A Hunka Hunka Burning Blog

Colombian Coal: Fueling the Cycle of Conflict

Atlantic Concession Railroad

The Atlantic Concession train, Don Jaca Photo Credit: Tierra Digna

Barges and cargo ships dot the distant horizon off the white shores of Santa Marta. Seated on the Caribbean Sea between sandy beaches, small fishing villages, and the Sierra Nevada mountain range, Santa Marta was destined to be a centerpiece of Colombia’s growing tourism industry.

But in the 1980s, as the country pushed to open doors for foreign investment and mineral extraction, the region underwent an industrial transformation. In 1982, the first coal port arrived in Santa Marta—a wide, metal pier linking shipments to off-shore barges. Slowly it became a platform for coal exports, threatening local tourism, destroying natural habitats and traditional ways of living, dividing small communities, and pillaging mineral resources.

In a country with the largest number of internally displaced people in the world, the communities in nearby La Jagua, the country’s most productive coal mining region, contain the newest experiences of forced displacement. They are caught between the contamination of once-fertile lands that are no longer apt for food production, local waterways no longer suitable for human use, and carcinogenic air-quality responsible for respiratory diseases and skin rashes.

Join the March 2014 IFOR Delegation!

There’s no better way to improve your understanding of active non-violence in Colombia, to demonstrate international solidarity, or to get to the heart of the global issues that are effecting the organizations and communities we work with, than by coming over and visiting!

We’re very pleased indeed to announce the International Fellowship of Reconciliation Delegation to Colombia, happening in March 2014. This is an unequaled opportunity to meet human rights activists, to build bridges and partnerships in Colombia, and to see first hand the impacts of structural violence and armed conflict in Colombia, all guided and translated (into English and German) by members of our Peace Presence team.

If you would like to join the delegation, please see this page for more information, fill out this form to apply, and send it to these email addresses: irmgardehrenberger[at]versoehnungsbund.at (for Europe) or spimiento[at]forusa.org (for America). Please send this page to anyone and everyone you think may be interesting in this truly amazing experience.

Looking forward to seeing you in 2014,

The Peace Presence Team

Empires of Gold and Colombian Extractivism Today


Coal Mine, El cerrejón. Photo Credit: Tanenhaus, Wikimedia Commons.

By Luke Finn

Before there was Colombia, there was the extractive industry.

The legend of El Dorado stems from a Spaniard, Juan Rodriguez Freyle, watching a High Priest of the Muisca getting covered in gold dust and jumping in Lake Guatavita, near Bogotá, in a religious ceremony that makes the Pope’s big hat and incense burning look fairly underwhelming. Naturally, the Spanish saw this profligacy and wrongheaded veneration of the Sun God Sue, decided that they themselves were far better placed to use all the gold responsibly, and set about destroying the complex societies that had flourished in Colombia prior.

Legends of cities of gold (La Ciudad Blanca, the Seven Cities of Cibola) drove men who nowadays would rightly be considered genocidaires (or go-getting entrepreneurs in the global commodities market) across the Atlantic, far from their families, to an uncertain fate—an alien environment full of strange gods, beautiful birds, jeweled beetles; the sort of landscapes working class Europeans hadn’t seen since they’d left the Rift Valley and laid it to waste.

The Spanish Empire was built on this gold (and other commodities they could “extract,” worked by the stolen people of another ravaged continent.) The Muisca did less well.

Such was the conquest of the New World, and the Spanish didn’t know the half of it.

Colombia is the world’s fourth-largest producer of coal; it has 60 percent of the world’s emeralds and is the world’s second-largest nickel mine; it is a net exporter of oil; it has copper and rare earths and all the other weird stuff you never think about in spades—silica sands, coltan, and so on—that totals more than the worth of Belgium. And gold.

Aerial Fumigation and its Discontents

By John Lindsay-Poland

Once the signature program of the U.S. drug war in Latin America, aerial fumigation of coca leaf crops is finally in deep trouble.

Fumigation’s crisis comes in a moment when coca growers, like other farmers throughout Colombia, face an economic crisis that led to a month-long national agricultural strike in August.


photo credit: FOR USA

Colombia recognized the environmental, economic, and health damages of aerial fumigation in September, when it agreed to pay $15 million to Ecuador to settle a demand the neighboring country made at the International Court of Justice, based on destruction caused by aerial spraying in border areas. Ecuador’s lawsuit cited academic studies and regulatory warnings about the health risks of fumigation with glyphosate, studies ignored by the Colombian government.


A Hunka Hunka Burning Blog

By Luke Finn

As anyone who has eaten a hamburger in Colombia will know, simply adding good things, one on top of the other, often results in a whole that is somehow less than the sum of its parts. The standard combination of lettuce, and tomato, and onions, and peppers, and bacon, and/or tiny bits of chicharron, and cheese, and mustard, and ketchup, and mayonnaise, and pineapple jelly, and pink sauce (itself a combination of ketchup and mayonnaise), not to mention the surrealist ornamentation of a hard-boiled quail egg on a toothpick, produces a dense gluey block, wholly impractical, the meat is lost, the tensile strength of the bun overwhelmed. Being English, I recognize this magpie approach to food—the ever-expanding English Breakfast, the Roast dinner “with all the trimmings,” are the defining pillars of our cuisine. However, more often than not, the urge to augment, layer, and combine endlessly finally results in the initial aim of the undertaking lost, drowned in condiments, ultimately ineffective.

Tart ketchup cutting through sharp onions, lettuce moistening dry bread, mustard highlighting savory beef, and done. Quality is better achieved through simplicity, foresight, and considered combinations. As with much in life, the work of human rights organizations can be directly related through a strained metaphor to the preparation of hamburgers.

I work for an NGO called Fellowship for Reconciliation Peace Presence (FORPP). We provide accompaniment to human rights activists here in Colombia. “Human Rights Accompaniment” is an attempt to use non-violent means to provide some sort of safety to people who live in violent situations. It is also sometimes known as “International Protective Accompaniment,” which may give you a better idea of what it means in a more practical sense.

The theory, which has been used and developed in practice since the 1980s in Latin America, is that were a union organizer, political activist, human rights lawyer, or any of the people who stand up for their rights, to come up against forces both reactionary and well-armed, the presence of an international observer, both symbolically and actually embodying “international opinion,” may provide additional security.

Just being there, physically accompanying somebody, will make aggressors think twice (although there are no guarantees they will change their minds) about attacking, detaining, threatening, or any other sort of –ing. So we make sure we are in a position to be “there” when the worst may happen.

To reinforce this deterrent, FORPP will carry out political dissuasion, utilizing the widely recognized first law of professional physics (the one about problems rolling downhill). Whether this is talking regularly to international embassies, UN, or state agencies in Bogotá, or Army and Police Colonels here where I am based with the Comunidad de Paz de San José de Apartadó, Urabá, we focus on the specific points of power that affect the chains of command that lead to human rights abuses, raising the political costs of allowing human rights abuses to continue. Maintaining pressure where decisions are made, and making life uncomfortable for those with power, constantly reminding them that there is international headache in the area, provides the political structure that supports the physical work we do as accompaniers.

Like burger preparation then, human rights work is a fundamentally proactive and practical endeavor. It is engendered by activists with a work plan, and works best when that work plan is focused and mindful of the resources and objectives at hand. Limited resources necessitate the careful selection of strategy, a clear-eyed analysis of structures of oppression and the identification of weak spots where pressure can be best applied and change effected. Choices must be made—ketchup, or mayonnaise, or pink sauce—‘all of the above’ is not an option.

As such, the work of NGOs offers an entry point into understanding the issues and power structures that result in oppression, in human suffering, and the slow shredding of human dignity.  These structures are multifarious, myriad, and muddy. Oppression is layered, more often than not a side-effect of some other process, unconcerned with the wider ramifications for other people, culture, history, or the environment.  The banality of evil has long been recognized, and the intentions that result in the removal of freedoms and the destruction of lives are generally utterly, utterly mundane. The making of money, access to natural resources, the retention or achievement of power—these are the objectives that result in oppression. It is rarely an objective in and of itself.

Effective NGO’s zero-in and carefully select how best to induce change in a system, rather than allow the diverse and overlapping systems of domination overwhelm and render their efforts null. They focus on and analyze cruelty until the strands separate in order to identify weak spots and formulate an action plan.

Like binoculars suddenly coming into focus, looking at the strategies of NGOs and human rights groups highlights the fundamental organization of processes of oppression, and throws complex structures into sharp relief.  This blog will attempt to do just that, using the numerous Colombian human rights activists FORPP works with as a lens through which large and interrelated systems of oppression can be studied and dissected. The strands thus separated and specific structures recognized, our anger can be more effectively directed. The tomato slung aside, the quail egg dropped.