Friday, June 26, 2009

Ghosts of Tabaco

When I think of globalization, I think of the global share of information, goods and money. Living in a first-world country, I automatically think of the benefits of globalization; Myspace, Wikipedia, Amazon, etc. The truth is, globalization is multifaceted. There are many aspects that we don’t see and rarely venture to imagine. For centuries, the U.S. and Europe have gained from the labor and land of third-world countries. We see the benefits of living in a global economy and assume that we see the only side.
In Colombia’s remote Guajira Peninsula there is a village called Tabaco. Tabaco is the largest village in the area, with about 700 residents. This land has been inhabited by the indigenous Wayuu people and Mestizo peasants and Afro-Colombians who escaped slavery to live aside the Wayuu and adopt their culture. The groups trade products and customs and have created a Guajira culture, while maintaining distinct indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities. The Wayuu are the largest indigenous group in Colombia. They live in large matrilineal clans inhabit different parts of the peninsula. The group sustains life by hunting, fishing and taking part in temporary and migrant labor. The northern part of the peninsula is too dry to farm, but fine for raising goats and cows. The group does their farming in the southern portion of the peninsula. The people of Tabaco are known for their woven hammocks and shoulder bags (Mochilas). They craft the goods for personal use and for sale or trade. The smaller, surrounding villages depend on Tabaco for its school, health center, running water, parks, church, electricity and Telecom (state telecommunications company) office. The village or Tabaco also happens to sit on a large coal supply.
The village of Tabaco and smaller surrounding villages were spared exploitation by the U.S. and Europe, because their land was arid and had little value until the 1970’s. During this time, the world saw an oil crisis and new environmental legislation. This meant that power companies would have to drop ideas to invest in new technology and look for cleaner coal. Unfortunately, Tabaco sits atop this cleaner coal. In the early 1990’s, representatives of Cerrejon Zona Norte, the largest open-pit coal mine in the world, began approaching residents and asking to purchase their land. The reps told them that they would purchase the land only for security reasons. They only wanted the titles and the people of the Guajira peninsula would be able to live, farm and hunt as they had always done. A lot of the residents sold and bought into a deal too good to be true.
After the sales began, the surrounding, uninhabited land that was normally used for hunting was swallowed into the mine that ran 30 miles long and 5 miles wide. The outlying farms and ranches that supplied Tabaco residents with jobs were sold off. The Rancheria River, which supplied residents with fresh water and fish, turned murky, brown and foul from the mining run-off. As the resources in the area dwindled, people began selling more land. This caused the residents of the smaller villages to sell. On August 9, 2001 a village that had sustained for centuries was leveled by Cerrejon Zona Norte bulldozers and Tabaco was no more.
About 100 former residents of Tabaco remain as Tabaco in Resistance. They live in the nearby town of Albania in inadequate quarters. They would like to move on, but refuse to settle with the company for one simple reason. The American heads of Cerrejon Zona Norte refuse to recognize them as a community. All the residents want is to stay together. They want collective negotiations, collective relocation and reparations for years, families and communities lost to the greed of Cerrejon Zona Norte and the people that make decisions there. The smaller villages of Tamaquito, Roche, Chancleta and Patilla are still barely clinging to life. They have lost the land to have animals or sow crops. They are drinking contaminated water and dying daily. After endless pressure from the people, the brains at Cerrejon finally decided to bring in water trucks.
“There’s been talk of coal for the world and progress for Colombia,” said Eder Arregoces Pinto, a member of the Chancleta Community Council, echoing the Cerrejón company’s slogan. “If that is so, we ask, to what country do the towns of Chancleta, Roche, and Tabaco belong? There are droves of young people just wandering around because there is no school, there is no work. What a paradox: We are surrounded by the world’s largest coal mine, and we don’t have enough to eat! Most of the families here can only eat one meal a day, all because we don’t have land. There is outrageous exploitation that fails to see that there are human beings living here, there are black and indigenous communities. The environmental situation is worse than critical. The government pursues those who plant bombs and kill people. But what about a company that is slowly killing people off with contamination? Is that not terrorist?”

The U.S. gets ample profit by moving abroad. The land is cheaper. The labor is cheaper. People’s lives in general are just cheaper outside the U.S. The people that run these U.S. companies made the decision to go in and take the lives of the people of Tabaco. They held studies and found the cheapest way to kill this entire village and the surrounding villages. “Many Wayuu believed that the mine would bring solutions to the region’s poverty, to the problems with access to clean water, to education, health care, and sustainable development,” explained Wayuu leader Remedios Fajardo. “We hoped that we would receive some of the benefits from our land, which is so rich in minerals. This was the first experience of large-scale, open-pit coal mining on indigenous land in Colombia. We agreed to lend them our ancestral land.”
The following is a list of things that heads of Cerrejon and companies like it planned for, but the people of the Guajira peninsula never predicted:
• suffocation dust
• loss of land
• increasing poverty
• cultural decomposition
• the fall of village after village to the mine’s inexorable expansion
• chronic coughing
• skin disease
• loss of schools
• loss of jobs
• increased infant mortality rates
• respiratory disease
• the mine succeeding in buying out residents and creating tension and dividing lines amongst families, clans and entire villages
• and death, not only of people, but of an entire way of life and an entire group of people – this is called genocide
The communities have taken the case before the Colombian government and won
legal cases against Cerrejon, but nothing has been enforced. Cerrejon has payed off all government officials and anyone that could bring change. “The only way open to us is bringing pressure to bear in the social realm,” said José Julio Pérez, a member of Tabaco in Resistance. “We played their game in the courts and it did not work.” The fight is a bit tougher, because closing the plant altogether would lose jobs and bring resistance form the unions. The people of Tabaco do not want the coal mines shut down. They don’t want Americans to boycott the Cerrejon coal. They simply want Cerrejon and companies like it to give back to the community and run themselves under the same type of guidelines that they would have to run under in any of our communities here in the U.S.
The following is an excerpt cut straight from the article of origin:
This article, in fact, is being written on a computer powered by electricity made from coal from the mine that displaced the village of Tabaco and that is slowly killing the communities of Tamaquito, Roche, Chancleta, and Patilla.
But people in my (Chomsky’s) community of Salem, Massachusetts, are trying to create a human connection of solidarity that challenges the economic connection of exploitation. People here learned that some of our coal was coming from the Cerrejón mine in 2002. An organization called PressurePoint brought Wayuu leader Remedios Fajardo and lawyer Armando Pérez Araújo to the United States to attend the Exxon shareholders meeting and let people there know what was happening to the communities in the Guajira. We invited them to come to Salem, and thus began what has turned into a long-term relationship with the different sectors affected by this coal mine.

José Julio Pérez believes: “Cerrejón drags out this process until people collapse from exhaustion. People are dying, growing old, giving up under pressure. This is not an easy life, going up against three of the most powerful companies on earth [the three in the consortium that now owns the mine]. We are not trained as lawyers or intellectuals, we have no tools: we are campesinos. We can no longer afford to send our children to study; it is not easy to be in resistance. But instead of offering another example of surrender, we could be an example of what is possible. Toward this end we ask that you redouble your efforts in the face of the mining companies.”
In hopes to spread awareness, I have created an information packet with contacts to different organizations that work to bring change to the world, by emphasizing the importance of fair trade, fair labor and a global standard by which all people should be treated. Not just Americans. We are not the only ones that deserve a high quality of life. So remember when you leave here today, your car, your job and your home are all powered by the labor and lives of people all over the world. Your plastic water bottle is the product of another country, as are your jeans, tennis shoes, hair ties, t-shirts and even the pillow you rest your head on at night. Please don’t walk out of here today and forget the people of Tabaco. Instead, find out how you can give back. I have supplied you with the information. Now act.

• Stay Informed

Detailed Information on Cerrejon and Their Negative Impact on Tabaco

Information on Cerrejon

The Cerrejon Mine workers join forces with the Afro-Colombians who still cling to life in the Northwestern tip of Guajira – Click the link below for article…

Globalization and La Guajira

• Get Involved

How Can I Help? – Get involved with some of these organizations and buy products made by corporations that support fair trade!

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