Colombia Solidarity Work
Chomsky is professor of history and Latin American Studies at Salem
State College in Massachusetts. She is also a founder of the North
Shore Colombia Solidarity Committee, which has been working since
2002 with Colombian labor and popular movements, especially those
affected by the foreign-owned mining sector.
What happened to the community of Tabaco in 2001?
CHOMSKY: Tabaco was an Afro-Colombian village in the northernmost
Guajira province. It was the largest of a network of small indigenous
and Afro-Colombian villages, the only one with paved roads, a school,
a post office, and other government services. In August 2001 this
village was violently displaced as part of an expansion project
by the Cerrejon coal mine, the largest open-pit coal mine in the
world. The mine was then jointly owned by Exxon and a consortium
made up of BHP Billiton (an Australian company), Glencore (a Swiss
company), and Anglo-American (a British company).
As one resident described the events: “We didn’t know
what was happening. All of a sudden we saw the police, the riot
police, and the army surrounding our houses and people coming into
the town in trucks, in bulldozers. We went into our houses to watch
what was happening and they began to raze the town, to raze the
houses. And we were shocked, we didn’t believe that the mine
could be doing this.”
Has anything been done to compensate the Tabaco community?
When our delegation was there in November 2006, we interviewed 61
heads of households from families displaced from Tabaco, all living
under squalid conditions in the nearby town of Albania. We heard
the same story again and again. We are peasants, we are farmers,
people told us. We used to be productive people, we used to support
ourselves and our families. We were not rich, but we worked our
land and we provided our children with what they needed. Since the
company took our town and our land, there is nothing for us to do.
There is no work.
In May 2002 the Colombian Supreme Court ruled that the people displaced
from Tabaco must be relocated in such a way as to be able to reconstruct
their community— meaning that they needed land to farm and
the public infrastructure that had been destroyed. They are still
waiting for this decision to be enforced. One resident told us,
“We have exhausted all of the possibilities in Guajira, in
all of Colombia. We’ve gone to the courts, but they won’t
help us because the mine has so much power.”
The company claims that they followed a process of individual negotiations,
offering people money to give up their houses and land. When we
met with company officials in August 2006, they told us that only
eight families had refused to sell and that they were still making
offers to these eight.
Tabaco’s residents described these “negotiations”
to us. They told us that starting in 1997 the company began to make
people offers to turn over the title of their land, but promised
that they would be able to continue to farm on it. That the company
needed the titles for legal protection, but they would never actually
use the land. A lot of people did “sell” because they
thought they were selling only the title, not the right to use the
Then around 2000 the “negotiations” started getting more
coercive. The company threatened people that if they did not sell,
their land would be expropriated and they would get nothing in return.
The government began cutting off services to the town—the health
center, the school. The priest sold the church that the people themselves
had built. So more people agreed to sell.
Some people from Tabaco have been forced to leave the region altogether.
But the people who remain are organized. Tabaco in Resistance has
a very clear set of demands: they want to be recognized as a community,
for the company to negotiate collectively with their representatives,
and to be collectively relocated and compensated for their losses.
They want to achieve a settlement that will allow them to reconstruct
the social and economic fabric of their community.
How is the Cerrejon company responding to these demands?
We met with Cerrejon officials twice in 2006. In August our delegation
met with a group of about 15 officials from different departments
of the operation. In November we met with the president of the company,
Leon Teicher. Interestingly, Teicher and other officials acknowledged
that “mistakes were made” in Tabaca and that they want
to avoid such mistakes in the future. Clearly, they are unhappy
about the international scrutiny of their human rights practices.
They say they are willing to negotiate with three of the other villages
currently in the path of mine expansion. But they refuse to negotiate
with the people displaced from Tabaco or with those from any of
the other communities affected by their operations.
What is being done to apply international pressure?
We are working internationally on many different fronts. We have
people in Australia, England, and Switzerland who have attended
the owning companies’ shareholders meetings to bring the issues
of the communities into public light there. We have sponsored tours
by members of the affected communities in all of these countries,
as well as in the U.S. and Canada, where we receive a lot of the
coal. In Salem, Massachusetts, where I live, and where our power
plant imports coal from Colombia, the city council, the mayor, our
state representative, and our congressional representative have
all written letters to the mine asking it to recognize Tabaco’s
right to relocation. We’ve also met with power plants in Salem,
Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. New Brunswick Power has also written
to the mine urging it to negotiate with displaced Tabaco residents.
Dominion Energy, the owner of our plant, made a somewhat vaguer
statement calling for a “just resolution” of the issues.
In Denmark and Holland two major importers have suspended contracts
with the U.S.-owned Drummond coal mine in Colombia because of the
murders of three union leaders there. This also sends a strong message
to other foreign-owned mines in Colombia that their human rights
practices are important to their clients.
How does this relate to the anticorporate globalization movement?
These mines are a perfect example of corporate globalization. All
of these mining companies are multinational enterprises. In Colombia
they have been key players in implementing the neo-liberal agenda.
One piece of this was working with the IMF and World Bank to rewrite
Colombia’s mining code to grant more privileges and profits
to foreign companies. The Cerrejon mine used to be half-owned by
the Colombian government and it was privatized as part of this process.
Practically the only state presence in Guajira where the Cerrejon
mine is located is the army. Schools, roads, health care, and other
social services are almost nonexistent. Paramilitaries operate freely
and profits flow out freely. It’s a neo-liberal paradise.
Creating people-to-people ties, or “globalization from below,”
has been an important part of the anti-corporate globalization movement.
We need to be able to create a global movement to deal with the
power of these global companies. When we bring people from Nova
Scotia to see the mine that their coal comes from, or bring people
from Guajira to the power plants thousands of miles away that burn
coal from the mine that displaced their villages, we empower all
of us to work for a world that values people and their rights over
the profits of multinationals.
In December 2006 Sintracarbon (the National Union of Coal Industry
Workers) entered into internationally monitored contract negotiations.
The union’s website explains that “violence against trade
unionists in Colombia is widespread and often increases during contract
negotiations. This time the union is taking the courageous stand
of calling on the mine to address the rights and needs of the Afro-Colombian
and indigenous communities in the region….” What has been
As a result of our November delegation, we formed an International
Commision to monitor the contract negotiations that began in early
December. We’ve been receiving daily updates from the union
as to the progress of their negotiations, which we’ve been
translating and distributing to members of the Commission and also
posting on the union’s website that we made to support them
in the negotiations. The Commission includes representatives from
labor, social, and community organizations in the U.S., Canada,
England, and Switzerland.
During our November delegation, we took Sintracarbon representatives
to visit the communities affected by the mine and they decided to
include a demand that the mine recognize the communities’ rights
to collective negotiation, collective relocation, and reparations
in their bargaining proposal. This is something quite unprecedented.
Union members were appalled at the conditions in these communities.
It may seem surprising, but the union and the communities have been
separated by a huge gap: the mine won’t employ people from
the surrounding communities, partly because they want them to disappear
and partly because the mine employs people with a fairly high level
of education and technical training—it’s an open pit mine
and most of the people who work there are mechanics or heavy machinery
operators. People from Afro-Colombian and indigenous villages have
no way to get the education and skills needed to do these jobs.
think unions in the United States are still struggling to figure
out how to engage with globalization. How can they deal with issues
of global justice and human and social rights at the same time that
they’re trying to protect their members’ jobs and privileges?
The progressive unions that we’ve been working with in the
U.S. and Canada are extraordinarily impressed with how Sintracarbon
is going beyond workplace issues and working with the communities
that are resisting their own employer.
Too often, we get overwhelmed by the enormous power of multinationals,
by how implacable the global system is. Here we have some of the
most powerless people in the world—indigenous people with no
resources, no electricity, no water—and some of the most vulnerable,
a union in a country with the highest rates of assassination and
repression against union activists in the world—taking on some
of the most powerful multinationals in the world today. We have
a lot to learn from their example.
Bennett is a Philadelphia-based photojournalist.