Colombia Delegation – Day 3

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Today we flew to Puerto Asis the main town in Putumayo which is in the far south of the country bordering Ecuador and Peru. It is a tropical region which is part of the Amazon Basin. It is rich in natural minerals such as oil, gold, coal and cobalt. Despite that the region has very little infrastructure, a poor road network and virtually no links to the centre of the country.

The region has a population of 400,000 of which 50,000 are indigenous people. In the 70s and 80s the Putumayo area saw increasing development in the Coca trade such that it is the main cocaine producing area. It also remains a conflict area where there is an on-going war involving the army, Farc guerrillas and paramilitary groups. The day before our visit the fighting was about an hour away from Puerto Asis.

The area was declared a mining area in 2008. This means that it is open to multinational companies to exploit the natural resources of the country. There has been a significant knock on effect on the population. There are 14 indigenous tribes in Putumayo, until recently they were all based on tribal lands. There are only two remaining indigenous tribes who have not been displaced. This is largely attributed to the development of multinationals coming into the area and wanting to exploit the natural resources.

Silent March for the dead – Puerto Asis

We spent most of the day in a meeting with people from across the region. About 200 people attended in all some with long journeys - in some cases by canoe. The groups included trade unionists, civil societies, human rights groups and indigenous people. Over the space of about 4 hours we heard from numerous people about their own treatment or that of their families or colleagues.

The Permanent Committee for Human Rights (CPDH) talked about their work in the region. In February 2011 a hearing was held in Putumayo to document and receive testimony of human rights abuses. Over 800 people testified, speaking of assassination, forced displacement, torture, false court proceedings, massacres, mass graves and more. Despite CDPH presenting the evidence there has been little if any follow up by the Government. All of the groups involved in setting up the hearing have subsequently been subject to threats and 'slander' - public accusation of involvement with terrorism.

Due to the exploitation of the natural resources, there has been increasing and severe damage to the environment. We were reminded that the Amazon is considered the 'lungs' of the planet. Within the Colombian Constitution there is a requirement for the local population to be consulted before any new mining takes place. Local residents explained this often does not happen. Rivers, water sources and marshland have all been contaminated by oil production through spillage and other factors.

The agricultural workers union Fensuagro are one of the few trade unions active in the area. They explained that as well as damage from the oil industry, widespread damage has been caused to legitimate farming by 'fumigation' which is spraying herbicide designed to tackle the Coca industry as part of the US sponsored Plan Colombia. 40,000 hectares have been sprayed in Putumayo and the chemicals have caused widespread displacement of communities as well as health problems.

The oil workers union USO talked about industrial action they had taken in 2011. Following this on 17 January 2012, Mauricio Redondo, one of the USO leaders was assassinated along with his wife in Puerto Asis where we were meeting. Teaching unions have also been targeted and we heard of more than one case of the Colombian army occupying local schools on the premise that the school was a 'terrorist' Farc school.

We heard about systematic displacement of indigenous populations and other communities. The pattern followed is paramilitaries enter an area, several people disappear over a series of days. This is followed by assassination of community leaders. Once panic has set into the local population the paramilitaries tell them to leave or face the same fate.

About 5 million people or more than 10% of the Colombian population has been forcibly displaced. The local people explained that once displaced it is impossible to return. Most displaced people live in shanty towns around Bogota or other major cities in conditions of desperate poverty. The practice was described as reverse land reform - taking land from the poorest in society and giving it to the richest.

The people and organisations have sought to protest about the situation they face. Protests have always prompted a retaliation, either public accusations and stigmatisations which can typically form the basis for death threats or more serious violence. At the same time as the human rights hearings in February 2011 several people were massacred including the vice-president of a neighbourhood association and a 5 year old girl.

Silent March – Puerto Asis

At the end of the meeting the groups attending held a silent march to commemorate the people killed in the region. We joined them on the march. Seeing the people who had spoken to us walking silently through the streets of Puerto Asis was really moving. Joining them felt a small thing to do but also an incredible privilege.

The last thing we did in Puerto Asis was to go to the Mayor's office. The Mayor was not available and we spoke to the Vice Mayor. Having heard so much all day about the threats the local population face it was disappointing that the Vice Mayor said that it was very important that we were there listening to the concerns of the common people who are the victims of illegal armed groups.

We asked him about the state involvement in repression, the state use of 'slander' as a tool against trade unions and activists and the problem of political prisoners in Putumayo. The Vice Mayor said there was categorically no involvement of the state in repression. Where soldiers or police had done something wrong they had been prosecuted and these were isolated incidents. There was no slandering of opponents and no political prisoners. Rob Flello one of the two MPs on the delegation replied that the Vice Mayor was describing a wonderful country that sounded like a place we would like to visit one day but it was not the country we were visiting now.

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