Francisco Ramirez: Colombian mineworkers resist global assault

Report by Greg Dropkin
Published: 19/05/03

Francisco Ramirez is President of SINTRAMINERCOL, the union representing workers in the Colombian state-owned mining company MINERCOL, and Secretary of FUNTRAMIENERGETICA, the federation of Colombian energy sector unions including the oil industry workers union USO, SINTRAMINERCOL, and SINTRAMIENERGETICA. He is also a member of the Human Rights Committee of the CUT union federation. Francisco is currently touring Britain, meeting with the NUM, UNISON, T&GWU, UNIFI, TUC (Wales), NWTUC. To arrange further meetings contact the Colombia Solidarity Campaign coordinator Richard Solly:

CSC website
CSC email

Francisco Ramirez addressed a CSC meeting in Liverpool on 8 May and later spoke to labournet. His talk outlined the opening up of Colombia to uncontrolled foreign investment and corporate responsibility for human rights violations.

“The multinationals have imposed their interests over our national interest” – Francisco Ramirez

North American, British, Swiss and Australian mining companies influence the mining legislation in Colombia. They use bilaterial and multilateral agreements to impose their own criteria. And, in alliance with the Colombian and US governments, they create and benefit from paramilitary groups.

Along with oil and coal, Colombia is rich in marble, granite, phosphates, gypsum, limestone, sulfur, emeralds, gold and other precious metals, copper, and nickel.

The private mining sector is dominated by Drummond (coal), BHP-Billiton (nickel, coal), Anglo-American (coal), Glencore (coal), Coexminas (emeralds), Cemex (limestone, clay), and Ingeniesa S.A. (limestone).

SINTRAMINERCOL has produced a detailed map showing how areas of mineral deposits, forced displacements, massacres, and paramilitary operations coincide.

Statistics on human rights violations, compiled by the union, clarify the link with mining. As the paramilitary offensive developed, the percentage of violations occuring in mining areas increased dramatically. By 1997, 100% of those in Santander took place in mining areas. Over all, 74% of incidents in Colombia occur in mining areas.

Colombia has the greatest concentration of human rights violations anywhere in the world. One trade unionist is assassinated every 3 days. Since 1986 over 3,200 members of the CUT have been murdered. Last year in mining areas alone 970 were killed, 162 disappeared, 256 injured, 137 tortured, 2,300 arbitrarily detained, 588 threatened, and there were 62 massacres.

In July 1998, miners and peasants occupied the area around the US embassy in Bogota, to highlight the role of US and Canadian companies. A demo in Barrancabermeja led to a sit-in.

The paramilitaries hit back, and operations continued for 18 months in Rioviejo. A miners’ leader was murdered, his head placed on a stake. The message from the companies to the people was clear: “get out of our area”. Harken Energy (controlled by the Bush family) and an oil pipeline running through to the Caribbean are just to the north.

Occidental Petroleum managed to get the US ‘anti-narcotics’ strategy “Plan Colombia” applied in their areas of interest, e.g. around the pipeline where human rights violations are concentrated. Mining companies had also lobbied the US Congress in favour of “Plan Colombia”.

Four military “anti-narcotic” teams protect CIA drug operations and the mining / oil concessions.

There are planned new bases for anti-narcotics operations in 3 regions: Southern Bolivar and Northern Santander - where the pipeline runs and Harken has coal, oil wells and gas; and Tolima - with a huge gold deposit. The Rio Blanco gold mine is sited in the area of greatest forced displacements. Putomayo, which also has Harken oil/gas operations, is already a base for anti-narcotics teams including 300 US advisors. There are more bases and extensive radar surveillance elsewhere in Colombia.

Rigging the context

The companies also profit from Colombian agreements with the IMF and World Bank. These limit the application of normal international codes governing labour and human rights. Special agreements also limit the application of environmental accords like the Kyoto Treaty.

When Colombian labour or community organisations challenge the corporations, their disputes are taken through the corrupt Colombian judicial system, generally without success. However, this leaves a door open for international court cases.

Meanwhile, contracts involving foreign investors and the government specify that any disputes between them will not reach the civil courts as per the Colombian constitution. Instead, they are referred to ad hoc tribunals created by the parties. In practice, Francisco explained, a US corporation will appoint tribunal judges of its choosing, and bribe the Colombian government to do likewise.

Over the last few years, Colombian provinces have lost millions of dollars through these tribunals.

Normal protections of Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities have also been ignored. When Exxon sold their mine to Anglo-American, it led to the expulsion of the Afro-Colombian community. They now live without schools or health care.

In yet another gambit, the companies have directly influenced Colombian national legislation concerning mines, oil and the environment.

Lawyers for multinational corporations have tried to expropriate small miners and transfer their holdings to the companies. For example, the gold deposits in Southern Bolivar region have been worked by small holders for 30 years, accounting for around half of production (officially 42%, it is actually over 50%).

A lawyer for the aptly named Conquistador Mines tried to trick small holders into handing over their land.

The union explained the situation and asked the small mineholders to withdraw from these negotiations, which they did. Meanwhile the lawyer, a close friend of the then Mines Minister Rodrigo Villamizar - now an advisor to Pres. Bush - persuaded him to let her draft a new mining code. Her draft surfaced in April 1996.

Two articles directly favoured Conquistador. Article 7 permitted mining in restricted areas like National Parks or Nature Reserves - violating the Colombian Constitution. Article 29 allowed mining concessions inside the Parks on a first come, first served basis. Other draft sections prevented the application of environmental legislation.

Conquistador is not a big company but Anglo-Gold, 100% owned by Anglo-American, became the majority shareholder and invested $2.5m after an agreement in Nov 1999.

The proposed mining code was blocked by an international campaign. But in 1999 the Colombian government hired a new legal team to draw up a fresh code. This time the influence came from Cemex (Mexican - US), Sante Fe (construction company involving the family of former President Pastrana), and a Swiss firm Ingeniesa S. A. (Holder Bank).

The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) advised the Colombian Government, while the Canadian Environmental Reseach Institute worked on the new draft code. CERI’s core funding comes from Private Sector Sponsors including dozens of multinational companies like BP Canada Energy, Cargill, Chevron Canada, Conoco, Dow Chemicals, Mobil, Shell, Total Fina ELF, UNOCAL...

In the new agreement, Articles 227-8 directly favour negotiations between Exxon and Anglo-American. Taxes would fall from 15% to 0.4%, for 90 years. Municipal taxation of foreign investment is banned. Other corporate taxes are waived. “So mining by transnational companies will bring no benefit to Colombia,” Francisco stated.

Mining areas are the most economically depressed in the country. Over 50% lack hospitals, schools, health care, employment. 80% of Infant Mortality in Colombia occurs in these regions.

The new legislation also prevents any State environmental protection, and this exemption will last 90 years and can only be changed with the consent of the companies.

The licenses, once granted, are guaranteed even if the companies break other Colombian laws.

Mining also takes place in heavily forested areas. The legislation allows companies to export timber tax-free for 30 years.

The legislation would also have closed the National Mining company (MINERCOL) and therefore shut down SINTRAMINERCOL.

Paramilitaries

As if all this isn’t enough, paramilitary networks created by the US government protect the companies. US military personnel, UK and Israeli mercenaries and Colombian paramilitaries are all involved.

In November 1999 two Bell Ranger 206 helicopters were stolen from Panama and handed over to the Colombian paramilitaries. When a 3rd helicopter was at risk, the Panamanian authorities arrested and interrogated a Colombian officer, who admitted this was a CIA operation. The Panamanian President publicly requested the CIA not to steal any more helicopters from Panama!

A few months later the paramilitary offensive was in full swing. Colombian TV stumbled across one of the helicopters being used to attack guerillas and civilians in southern Bolivar, where small miners were in dispute with Conquistador. The Human Rights organisation “Minga” then found another helicopter in northern Santander.

The CIA has created an alliance with the Colombian drug cartels. A press report (El Espectador Domingo 01/12/02) explains that money is obtained from arrested drug barons in exchange for light sentences, and then used to finance paramilitary operations. Baruch Vega, who acted as intermediary between the FBI, DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) and Colombian drug traffickers told the paper, “the idea is that, as with Iran-Contra, some of the money would go to finance Carlos Castaņo’s paramilitaries”.

The CIA had reached agreement with 114 drug barons, freeing them in exchange for their property. But one drug lord Fabio Ochoa refused to part with $30m of his ill-gotten gains. He was extradited to Miami and is now on trial.

Colombian President Uribe was formerly governor of Antioquia. Homicides grew until his term of office ended. There were paramilitary operations when Chiquita Banana began to operate in Uraba near the border with Panama. Trade unionists were told: resign from the union or face the death squads.

Legal Challenges

Together with the local community, the unions are challenging the companies in court. Exxon faces legal action in California, where Anglo-American is also a party. Drummond is being prosecuted for murder. A US court has already found Drummond complicit in crimes against humanity.

“We accuse Drummond of responsibility in the death of 3 SINTRAMIENERGETICA trade unionists,” Francisco explained. “We prove that Drummond lent vehicles, petrol, food and arms to the paramilitaries. When two comrades were leaving the mine property, Drummond security communicated with the paramilitaries. Their vehicle was singled out and halted outside the mine, and the unionists were captured, tortured and murdered.”

“We will be taking a case against Conquistador and Anglo-Gold in the US. There is another action against Occidental in California.

“We are also putting pressure on governments and shareholders over human rights.

“Coca-Cola is also in the spotlight. On May 1st the US Attorney General was asked to find them responsible for terrorist activities. We know the US will not act, but this will expose their links to drugs and terrorism. On 22 July the international boycott of Coca-Cola will be launched after a report is delivered to the UN.

“Of course Coca-Cola is notorious elsewhere, for assassinations in Guatemala, racism in South Africa, and also in the Philippines.

“We ask for your support, and to press UK companies not to allow the extermination of communities and their organisations.

“It’s in your interest as well. Average wages for Colombian miners are less than a third what they would be in Britain. Because of the resulting low cost of Colombian coal, the international price dropped and this affected the UK industry.”


Support – and obstacles

SINTRAMINERCOL: a small union of 120 members within the State sector company MINERCOL, which employs 200, down from 500 in 1980.

FUNTRAMINIERGETICA: a federation including SINTRAMINERCOL, the oil industry union USO, and SINTRAMINIERGETICA - representing 34,000 mine and energy workers in total.

Other miners who operate small holdings belong to gremios (associations) rather than the unions. They are being encouraged to join FUNTRAMINIERGETICA.

FUNTRAMIENERGETICA are approaching the international trade union movement, concentrating on the mining / oil sectors, with some success. COSATU, the Brasilian CUT, CAW, USWA, and UNISON are all being supportive, as is the TUC. Australian unions are also helping.

“But the US and Colombian governments have convinced a sector of the ICFTU that we are ‘radicals’ - we are actually facing opposition from a sector of the ICFTU.”

One issue is Venezuela. Several of the CUT affiliated unions support Chavez. But the ICFTU backs their affiliated Venezuelan federation CTV, which struck against Chavez and whose oil technicians have been dismissed by the Venezuelan government.

The problems also reach inside the CUT itself. After the last elections, the now dominant social democratic sectors in alliance with the ICFTU have been trying the break the unity of the CUT federation, Francisco said.

But the situation for trade unionists inside Colombia is far too serious. “I would like to visit Geneva to discuss this directly with the ICFTU,” he stressed.

“We also say, if we are accused of being guerillas, put us on trial! 200 trade unionists from the mining sector have been tried, and only 1 was found guilty. Last week trade unionists from the Coca-Cola subsidiary were freed for lack of evidence after 5 months in detention, charged with having links to the guerillas. Something similar happened with the USO National Executive. The reality is that the US wants to prevent our investigations.”


More info:

The Political Economy of a Narco-Terror State
Colombia and Corporate Profits

Ecosolidaridad Andes August 27, 2002
http://www.zmag.org/content/Colombia/ecosolidaridad_colombia.cfm
and
http://www.zmag.org/ZMagSite/Oct2002/Feature/guevera1002.htm

For much more info and links to many useful sites see
Z-Net Colombia Watch

For a report of the recent Anglo-American shareholders AGM in London see
http://www.minesandcommunities.org/Company/anglo1.htm

Colombia Solidarity Campaign website
CSC email

CSC (Merseyside)