April 06, 2006

"NB Power importing ‘blood coal’

NB Power importing ‘blood coal’: displaced Colombia villager
Chris Arsenault

Coal mining is usually a dirty business but for Jose Julio Perez and the 700 other former residents of Tabaco, a small town in northern Colombia, it's downright bloody. The village was illegally destroyed to make way for the expansion of Cerrejun, the world's largest open pit mine which supplies coal to NB Power.

Mr. Perez gave talks across New Brunswick in Fredericton, Hampton and Sackville last week hoping people in Canada will get active, "I appreciate what you are doing tonight, trying to understand and feel our pain," Mr. Perez said to the 50 people gathered at one of his speaking engagements.

"We feel international pressure will help us receive justice." Approximately 16 per cent of the NB Power's coal comes from Colombia's often violent mining sector, most of which comes from Cerrejun. During the mine's rapid expansion, entire Afro-Columbian communities like Mr. Perez's were displaced; 350,000 Colombians were violently ousted in the first nine months of 2002 alone.

Mr. Perez's presentation began with a short video from the eviction and eventual destruction of his town; heavily armed riot police bullied unarmed villagers while bulldozers smashed the town's church and school. Members of the media, who were filming the event, had their cameras broken by the army and faced multiple threats. The camera panned to an interview with Mr. Perez who stood in front of a destroyed home: concrete and corrugated iron laying in shambles as his son cried.

"Peoples throughout the world are more socially, politically and economically connected than ever before," said Jim Brittain, a professor of political science at the University of New Brunswick specializing in Colombia and a member of the Atlantic Regional Solidarity Network (ARSN) the organization co-ordinating the 'blood-coal' campaign.

Colombia's conflict, fueled by North America's lust for cocaine, coal and oil has spawned one of the hemisphere's worst humanitarian disasters.

Because of its turmoil and geopolitical importance, Colombia has received 4 billion dollars in US aide, mostly military, since 2000; only Egypt and Israel receive more. Colombia has 3 million internally displaced refugees like Mr. Perez, surpassed only by Sudan as a hot-bed of homeless horror.

ARSN is demanding NB Power pressure it's Colombian suppliers to improve human rights at their operations. Mr. Perez and his supporters in New Brunswick met with NB Power officials, along with the Provincial minister of Energy Brenda Fowlie.

"They all stated that they were not aware of the issue until quite recently and welcomed the opportunity to discuss it with Jose Julio," said Ramsay Hart, a member of ARSN who attended both meetings.

"I think the personal connection that people made with him was also really important," said Hart.

NB Power did not return phone calls or e-mails about their purchase of Colombian coal.

Jose Julio Perez's former village Tabaco was pretty nice by Colombian standards. It boasted a school, telephone exchange, medical clinic and a church, all of which were destroyed by Cerrejun's bulldozers.

Currently, the mine employs 1,000 private security guards in what ARSN members consider a, "private militia".

In 2002 Mr. Perez and his fellow villagers challenged their eviction in Colombia's supreme court. They won. The court issued a judicial decree ordering the relocation of the village. Four years later, the order hasn't been enforced and the townspeople are still living as refugees; their children are not in school. "The mine company has more power than the president," said Mr. Perez, citing corruption in the police and military as the prime reason why the high court's order hasn't been enforced.

When the mine was expanding, owners offered some villagers trite compensation, on the condition that they wouldn't try to negotiate collectively for relocation. Mr. Perez and many others, are demanding that they be moved collectively to a new town with all the amenities of Tabaco.

Because of this, they haven't received a penny in compensation. Mr. Perez and his family are currently living with relatives in a near-by settlement.

Ninety per cent of Columbia's human rights violations are perpetrated in mining and petroleum exporting regions, 433 massacres in eight years, according to Amnesty International. In 2001 alone, Canadian corporations invested $869 million in these often violent sectors.

To make the whole 'blood coal' situation more Canadian than a medium-double-double before pee-wee hockey, NB Power's 'blood coal' is transported to Maritime shores by Canada Steam Ship Lines- Paul Martin's old tax-payer subsidized Liberian flag waving junket representing all that's wrong with governance in the era of globalization.

It's ironic; Atlantic Canadian coal mines close throwing thousands out of work, devastating entire communities, while we outsource production to far-off lands and buy from mines implicated in human rights abuses.

"There are coal mining co-operatives in Columbia that have good human rights records," says Francisco Ramirez, President of Colombia's National Mine Workers Union, who has found common cause with Jose Julio Perez and other villagers displaced by the mines. "They (worker mining co-operatives) sell coal at the world market price, so I don't know why NB Power won't even consider switching, at least until the situation improves at Cerrejun," said Mr. Ramirez.

Activists from New Brunswick are sending mock power bills to NB Power, showcasing the "real costs" of Colombian coal which include an "immeasurable human cost". They are planning a conference in Colombia for August 9 which will take place near the mine and feature presentations for unions, displaced communities, local officials and other stake-holders.

According to Professor Brittain, "It's important for people within New Brunswick to understand that what happens to workers and homeowners in one part of the world opens the door for those same abuses, atrocities, or manipulations to occur in their part of the world as well."

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