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Megaprojects and Neocolonialisation in Colombia

North West Colombia is almost destined for economic development and for a canal project between the Atlantic and the Pacific ocean. Considering the increasing flow of goods and trade in times of economic globalisation, such development projects become enormously important. Like in the times of the Spanish conquerors 500 years ago, there is no hesitation to displace and to literally eliminate the resisting local population and social movements, in order to impose these important economic interests. It's Christmas 2000 in Juradó, in an Emberra indigenous community close to the Pacific coast. Like probably millions of people at this time, Amando Achito is at home spending his time with his family and friends. Paramilitaries enter his house at 6:30 am and shoot him dead with 4 bullets. On their way out, the paramilitaries make sure they are heard by shooting in the air. They also take the radio equipment, which is necessary for communication, with them. Armando was an indigenous leader and for years had been organising resistance around therecognition of the right to live and the self-determination of the community. This community just so happens to be exactly where the interoceanic canal is planned. The message is clear: anyone organising resistance will be threatened with the same punishment, leave before the next one gets killed. Sometimes an entire village is threatened. A few days before, not far from there, in the North of Cauca, 6000 people, mostly from Black Communities were forced to flee. The number of displaced and fleeing people is estimated around 2 million, half of them from Black Communities. There were 3.000 victims of murder like Armando Achito in the last year.

Like Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeanos' often used quote: "Latin America's problem is not its poverty but its wealth". The strategic geopolitical position of Colombia is unquestionable, it is like a natural trade platform of the world market. The country has access to both oceans and is the natural bridge between North and South America. The importance of this corner of the planet had already been recognised by the Spanish conquerors who investigated possibilities of connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. In 1903 the US orchestrated the separation of Panama from Colombia in order to maintain control of this region. The Panama canal was always just one option among several possibilities of interoceanic connections. Other possibilities in Mexico, Nicaragua and Colombia have been considered for decades. It was not until the Panama canal opened in 1914 that neighbouring countries dropped their own projects. The Panama canals works with a system of locks and it was recognised 30 years ago that it had limited capacities. This led to the other interoceanic options being reconsidered. According to the national and international investors, which set up several planning commissions, once control of the Panama Canal was handed over from the US to the Panamanian government, it wouldn't be long until other interoceanic connections were available.

Now that time has come. In times of economic globalisation the technically outdated Panama canal has become a hindrance for the increasing flow of goods. Although today the usual capacity for ships is 250.000 tons, ships exceeding 60.000 tons cannot pass the canal. Smaller cargoes also run into traffic jams at the canal locks, and have to put up with waiting fore several days. In other words, the canal has become the nightmare of advocates of 'just in time production'. Geopolitical relations have also evolved substantially. The South East Asian market and production locations in Japan, Taiwan, South Korea .... and especially China, as an upcoming market and WTO member, have become increasingly important. Colombia is not only becoming extremely important in terms of crossroad of trade paths but also as a production location offering cheap labour force finalising products that will be sold on markets all around the world. This view of neoliberal development is perfectly in tune with the vision of a FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas), which will be negotiated for the 3rd time in Quebec, Canada, in April 2001 at the Summit of the Americas when 34 heads of State will meet. It also corresponds to the expectations of the Latin American governments who wish to attract further foreign investment in the sweatshop industry. Economic developments are pushing for the construction of a new canal and the development of the area. Generally the construction of an efficient interoceanic canal refers to a so called "dry canal", which includes modern train and road connections between huge harbours on the Atlantic and Pacific coast. Héctor Mondragón, a Colombian economist threatened with death several times and living underground protected by indigenous and farmers communities, draws particular attention to four 'land-river-harbour' connections and the developments around them:

  1. the interoceanic 'dry' canal Atrato - Truando (named according to the neighbouring rivers) with its connections to the trainway Medellin- Buenaventura and the motorway from the Pacific to Medellín and Pereira.
  2. the Urabá - Maracaibo motorway and the connection Antioquia - Venezuela.
  3. the connection of the Orinoco and Meta rivers with the city of Buenaventura.
  4. the connection of 'rio de la Plata' river - Amazonas - Napo - Putumayo - Tumaco with a huge harbour in Puerto Asís.

"the largest violent displacements have taken place around the first two zones (A+B). A major process of expropriation is underway along the canal route and around the Urabá - Maracaibo motorway. Large amounts of land are being bought, and this is followed by a large presence of paramilitaries who are financed by the land buyers. Between 1985 and 1994, around 700.000 people were affected by displacement. Between 1995 and 1999 the number of displaced exceeded one million (89.000 in 1995, 181.000 in 1996, 257.000 in 1997, 308.000 in 1998 and 225.000 between January and September 1999). Even the government admits that 381.755 people were displaced between 1996 and 1998. Consequently the number of displaced between 1985 and 1999 exceeds 1,7 million people."

Mondragón also draws the attention to the 425 massacres per year and talks about 'social genocide'. "You must start using this word" he said to EU parliamentarians in a hearing at the EU parliament in December 2000. Colombia does not have the necessary capital to finance the constructions, so mixed private and public funding becomes necessary. Foreign multinationals and investors are attracted with promising investment conditions. Environmental and social consequences are ignored - no wonder, this is a billion dollar business. The Asociación de Ingenieros del Valle estimates the profits of the canal to be around 1,314 billion US dollars per year, the Sociedad Geográfica de Colombia estimates even 1,878 billion US dollars per year. (Periódico 1997).

This development includes several megaprojects which plunder natural and genetic resources. The region of Chocó is full of gold, platinum, silver, bauxite, manganese, radioactive cobalt, zinc, chrome, nickel, copper, exotic wood and large fishing resources. The oil resources in Colombia are enormous. It is not surprising then to hear business people announcing: "we want to turn this region into a giant enterprise." (Colombia - monthly report 1997, pg 4).

The population living between the oceans is under fire from the paramilitaries. It lives mainly from agriculture in a region that is considered one of the poorest and most marginalised in Colombia. 70% of the population has no access to medical care, the average life expectancy is 55 years. The situation of the communities in the region of Choco ( 90 % afro-colombians, 5% indigenous Kuna, Embera, Wounan, Noanamá and Katía and 5 % whites and mestizos) is particularly bad; hundreds die of curable diseases every year. But the hardest attack on the life of this population is still the activity of paramilitaries. These obviously work hand in hand with the government and the corrupt oligarchy. The situation has been accentuated enormously since the Colombian government under president Pastrana, and pushed by the USA, decided to implement the so called Plan Colombia. This 7 billion US dollar 'Plan' to finally stabilise the country is officially meant to put an end to the drug business and to stimulate 'democracy' through 'social programmes'. But the economic interests are obvious.

The peasants, indigenous and especially the black communities of this region are leading a daily resistance against these megaprojects, the neoliberal developments and the displacements. Their resistance is mainly a cultural one for the recognition of their autonomy, right to self determination of the land on which they live and the right to live forms of life which are in opposition to capitalism. These rights were even codified into the Colombian constitution after a large process of social struggle in the early nineties. The Black Communities have made use of these laws and obtained titles for collective ownership of several regions and autonomous administration. But the economic interests are too important and the aim is to silence the region between the oceans, even if that means a graveyard silence.

These developments are still rather unknown in the industrialised countries. The indigenous and black communities have just started making contacts in Europe and North America, informing about their situation and reaching out to the crystallising anti-capitalist movement which has articulated around protests against institutions like the WTO, IMF, WB. The Black Communities are calling on these grassroots organisations in Europe and North America to join their struggles and to create their own autonomous areas in these regions. They propose also to create 'security zones' around the areas subject to megaprojects. These would consist of a direct mass presence of international activists, which could also allow displaced people to return to their lands instead of living in slums in the cities. The idea is to live together with the Black Communities, learning from each other, leading a resistance for a self determined life and against one the cruellest forms of expression of capitalism, neocolonialisation, the environmental destruction and the killing of people in the name of economic interests. Representatives of the Black Communities are currently visiting groups in Europe and North America in order to inform about their situation and to lay the political and logistical ground for such an 'acompañamiento' (accompany).


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