By: Miriam Katawazi 

 “Canadian Mining Destroys the Social Fabric!”  Credit: Mining Justice Alliance
“Canadian Mining Destroys the Social Fabric!” Credit: Mining Justice Alliance

Colombian human rights activists claim that the actions of Canadian extraction companies are threatening  the lives of Colombia’s Indigenous peoples.

Amnesty International Canada invited Colombian deputy justice Federico Guzmán Duque and another activist from the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia, who wished to remain anonymous, to Ottawa to speak about the struggle Indigenous peoples in Colombia are facing.

Guzmán Duque emphasized the large number of Canadian extraction companies operating in Colombia through the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (CCOFTA).

CCOFTA came into force in 2011 and aimed to lower trade barriers and increase opportunities for Canadian investors and exporters to benefit from a wide range of Colombian industries, from mining to manufacturing to oil and gas development. The following year, according to The Canadian Press, Canada provided “new market opportunities” for the export of banned assault-style weapons to Colombia.

Guzmán Duque said the Colombian government calls its mining sector “the mining locomotive” of the economy in order to attract foreign investment. The Canadian International Development Agency (now Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada) helped this happen by sponsoring a reform of Colombia’s mining code in 2001, effectively subjecting small-scale miners and artisans to the authority of large corporations.

He recounted that in some cases, the government uses extreme forms of violence to forcibly take Indigenous land and then give companies the right to use it.

According to Amnesty International, Colombia’s Indigenous peoples currently inhabit much of the land targeted for plantations, mines and oil and gas development. In a 2012 news release, Amnesty stated that “human rights abuses are often committed as a means to forcibly remove civilian communities from areas of economic interest.“

Guzmán Duque said that Indigenous peoples in Colombia have been stuck since 1964 in the middle of an ongoing armed conflict between leftist guerrillas and ultra-right paramilitaries.

“The war is more about profit and business,” he said, adding that Canadian corporations stand to benefit.

According to Daniel Tubb, a doctoral candidate working on mining issues in Colombia at Carleton University, the circumstances in rural Colombia around government seizure of Indigenous land make it difficult for any Canadian corporations to operate without “making things worse.”

But Canadian officials say there is no evidence that the CCOFTA is negatively impacting Colombia’s Indigenous peoples. Both Colombia and Canada are obliged under the CCOFTA to produce an annual report on human rights and free trade between the two countries. The most recent Canadian report by the Government of Canada concludes that “It is not possible to establish a direct link between the CCOFTA and the human rights situation in Colombia.”

However, a 2009 investigative report by MiningWatch Canada and CENSAT-Agua Viva suggested that there are “consistent and clear patterns in key areas where companies risk benefiting from human rights violations and/or benefiting those responsible for human rights violations.” It also noted that “resource-rich regions are the source of 87 per cent of forced displacements.”

In a public statement in 2013, Amnesty International expressed concern that the Harper government fails to “acknowledge widespread, grave human rights violations in Colombia – including ongoing threats and deadly attacks on trade unionists and community leaders seeking the return of stolen lands…in areas coveted for their natural resources.”

In the statement, Amnesty International Canada campaigner Kathy Price said that the Harper government has “deliberately chosen to interpret its reporting obligation in such a way that excludes any examination of the impact of Canadian investment.”

Tubb agrees that this report needs to be taken more seriously by the government. The complex issues surrounding foreign mining companies and local populations, while “stark and apparent in Colombia,” Tubb said, also apply to other regions within Latin America.

Paula Kelsall, a member of Amnesty International Canada, said that Guzmán Duque and other speakers were invited to show the urgency of the situation in Colombia to Canadians. She stressed that human rights in Colombia should be a priority for Canadians, since “Our two countries have quite a close relationship, with a lot of economic ties.”

Amnesty invited the visitors to give a presentation for the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Prevention of Genocide and Other Crimes Against Humanity. On Feb. 6, Guzmán Duque gave a more detailed version of the presentation at Amnesty International’s office in Ottawa. He explained that displacement is extremely harmful to the wellbeing of Indigenous peoples because of difficulty adapting to urban areas.

“There is a fundamental link between the Indigenous people and their land…without this link, they face physical and cultural extermination.”

This article first appeared in the Leveller Vol. 6, No. 6 (Mar/Apr 2014).