An “ethical and political trial” took place in Colombia over the weekend to protest against the allegedly unethical practices of multinational gold firm Anglo Ahshanti (AGA) and oil giant Pacific Rubiales Energy (PRE).
More than 500 representatives from across the country convened in Bogota to present evidence that the multinational corporations were involved in, among other things, the murder of union leaders, intimidation, displacement of indigenous communities and laborers, and environmental damage. The Colombia government was also criticized for giving out contracts to the companies without properly consulting the relevant communities.
The objective was to gather enough evidence to be able to put forward a real legal case.
South African AGA is one of the world’s largest gold exploration and mining companies. It arrived in Colombia in 2003 and is exploring the possibility of establishing gold mines in Gramalote, north Colombia, and at La Colosa, in the central Cordillera region.
One of the most serious accusations leveled against AGA is its supposed involvement in the murder of union-leader Alejandro Uribe Chacon on September 19th 2006.
His suspicious death at the hands of the Colombian army led to the government agreeing to investigate the circumstances surrounding his death, as well as the alleged human rights violations being committed by mining companies.
That investigation was concluded on February 28th of this year, when the Prosecutor General cleared three of the soldiers involved, putting Chacon’s death down to “collateral damage” coming about during a fire-fight between the Colombia army and guerrillas from the paramilitary group ELN. This verdict was at odds with alleged forensic evidence showing that Chacon had been shot 6 times, including twice from point-blank range.
AGA is also accused of intimidating union workers. Tefilo Acuña, who founded the Federation of Agro-Miners in the South of Bolivar (FEDAGROMISBOL) in 1998 and was a personal friend of Chacon, told the “trial” how he had been detained in April 2007 by the Colombian army on the charge of “being against mining”. He was released after 10 days thanks to a national and international protest campaign.
One group that gave evidence against AGA were the Afro-Colombian community of La Toma, near Cali. They referred to repeated attempts by AGA to evict them from their ancestral land, where they have panned for gold for nearly 400 years. Specifically, they pointed to the disregard of the community’s right to be informed about the usage of their land and to consent to such usage.
The other multinational corporation under fire was Pacific Rubiales, which is now the largest independent oil company in South America. The Canadian-based company has been in Colombia since 1982 and is the largest extractor of oil after state-owned Ecopterol. PRE recently reported record oil and gas production for the second quarter of 2013, building on the record levels achieved in the first quarter.
MORE: Pacific Rubiales reports record production
PRE was accused of denying freedom of union association. In July Colombian labor union USO filed a complaint with the Prosecutor General alleging that PRE was trying to undercut the actions of their union by setting up their own union, UTEN.
“We feel like we’re fighting against a monster,” said USO president Rodolfo Vecino.
Supported by NGO Proyecto Gramalote, PRE were accused of threatening to fire workers who wished to join non-compliant labor unions.
The company reacted strongly: “That’s just patently absurd,” said legal counsel Peter Volk in July. “There’s no way our company would involve itself in any threats or physical violence with any worker.”
1,154 of its workers are affiliated with the UTEN union.
MORE: Unionists Representing Pacific Rubiales Workers Report Paramilitary Death Threats
Another accusation leveled against PRE concerned its treatment of the indigenous Sikuani community in the department of Meta, southeast of Bogota. An agreement was signed between the Sikuani and PRE in 2010 in which the company promised to allocate funds towards improving the roads, land and lives of the community. Earlier this year the Sikuani joined together with ONIC, an NGO for indigenous rights in Colombia, to pressure PRE to finally make good on their promises.
“We reject the concessions that the government has made to [PRE] in these indigenous lands,” an ONIC statement says. “Not only have they allowed the indiscriminate looting of natural resources but they have let people fall into extreme poverty.”
The Sikuani people are one of the 34 indigenous peoples in Colombia considered by the United Nation’s High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to be close to extinction, and should therefore be protected under special laws.
MORE: UNHCR: Colombia’s indigenous face extinction
According to ONIC, the presence of PRE in indigenous lands is the cause of “discrimination, environmental damage, alcoholism, vices, and prostitution.” It is also accused of contaminating water supplies, which subsequently leads to chronic skin conditions.
PRE has also clashed with Colombia’s government. In 2011 it threatened to halt production unless the government gave certain guarantees over security, and in 2012 the government opened an investigation over the claim that PRE had tried to obstruct environmental regulation by giving false information to environmental authorities.
In June 2013, Senator Alexander Lopez, one of the leading advocates on labor issues in the Colombian government, gave an outspoken indictment of PRE while speaking at a conference organized by the USO and human rights group REDHER: “it’s very sad that the Colombian people have to come and judge this company and see the perverse actions the company has done. The way in which they enslave the workers. The way they degrade our ecosystems and environment. How they displace our indigenous communities and laborers. The way they take the sovereignty away from the land.”
Lopez has also highlighted the role of the government in helping the multinational companies commit human rights abuses, and is an outspoken critic of the free trade agreement signed by Obama and Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos in April 2012.
MORE: Colombia’s unions question Obama’s commitment to human rights
Dave Coles, national president of the Canadian Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, goes one step further in his criticism of the government’s involvement with the energy sector. In an interview with news website Colombia Politics he claimed:
“The state of Colombia is owned lock, stock and barrel by the oil companies. They tell them what to do. The army is directed to de-unionize the energy sector. The army is directed to violate human rights and it is done with complete immunity. The state condones it.”
- Condenar ética y políticamente a Pacific Rubiales y Anglogold Ashanti (Colombia informa)
- Teófilo Acuña (News Internationalist)
- Primera producción de oro de AngloGold Colombia será en 2016 (Portafolio.co)
- Comunicado N° 2. Presentadas las acusaciones a la Anglogold Ashanti (REDHER)
- AFRO COMMUNITY FACES EVICTION BY ANGLO GOLD ASHANTI IN COLOMBIA (human rights server)
- Corporate profile (AngloGold Ashanti)
- “El proyecto minero ‘La Colosa’ será a cielo abierto”: Anglogold (Vanguardia)
- Colombia – Amnesty International Report 2007 (Amnesty International)
- Controversia por rumbo de proceso por muerte de sindicalista en Bolívar (El Espectador)
- Second Quarter Results (Pacific Rubiales Energy)
- Presentadas las acusaciones a la Anglogold Ashanti y Pacific Rubiales (Alba TV)
- SERÁN JUZGADAS LAS MULTINACIONALES ANGLOGOLD ASHANTI Y PACIFIC RUBIALES(Asociacion de cabildos indigenas del norte del cauca)
ONIC presente en la movilización del Pueblo Sikuani frente a los atropellos de Pacific Rubiales en Puerto Gaitán (ONIC)
- Anti oil giant Pacific Rubiales rally in Puerto Gaitán (Colombia Politics)
- Colombian labour union accuses Canada’s Pacific Rubiales Energy of intimidation (Global News)
- Continued Labor Violations, Empty Promises (WOLA)