Fredericton – “We fear the Wayúu will become completely extinct,” warned Angélica Ortiz at a special hearing of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington, D.C. this past March. The Constitutional Court of Colombia agrees with Ortiz’s assessment. In 2009, the court named 34 indigenous nations in Colombia – including the Wayúu – to be in danger of physical or cultural extermination due to armed conflict and forced displacement. The court called the situation “an emergency which is as serious as it is invisible.”
Ortiz, a Wayúu woman from Colombia’s La Guajira peninsula, linked the extinction of her community to the expansion of the world’s largest open-pit coal mine, Cerrejon, which is owned by three mining giants, BHP Billiton, Xstrata and Anglo American. Ortiz feels that the mine is responsible for escalating armed conflict, violence including sexual assaults, widespread environmental degradation, loss of food crops and increased incidences of cancer and other health problems. According to Ortiz, people in her community feel compelled to flee and the displacement is threatening the survival of her indigenous community.
What does NB Power have to do with the imminent extinction of the Wayúu? NB Power’s Belledune plant burns coal extracted from the mine threatening Ortiz’s indigenous community. Coal extracted from Cerrejón is exclusively exported to meet the energy demands of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Massachusetts and other areas.
Coal from Colombia has been dubbed “Colombian blood coal” because of violent displacements of communities and assassinations of union leaders at the country’s coal mines. Colombia has the horrendous distinctions of being the most dangerous country in the world to be a unionist and having the second highest number of internally displaced peoples of anywhere in the world.
About 4,000 trade union leaders have been murdered in the last two decades in the country. On March 22, 2008, Adolfo González Montes, a worker at Cerrejón and union leader, was tortured and killed at his home. He is survived by his wife and four small children. The Colombian government’s failure to act on such crimes allows the perpetrators to kill trade unionists with impunity. Frederictonians held a fundraiser for the slain unionist’s family in May of that year.
Depending on the source, between 3.9 million to 5.5 million people are internally displaced in Colombia. Many of the people violently displaced from their homes come from lands rich in oil, gas and minerals where many Canadian oil and mining companies have investments. Since the development of Cerrejón in 1982, indigenous Wayúu and Afro-Colombian communities in La Guajira have been forcibly displaced from their lands. Traditional agriculture-based livelihoods have been destroyed by dispossession of the land and industrial contamination. During the violent displacement of the Tabaco community, José Julio Pérez told an audience in Fredericton in 2006 that several people, including himself, sustained serious injuries after being attacked by police. Other communities including Tamaquito face similar fates with planned expansion of the mine.
On a 2006 delegation to the affected communities, Jairo Quiroz, a union leader said, “Their fundamental rights have been violated. These communities lack the most minimal conditions necessary for a decent life. They seem to belong to the living dead.” Debbie Kelly, an RCMP forensics officer from Halifax, Nova Scotia, who participated in the same delegation, reported, “Some only eat every three days and for the smiling little children, it is hard to take. Even though their little bodies are racked in open sores from contaminated water, they don’t cry.”
Despite knowledge of Colombia’s deplorable human rights track record and resistance from Canadian and Colombian social movements, Canada forged a free trade agreement with Colombia in 2010. Free trade critics say the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), serves the interests of capital. They describe free trade agreements as a mechanism that allows soaring profits and reduced labour costs through the super-exploitation of workers in economically and politically oppressed areas. Labour unions, human rights organizations and church groups across Canada decried 45 assassinations of trade unionists in Colombia in 2009 as reason enough to oppose the deal. The agreement was also signed amidst the “false positives” scandal where members of the Colombian army were revealed to be killing citizens then dressing them up as guerrillas or paramilitaries to say they were killed in combat.
While Canada opens its trade lines with Colombia, it is closing its borders to Colombians critical of Canadian-backed industries. Jairo Epiayu Fuentes, a Wayúu man from Tamaquito, was scheduled to speak in the Maritimes about the imminent eviction of his community for the expansion of the Cerrejon mine just before the signing of the free trade agreement in 2009. His two attempts at receiving a Canadian visa were denied. Although denied entry into Canada, the community leader was granted a multiple-entry visa into the United States. Both applications were filed within weeks of each other.
Canadian activists monitoring the situation in Colombia say that the Harper government is blatantly ignoring the large number of cases that Colombians and Canadians have and are continuing to bring to the attention of the Canadian government both before and after the signing of the free trade agreement.
Kimy Pernía Domicó, an Embera Katío indigenous leader, was abducted and disappeared after he visited Canada to speak out about the impacts of a hydro-electric project on his people, which was partially financed by the Canadian crown corporation, Export Development Canada. His whereabouts remain unknown. Today, the Embera Katío people also join the Wayuu as one of indigenous nations on the brink of extinction. Father José Reinel Restrepo, a parish priest in Marmato, was murdered after speaking out on national television against the plans of Canadian-owned Gran Colombia Gold to mine in Marmato in 2011. The mine is set to displace an entire town. Meanwhile, the Harper government has cut funding to organizations like Kairos, a church-based group known for their work raising awareness about the abuses of Canadian mining companies and free trade agreements.
There have been active campaigns in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and the northeastern U.S. to educate the public about the human price of their coal consumption. Acting on the wishes of the unionists and community leaders in La Guajira, the campaigners demand that electricity-generating companies, like NB Power, buying coal from Cerrejón put pressure on the company to negotiate fair agreements with communities affected by the mine’s operations.
Jesus Brochero, a union leader with Sintracarbon, the union representing 3,500 direct employed workers at Cerrejón, visited the Maritimes in December 2008. He spoke to public audiences in Fredericton and Tatamagouche, NS on a tour sponsored by the Public Service Alliance of Canada. He met with New Brunswick’s union leaders in Moncton. He also met with NB Power executives in Fredericton to discuss the situation of workers at the mine and to ask for NB Power’s support in their demands for safe and healthy working conditions. The workers are concerned about prolonged exposure to carcinogenic substances and they want the company to categorize the substances they encounter at work as hazardous.
The Fredericton Peace Coalition, Atlantic Regional Solidarity Network, Development and Peace and social justice groups have asked NB Power to develop a detailed human rights policy in their business dealings and to ensure compliance with this policy through an independent third party. NB Power has been asked to ensure that their purchases, operations or investments do not directly or indirectly cause human rights abuses. They have been asked to include International Labour Organization standards concerning the rights of indigenous peoples and the safety of trade unionists in their policy.
NB Power, a provincial Crown corporation with a mandate to serve the public interest, has acted on requests to write letters to Cerrejón asking for fair dealings with the affected communities and their workers. In contrast, NS Power, now a private company owned by Emera, has refused to continue meeting with Nova Scotians concerned about the human rights violations at the areas where they purchase their coal. A group of Nova Scotian labour and social justice activists are organizing a campaign to make their power utility public again. While NB Power has been open to meet with New Brunswickers concerned about the use of Colombian coal, they have yet to respond to the requests concerning the ethics of their operations.
In an attempt to address human rights concerns associated with the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, the Canadian government committed to carrying out an annual human rights impact assessment, the first of which was due on May 15th. However, instead of assessing the serious human rights violations brought to the fore by numerous organizations, the Harper government tabled a brief report that said they would not be releasing an assessment until 2013. Meanwhile, over a quarter million people were forced from their homes and lands in 2011 because of violence associated with political and economic interests, according to Jennifer Moore. Moore who covers the Colombia file at Mining Watch Canada calls the report, “A sick joke and an abrogation of the Canadian government’s responsibility to ensure respect for the human rights of affected communities where our companies are operating. Canadians should be infuriated about what our government is turning a blind eye to and the narrow interests this serves.” Canada is about to sign another free trade agreement with Honduras, now known as the murder capital of the world. One person is murdered every hour in Honduras.
Thousands of mineral, oil and gas concessions have been granted or requested over approximately 40 per cent of Colombia. According to a Mining Watch Canada report, Canadian companies operating in Colombia are aggravating, causing or benefiting from the forced displacement of communities, widespread environmental harms and the annihilation of local livelihoods and food security. While the Harper government refuses to acknowledge the many serious human rights problems associated with their pursuit to forge friendly foreign investor relations with the resource rich country of Colombia, social movements in Colombia as well as organizations here in Canada like Mining Watch Canada and Amnesty International are alerting the public to the imminent extinction of entire peoples like the Wayúu and demanding an end to the extermination of indigenous and Afro-Colombian community leaders and trade unionists in Colombia.