Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Mass March of Miners- Quibdó, August 1, 2012

Quibdó, August 5

Photographs of the Miners' March. 

I've finally managed to get some photographs posted--as well as making some changes/addition to the texts. I hope you enjoy them...

Quibdó, August 1, 2012

[No photographs yet—I hope to post some soon. And the Spanish translation will have to wait a while.]

A mass march of miners and supporters had been called for 8 AM today, August 1, starting at the cathedral in the center of the city. I knew very well that nothing would start anywhere close to 8 AM, but try as I might I could not overcome my gringo impulse to be on time, so I left the house at about 7:20—earlier than necessary to get there at 8.

From the house where I’m staying you walk down an unpaved street, which is always quite calm and tranquil, to get to the main street. Usually at this hour the main street is very busy—buses, taxis, a few private cars, and many rapimotos—motorcycles serving as taxis—making a huge racket, and many people on the streets and in the shops.

But this morning, the street was quiet—there were a few vehicles, but not many. The shops were closed and shuttered a few people were trying to get to the center. No sense waiting for the bus, which I usually take; who knows when it might come? So I climbed onto a rapi. Today, they were charging 2,000 pesos instead of the usual 1,000, taking advantage of the situation. About $1.10 USD instead of about $.55. It’s amazing how you adapt to your situation and start resenting those extra thousand pesos.

A paro has its advantages; I have to admit enjoying the calm and relative quiet in the streets as we made the 15- or 20-minute ride to the center.

When we got downtown, the streets were similarly quiet and the shops shuttered. Even among the people who crowd one of the main drags, selling vegetables, fruits, cheese, chickens, fish from carts and tables, only a few were to be seen. Some of the cafeterias and restaurants were open, expecting (I imagine) a lot of business. It was a little creepy, actually. The only time I had ever seen Quibdó like this was on January 1.

With this difference: on the street that runs along the river, and the malecón, people were beginning to gather, by the hundreds. The mood was light—people were buying snacks from vendors, putting on t-shirts that identified where they were from, and chatting. After wandering around for a while, taking some pictures and just looking around, I ran into a friend. Humberto has been a grass-roots activist for many years. He comes from a mining family and in the past has taught me a great deal about traditional practices.

—Humberto, where is the march going to leave from?

—Here, the cathedral. It’s unusual.

—And when will it leave?

—At eight…

—But there aren’t that many people here…

–No, but they’re arriving, you’ll see.

After we separated, I checked the time—it was nearly 8:15, so we were clearly not going to make the 8 AM step-off time.

At about 9, a truck arrived with breakfast for the communities. It was unloaded, and the communities started lining up to get their food. I realized that we had a lot of time to go, and went to visit some friends.

I didn’t check the time, but sometime between 10 and 10:30, the march started off. And Humberto was right—it was huge! There were many thousands of people. I have no idea how many, but it went on for blocks, which were truly filled with people.

The marchers were organized primarily by their communities. many had come from all over El Chocó—from the traditional mining areas of the southern part of the department—but the majority were from the communities of the Río Atrato, and even some of the neighborhoods of Quibdó. And the majority of the people, the vast majority, were barequeros, people who work in artisanal mining either in the pits opened by the retros, or in the rivers and quebradas.

This inevitably raises again the issue of the relationship between the barequeros and the owners of the retros. It’s clear that many people identify with those señores. From what I can make it, it all goes something like this: when we mined in the rivers, we would find very little, and it would require great physical effort (often standing in thigh- or waist-high water for hours). When these machines open a new pit—if they let us in while the machinery is still operating—we are able to find more gold with somewhat less effort. And once the machines leave, we can mine in the pits as much as we want.

The owner of the machines are smart—some of them allow people to work in the pits even while they are still there, and all of them “invite” people to mine in the pits when they leave. Many people see this as offering an opportunity for good work. But it has some problems—including the social distortions of turning people into full-time miners, leaving behind many more productive activities.

Before the march started, I got into a conversation with a couple of men I didn’t know. They asked if I was a reporter, and I explained how I work. I also let out all my negative feelings about multi-national mining companies, which didn’t hurt the relationship. Then I asked them about their work. The one man who was really talking to me explained that he is a retro operator (worker, not owner). He was very proud of the economic benefits of the pits for the communities:

—First, we give direct employment to some people.

—How many people work—say in a typical pit that has two retros?

—Between 17 and 20—including operators, hosemen, maintenance workers, support people and cooks. It’s that many because they work in shifts. But then there is the indirect employment. As many as 500 people may work as barequeros in a mine. They have to figure out how to do, who gets to work in each spot, but that’s their problem.

So for this man, the machines create lots of indirect jobs. I think his 500 is an exaggeration—the mines I’ve seen had more like 100 to 200 people working, but the idea is that they are a source of employment for a lot of people. I don’t think that interpretation is ridiculous or loony. But I do think it’s mistaken, for a couple of reasons:

First, it suggests that the people who work in this way in the pits would otherwise have no productive occupation. That’s wrong for many of the people, who—as I pointed out yesterday—often abandon lives that are at least as rich to devote themselves to the bareque in the pits. Indeed, there have been examples of whole villages who relocate to the pits, leaving behind crops, school (they take the kids), chapel and health station if they exist, and more, often to wait for the days the owners say they can enter the pits to work. They leave in transitory villages at the edge of the pits, often doing nothing.

I asked people in one such village how they eat when they cannot go into the mine. “Oh, the men who own the machines have a store here and they sell us food on credit.” Often, people manage to find only enough gold to pay their debts.

Second, despite the hopes of the people, they don’t necessarily find that much gold, especially in the abandoned pits (after all, the machines leave for a reason). A few years back, I became friendly with a couple of brothers-in-law who bought gold from the barequeros in a town on the Río Andágueda. They were considered by the miners to be more honest than the other buyers in town, and more generous in what they paid. (This was during the run-up of gold prices; I began to understand that part of their friendliness was that they wanted me to serve as their agent in the US…). One day I asked one of them if the people working in the pit were going to be able to get themselves out of poverty by mining. “Never in their lives,” he said. “We are making some good money, but they can’t find enough gold for that.”

Still, many people identify with the "small miners," or feel their future lies with them. And as one activist friend pointed out--it doesn't matter that people were paid to come to the march from the communities, or even if they felt intimidated. What is most relevant is that the miners were able to mobilize so many people."

Well, back to the march. Though there had been some anxiety about what might happen, the march, though very large, was quite disciplined, totally peaceful. By about 1 PM, everyone had arrived back at the cathedral, and the march dispersed—though many people just hung out for the rest of the day.

The march was very well organized. The  miners' federations provided food, organied the delegations, even even had big banners that crossed the road, saying where everyone was from. There were some funny aspects to this: for example, there were a few banners that said "Health (that health institutions or workers) support the paro," and "Education (that is schools and teachers) support the paro." But it was evident that the people holding them weren't health workers or teachers, but mine workers or barequeros. The truth is, most people not directly associated with the issue kept their distance, and in general behind closed doors, because of what turned out to be exaggerated fears.

After the march ended, I went back to the house to transfer images and have some lunch. As we approached the house, the rapimotero asked me how the paro was going. We got into a conversation about mining, which continued once we reached the house:

—I come from mining people, in Condoto (an important mining area in southern El Chocó). My father was a miner. He worked and planned, got some property, got everything prepared, it all looked very good. Then those guys came and took the land from him.

—But “those guys” weren’t transnationals; they’re not doing that yet?

—No, the men with the machines. These guys. They are going to be hurt by the transnationals, but that doesn’t excuse they way they act.

Which of course expressed the contradiction at the heart of the current solidarity with these “small” miners: we have to oppose the coming of the transnationals, but it’s hard to defend these guys after all they’ve done.

Later addition--August 2:

By Thursday morning,  normalcy had returned; there was an announcement on the radio yesterday evening that the miners’ federations will be negotiating with the government and the paro had been lifted. That's good for everyone, I think.

But there remains a serious issue, even before they deal with the transnationals. It's fine that the government and the miners will be negotiating--but if the communities, the federations, the organizations are not invited to the table, there's no way to deal with the issues—environmental damage, violation of the special rights of Afro and Indigenous communities in Colombian law, and more—generated  by the current arrangement, can be addressed.

And in the end, I worry, even if the miners, the communities, the activists can all come together and form a common front, in the face of the enormous power and resources of the Colombian state and the transnational corporations, and in the era of Free Trade Agreements, whether they can put up an effective resistance.

Both in the short run and for the future, there's still a lot to unfold.


Since writing this post, I have learned some more details about the agreement between the national government and the miners that allowed them to feel confident they could lift the paro. The points included:

1.     Within two weeks, a permanent mining working group will be formed, led by the director of the national Mining Agency, which will develop the requisites and procedures to give formal status to the small miners in El Chocó. This responds to a key demand of the miners, that they not be considered illegal. And treating them as illegal has been a piece of the government’s strategy to replace them with transnationals, so it seems this is an important concession by the government.

One good thing is that some of the federations of the affected communities here seem to have places at this table.

The first meeting of this group was scheduled for August 15, but on August 14 we learned that it had been postponed for a week.

2.     The Mining Agency will create a regional office here to respond to requests for mining titles, and will have a different set of rules for mining areas in indigenous and Afro communities. This may be a response to the numerous denunciations of mining starting without serious previous consultation with the communities, and even with falsified papers.

3.     There will be a pilot plan developed for formalizing the mining activities in El Chocó, and the mining titles that have been granted will be examined for their legality.

4.     The national government will add an article to the Mining Code that will facilitate the activities of the small miners who are within the formalization process, including steps to provide security and protection to guarantee their development.

These agreements feel like a real victory for the “small” miners. Of course, the Colombian governments, and particularly the administrations of the last two presidents, Uribe and Santos, have not been characterized by their concern for the needs of people like the small miners, smaller business in general, and grassroots people. It will be important to see how they actually implement their agreements.

Unfortunately, the obligations under FTA/TLC will make it only too easy for these agreements to end up being a little thin in their implementation.

And it will be important to see how inclusive the membership of the permanent working group is, and who will be included at the negotiating table.

What still feels certain to me is that the power of the transnationals and their allies in the national government is very great. And also that for the Colombian Pacific, as well as for countries like Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Brazil, El Salvador, Guatemala, and many more, and even more in Africa and Asia, and of course, even at home in the US, our futures hang in the balance as extractive industries (mining, oil drilling, lumbering) seem every day to be a greater threat to our cultures, to our social arrangements, and to our planet.


1 comment:

Yo said...

Hola, Steve,

Algún rato después de leer tu anuncio del Paro, unos días atrás, se me alumbró qué era lo que me pareció más raro... inesperado: era que tu informe transmitía la sensación de expectación, con un dejo de inseguridad, por lo que se venía. Una mirada desde dentro de la comunidad en que estás, no un informe periodístico de quien está de paso, mero espectador.

Y ahora, con tu informe del Paro, confirmas esa apreciación; con tu involucramiento emocional con el incierto destino de tu comunidad.

Por eso: un abrazo.

Y, como te dejé un par de frases, por Skype: si te puede ayudar, le hago un empeñito a la traducción del informe, (...¡al castellano!).

Que estés y sigas muy bien,