“Many social leaders refrain from publicly speaking out. As soon as they do, they’ll become targets. They’ll kill them. While telling you these stories puts the life of the person telling you at risk, it is important to get this information out. This can serve as a powerful denouncement of these activities in the U.S.”
And maybe it can lead to change.
We heard these words from a human rights activist in a town called Cienaga just a few hours after our Witness for Peace delegation from Kentucky stepped off the plane in Colombia. In this meeting, we heard story after story of how a privately owned U.S. Corporation called Drummond Company, Inc. degrades the local community in Cienaga, abuses human rights, and has even instructed their private militia to kill union leaders. In nearly every meeting we had over the course of our week in Colombia – with communities, unions and other local groups – people reiterated this message about the danger of speaking out.
Cari Moore, John Capillo, Patty Tarquino, Nancy Reinhart, Randy Wilson of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth in Colombia.
From July 19th to 26th I was part of this delegation of five people from Kentucky visiting Colombia. I am a full-time researcher on staff at Kentuckians for the Commonwealth (KFTC), and our delegation included three KFTC members and one other staff person. KFTC is member-driven organization that helps ordinary citizens across the state of Kentucky organize to improve their communities and build a better state.
The coal industry has long been a dominating presence in Kentucky. Thus, KFTC members work on all of the many issues related to a coal mining, including environmental degradation, worker safety issues, and economic development and employment issues. For these reasons, KFTC has developed a fruitful exchange with the coal mining communities in Colombia through the Witness for Peace delegation program. This was the third time in three years that Kentuckians traveled to Colombia. We spent the week learning about the impacts of the coal industry on communities in a northern coastal region of Colombia called La Guajira.
Drummond Company, Inc., owned by Gary Drummond of Birmingham, Alabama, built a port in Cienaga about twenty years ago to ship the coal it mines out to the U.S. and Europe. Drummond also purchased part of the Colombian national railroad, privatizing it to run coal.
The company now uses the railway to transport coal from its coal mine to its port, where long conveyor belts take the coal out into the sea and dump it onto barges. The port is surrounded by barbed wire; it is guarded by a combination of private militia and national police. About thirty million tons of coal are exported from the port annually.
“The problem of transitioning away from coal is one that you all have to address,” Colombians said. Colombia doesn’t burn coal for electricity; all of the coal mined there is exported to the U.S. and Europe.
At the time of the port’s construction, Drummond management promised the community that the port would yield prosperity for the people and employ local workers. Instead, community members say it is has polluted local waters with coal dust so that fishing has become impossible, it has polluted the air with coal dust leaving many adults and children sick with rashes and respiratory problems, and it employs very few local people. Corrupt politicians often steal the royalty monies that the mine pays, leaving little money left to invest in Cienaga community projects.
Randy Wilson, Clay County KFTC member, responded to the stories he heard in this first meeting by saying ,”It doesn’t fit in my head how the U.S., a country that preaches to the world about freedom, can step all over people here.” He went on to draw parallels between the impacts of the coal industry on Colombian communities and workers and the industry’s impacts in his home, eastern Kentucky.
A Cienega city representative and community activist talked about his hopes for the future. “Our hope is in making the security situation better here so that we can organize. Our best hope is in community organizing.”
Cari Moore, Knott County KFTC member, left Colombia charged up to bring these stories back and affect change the U.S., in Kentucky and in Colombia. “Injustice is everybody’s business. It is so important that we show the connections [between Kentucky and Colombia], and show Colombians our reality. It is great to leave this on a note of hope, thinking about things we can do to help.”
This is the first in a series of blog posts to come about the KFTC group’s experience during this Witness for Peace tour in Colombia.