Land Policies in Colombia should be considered to be more devastating by far than Mining Operations

( Translated by Rolf Schoeneborn, a CSN Volunteer Translator, Edited by John I. Laun)



Interview with investigators Gloria Holguín and Santiago Pineros of the NGO PAS (Pensamiento y Acción Social – Thought and Social Action).

The sustainability of peace in Colombia will depend on substantial changes to be made regarding economic policies which since the nineties have been based on neoliberal conceptions, meaning that parts of Colombian territory have been turned over to transnational companies, allowing for the exploitation of non-renewable natural resources with serious environmental and socioeconomic consequences for many communities.

If there are no changes made, there will be “a post-conflict with a lot of violence” in view of the imposition of the National Development Plan, based upon a neoliberal economic model, which has the necessary judicial and political backing. More multinationals will be allowed to exploit natural resources and therefore be given corresponding large tracts of land, which in turn will lead to clashes and confrontations in these respective areas and a form of “territorial control” will have to continue to exist. This is the conclusion of the social researchers Gloria Holguín Reyes and Santiago Pinero Durán, who are part of the interdisciplinary team that prepared the Shadow Report on the Glencore Operations in Colombia (http//, sponsored and edited in December 2015 by PAS and by ASK, the Swiss Colombia Working Group (Grupo de Trabajo Suizo-Colombia).

This report makes use of public and official information issued by the Colombian State and shows how a company such as Glencore with its coal mining activities in the Department of Cesar in the Northeast of the country manages to have such a negative impact on the environment, Human Rights, labor and tax issues and also on resettlements, which turn out to be involuntary.

“We call this a shadow report because it’s an alternative to the report issued by Glencore since 2010. We dealt with the same aspects Glencore reports on and looked at official sources, paying close attention to detail and found serious impacts as a result of Glencore activities, affecting communities in the respective area, constituting losses for the entire country. Also, because Glencore has operated in the shadows and almost nobody knows or knew anything about this company in the past, even though it’s been present in Colombia for about twenty years”, according to Santiago Pinero.

The communities where Glencore carries on its mining activities have been very seriously affected by them, which has to be seen as a striking example of how transnational mining and energy companies cause social and environmental damage to entire communities.

Research also shows that Glencore mining activities in Cesar have other consequences, such as secret deals with the Defense Ministry between 2007 and 2013 to the tune of an average amount of 250,000 Dollars to station a battalion inside the mine, which at the time was involved in extra-judicial killings. Glencore recruitment practices foster discrimination and inequality and failure to complete resettlement orders. But there is more, such as air pollution above permitted levels; pollution of rivers and change of their channels; unspecified, irreversible environmental damages; and heavy penalties for evasion of taxes, affecting the National Treasury. The Colombian Environmental Protection Agency had to impose ten fines and Glencore had to pay a sum total of 1.5 Million Dollars.
In order to analyze the scope of this detailed report and make a prediction as to the impact of destructive transnational capital, especially at this historical moment, when there is a distinct chance for a peace agreement with the most important guerrilla group, i.e. the FARC, we invited Holguín Reyes and Pineros Durán, who had disturbing things to say about the complex and conflicting reality of this Andean country that has had to deal with internal confrontations for the last six decades, leaving Colombian society in shambles.


. GLORIA HOLGUÌN REYES (GHR): Thought and Social Action (PAS) is a Colombian NGO that seeks to contribute to the construction of a just and sustainable peace, so that all members of society may enjoy their Human Rights. Not only Colombians but also foreigners are members of PAS, which since the year 2000 has made different proposals and developed strategic actions, together with allies and partners through three lines of work: Peace Building, Security and Protection, and Land and Human Rights. Toward the end of 2010 communities began to express their concern, in regard to Human Rights violations and the damaging impact of mining operations on the environment. PAS then saw the need to look at the mining method used in Colombia and saw that socio-environmental issues needed to be addressed to achieve a sustainable peace, thus guaranteeing Human Rights in the country. At that time in 2010, our partner, the Swiss-Colombian Work Group, offered to investigate the work of Glencore in Colombia. PAS saw that this cooperation offered the possibility of starting a new line of work, namely Land Issues and Human Rights. This new line aims to develop comprehensive strategies to secure Human Rights; point out corporate responsibilities in the context of socio-environmental conflicts as well as armed conflicts in the respective areas; accompany the communities; and strengthen their capacities to stay on their land with Human Rights guaranteed. We do not believe that a sustainable, long-term peace with secure Human Rights is possible without resolving those socio-environmental conflicts that are occurring as a result of mining activities in parts of Colombia.

. Has there been any reaction or threats by the Colombian
establishment or by Glencore itself after the publication of
your report?

. GHR: We have received no direct threats and think that this is
the result of relying on legal and institutional protection, while writing the report. We have been greatly supported by all the
communities with which we work and by international institutions, which pay close attention to the proceedings.

. You included Glencore’s vision statement in your report and therefore had to give an advance copy to the top managers of the company? And what was Glencore’s answer?

. GHR: Well, that’s another measure we took. We had to protect
ourselves not only against threats but also against demands and, following a routine, we sent the finished report to the president of the company in Switzerland and asked for a formal reply, so we could publish it as an attachment to the report. Glencore attempts to dispel all of our concerns in a paper that’s about fourteen pages long, which is quite unusual. NGOs are always told by Glencore that they would be sued and this has already happened, but we received an answer with a point-by-point discussion of the report. It was claimed that sources quoted were on record but were misinterpreted.

. How do you account for the fact that the answer was fourteen pages long?

GHR: We quoted from official sources only. They are not ours.
We quoted the Colombian Ministry of Mining and Energy, the Colombian Superintendency of Corporations, the National Authority for Environmental Permits (ANLA – Autoridad Nacional de Licencias Ambientales), and the Ministry of Labor. Maybe this sent a strong message to the company’s
headquarters in Switzerland.

. Santiago Pineros Durán (SPD): Maybe at some point they
thought we would change our report. That was not an option for
us because we wanted to make the two version public, ours and the one put out by the company and see it as a respectful clash of different opinions. The Glencore president immediately sent a delegation to Colombia.

. Did the Glencore President, Ivan Glasenberg, himself send a delegation directly from Switzerland to Bogotá to have your report verified?

SPD: Yes, there were two delegations: a delegation to prepare an answer to our report and a second delegation in March 2015, which Glasenberg presided over, to verify the charges. What we assumed happened at the Glencore headquarters here in Bogotá behind closed doors is that the top boss asked, “What is this? Why wasn’t I told about all this?” They brought their lawyers along, drafted the reply, sent it to us and said, “Please do not make it public.” And we answered by saying that we would not retract anything said in our report. We said to them that we would publish our report so that whoever reads those two reports can draw his own conclusions. This led to a so-called mission of verification sent to Colombia with top Glencore executives, and Glasenberg himself came with a number of Swiss citizens to meet with us and the communities affected. We had never seen that many top executives of one transnational company in one place.

. And what the result of your meeting with Glasenberg and his staff in Bogotá?

. GHR: There was a long debate, because we told them that we did not want to discuss the report in Colombia because we feared for our safety; however, we were ready to meet with them in Switzerland. But we were told that they would continue with the mission with or without us, so we decided to go along after all. We spent an entire day talking about environmental and labor issues that had been topics in our report.

. Did you think at all about the fact that you had no guarantees for your safety, talking to the Glencore representatives?

SPD: It’s widely understood that the defense of Human Rights is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. The last FIDH (Federación Internacional de Derechos Humanos) report indicates that defenders of land rights and the environment are targets of a variety of attacks that are to silence them, punish them, and blacken their reputation to obstruct their work. There are very powerful actors involved here, among them big companies and governments. In 2014 alone more than one hundred defenders of environmental rights were killed and many more criminalized. We believe, given this situation, our dialogue with Glencore in Colombia makes our job more dangerous, but we are not saying that Glencore has threatened us in any way. It is simply a preventive measure because in Colombia we could very easily become victims of physical assaults and other criminal actions.

. And where did you end up having your meeting?

SPD: At the Marriott Hotel on 26th Street in Bogota. The Vice Minister of Mining and Energy also attended the meeting. We told them that we wanted to sit down and discuss the criteria for the dialogue we were about to start.

. The fact that the Vice Minister of Mining also came, do you think that suggested impartiality or rather bias in favor of the interests of the transnational company?

SPD: The Vice Minister has a mandate from the Presidency of the Republic to encourage mining and foreign investment, but no substantial facts were ever presented.

. And PAS sent how many people to the meeting?

GHR: PAS sent two lawyers, but we also had two ASK-colleagues along. With Glencore came about twenty persons, among them the top managers of different company divisions and also Colombian lawyers to deal with labor and financial issues and three to deal with environmental issues. The discussion basically began with what the reports indicated: the company said one thing and something quite different was found in the Colombian records. A group of Swiss citizens was also present who were quite concerned and wanted to find out what Glencore is actually doing in other countries. 2014 was the first year in which Ivan Glasenberg paid local taxes, and the citizens present told him that they would only receive half of that amount because the other half would go to the communities affected by Glencore global operations.

. Did you send this report to the peace negotiations table in Havana?

. GHR: We support the peace talks in Havana; we are in favor of signing an agreement ending the armed conflict in Colombia. We are institutionally committed to it. But reality is another thing, and the mining model is not part of it. Now let’s look at how our report ties in with the peace talks; there’s the question of cooperation agreements between the company and the military, that’s to say Human Rights violations need to be considered within the framework of transitional justice. Maybe the report has more to contribute to post-conflict scenarios. It would be very good to see what is in store for the country. The government is not interested in discussing economic models at the negotiation table in Havana, nor do we know whether that might be an issue at a negotiating table with the ELN, given that there might be one. Also it is very important to know who will be present at the negotiation table and what public opinion will be like. And there is of course academia, the NGOs, and of course all the communities that might be affected by the implementation of any given plan.

. When you point out that it’s very important that this report be known in Havana, you are saying that it’ll also be known what is to be expected. That of course makes me wonder what is to be expected in terms of that scenario.

. GHR: What we foresee is an increase in violence and criminalization of defenders of Human Rights, of land and the environment. But we also see that this economic plan will be even more strictly adhered to because basically the National Development Plan stipulates an increase in exploitation of non-renewable natural resources, so that there will be more transnational companies working in different regions of Colombia and there will be confrontations and conflicts concerning land restitution to the victims, just to name a few problems.

. SPD: We see this economic plan as just another form of territorial control.

. Meaning territorial control by transnational companies…..

. SPD: By these companies with the help of the state. Here in Colombia territorial control has fed upon itself and has been quite advantageous indeed. It is obvious that transnational companies exercise territorial control in various parts of the country. We think that the demobilization of the FARC will bring about a crisis regarding territorial control. On the one hand there’s the possibility that the armed conflict will come to an end and arms will be given up, and on the other hand “Development” has to continue and thus control of the territory has to be assured.

. GHR: And also, knowing that part of the armed conflict in Colombia has to do with territorial division and territorial control, once the armed actors disappear, one could say, okay let’s do the reform and let’s discuss and come to an agreement with the different communities and social organizations regarding land distribution, which would allow for the implementation of the peace accord and territorial peace building. But with this plan the land will remain in the hands of a few and in this particular case of the transnational companies. And we are not even talking about the anti-restitution elements in the Army and the peace opponents, who will resort to violent means in order to guarantee territorial control.

.In the 19th and 20th century conflicts arose primarily as a result of the question of land ownership. Throughout these years it was the ‘big men’, the gamonales so-called, the landowners, the drug traffickers that controlled the land. And today is it the transnational companies that control the land?

. GHR: The mineral concessions actually mean that large tracts of land are given over to the exploitation of natural resources. This presents a big strategic advantage and the entire legal framework and all the economic policies of the Colombian State suggest that this needs to happen.

. It is an accumulation by dispossession, to use the terms introduced by the English geographer David Harvey, is it not?

SPD: Totally. And worse still, it is not the only one. There are
more and new ways.

. How exactly?

SPD: For example the ZIDRES law (la Ley de Zonas
de Interès de Desarrollo Rural Economico y Social) – Zones of Interest for Rural Economic and Social Development.) Now that is a very concrete form of land control. That almost amounts to the legalization of abuses that have occurred in connection with the management of land in different areas of the country in the last years. And this completely contradicts the management of fallow land and modifies issues related to property rights, leaving it to individuals to take care of the constitutional duty of land reform and the so-called democratization of land, among other things. They all hang together and all mesh, such as agro-business, land expropriation and pollution of the environment, and will have a direct impact on the communities concerned. That is the plan, but there is something that is just as bad or even far worse and that is mining, which is really monstrous.

.Transnational capital is basically to be held responsible for the violence. That is to say, under these conditions and in the Colombian socioeconomic context there is no room for post-agreement optimism?

. SPD: It would be really interesting to think what the role of these companies will be. That’s where we should start with our work. Aside from all other things, this activity appears to be legal but in many cases it is not. For example, the government and different companies are working on the National Action Plan (Plan de Acción Nacional) on issues such as corporate public policy and human rights. This policy is aimed at meeting company needs, but not the needs of victims and the communities, where big mining and agro-business projects are in the planning stage.

. GHR: There is a chapter about involuntary resettlement in the report. It turns out that in 2010 the Ministry of the Environment for the first time in the history of Colombia ordered the involuntary resettlement of three communities because of pollution of the environment. That is to say that air pollution exceeded the legally permitted levels and thus put the health of the population at a possible risk and because of this the Ministry of the Environment ordered three mining companies to resettle three communities in the region. In other words, we have here the first three forced evacuations because of air pollution.

. By the state itself…..

.GHR: Yes, by the state itself and this is really a fundamental
post-conflict question that poses itself: how much land is to be given back to how many? This means we are talking about a post-conflict era with a Victims’ Law and a Peace and Justice Law, and the question how to return land to about six million people, who have been displaced as a result of the armed conflict. And as it turns out, much of the land that has to be given back to the
people displaced by the armed conflict is now used for development projects, be they coal mining, agro-business, or oil investment projects, or the land is in the hands of drug traffickers. And where are we to put these people, and what are we to do once we begin to resettle communities not affected by the armed conflict but rather by pollution? And these people talked about just now are the first ones displaced by environmental pollution.

. Capital has no soul, no heart, no home; nevertheless the European companies that buy Colombian coal should show some responsibility, some sensibility, and it is to be hoped that they will be aware as a result of this and other reports of the Glencore Human Rights violations in Cesar Department. Or is this sensibility just a fairy tale and does not exist?

GHR: Different communities and NGOs are involved in advocacy work not only targeting our allies but also buyers. We are raising awareness and offer information and analyses to coal buyers in Germany and Switzerland. We want the citizens of these countries to understand that the coal they buy actually is promoting the violation of rights here in Colombia. But the different governments that are in support of the coal industry are really to blame.

Globalization and the neoliberal politics of dispossession

. Why is the Colombian government hesitant to talk about this economic model? Is it globally imposed, meaning it is neo-liberalism going global?

. SPD: The Colombian government insists that this is their model and they do not want to discuss it with anybody, one reason being that the banks and other governments also are in support of it, and if there should be a treaty that ties in business with the issue of Human Rights, Colombia would say no.

GHR: This all goes back to international monetary plans
after World War II, which have gained ground over time. And many international institutions—such as the World Bank; the International Monetary Fund; the World Trade Organization;
and the OECD, to which Colombia would like to belong— are the institutions that dictate policies of development for the world, together with the rich countries, under the guise of wanting to “help” the poor countries and create ministries of cooperation. If the poor countries need money, the World Bank says, “Yes, you’ll get money, but you have to make some economic adjustments”, and this is then the international regulatory framework for the entire world, not only for Colombia, but for all of Latin-America, all of Africa, and all of Asia. There is an argument in politics that says
investments are resources for developing countries. Our report
shows that that is not certain, because neither the money, nor the workers stay, nothing stays.

. Has your report generated any response at all by a Colombian state agency, a Ministry or a senior official? Or has the Colombian government beaten a hasty retreat, faced with this report?

. SPD: The Ministry of Mining has responded.

. In favor or against it?

SPD: Against it and defended Glencore. The Ministry of Environment has remained completely silent and does not want to know about anything; it’s a hot potato for them, because all the omissions by the state are so very evident. Their responsibilities are so very obvious, so they decided to remain silent.

.GHR: The most visible reaction has been the European tour organized by the Vice Minister of Mining, the Presidential Minister for Human Rights and the ANLA legal adviser, together with the three biggest transnational companies in Colombia, which are Drummond, Cerrejón and Glencore. A labor union attorney, the source for our report and the president of the Community Action Board, whom we accompanied, were also invited. What we became aware of on this tour is that the companies tried to deny all the allegations we made in our report. The senior presidential advisor played a very important role here. He produced a map of Colombia and said: in these areas there are armed conflicts and in those areas investments are being made and the two have nothing to do with each other. We are making great strides as far as compensation of the victims is concerned and there are no more paramilitaries and industry has nothing to do with the armed conflict. Meanwhile the Vice Minister of Mining turned to members of the German and Dutch delegation and said that investments should continue to be made and they had all the support of the Colombian government and could show that the industry was not violating Human Rights but rather was contributing to the development of the country and the peace process.





This entry was posted in News and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.