Humanitarian Spaces for Transnationals: ‘Social Partnership’ in Colombia
By Gearóid Ó Loingsigh
Originally published in Periferia No. 11, Medellin, Colombia.
21 August 2006
This article was originally written for a Colombian audience, but anyone familiar with social partnership structures, or with the state-sponsored community organisations that dot the North will have no difficulty in following the argument.
The reference to African palm crops may cause some confusion. One aim of the US sponsored ‘Plan Colombia’ is to end Colombian self-sufficiency in food production and to switch agricultural production to the production of African palms that can produce plant oil reserves for the American market.(Website editor))
The EU’s Humanitarian Spaces in Colombia are not a minor component of its intervention in Colombia and in a way are more worrying than the African palm crops they finance. To their defenders the Humanitarian Spaces are a tool for building dialogue and harmony. According to the EU vision and that of the World Bank (which partly finances the laboratories and moreover has been financing the managers of the first peace laboratory in Magdalena Medio namely the Programme for Development and Peace in Magdalena Medio or PDPMM) the organisations of the communities are weak with very little ability to engage with the state and other entities.
Whilst it is true that the organisations are weak it is not something innate. The organisations in Southern Bolivar, where there are a number of Humanitarian Spaces, are weak due to the decisions and the actions of the paramilitaries and their founder, the Colombian State. It is not the case that they are weak because they know no better and need someone to give them a hand but rather it is the result of state policies. It is interesting in this context that one of the aims of the EU is the strengthening of State institutions.
In 1998 the communities of Southern Bolivar organised a mass exodus of peasants that travelled to the city of Barrancabermeja and occupied it for three months. They returned to their farms after negotiating agreements with the Colombian government. The agreements were synthesised in a document called the Integral Plan which was signed by all the spokespersons of the Exodus. The government decided to ignore the agreements and the Integral Plan. A wave of violence without precedent was unleashed upon the communities. Hundreds of people were murdered at the hands of the paramilitaries and state forces. Edgar Quiroga, one of the most well known spokespersons of the Exodus was disappeared on November, 1999 and the Colombian State brought criminal charges against various leaders in the area. When it came to bringing criminal charges there was no lack of resources or willingness on the part of the State, in other words they didn’t need the EU to come along to strengthen the judicial system. The EU’s proposal ignores what has happened.
They say they aim to strenghten the communities’ organisations and “build spaces for dialogue and agreement” where everyone has a place, including the authorities and private capital. According to the EU, the Peace Laboratory in Magdalena Medio has become a:
“space for an exchange of ideas, debate and the search for solutions to the different regional problems, relating the subregional to a regional, national and international level.”Up to a certain point it is true, the laboratory and the Humanitarian Spaces are the settings where the future of the region is debated instead of the social organisations which have shown great ability in the past to mobilise and negotiate and deal with the government or fight it, depending on their needs or analysis. The Agromining Federation of Southern Bolivar(1) no longer does this as a grass roots organisation. Instead its members “do” this through the Humanitarian Spaces and other structures. Accordingly, it is not surprising that the PDPMM is involved in the negotiations with the Mining Ministry on the future of the craft miners in Southern Bolivar.
The PDPMM has a dark past on this issue which they have never clarified. Following their mantra that the “Magdalena Medio is to be built by everyone” they invited the miners to dialogue with the Illera Palacio Family, usurpers that tried to take over the mines over which they had no right. Their lack of rights to the mines did not stop the PDPMM calling for arbitration between the miners and the Illera Palacio. Fortunately at that time the miners walked out of the arbitration.
Today Anglogold Ashanti in the shape of their subsidiary Kedahda S.A. has returned to the zone. They have 2000 hectares in their own name and a further 10,000 in the name of their substitute manager. The army is building a high mountain range base to the protect the interests of the Kedahda S.A. So what do the Humanitarian Spaces do? They negotiate without mobilising, as one of the pillars of the spaces is to respect the institutions and dialogue is almost an end in itself rather than a mechanism for achieving objectives.
As the EU said, the laboratory is the point of exchange of ideas and experiences. Where are the communities in this process? They are submerged in structures created by NGOs and the EU instead of fighting for their future under their own banner as they did in 1998. There are no, and neither will there be, any large mobilisations in the context of the Humanitarian Spaces as this type of activity breaks with the institutions, the law and the “dialogue” which forms the ideological basis of the European intervention in this country.
The EU has no interest in upsetting large scale mining activity, as the natural resources of Colombia are at stake and European companies are the ones that are buying them up, companies such as Repsol, Endesa, Codensa, BP, Suez, Aguas de Barcelona and Anglogold Ashanti. Although the latter is theoretically South African, the majority of its capital as its name indicates is English. All of the Peace Laboratories are situated in areas which are of interest due to their natural resources.
In the Oriente Antioqueño there is great interest in the generation of electricity and it is not suprising that ISA and ISAGEN (energy companies) have had a hand in the foundation of Prodepaz (the entity which manages the Peace Lab). Also in Cauca there is a lot of interest in the mineral deposits and the water resources. Such is the interest that the new EU project is to finance through the IGAC (2) the improvement of Colombian cartography and through this identify the location of the natural resources.
The EU wants its companies to have access to the natural resources of the country as does the World Bank and both of them favour free trade. These are undisputable facts. It is unthinkable that these institutions want to strengthen the communities that are going to hinder the development of the multinationals plans. In fact, we can see on the ground that they are not doing so. The communities participate in the Humanitarian Spaces and engage with and respect those who seek to rob their mines, i.e. the Mining Ministry which cannot be considered a neutral actor under any circumstances as the mining legislation was drawn up by the lawyers for the multinationals with the blessing of the Ministry. The Kedahda’s presence in Southern Bolivar is due to the changes made in the mining legislation. The manager of the Laboratory (PDPMM) organised an abitration between the Illera Palacio and the craft miners in the 1990s. It would be no surprise if they were to do so again in the future with the Kedahda. The Kedahda’s presence in the area complies with all the requirements of the law (a law drawn up by mining lawyers).
In legal terms there is nothing to discuss. The fight is political in nature and requires the mobilisation of the communities with political demands rather than the dialogue and harmony with which the Humanitarian Spaces aim to steal the mines from their rightful owners. When the communities drew up the Integral Plan they demanded (they didn’t ask) that they be trained to dialogue and engage with the government but according to the text of the Integral Plan they wanted to be trained to be able to fight the state if it were necessary. Do the Humanitarian Spaces prepare the people for that outcome? No. The Peace Labs are also a state project as outlined in the National Development Plan Towards a Communitarian State. It is hardly credible that the Colombian State has the aim of mobilising and defending the communities that hinder their economic mega projects.
The communities are demobolised in the face of this problem and they have gone up the garden path believing that the Peace Laboratory and Ministry of Mines are an obstacle to the entry of foreign capital, as stated by a leader in the area, when all the EU documentation and the Laboratories speak of free trade and the interests of the European companies in Colombia at a time the Colombian government is auctioning off the mining rights in the country.
Without a doubt the best trick the devil did was to convince the world that he didn’t exist. The second best trick was to convince the people to hand over their souls without them realising what they had done.