Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Dirty Business: Corporations and Violence in Colombia

Rail cars carrying Colombian coal toward the sea.
(Photo: Colabradio)
Drummond coal company's Colombian operations are in hot water, once again. A recent report by the European NGO Pax Christi claims that Drummond and a second coal exporter, Prodeco, paid money to right-wing paramilitary groups which murdered thousands of people and drove tens of thousands off of their land.

Both Drummond, which is based in Alabama, U.S.A., and the Swiss-owned Prodeco, deny paying money to or collaborating with the paramilitaries. Drummond points out that several paramilitary leaders who accuse the company have changed their stories and even received payments from an attorney suing the companies.

Nevertheless, charges that they used violence to repress workers have dogged many corporations
A protester accuses Drummond Coal Co.
of working with paramilitary death squads.
The company denies any links
to the paramilitaries.
(Photo: Southern Studies
foreign operating in Colombia.

Undoubtedly, the most infamous case involved the United Fruit Company (predecessor of Chiquita Corp.), which in 1928 faced strikes by banana plantation workers protesting exploitative work conditions. The workers went on strike, and in December 1928 soldiers massacred an unknown number of strike leaders gathered in the town plaza of Ciénaga. That massacre became a key episode in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' and launched populist leader Jorge Eliecer Gaitan to fame.

Some historians believe that the Colombian military acted murderously because it believed that if it did not United States Marines stationed off of the coast would invade Colombia in defense of the banana company.

An oil pipeline bombed by the ELN guerrillas.
Photo: (El Colombiano)
In 2007, Chiquita Corp. confessed to the U.S. government that it had made multi-million dollar payments first to leftist guerrillas and later to paramilitaries which controlled the region around its Colombian plantations. Chiquita paid a $25 million fine to the U.S. government, but nothing to the victims in Colombia.

Chiquita claims it had no choice but to pay off the armed groups in order to protect its employees from kidnapping or murder. But Chiquita, like the other companies, did have an alternative - to pull out of Colombia rather than finance violent organizations which were terrorizing and murdering civilians.

A present-day Colombian banana plantation worker.
(Photo: Al Jazeera)
During the late 1990s, U.S.-based Occidental Petroleum found itself in a similar situation around its Caño Limon oil pipeline in Arauca Department, where guerrillas had bombed the pipeline and threatened employees. Occidental responded by hiring AirScan, a private security company, which used its own surveillance aircraft to supply the Colombian military with locations of guerrilla fighters. In 1998, using AirScan-supplied coordinates, the Colombian military dropped a cluster bomb on the small town of Santo Domingo, killing 17 civilians, including 7 children. Survivors of the attack sued Occidental, but have lost. In December 2012, the Inter-American Human Rights Court condemned the Colombian government for the bombing, which the government had alleged was caused by a guerrilla truck bomb.

The Santo Domingo episode also implicated the United States government, which had provided more than $100 million in military protection to Occidental.

The leaders of the banana workers' strike.
(Photo: Wikipedia)
It strains credulity to believe that any company doing business in a region terrorized by leftist guerrillas - who attack foreign corporations for both nationalistic motives and financial ones - would not collude in some way with the right-wing paramilitaries which protect businesses by fighting those guerrillas.

Recent violence committed in Santander Department by ELN guerrillas exemplifies that situation. The guerrilla group, which is 'celebrating' its 50th birthday, has bombed a pipeline and an oil workers' encampment and sowed the region with land mines.

"The military in Colombia was very ineffective at guerrilla warfare," Terry Collingsworth, the U.S. attorney who is suing Drummond as well as other large corporations, said recently in an interview with Alternativa Latina Radio. "The (paramilitaries) were very adept at guerrilla warfare....They were largely successful; they drove the FARC way into the mountains and protected areas where there were coal mines and bananas."

"We believe...that virtually every major company that was operating in these guerrilla areas of Colombia actually was a partner with this terrorist organization," added Collingsworth.

But almost all large companies have denied collaborating with illegal groups, and lawsuits against them have consistently failed.

Cases such as those against Occidental, Chiquita and Drummond suffered a blow recently when a U.S. Supreme Court ruling narrowed the jurisdiction of the Alien Tort Statute, which has been used to sue U.S. companies for alleged crimes committed outside the U.S.

The results of court cases aside, Pax Christi is not the first European NGO to criticize foreign coal operations in Colombia. A 2013 report by urgewald & FIAN called 'Bitter Coal - a Dossier on Germany's coal imports,' observed that "Germany's use of hard coal is on the rise. Although 75% of "our" hard coal is imported, the origin of this coal and the associated impacts do not figure in decisions on the construction of new coal-fired power plants and play almost no role in the debate on Germany's energy policies."

Almost one-third of Germany's coal imports come from Colombia.

The report's English-language summary goes on to list human and environmental harm including forced displacement, chronic poverty and malnutrition and the possible rerouting of a river for the El Cerrejon coal mine. The report did not mention climate change, air pollution or the contamination of seawater when coal is loaded onto ships for export.

"Paramilitary forces waged a reign of terror in the main coal mining provinces La Guajira and Cesar over many years. Although the situation has improved since the official demobilisation of the paramiltary, human rights abuses and repression are still rampant in these regions."

There's a second level of moral issues here. Some of the European nations, particularly Germany, which issue reports denouncing abuses by coal companies in Colombian have been shutting down their nuclear reactors for supposed environmental motives. Nuclear energy, however, produces miniscule amounts of pollution compared to coal and, while there probably are human rights abuses associated with uranium mines, I haven't heard of them.

As I see it, the European nations are exchanging the exaggerated dangers of nuclear energy for the very real dangers and damages of coal.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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