Canada’s public sector union leaders visited La Maria Pendiamo, an aboriginal reserve about two hours drive outside Cali, on July 21 as part of their ongoing tour of Colombia.
About 100 residents joined the Canadian leaders for a discussion about the situation they face under the government of Alvaro Uribe, including the methods the government has promoted to curtail their freedom.
At the open-air meeting, Luis Evelis Andrade Casama, president of the National Union of Indigenous Peoples (ONIC) led the presentations with a strong denunciation of those methods. “Uribe is trying to force a neo-liberal model on us,” he said. “He talks of liberty as a concept that private property owners can have, but what about the rest of us?”
“Uribe is preoccupied with the possibility that the dispossessed, like us, will rise up,” he added. “He has no respect for the basic rights and freedoms guaranteed in a democracy. He has invented what we call ‘sausage’ laws where all the good stuff goes to the rich.”
A free trade agreement with Canada is motivated by the mining sector, he said. “We think the Canadian government wants a free trade agreement because of mining. We need help from the Canadian mining unions to confront this problem.”
The people of the region, called Cauca, are mobilizing to take back their land. They are worried that free trade will destroy their environment even further and that they will lose their water rights.
“We will lose a lot more land under free trade,” said one presenter. “We have already lost our rights. Free trade would be detrimental to us.”
“Our basic fight is about the new economic model being forced on us, particularly the privatization of water,” said another.
Canadian leaders pledged to tell Canadians that the situation is worse here than Prime Minister Stephen Harper has led them to believe. What the leaders saw and heard contradicted his view that human rights problems are not a major concern.
“A free trade agreement would benefit a small number,” said one indigenous presenter. “It won’t help us get more rights. It won’t help us to be aboriginal people in indigenous nations.”
“This country has been kidnapped,” said another presenter. “We need to say ‘No’ to large-scale exploiting companies.”
“A strategy of repression needs a strategy of resistance to defend our lives,” said another.
Earlier, the leaders heard from CRIC, the regional council in Cauca that was organized in 1971 to protect small indigenous communities and defend aboriginal rights.
The CRIC representative spoke of their lands being flooded without compensation, ancestral culture being erased, and the many social problems bred by poverty. “Big monopolies are threatening the rights of all the ethnic peoples of the territory,” he said. “But we are resisting by occupying large farms that were once our lands.”
Since the 1980s, with the coming of more privatization, the big mining companies needed more water, he explained. A dam was completed in the region in 1984. It flooded aboriginal land, but the indigenous people were never compensated.
The Spanish multinational company in charge of the dam promised better services, but they never materialized. The CRIC continues to fight for the government to fulfill those promises.
Another CRIC spokesperson charged the Uribe government with lying to the international community about Colombia. “The historic process of extermination has been made permanent by this government,” she said. “It’s like slavery has come back.”
The Canadian union leaders are Denis Lemelin, national president of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, Paul Moist, national president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, John Gordon, national president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada and George Heyman, international vice-president of the National Union of Public and General Employees.
The group continues its tour of Colombia this week with more meetings and visits to examine human and labour rights, working conditions, and exchange views on free trade and the absence of human and labour rights guarantees. They plan to meet with the outgoing Canadian ambassador, government officials and members of the opposition. They will also discuss privatization and other problems with public sector trade unionists.
The leaders return to Canada on July 25.