By Camilo Romero, NLG National Vice President
NLG Delegation to Colombia, 2014
”The world has not forgotten us, because it has never really known us. We hope the NLG will help introduce our crisis here in Choco – the frontier of Colombia – to the world.”
For the first time ever, the National Lawyers Guild organized a delegation to the Pacific region of Colombia. From August 9-16, 2014, nine NLG advocates – including attorney, legal worker, and law student representation – travelled to the department of Choco to witness the condition of indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities.
Located in the far western portion of Colombia, Choco shares a coast with both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. To most, Choco is simply a lawless jungle, one which abruptly severs the continental Pan-American Highway. To multinational corporations, Choco is the lucrative center of under-regulated gold and platinum mining. To the governments of Colombia and the United States, Choco is the strategic launch point for the international drug trade.
The NLG delegation sought to learn more about this naturally rich and violently exploited region.
The NLG delegation was hosted in Choco by the National Agrarian Coordinator (CNA), a national membership organization composed of campesinos and peasant farmers, many of whom participated in recent agrarian strikes. From the departmental capital of Quibdo, hugging the Atrato River, the NLG delegation travelled to Istmina, municipal head along the San Juan River. Then, for over three hours in a cozy ”panga” canoe, the NLG delegation navigated down the San Juan and Sipi Rivers until reaching the hamlet of Loma del Chupey.
Despite rainstorms and a brief blackout, the NLG delegation was warmly welcomed by the several dozen families that populate the lush area. The men helped us unload our canoe, and the women invited us to share the meal they had prepared. After enjoying ”sopa de papa” and the accompanying plate of chicken, rice, and plantain, the NLG delegation gathered in the town hall, which also serves as the school house, to greet the procession of young girls and boys who were intrigued by the overly dressed visitors.
Soon after, local leaders as well as others who had travelled from surrounding areas, welcomed the NLG delegation once again and began to provide accounts of recent developments. Primary among the residents concerns was the fumigation of their crops with the chemical glyphosate, the industrial version of RoundUp, a pesticide manufactured and distributed by the U.S. company, Monsanto. Residents told the NLG delegation how the fumigation has poisoned harvests and made the soil barren, how the toxic film has prompted rashes on the skin of the young, and how mothers struggle with bringing pregnancies to term.
Residents continued to explain that the government sanctions these fumigations under the pretext of coca eradication, a key component of Plan Colombia, which was approved over a decade ago to bolster the supposed ”war on drugs”. The truth, residents reveal, is that the fumigation is not so much to control coca, as production is rather low, but is actually a method to displace inhabitants of their lands so as to more easily appropriate them and make way for foreign investment. The civil conflict that dates back to the 1940s has persisted due to this forced displacement from rural areas to urban centers, leading to the largest internally displaced population in the Western Hemisphere.
Residents made clear, in a jovial spirit that belies the difficult conditions they bear, that they are not against foreign investment, much less development, as long as it is sustainable and respectful of the environment and its caretakers.
The message was identical when the NLG delegation visited El 21, a community of indigenous Embera located along the trans-Andean highway at kilometer marker 21. Huddled in a mortar structure where most of the Embera women sleep with their children, the NLG delegation listened to accounts of unkept government promises and incessant threats from armed groups, namely the paramilitaries and the guerrilla. As the ”guardia indigena” guarded the meeting site perched above the highway, residents communicated their experiences to the NLG delegation in their dialect of Embera, which was then translated to Spanish by the indigenous council leaders.
As in Loma del Chupey, residents of El 21 asked the NLG delegation to share their stories with the world – with international agencies, leaders of governments, popular press, and youth organizations – such that their calls for peace and prosperity may be heard. An open invitation awaits those who wish to visit.
The NLG delegation departed Choco, occupying the majority of seats on the small plane headed to Bogota. Upon arrival, the NLG delegation was hosted in Teusaquillo by the National Union of Food & Beverage Workers (Sinaltrainal). President Javier Correa and International Affairs Director Edgar Paez recounted the decades long struggle of organized labor in Colombia and highlighted the importance of organizing and legal solidarity, citing the success of the Campaign against Coca-Cola, despite antagonism from the U.S. Supreme Court for cases brought upon the Alien Tort Claims Act.
The following day, NLG delegation met with leaders of Cactus, a women’s flower worker cooperative created to advocate for the rights of the predominantly female workforce. This industrial sector is second in the world in exportation and known for its difficult working conditions involving forced pregnancy tests and sexual harrassment by often male supervisors.
Later that morning, the NLG delegation visited the cabinet of the Ministry of the Environment who received our accounts from the our time in Choco. The cabinet officers assured us that while some statistics were difficult to verify, we certainly had visited the epicenter of poverty and environmental destruction in Colombia.
The day continued with a lunchtime visit to the People’s Congress where popular movement-based organizing was discussed and proposals for a more just and inclusive Latin America were debated. Despite the extensive traffic in Bogota, the NLG delegation was able to continue its ambitious agenda with a meeting to the offices of Movimiento de Victimas del Estado (Movice) where the significant yet undertold role of the state in the historic rates of disappearances and political assassinations was given a harrowing overview.
The day closed with official visits to the Congreso, the palace of congress, for meetings with Representative Alirio Uribe and Senator Ivan Cepeda. Arguably the two most villified men in congress, each provided insight as to why speaking the truth about the connections between paramilitaries, corporations, and elected officials has provoked such infamy. Special attention was given to the upcoming debates launched by Cepeda into the dealings of former president and current senator Alvaro Uribe, long-believed to be the key to Colombia’s bloody ”parapolitica” and staunchest U.S. ally.
Former presidential candidate Camilo Ernesto Romero shared with the NLG delegation a similar resonating message on the necessity to not just reform politics but to abolish them as we know it by running and electing young, non-partisan leaders of civic conscience rather than of personal interest.
The NLG delegation closed its formal agenda with meetings with the Lawyers Collective Jorge Alvear Restrepo (CAJAR) and the Committee in Solidarity with Political Prisoners (CSPP). CAJAR has long been the thorn in the side of military generals and sitting presidents who attempt to usurp the law for their personal or political gains. CSPP has long been the legal voice of grassroots movements representing those who otherwise cannot afford representation. With both organizations, NLG committed to strengthening a working relationship so as to collaborate on current and future cases. With upcoming audiences before the Inter-American Commission in Washington, DC, NLG plans to host representatives of CAJAR and CSPP to develop that closer, strategic bond.
After seven days of travel in various languages and temperate climates, the NLG delegation was a resounding success. As requested by residents and community leaders in Colombia, delegates have returned to their localities to organize, to introduce the situation of Choco to the world.
Ms. Gonzalez has composed a youth report for dissemination to other youth organizations. Mr. Stern has directed a popular Youtube video. Ms. Bannan, Mr. Leenson, and Mr. Romero have attended the NLG Convention in Chicago. Ms. Angulo has begun a nutrition exchange with Taoist volunteers. Mr. Aguilasocho has proposed future delegations by the United Farm Workers. Mr. Leenson has presented at La Pena Cultural Center and before the S.F. Labor Council. All delegates have drafted segments of a larger report to be shared not just with NLG membership but with elected representatives for future visits to Choco specifically and Colombia generally.
For more information on this and future visits please contact firstname.lastname@example.org & +1 510 717 4227.
- Edgar Aguilasocho — Bakersfield, CA
- Harkavek Angulo — Bogota, Colombia
- Natasha Bannan — Yonkers, NY
- Angela Gonzalez — San Antonio, TX
- Alex Leenson — San Francisco, CA
- Luis Nicho — Queens, NY
- Camilo Romero — Quibdo, Colombia
- Natali Segovia — Phoenix, AZ
- Jason Stern — Newark, NJ