miners on the same level as large mining companies, making it impossible for them to compete with large foreign corporations.

“It’s unfair,” Juan Pablo Soler, a researcher with the environmental group Censat – Agua Viva, told IPS. “The situation of a small miner cannot be likened to that of a multinational corporation.”

The mining code paved the way for the installation of industrial mining complexes on the outskirts of cities.

In Bogotá, for example, the Mexican cement company Cemex was authorised to extract construction materials and clay from the Ciudad Bolivar neighbourhood on the extreme southeast edge of the city, “where you can see how they are destroying the hills where most of the displaced people who have sought refuge in the Colombian capital have settled,” said Ramírez.

After the meeting, McGovern told IPS that “I can’t promise” any immediate changes in the conditions facing Colombian workers. But he said he could offer his utmost cooperation and stressed that for him and many Democrats, labour conditions and respect for human rights are important, and that they will take them into account in their decisions.

The U.S. Congress has yet to ratify the free trade agreement signed by Washington and Bogotá and must approve the funds for the second phase of Plan Colombia, a U.S.-financed anti-drug and counterinsurgency strategy.

McGovern introduced a bill for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, sits on the House Rules Committee and the House Budget Committee, and is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

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