Fredericton – A Colombian union leader, lawyer and survivor of eight assassination attempts told a crowd gathered on November 24 in the province’s capital that New Brunswickers have a responsibility to know about and act on the blood coal that is leaving his country and being sold to NB Power.
Francisco Ramirez Cuellar spoke of the murders, violence and poverty linked to multinational mining companies in his country and asked NB Power to put conditions on the coal leaving his country. He believes that if NB Power cannot guarantee the rights of labour and indigenous peoples from its current sources it should buy coal from co-operative mining operations in his country that respect the rights and lives of workers and people affected.
Ramirez also wants workers in Canada to get their pension funds to divest from mining companies implicated in egregious human rights violations. “We want workers in Canada to have good pensions. Workers everywhere deserve good pensions but pensions should not be invested in companies that are killing us in Colombia,” said Ramirez in a meeting with union leaders in Fredericton.
NB Power imports coal from the Cerrejón coal mine that is owned by multinational giants BHP Billiton, Anglo American and Glencore. The world’s largest open-pit coal mine is linked to the murders of union and community leaders and violent forced displacements of communities.
Besides Cerrejón coal, NB Power confirmed at a meeting with Ramirez on Nov. 24 that the public utility is also buying coal from Glencore’s La Jagua mine and a mine in Montana, U.S. The coal is burned at the Belledune Generating Station in northern New Brunswick.
Colombia has the highest rate of assassinations of unionists in the world. About 3,000 union organizers have been murdered in the country in the past 25 years. One of the attempts on Ramirez’s life happened while he was walking with his children to a lunch counter in Bogota, the country’s capital.
José Julio Perez from Tabaco, a community that was displaced by the Cerrejón mine, told a Fredericton audience in 2006 that 500 soldiers and 200 police officers forcibly evicted the residents of his Afro-Colombian community before bulldozing their homes in 2001. Indigenous Wayúu, one of the most endangered indigenous communities in the world, have also been displaced for the mine. An estimated 5.8 million people are internally displaced in Colombia.
Jairo Quiroz, a union leader in Colombia, told a 2006 delegation of Canadians and Americans from places that buy the Cerrejón coal that the affected communities’ 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,” said Quiroz.
Debbie Kelly, a RCMP forensics officer from Nova Scotia and a 2006 delegation member 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.”
SINTRACARBON, the union at the Cerrejón mine, has included the demands of the affected communities, including compensation, in their collective agreements. The union will soon be negotiating a collective agreement with Cerrejón, making a letter from NB Power to the mining company very timely and important for the workers, says Ramirez.
Ramirez is again the subject of an action alert demanding his safety. Now, a leader with the federation of energy sector unions, FUNTRAENERGETICA, Ramirez is under serious threat from paramilitary groups in the country because of his union activism that involves a number of lawsuits against Canadian and multinational mining companies for their involvement in assassinations and displacement of thousands of Colombians.
Ramirez’s union is moving forward with a lawsuit against Alabama-based Drummond Coal for war crimes. Ramirez says they plan to sue Cerrejón for similar crimes as the company is implicated in the murder of eight indigenous Wayúu women in 2004 in Puerto Bolivar, the port community where the coal leaves on boats owned by Canada Steamship Lines, once owned by former Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin.
In his 2004 book, The Profits of Extermination: Big Mining Colombia, Ramirez explains that Canadian organizations like the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and the Canadian Energy Resources Institute (CERI) were involved with rewriting Colombia’s mining code to make mining more favourable to foreign investors in the way of reduced royalties. Ramirez argues that the new mining code is not providing the revenue it should from his country’s mines, revenue that is needed for essential public services like healthcare, education and drinking water.
Exxon-Mobil and the National Colombian Mining Company started the Cerrejón mine in 1982. The International Monetary Fund imposed free market reforms on Colombia in 2002 and the mine was sold to a consortium of multinationals. Today, Anglo-American, BHP Billiton and Glencore, three of the world’s biggest mining companies, own the mine. All three companies are implicated in human rights abuses and environmental degradation in the Philippines, Brazil and elsewhere.
Ramirez’s tour in Canada was organized and supported by the Atlantic Regional Solidarity Network and was supported locally by the Fredericton & District Labour Council, the Association of UNB Teachers, the Public Service Alliance of Canada and St. Thomas University’s History Department.
Tracy Glynn is a member of the Atlantic Regional Solidarity Network and a board of director of MiningWatch Canada.