Human rights defenders Berenice Celeyta, of the Association for Research and Social Action (NOMADESC), and Judith Maldonado, of the Luis Carlos Pérez Lawyers’ Collective (CCALCP), spoke about the impact of investment and trade on Colombian communities at an event at the Amnesty International Human Rights Centre in London on 2 December 2010, called Land of Fire - Colombian communities under threat.
Berenice Celeyta: ‘We are not against development, what we are against is the irrational exploitation of our resources, especially when accompanied by crimes against humanity.’
Berenice Celeyta’s words refer to a pattern of exploitation of Colombia’s rich natural resources which she says lies at the heart of the country’s conflict.
Trade and investment can have dangerous consequences for some of the country’s most vulnerable communities, from small-scale farmers losing their water supplies due to contamination by coal mining companies, to Afro-Colombian communities forcibly displaced so their lands can be used for African palm plantations.
Many human rights violations in Colombia are linked to the illegal and violent dispossession of land. One of the most devastating outcomes of this is massive forced displacement, which is second only to Sudan in scale: The official number of internally displaced people in Colombia is 3.3 million, although according to non-government figures there are as many as 4.9 million. Of the officially registered 3.3 million, two-thirds claim to have lost their land when they fled.
Since the 1980s, the amount of land owned by the top 0.5 per cent of the population has doubled from 30 per cent to 60 per cent, with around 5.5 million hectares of land illegally appropriated in the last 10 years.
Those who try to reclaim their land are regularly threatened or even killed. Colombians in these rural communities are then further threatened by the risks associated with poverty and exclusion, including forced recruitment into illegal armed groups or involvement in the cocaine industry.
For many years, Berenice has worked alongside communities suffering the effects of this struggle over land rights. The name of the organisation she works for, NOMADESC (Association for Research and Social Action), is derived from the word ‘nomad’ to reflect the work it does with displaced communities.
Based in the department of Valle del Cauca in the west of Colombia facing the Pacific, most of the displaced peoples NOMADESC works with come from resource-rich lands in this region. Like much of Colombia, the territories in Cauca offer great opportunities for investment.
According to Berenice, there is a culture of wilful ignorance among multi-national companies that is failing to respond to human rights issues and helping to fuel the conflict in these rural areas. For example, they regularly create junior companies and change their name when investing in areas with known human rights problems.
But despite the data on the history and mechanisms of displacement and dispossession, there has been little direct scrutiny of the impact of such investments on the human rights of local communities.
As Berenice points out, many multinational companies are able to invest in Colombia because the land they occupy and the resources they exploit are only available because the communities who once lived there have been removed.
Judith, who works for the Luis Carlos Pérez Lawyers’ Collective (CCALCP) in North East Santander in the north of Colombia, advocates for rural communities that have been affected by extractive projects.
She sees foreign direct investment (FDI) in the lands of displaced communities as a continuation of a historic pattern of exploitation which affects Colombia’s most vulnerable populations.
In Santander, megaprojects have been built in sensitive environmental zones such as forests and grasslands, and in areas inhabited by small-scale farmers, Afro-Colombians and indigenous peoples.
Judith and the communities she advocates for are regularly threatened and attacked for defending their rights to challenge the negative impacts of these investments.
She is especially worried about the risks to these communities due to plans for a new economic model announced by the Colombian government, which aims to increase coal production from 75 million to 145 million tonnes by 2019, and gold extraction from 30 to 100 tonnes.
She is in no doubt that, for many rural communities, this mining-based development model will lead to an increase in human rights violations.
A Europe-Colombia free trade agreement
In light of these threats, ABColombia is campaigning for important changes to the new free trade agreement (FTA) between Europe and Colombia and Peru (known as the EU/CAN FTA), before it is finalised.
Its main concern is that this should be a ‘mixed agreement’, rather than solely a ‘trade agreement’, and it should include human rights conditions.
EU trade with Colombia is second only in scale to US trade with the South American country. As the leader in FDI (mostly in mining, oil extraction and financial services), the EU’s decision on the nature of its future business with Colombia stands to have a direct impact on the country’s communities and its conflict.
After the last negotiations in May 2010, the agreement is now in the process of a final legal drafting which, due to changes in the Lisbon Treaty, must involve scrutiny from individual EU members.
ABColombia points out that the UK government, as signatory to the Charter of the United Nations, has first responsibility for the promotion and protection of human rights.
There is much debate on the relationship between trade and human rights. The current UK government foreign policy is to focus on prosperity and security, with improvements in human rights stemming from these. However, in the case of Colombia, FDI has not led to poverty reduction so far; in fact, poverty has worsened, particularly in rural areas.
ABColombia argues that the effects of an FTA without human rights conditions would mean both Colombia and the UK lose out, as poverty and exclusion fuel violence and illegal trade.
Further, it believes that the UK government’s responsibility goes beyond the secondary effects of displacement and poverty: along with British businesses in Colombia, the UK is effectively endorsing the illegal occupation of appropriated lands, as well as crimes against humanity committed against their inhabitants. And if the land reform and repatriation programmes currently being discussed in Colombia are not effectively implemented, the UK would be supporting the legalisation of past crimes.
The Peoples’ Congress
As the future of the EU/CAN FTA is being finalised and the future responsibility of EU governments and investors towards Colombian communities is discussed, the communities at threat are ensuring that their voices are heard.
Berenice and Judith regularly give workshops on agrarian reform and land rights. This education is crucial for enabling community resistance and access to rights in rural areas. Their projects and others like them have culminated in the Peoples’ Congress (Congreso de los Pueblos), in which communities across Colombia have joined together to share knowledge and resources and form alliances in their struggles for land rights.
On 8-12 October this year, the first meeting took place in Bogota, attended by thousands of people. The Congreso hopes to form links with other groups across the world; both with other communities suffering similar threats and exploitation of their lands, and with those in developed countries whose governments’ involvement in free trade agreements will affect the outcome of their struggle.
• More information about action you can take in the UK can be found at the ABColombia website. See EU trade agreement report (pdf).
• The six organisations that joined Berenice and Judith were ABColombia, Amnesty International, Christian Aid, Colombian Caravana UK Lawyers Group, Colombia Solidarity Campaign and PBI UK.
Back to the Luis Carlos Pérez Lawyers' Collective
 Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES), Boletín Informativo No 76, 27th January 2010. (pdf)
 The Economist, Land and Violence in Colombia: This land is our land, 16th September, 2010.
 Jaime Zuluaga Nieto, National University of Colombia, Derechos Humanos y Gobernabilidad – Colombia Hoy (Human Rights and Governance- Colombia Today), presentation for Trócaire partner workshop, October 2008.
 Monitoring Commission for Public Policy on Forced Displacement, National verification process, El Reto ante la tragedia humanitaria del desplazamiento forzado: Repara de manera integral el despojo de tierras y bienes, Volumen 5, April 2009. (pdf)
 PBI Colombia, Boletín especial no 14; Forced Displacement in Colombia, January 2010, p30. (pdf)
 ABColombia, EU Trade Agreement with Colombia and Peru: Three Things Members of Parliament Can Do, (pdf) November 2010, p 5.
 CAN is the Andean Community of Nations comprising Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. (www.comunidadandina.org/endex.htm). However, Bolivia and Ecuador pulled out of the EU/CAN FTA, which is now between the EU and Colombia and Peru.
 Vienna Declaration, 1993. Signed by the UK as member of United Nations during its conference on human rights.
 ABColombia, EU Trade Agreement with Colombia and Peru: Three Things Members of Parliament Can Do (pdf), November 2010, p 4.