By Stewart Vriesinga, Sunday April 26th, 2009
In some circles –and I must include Canada’s Prime Minister Harper here—the human rights situation in Colombia has greatly improved, and Colombia has entered a post conflict era. Colombian victims of ongoing violence, however, strongly disagree. Colombia’s traditional victims of violence continue to be the victims of death threats, mass displacement, and extrajudicial killing. How can the Canadian Prime Minister then arrive at such different conclusion about the conflict in Colombia?
Whether or not one considers the conflict to be resolved depends largely on how one was experiencing the conflict. If Prime Minister Harper saw the conflict as problematic primarily because it presented a problem to Canadian business interests –especially the Canadian mining industry—then he is correct in his assessment that things have greatly improved. Canadian mining corporations can now relatively safely enter the country and extract resources without fear of i) their workers being kidnapped or their property being destroyed by the left wing insurgency, or ii) having to meet cumbersome environmental, labour, tax and royalty requirements. The strength of the armed left-wing insurgency is greatly diminished, and foreign mining corporations can now count on military bases being built near their base of operations so there is little risk of having their personal kidnapped or their property destroyed. At the request of the Canadian government adjustments to Colombian laws have also been made that favour Canadian mining corporations.
Furthermore, the fact that Colombia has over 4 million internally displaced people, most of them displaced from the rural sectors, actually favours the mining industry. Many of the displaced were once occupying the very land that the mining corporations hope to exploit. Hundreds of thousands more –many of them small-scale artisanal miners and peasant farmers—face the prospect of future displacement when their mines and land is turned over to foreign mining interests. That the very same military charged with providing the foreign mining companies with security is under investigation for assassinating leaders of the organized artisanal miners, and has falsely accused them of being guerrillas and thrown them in jail; or that the leadership of artisanal miners and peasant organizations are still being threatened and assassinated by paramilitary organizations which have been shown to have ties with the Colombian government actually facilitates the corporate take-over of Colombian resources. Even the aerial spraying of peasant food crops –along with the occasional coca plant—serves to depopulate the country side to make way for mega projects like mineral extraction and palm oil cultivation. It is now clear that the victims of future violence are likely to be limited to those who non-violently resist the neo-colonization of Colombia’s wealth and natural resources, not the workers of Canadian and other foreign corporations. In this context it is not surprising that Prime Minister Harper and his government are not deterred by the overwhelming evidence of on-going human rights abuses in their rush to push through a free trade agreement with Colombia.
For Canadians and North Americans it is important to understand that this is a question of North-American-based corporations expropriating the wealth of Colombian campesino, Afro Colombian and First Nations’ communities –most of whom have never accepted neo liberalism, free trade or the western economic development model. Forcing them off their land is nothing short of cultural genocide. Prime Minister Harper may well believe that free market economics is the best development model for Canada, and insofar as an FTA with Colombia would allow Canadian firms to colonize the wealth of Colombia’s marginalized peoples, it may well be economically beneficial for Canada. But that does not justify the robbery and plunder of Colombia’s most vulnerable peoples. (Nor the continued robbery and plunder of Canada’s own First Nation peoples for that matter!)
The dispossessed and soon-to-be dispossessed peoples of Colombia know that a free market economic development model, whether or not it increases the GDP of the country as a whole, is no good for them. (The considerable economic activity of rural peasant societies does not register in the GDP of the country since it is largely subsistence and is not tracked or monitored in any way.) Their access to even the most basic necessities such as food is in jeopardy since they will lose direct access to food when they lose their lands, and will not be able to find adequate employment to meet their and their children’s food requirements in the cities. Today’s paper cites the following statistic:
92% of displaced people work in the informal sector, of which only 11% have an income equal to or greater than the Colombian minimum wage. –p. 51, the Espectador, Sunday April 26th, 2009.
In Colombia, as in much of the world, free market economics does not provide employment for the people it physically and economically displaces. The security and future of Colombia’s peasant, Afro and First Nation communities are clearly not served by this neo-liberal economic development model. They should have the right to refuse it. As long as that right is not being recognized –and it clearly is not—they should not be threatened, displaced, imprisoned or killed with impunity for their refusal to comply. Their culture and way of life should be respected and left intact. If the Canadian government or any other government disrespects that right it is complicit in cultural genocide.