Halifax Media Co-op

News from Nova Scotia's Grassroots

More independent news:
Do you want free independent news delivered weekly? sign up now
Can you support independent journalists with $5? donate today!

The Colombian connection

The province that once fought for coalminers' rights now helps stomp on human rights

by Sarah Wilbur

Trade unionist and lawyer Francisco Ramirez Cuellar has survived eight assassination attempts in Colombia. He recently visited the Maritimes to inform unions, pensioners and the power companies about their complicity in the unrest in Colombia. [Photo: Youtube]
Trade unionist and lawyer Francisco Ramirez Cuellar has survived eight assassination attempts in Colombia. He recently visited the Maritimes to inform unions, pensioners and the power companies about their complicity in the unrest in Colombia. [Photo: Youtube]

What really happens when we flick the switch? What exactly is behind the source of our power in this province?

Well, coal, mostly. According to Nova Scotia Power’s website, coal still accounts for about 59% of energy in the province. And according to Colombian union activist and lawyer Francisco Ramirez Cuellar it’s coal “drenched in blood.”

Until 1999, Nova Scotia coal plants were largely supplied with coal mined in the province. But as Nova Scotia's mines have shut down, much of the coal traveling through the U.S. to Canada comes from Colombia, a country with one of the worst human right records in the world and the highest rate of assassination of unionists in the world: Approximately 3,000 union organizers have been killed in the last 25 years.

“The blood of miners, small farmers, indigenous peoples and union leaders continues to be spilled in Colombia,” Ramirez tells me as we drive from New Brunswick to Nova Scotia, where he will continue to give presentations. “Not to mention the complete environmental disaster,” he adds.

For over a decade, I've known this was happening. But since I met Francisco eleven years ago when he first visited Nova Scotia, it’s gotten worse. And that’s why he’s back.

Ramirez has been on a speaking tour in Canada to educate the public, unions and companies about their participation in the environmental devastation, forced displacement, disappearances and murders in his country. To anyone that hasn’t grown up with an open pit coal mine in the backyard, this may seem extreme. But through his talks, Francisco paints a picture of how, over time, the province has unwittingly become complicit in these atrocities: Individuals and unions through their pension plans, and companies like Nova Scotia Power through their purchase of coal coming from Colombia.

A survivor of eight assassination attempts himself, Ramirez has watched as numerous colleagues and friends have been murdered or disappeared in attempts to denounce mining companies for their actions.

As a lawyer, for years Ramirez has represented families of victims of multinational companies operating in Colombia. He’s been an active trade unionist since 1988, including in his role as President of the Colombian Coal Miners Union and Vice President of the Federation of Government Workers. During his time as a union leader and advisor, he led four strikes in the mining and energy sector and he’s been responsible for constitutional actions and international civic actions against mining companies for their human rights violations.

In Halifax, Francisco met with staff from the Public Service Alliance of Canada to talk about the potential of the union divesting their pension plans from Colombian coal. He hopes that unions like the PSAC will stop investing in companies implicated in human rights abuses and provided information about how they can do it. A public talk was also held at Dalhousie Law School where Ramirez spoke about how an investment climate was created that has transformed his country into “the perfect place for multinationals to operate with impunity.”

On the last day of his tour, Ramirez met with two representatives of Nova Scotia Power (NSP), outside of their offices, to talk about a campaign and legal case that he and his union are launching against Alabama-based mining giant Drummond Coal, the company they accuse of committing large-scale crimes against humanity.

Ramirez and his team at the CUT (Colombian Unified Trade Union Federation) are asking companies that import directly from Drummond, or from companies in the U.S. that purchase from Drummond, to boycott the coal. The campaign has had some successes; Denmark and Holland have carried out investigations - and then imposed sanctions - on the company. Before asking the representatives of NSP for their support, Ramirez provided some context.

“It’s the same countries and companies unleashing war in other parts of the world that are intervening in Colombia”, says Ramirez. He cites Shell, responsible for massacres in Nigeria; BHP Billiton and Anglo American, active in South Africa’s Apartheid regime; Occidental Petroleum in Libya; Halliburton in Iraq; Talisman, expelled from the Sudan for human rights abuses; Chiquita, responsible for forced displacement, coups and assassinations in Central America. And finally, Drummond.

Since it’s been in operation over the last 14 years, Ramirez' team alleges that Drummond has caused 4,400 deaths, 420 disappearances, 661 murders of union workers, and the forced displacement of over 55,000 people. As soon as anyone ‘gets in the way’ of the companies operations they are criminalized, or worse. The team at the CUT has been actively documenting Drummond’s involvement in the creation of paramilitary squads charged with ‘protection’ of mining operations, which are also allegedly responsible for the violence. In reality, the paramilitaries and what Ramirez refers to as ‘para-politicians’ secure a stronghold on the regions where extractive activity happens and through intimidation and violence garner support, or eliminate dissent.

“All of these companies, and the countries behind them—the UK, US, Israel, Australia, and Canada—are actively involved in human rights violations in my country,” says Ramirez. “Colombia has become a paradise for resource extraction.”

Unfortunately, resource extraction and crimes against humanity seem to go hand in hand. He outlines the structural adjustment programs imposed on Colombia through the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and Free Trade Agreements like the one Canada recently signed with Colombia that have made this climate possible.

“It starts with the privatization of state-owned companies, in gas, oil, mining, hydro-electricity and forestry. Then come changes in the tax structure that make it easier for companies to extract resources and pay hardly any tax. Then there are changes to the legal framework that make it virtually impossible for the Colombian people to win when there is a discrepancy between what the government and the company want.”

In fact, the legal changes make it even easier for a corporation to sue the Colombian government. For example, the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement grants foreign investors the right to sue the Colombian government without first pursuing legal action in the country’s court systems in order to protect foreign investors from discrimination. In other words, if a government creates environmental and social protections that put a cap on the profits of a company, it can be sued.

Like Guatemala, where Canadian mining companies have gained a scathing reputation, in Colombia it was Canada’s very own International Development Agency (CIDA) that helped rewrite the mining code, advising changes in legislation that resulted in major reforms to tax law, benefiting companies over communities and prioritizing profits over people.

For instance, there is a rebate program now in effect that allows for a $134 tax return for every $100 that the company pays. The duration of a mining contract has also been extended, from 25 to 30 years with a possible renewal of up to 90 years, which for a mine essentially means in perpetuity. During that time, no change can be made to the contract.

Ramirez speaks intently through a translator: “It was your own Prime Minister that helped change Article 227 which altered the taxes that foreign companies operating in Colombia must pay to the government from 15% to the current 0.4%.” Then he looks up at his audience, smiling, and adds in English: “It’s a family business!”

He’s referring to Canadian Steamship Lines, previously owned by Paul Martin and family, which transported coal directly from the Cerrejon mine to the Maritimes, where it was burned at Belledune, in Northern New Brunswick.

Currently, Nova Scotia Power’s connection to Colombian coal is more vague, since it now imports through the U.S. and not directly from the Cerrejon mine like it did in the past - and as its counterpart New Brunswick Power still does. A percentage of the coal coming into the U.S. is sourced from Colombia, and this requires some investigation on the part of Nova Scotia Power to determine what portion is coming from Drummond, and what portion still comes from Cerrejon.

During his meeting with New Brunswick Power, Ramirez asked that they put conditions on the coal coming from the Cerrejon mine. He made a similar appeal to Nova Scotia Power when he visited 11 years ago, but the company refused to meet with him. 

This time, Francisco’s appeal to Nova Scotia Power differed slightly: “What I am asking today, and I know its up to you,” he added, “is that after making you aware, that you consider our campaign to boycott Drummond Coal.” 


Want more grassroots coverage?
Join the Media Co-op today.
1383 words

The site for the Halifax local of The Media Co-op has been archived and will no longer be updated. Please visit the main Media Co-op website to learn more about the organization.