Canada’s public sector union leaders visited Agua Blanca, the second largest Afro-ethnic community next to Brazil in South America on July 20 as part of their ongoing tour of Colombia. What they saw was maddening and heart-rending.
About 1.5 million people live in Agua Blanca. That’s more than half the 2.5 million population of Cali. And many of them live in squalor. The tiny streets are almost impassable by car and in some parts of this community of the displaced, they become running sewers.
Children run everywhere. There is no school for them and little potable water, electricity or other services for their makeshift houses. As the children grow older they become users of a low-level cocaine extract called basuco. Gangs roam the streets after dark.
The leaders entered one dilapidated brick structure to find one room divided by a curtain. Eighteen people live there. The single mother and her children were shy to meet outsiders. They are concerned that they will be hurt by other groups in the community who see them as interlopers.
The deeper into Agua Blanca one goes, the poorer are the displaced families. In one wooden structure, the leaders spoke with a grandmother. Her spouse had been murdered by paramilitary death squads and she and her children and grandchildren were told to leave their rural community.
It was a too-familiar example of companies, some created by former paramilitary leaders, pushing people off their land to make room for mining, eco-tourism and other money-making operations. There is no compensation. The families of Agua Blanca arrive with nothing and have little hope of finding work. Some call the process ethnocide, the systematic destruction of communities.
Earlier in the day, the leaders learned from a lawyer for the Afro-Colombian community that blacks are the poorest of the displaced. For years, they have been victims of discrimination and violence from armed groups on both sides of the conflict, the armed forces, the paramilitaries and the FARC guerrillas.
“First, the paramilitaries pushed them out of their rural homes,” the lawyer said. “Then, when they looked up to heaven for help, they saw helicopters fumigating the land with herebicides.” The aerial spraying is supposed to be used to eliminate coca plants (from which cocaine is made), but it is also a way to force communities to move off their land.
In a graphic description of the brutality of the death squads, the lawyer said “they would cut up the bodies, put them in bags and float them down river. No one was allowed to touch the bags. When the river narrowed, the body parts would be strewn on the shore” as a reminder of the paramilitaries’ terrorizing tactics. The same thing would occur along the roadsides.
Another Afro-Colombian told the leaders that the paramilitaries patrolled the waterways and controlled access to the only route for the locals to get food. “If you had a bag of rice on the way down river and it was not there when you returned, they would accuse you giving it to the guerrillas.” They have “privatized the rivers and contaminated them with fertilizers and other chemicals,” said another.
The leaders also met with staff and volunteers for NOMADESC, a non-governmental organization supported by CUPE and the British Colombia Government Employees’ Union, a NUPGE affiliate. They work with the people of Agua Blanca and other displaced communities, providing legal advice, training and other services as well as acting as their voice and helping to mobilize resistance.
“We go out in the streets to make our position clear to people.” NOMADESC leader Berenice Celeyta told the leaders. “We have in common with you many problems with the proposed Canada-Colombia free trade agreement. “No one has been consulted in these communities and there has been no respect shown for black or indigenous Colombians and others who have been displaced by the government-backed machinery that moves in to plunder the land.”
“Here in Colombia it is prohibited to think differently from the government,” Celeyta added. “If you dare to think differently, you become a target of persecution.” As she spoke, a massive march for peace passed by the NOMADESC offices. Millions of Colombians were telling the world that they want an end to the violence that continues to plague their country.
Another black Colombian put the situation facing his community this way: “We are descendant from the slaves of 400 years ago,” said. “Now we are slaves again. Our children can never go to university, never have organized recreation, and they have no future.”
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.