September 05, 2006

Digging for Answers in Colombia

Digging for answers in Colombia
Nova Scotians head to South America to learn about human rights in country where NSPI buys its coal

Chris Arsenault
The Daily News (Halifax)
Thursday, August 10, 2006, p. 4

RIOACHE, COLOMBIA - Heading to the most dangerous country in the hemisphere to meet with poverty stricken slum dwellers, tour mining sites and sleep in hammocks adjacent to displaced farmers doesn't sound like an ideal summer vacation, but Debbie Kelly wouldn't want to be anywhere else for her two weeks off.

Kelly, an RCMP forensics technician from Halifax, and three other Nova Scotians have joined an international delegation to Colombia to learn about the human-rights impact of mining in the war-torn South America country. The country's Cerrejun mine supplies 17 per cent of Nova Scotia Power Inc.'s coal.

"One of the high, and incredibly sad points, was meeting and eating with the villagers of Tabaco, who had their homes bulldozed and their lives destroyed when the Cerrejun mine expanded," said Kelly.

"They were some of the warmest, kindest people I have every met, and I think our presence gave them hope."

Several hundred indigenous Wayuu and afro-Colombians farmers, fishers and hunters lived and worked in the tropical coastal region before the mine's most recent expansion on Aug. 9, 2001. Today, most former Tabaco residents are refugees.

On the fifth anniversary of Tabaco's destruction, more than 100 people, including Colombian farmers, academics, activists and unionists, attended a conference near the mine's site.

"It's really important for people back home know about this injustice so we can demand accountability," said Cape Breton native Karen Murphy, 22, who listened carefully as translators whispered the impassioned pleas of displaced residents and their supporters.
Some individuals and families from Tabaco were given roughly $2,000 US in compensation for their homes and property not enough to start again, they say.
Others, including Jose Julio Perez, who spoke in Halifax in March, refused to take the money, demanding relocation to another town with the same modest amenities of Tabaco: a school, farmland, church and a telephone exchange.

Kelly was inspired to go to Colombia after watching a video Perez screened of Tabaco being flattened by bulldozers and police beating villagers and journalists.

"I had to do something about this," said Kelly, who has already written letters to the Premier's Office, and the CEO of NSPI's parent company, Emera.

Cerrejun is the world's largest open-pit mine, and supplies coal to NB Power, Dominion Electric in the U.S. and NSPI; it's owned by a consortium of companies.

The mine employs more than 4,000 workers, crucial jobs in a country where about 65 per cent of the population lives in poverty.

Cape Breton University lecturer Garry Leech, who helped organize the Colombian conference, said NSPI has acted in bad faith during negotiations with the activists.

"When Jose Julio Perez spoke in Halifax, NSPI said they would soon be issuing a statement and asked us not to attack them in the media. We kept our word and they didn't keep theirs."

A war, fuelled by cocaine profits, between government-backed paramilitaries and Marxist rebel groups has wreaked havoc on Colombia for the last 30 years.
Activists such as Kelly allege companies that purchase goods from outfits like Cerrejun and don't speak out against abuses are helping fuel a climate of injustice.

Kelly, Murphy, 18-year-old Cape Bretion University student Suzanne MacNeil and 20 other international volunteers met with mine officials and toured the site the day before the conference.

"All 14 (mine officials) who guided our tour were very friendly with us, especially when they found out how many people we represent," said Kelly, the Nova Scotia provincial director for PSAC, the Public Canada Service Alliance, Canada's third largest union. The union helped finance her trip.

Leech said it has been five months since an NSPI official has responded to his letters: "They're trying to keep us in the dark, hoping this issue will go away."

When contacted last night by The Daily News, NSPI spokeswoman Margaret Murphy did not offer comment on the issue.

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