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« Without the river, I can’t laugh, I can’t dream, I can’t live: rivers for life, not death! »  This quote is taken from one of the testimonies that moved the activists that took part in the Caravan for the Defense of Life and Territory, an event that took place from the 15th to the 28th of August 2015. This event was organized by the The Network for Fraternity and Solidarity with Colombia. The Caravan travelled through many Colombian regions and met different communities, groups and individuals affected by the armed and social conflict in Colombia to show solidarity with the groups in resistance. The caravan focused on four main issues, urban, rural, mining and energy, and prisons. The aforementioned quote denouncing the consequences of extractive projects on rivers illustrates one of the main concerns reported by organizations and groups who have met with the Caravan’s crew.

A systemic problem

The four focuses gather issues that are systemic and intimately linked to one another.  For example, some people discussed the issue of overpopulation in urban areas.  This demographic growth results from the significant amount of people displaced by the armed and social conflict.  These forced displacements are a consequence to repressions lived in rural areas, repressions often related to the development of mining and energy projects.  The portrait made of the situation in the Caravan’s report (soon to be available on their blog, demonstrates that the conflict comes from a structural development model and not exclusively from the armed violence.  

The Caravan visited urban areas such as Bogota, Bucaramanga and Valledupar.  The overpopulation in the cities, amongst other reasons, has resulted in difficult access to housing and the privatisation of essential goods such as water, gas and electricity. This is a breach of fundamental rights and dignified life conditions.  Added to these social problems is the paramilitary violence present in cities that continues to generate threats, forced disappearances and targeted assassinations.  This structure of control, existing in the cities as well as in rural areas and mining and energy exploitation zones, has evolved into a greater criminalisation of protest, creating a crisis in the prison system.  Since 2011, a new national security law (law 1453) was created and essentially facilitates the criminalisation of social movements through persecution and strategic judiciary actions: «What we are afraid of is not knowing how they (the state’s institutions, for example the police) will use information.  They will look for us and say we are guerilleros, then we will be imprisoned or killed ».

In front of these repressions, the work of unions is vital.  They raise awareness of the vulnerability of the Colombian workers’ rights, related amongst other things to job insecurity, the lack of association rights and the lack of contracts for workers which allows the employers to violate the rights of the workers.  The Caravan underlines how foreign businesses, including Canadian companies, take advantage of this structure.

The fragility of territories

The Caravan also showed solidarity with groups resisting the imposition of mining and energy projects, projects which have economic and social effects on populations, while negating their right to a healthy environment. Today, more than 50% of the Colombian territory is concessioned for exploitation purposes. Canada is one of the many countries benefiting from the pillage of the land, as a matter of fact, Canadian capital companies are said to have used the fracking method in order to explore exploitation possibilities in certain areas.  This method has negative effects on the environment and often has consequences on the groundwater, which in turn threatens the population’s right to access drinking water.  The Caravan’s report emphasizes the reality that open-pit mining, hydro electrical exploitation or exploitation in fragile areas such as páramos affect the communities on an environmental, social, economic and cultural level.  The environmental impacts, from the exploration and exploitation of natural resources, consequentially play a role in the displacement of populations.

The indigenous communities also see their territories being destroyed by mining and energy projects led by national and international companies. These companies often settle on their territories without consultation with the residents, which is a breach of the International Labour Organization’s Convention 169.

The national and international companies benefit from support from the State and its institutions in order to receive concessions. «The inefficiency, incapacity and corruption in the licensing system for mining and energy exploitation projects from the municipal authorities, regional and national corporations, as well as the Ministry of the Environment, the National Agency for Environmental Licensing, the National Mining Agency and the National Hydrocarbon Agency, which all act in favor of the companies, make the norms more flexible by their lack of control and mentoring. »   Laws have even been amended to facilitate the exploitation of territories to the detriment of the rights of the populations inhabiting them.  

Crisis in the prison system

Part of the report submitted by the Caravan’s activist group draws a portrait of the present-day situation in the prisons of Colombia.  From the point of view articulated in the report, it is the current economic, social, and political model that creates the prisoners.   The judicialization and criminalization of protest actions as well as the criminalization of poverty is causing overpopulation inside the prisons.  Colombia is currently equipped to detain in its 138 penal institutions 76 553 individuals, but in June 2015 the number of prisoners was of 117 018 individuals, 40 465 more than the established limit.

The living conditions are also very sub-standard: the lack of access to drinking water, lack of hygiene, health problems and lack of access to healthcare, insufficient and poorly prepared food and the lack of access to education are only a few examples.   This is without mentioning cases of torture, threat and repression to which the victims are subjected inside the prison system.

Impunity on a silver plate

In rural, urban or carceral populations, repression continues to be used by the State as a tool to prioritize the economic interests of big companies and neoliberal politics, to the detriment of environmental and human rights. The State, the paramilitary and military groups and the police, continue to maintain a climate that criminalizes the civil population and social movement leaders. The consequences are seen on a social, cultural and environmental level and we can no longer talk of a simple armed conflict.  The solution needs to be implemented by the «overcoming of the structural violence of the social model imposed to the country».

In order to fight against the impunity maintained by the State, initiatives were made by different social movements and groups.  Public education projects, dignified life plans, land recovery movements as well as fights for food sovereignty are only a small fraction of the daily efforts that The Network for Fraternity and Solidarity with Colombia– Redher- acts in solidarity with.