International conference on human and environmental rights

International conference on human and environmental rights

Cartagena, Colombia, 2003

Its not every day that you attend a conference and someone starts their speech by saying ‘I may be killed for speaking here today, so please listen carefully…’. But then, this didn’t feel like your average kind of conference. CENSAT Agua Viva/ Friends of the Earth (FoE) Colombia had brought several hundred people to the tropical city of Cartagena, on the Caribbean coast of Colombia for a three day conference on human and environmental rights. Around this event were many other gatherings including the annual meeting of Oilwatch, an inspirational network of groups and affected communities from the global South who are opposing the excesses of the oil industry and a culture addicted to fossil fuel; and a conference of the Energy Platform, which canvasses an alternative vision for energy production in the coming century.

The conference was organised by FoE International, the Transnational Institute and the Oil Watch network. What was remarkable was the fact that so many organisations from within Colombia had been brought together, from trade unionists to Afro Colombian communities, farmers and fishers to indigenous groups, displaced communities, those fighting privatisation of services, as well as academics and human rights lawyers. Many activists attended from elsewhare within Latin America, including Mexican oil workers, Indigenous communities from Ecuador, and human rights activists from Peru.

As we all know, Colombia is in the middle of a civil war that has dragged on for 40 years and it is incredibly dangerous to organise against the widespread injustices and ecological destruction. Widespread and systematic assassination and ‘disappearances’ of communities leaders are commonplace, and during the conference and associated events, the Colombian president was vocal in his opinion that community organisations and NGOs were simply a cover for ‘terrorist’ organisations (in his view this means left wing guerrilla movements). This is an invitation for the paramilitaries, the right wing private armies and death squads many with connections to the army, to liquidate community groups. In the declaration from the conference, signed by around 150 organisations, it was stated that ‘our organisations are not and never have been the fruit of terrorist conspiracies. We exist because peoples’ environmental and human rights are being infringed and denied. Our organisations are recognised, awarded and supported locally and internationally for the depth of our arguments, our persistence, our commitment and our work our fairness and for our dedication to environmental justice.’

I was struck by the fact that, in a society suffering the horror of war and the dangers of organising in spite of daily threats, so many people could gather, to declare their intentions, share their experiences, and find common cause. While to the outside world, news of Colombia usually comes in the form of the drug trade, kidnapping of tourists, of crime and violence, in reality, there is an incredibly diverse and thriving social movement working towards peace, security and justice. While the ‘war on drugs’ and the ‘war on terror’ converge in Colombia, where the US pours massive amounts of money into eradication of coca production and intensifying the war, it was clear that the military conflict is, to a large degree, a cover for the actions of corporations, and as much about visions of development as it is about ideological differences between those involved in the conflict. Many areas suffering the worst political violence from the paramilitaries are those of great natural wealth: oil, coal, water and forests, and the scorched earth policies employed, whereby whole communities are terrorised into leaving or forced into compliance, benefit only the local elites and foreign companies. Much of the country is on the front line of the ‘frontier wars’, conflicts whereby local subsistence economies are pitted against agro industrial expansion and widespread exploitation of resources (often for the benefit of consumers in other nations). The displacement caused by these operations clears the way for industrial development and literally millions of people have fled their homelands, becoming fringe dwellers in the most terrible conditions in urban centres like Bogotá and Cartagena.

A common theme expressed at the conference was the opinion that environmental rights and human rights cannot be separated. As the conference declaration states, ‘Clean air, water and land have been taken away from disinherited people across the world. Coloured people, small farmers, indigenous peoples, and slum dwellers are pushed back into the most undesirable areas, forced to live in hunger, driven away from tourist areas, persecuted and jailed. Environmental injustices are the daily bread of factory workers, of street vendors, of women, girls and boys who carry water across great distances. Urban pollution is concentrated in areas where the most impoverished live.’

This conference was an inspirational attempt to create a national dialogue between social movements and communities. At times it was daunting simply in terms of the complexity of debate and the diversity of circumstances facing different communities.

In a country racked by war, strong local communities creating security through peaceful and mindful resistance poses a great threat to armed groups, and therefore they face terrible repression. On one day of the conference, we held a ‘cultural event’ in the centre of Cartagena, which was lead by representatives of the Ebera-Katio people, one of the many indigenous communities of Colombia threatened by, among other things, mega-projects, armed groups, and narco traffickers. In recent years they have been opposing a mega hydro dam (partly externally financed from European sources) which has covered some of their most productive lands. In starting the rally, the names of their recent dead, the community leaders murdered by the paramilitaries, were called out. These included Kimy Pernía Domicó, who was ‘disappeared’ in June 2001. As each person was named, the crowd called back Presente! – they are present! A new generation of leaders were stepping forward to take their place and, in spite of relentless armed repression, communities like the Ebera-Katio keep going, and increasingly, there is a growing sense of common cause with other affected peoples and growing connections with solidarity movements, with people of good heart, elsewhere in the world. In their presentation to the conference, the Ebera-Katio noted that the impacts of this hydro project were ‘eloquent examples of a system that ignores human and environmental rights violations that are happening to millions of people all over the world. These mega projects subordinate the rights of people to the interests of a predator economy. These negative experiences … must be translated into a strengthening and solidarity.’ This solidarity was evident, as was the necessity of people in places like Australia to join in support of the struggles against displacement, repression, and ecological destruction.

A key element of the perceived solution was that of local control, over culture, economics and resources, and political autonomy. But this was stated in full awareness of the need to collaborate across cultural and political boundaries, and the annual World Social Forums held for the past three years, and the recent global mobilisations against the war in Iraq were widely seen as being pivotal developments in the creation of a global movement for justice and a true ‘development’. There was a strong sense amongst many that governments and current institutions could not be trusted to deliver peace, justice or sustainability, and that these could only be created by communities themselves, working locally, nationally and globally in shared struggle.

Despite a thin veneer of normalcy, it is clear that displacement and human rights abuses continue to grow in Colombia. Under the neoliberal model of the current government, privatisation of essential services is making life even harder for poor, marginalised and displaced communities, and domestic and foreign companies are becoming ever more powerful in driving the national economic agenda. This creates a sense of common cause and the need to collaborate more effectively together across different sectors. This conference was a significant development in the creation of a broad-based, civil society movement that is working for both environmental and human rights in Colombia. CENSAT Agua Viva/ FoE Colombia are to be congratulated for creating the space for such a visionary, timely, and necessary event.

Further information
CENSAT Agua Viva/ FoE Colombia:
The conference declaration can be found at:
For a good cross section of Latin American organisations, see:


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