Between Cacao and Coal

Accompanying the Regional Human Rights Corporation (CREDHOS) is never dull.  It´s one of the first organisations that PBI started to accompany in Colombia and they almost know us better than we know ourselves. There´s always a good atmosphere and spending time with them is a real pleasure.

It´s a Saturday.  We are in the car chatting, gossiping and telling jokes.  We leave Barranca, the road is heavily militarised because of the agrarian strike and the concentration of campesinos in Lizama (at the entrance of the city).  Wilfran and Larios tell me about past times and laugh as they remember that they always arrived late to meetings because of the military check points along this road, and despite the changing circumstances, they still have not learnt to arrive on time.  They joke with me about past strikes where buses and cars were set on fire and they say, smiling: “Hopefully it won´t happen when Hannah´s here in the car with us!”.  This dark sense of humour is something I´ve notice in many of the people we accompany, almost a mechanism to cope with the situations they experience on a daily basis.  They somehow find the strength to continue fighting from these difficult moments.

But from one moment to the next I see a certain sadness in Larios´ face as he gazes at the mountains that surround the Sogamoso resevoir, on the way to San Vicente de Chucurí (Santander).  Majestic mountains ambundant with vegetation and impressive biodiveristy that represents life.

“If the proposed mining projects start in this area, these mountains will disappear”, he tells me in a worried, but by no means surendered tone. These mountains are pure coal, 33,000 hectares of which have been sold to mining companies to start extracting this conflict-ridden mineral.

Once again I land in reality.  Despite the jokes, these people continue to fight against powerful interests to demand that the rights of the colombian population are respected throughout the country.  It is an tireless activity that brings with it risk and not much reward, expecially in the colombian context.

We accompanied Credhos to a meeting in San Vicente de Churucí where cacao farmers from the country´s most important area for growing cacao spoke about the issue of mining and its impacts on the production of cacao.  Although the armed conflict isn´t felt in this area specifically, the social and economic conflicts continue to rage and affect the lives of thousands of inhabitants.

This municipality of 40,000 inhabitantes, of which 2,600 families live off the production of cacao, produces 6,200 tons of cacao every year. The threat that mining poses doesn´t just mean huge environmental impacts but also a brisk and deep change in the social fabric of the population. The population of San Vicente de Chucurí is a farming population.  The municipality boasts three different climates, meaning it can produce all types of food and should be able to easily guarantee the food security of the entire population.

Crehos has seen the social deterioration (in many other contexts throughout the country), that small towns suffer with the arrival of big mining companies.  Campesinos become miners, they lose their tradition farming skills and become dependent on an economic model which requires them to earn money to buy food, rather than growing their own products.

Throughout the meeting representatives of the various associations share their concerns and ideas about the causes of the problems they see these days in their municipality and the impacts they have had.  They highlighted the lack of a feeling of belonging to the countryside of San Vicente de Chucurí and because of this, a lack of organisation in the communities, which the companies make the most of to divide the population ensuring they don´t provide effective resistance. They also spoke of the lack of State investment in the region in terms of education and health, bringing with it a lack of opportunities for the population of San Vicente de Chucurí.

From this meeting, Credhos committed to developing a training and capacity building plan for the community leaders so that they can train others and the community as a whole can articulate their concerns to the government.  This would mean coming up with a counter-proposal to the imposition of an economic model based on mining, which would include the strengthening of the countryside and a focus on food sovereignty.

As always I am left hugely impressed by the committment of the human rights defenders we accompany.  They never stop fighting for the rights of the people, despite the huge risks and big obstacles they face.  They continue to come up with creative and new ideas to ensure that the colombian population know their rights and demand them from the government.  And until these problems cease to exist, PBI will be proudly accompanying them.


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