Official Blog of the Latin American, Caribbean and Iberian Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

Colombia Support Network – Interview with Steven Pegelow and Chelsea Match about Delegation Trip

What is Colombia Support Network? Colombia Support Network is a grassroots organization, with 501 (c)(3) status, created to give solidarity to the Colombian people through sister city projects, delegations and petitions to educate members of the U.S. government. The organization also invites guest speakers and coordinates outreach activities through print and electronic mediums.

Information from the Colombia Support Network website: http://colombiasupport.net/

Colombia Support Network UW-Badgers (http://colombiasupport.net/about-us/chapters/uw-badgers/)

Colombia Support Network UW-Badgers is the student branch of Colombia Support Network at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The student organization was founded in September of 2011. The student organization works towards two main goals: education and action. Representatives from Colombia Support Network educate the student organization on Colombia as a whole and the specific work the Colombia Support Network continuously strives to achieve. The student organization then works to educate the student body of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the greater community. This education blends into action.

Colombia Support Network led a student delegation to the communities of San José de Apartadó and Marmato in January 2012. The delegation was split into two groups, one going to San José and the other to Marmato. Each group interacted with community members and listened to their concerns. The two delegations combined in Bogotá, the capital of Colombia. The Colombia Support Network delegation served as a vessel to express the concerns of the communities to various groups and offices in Bogotá. The Head of Human Rights, the Ministry of the Interior, the Canadian Embassy and executives from Gran Colombia Gold are just a few of the groups the delegation met with. Why these two communities? San José de Apartadó is Dane County’s sister community. This community is important, because it is the first and oldest peace community to be created in Colombia. Despite their status as a peace community, the community continuously faces displacement from both paramilitaries (right-wing death squads) and the Colombian government. What these groups are after is the land on which the peace community lies. Located in northwest Colombia, the peace community is an ideal location. This area provides easy access to both the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean as well as access to Central America through Panama. The community and overall region also happens to lie atop of vast coal reserves. Therefore, the community faces displacement due to its location and resources. Marmato is an artisanal mining community located in western Colombia. Marmato is a place of great cultural and historical value. Not only is Marmato one of the oldest communities in Colombia, the mountain of Marmato is replete with gold. These gold reserves were mortgages by Simón Bolivar to the British in order to receive necessary aid to liberate the South American people from Spanish rule. Today, artisanal mining of the mountain provides for much of the labor work of the community. Therefore, the mountain is socially and economically important. Gran Colombia Gold, a Canadian multinational, wants to eliminate artisanal mining and replace it with an open pit mine. If this happens, the community would greatly suffer economically, socially and environmentally. Colombia Support Network is working with the miners and community members to prevent this from occurring and preserve this historic community.

After returning from the delegation, the students have attended press conferences, appeared on radio shows, and made presentations throughout the spring 2012 semester to educate the public on their experience in Colombia.

The student chapter is currently working on a variety of projects. The students will develop and maintain social media platforms for both CSN UW-Badgers and Colombia Support Network. The students are working on establishing fair trade partnerships between the community of San José de Apartadó and Madison for the communities cocoa products.

If you are interested in contacting CSN UW-Badgers, please email csnuwbadgers@gmail.com

Steven Pegelow, Brice O’Connell, and Chelsea Match went on the January 2012 Colombia Support Network Delegation Trip. Steven and Chelslea provided LACIS with some additional information about the trip.

Steven: On our delegation trip we visited Medellin, San José de Apartadó and Bogotá. We went early to Medellin to travel and to visit the cities of Guatapé and Santa Fe. While in Medellin, we met with the UN representative in Colombia. In San José de Apartadó, we made two trips to Dane County’s sister-community. At the Peace Community, we had a meeting with leaders from the many communities that constitute San Jose de Apartadó. Some of the leaders had walked 8 or 9 hours to meet with us. We also helped sort cocoa beans for the community’s shipment to England. We toured the community and were given an introduction to their “alternative” education program and the corresponding student garden. This type of education consists of grade levels based on ability instead of age. The children of the community took us down to the river to swim with them in the water, which was amazing. On our final day, we met with the 17th Brigade of the Colombian Military to discuss the safety of the community and the region. We then flew to Medellin and had two meetings (one was with a worker’s rights NGO) and then flew to Bogotá. In Bogotá, we joined with the other delegation that went to Marmato – a historic artesian mining community that is currently targeted by a Canadian Gold Company, Gran Colombia Gold, that wants to build an open-pit mine in their community. We had meetings with various groups such as CINEP (the Center for Investigation and Popular Education), the Head of Human Rights, the Ministry of the Interior, the Canadian Embassy, Gran Colombia Gold, and Senator Robledo. Brice, Chelsea and I also had the opportunity to meet with three leaders in the Student Movement who helped keep education public. The students also took us on a tour of the National University of Colombia. Overall, it was an amazing delegation!

Chelsea: The Colombia Support Network delegation in January was one of the best experiences of my life. We got to meet with leaders of NGOs, members of the Colombian Government, and member of the Colombian Military. We got to see many different sides of the Colombian conflict, which helped us understand the complexity of the war. My favorite part of the trip was visiting the Peace Community. Some leaders of the community walked 9 hours just to meet with us in San Josesito. They are the strongest most intelligent people I have ever met. I loved helping them harvest cacao and eating lunch with them. The peace community was also the most important part of the delegation because it established a strong people-to-people connection. Now the other students and I will have even more dedication to helping the people of San Jose.

What did you talk about with the UN representative for Colombia?

Chelsea: Our meeting with him was strictly informative. We met with him to obtain information about the situation in Antioquia and the history of the conflict there.

What did you talk about during the meetings with community leaders in the Peace Community? How does the Colombia Support Network assist/work with these community leaders?  What was the goal of your trip to meet with them?

Steven: One of the goals of the trip was to meet with the community leaders in the Peace Community.

Chelsea: The peace community members talked about the history of San Jose and how the peace community is organized. They also told us stories of past massacres and killings in the community.

Steven: I asked about what they do when the paramilitary comes and how they establish/maintain international partnerships for their cocoa beans. We also received information from them that was important to know for our meetings in Bogotá. Some leaders requested we visit their specific communities in the future. We are also trying to find a chocolatier in Madison for their cocoa beans.

Chelsea: CSN meets with the community leaders during every delegation to do a check up, and also to establish a people-to-people connection between members of CSN and the people of San Jose. The most important part of our peace community meeting was to establish this connection, so that when we are working in the office, we know who we are working for and who we are trying to help.

What is the military’s role in protecting the communities?  What specifically did you discuss with them?  Are there problems with safety in the Peace Community?

Steven: Yes, there are problems with safety in the Peace Community. Their role is to protect/secure the area but reality does not reflect that. We asked them why there is trouble in the area and why they aren’t doing anything.

Chelsea: In reality, the military does nothing to protect the people of San Jose. The military, paramilitary, and guerilla forces attack the Peace Community.

Steven: They also say that the Peace Community just sends out urgent actions so people abroad send them money, which is also false. Urgent actions are sent out when a violation occurs and CSN disseminates the information and provides contact information for the people to email regarding the incident.

Chelsea: There is a ‘machista’ mentality in the Colombian military. They think they should be able to pass through any part of Colombia as they please. However, our Peace Community does not allow guns in their territory, so San Jose is seen as an annoyance. The military justifies attacks on San Jose by denouncing them as guerillas. In reality, they are just campesinos who want to live in peace.

What did you discuss at the worker’s rights meeting in Medellin? Does the Colombia Support Network coordinate with the worker’s rights NGO that you met with?  If so, how?

Chelsea: It was basically an informative meeting on the goals of the worker’s rights NGO. Colombia has the highest rate of union leader assassinations in the world, which CSN denounces.

Steven: We explained the situation in Marmato and we drew parallels between their work and our work. We coordinated during a meeting by discussing and comparing experiences.

When you went to Bogota, did you meet up with another Colombia Support Network group?  What is the current situation with the open-pit mine?  What was the tone of these meetings?  How did your organization contribute/participate?

Steven: We met with the Marmato delegation in Bogotá. Gran Colombia Gold still wants to build an open-pit mine (even though they say alternatives exist). They are waiting on an environmental license to proceed. They would also need the people to move to the lower community. The meeting with the board of Gran Colombia Gold was terrible because they were untruthful in many of their statements regarding how they care about the people of Marmato and will do whatever the people want. We have the meeting recorded.

Chelsea: We met up with the delegation that went to Marmato, and we joined them in a meeting with Gran Colombia Gold. Gran Colombia Gold wants to destroy Marmato by building an open-pit mine, and they want to move the community to the base of the mountain. Our meeting with them was three hours long, and it was the most frustrating of all of them. We brought Jamil, a Marmato artesenal miner, with us to the meeting, and they would not listen to anything that he said.

Is the Colombia Support Network involved in public education debates in Colombia or plan to involve themselves more in this issue?  What was the most important thing you learned from meeting with the student leaders in Bogota?

Chelsea: CSN is not involved with the public education debates. However, we do receive information on the anti-privatization movement, and we plan to post information on their struggle. Leo, one of the student movement leaders, brought us to the public university in Bogota and gave us a tour and told us about its history.

Steven: We had a meeting with students at the public university so we could share our experiences. We have hopes of bringing the student leaders to Madison to speak, but that is a matter of fundraising. The most important thing I learned from the student leaders is you cannot have fear. If you live in fear, you won’t get anything done.

More information about the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó from the Colombia Support Network website: http://colombiasupport.net/

Near the end of the 1980’s, the selective assassinations of activists, union leaders, journalists, lawyers and campesinos were reaching a new height and CSN had just recently been founded in Madison, Wisconsin.  From the beginning, the organization decided to focus on the creation of sister community relationships between U.S. communities and Colombian communities in zones of conflict.  At the time, Colombians told us the place where the most people were being killed was in the banana-growing region of Apartadó.  We visited the city and the mayor’s office, where the Unión Patriótica was in power.  They welcomed the sister-community initiative.  When Dane County, of which the city of Madison is a part, made the relationship official by a resolution of the County Board, the Apartadó Municipal Council responded in kind with its own resolution.

We began establishing relationships with different sectors within the community by reaching out to artists, environmentalists, teachers, campesino communities, union leaders and others.  Little by little, the leaders of all of these sectors were targeted and killed by paramilitary forces with which the Colombian Army collaborated. When representatives of CSN returned to visit many of the community leaders were no longer living.  Many of those killed were fervent members of the Unión Patriótica, which was very active in the region. One area where the Patriotic Union had been strong, the peasant community of San José de Apartadó, responded in 1997 to the threats and violence by declaring itself a “Peace Community” practicing non-violent resistance.  It was the first rural community in Colombia to do so, and continues to serve as a model to other communities facing similar threats. After 40 paramilitaries had dragged 4 leaders of the community’s Balsamar Cooperative from their homes and decapitated them, the frightened campesinos met with church leaders and decided to declare their community to be a Peace Community. During a solemn mass on Palm Sunday in 1997 the community established its core principles: non-violence, to work on community projects, to seek justice in the face of impunity, to refuse to participate in the war, to neither own nor use guns, to not allow itself to be manipulated or collaborate with any armed actors, and to seek a negotiated solution to the conflict.

The region of Apartadó is of strategic importance because it is a point of entry and exit for both legal and illegal products.  The number-one export of the region is bananas.  Years later, that which leaders of the Peace Community had been telling CSN delegations—that the owners of banana plantations were paying paramilitaries a sum of money for each crate of bananas—would be publicly verified.

Cacao is another agricultural product of the region and two examples of contraband constantly passing through the region are weapons and cocaine.  Also, government studies have shown that there are large coal deposits in the region.

The Peace Community is not only a territory, but also a political entity and a cooperative of campesinos selling their products.  As a territory, it signifies a neutral geographic region surrounded by a raging war.  As a political entity, it seeks to establish power in numbers—not only power to stand up to the armed actors, but also to stand up to their hierarchical and discriminatory way of life.  The community is democratically run, creating an alternative to a way of life where arms and economic power rule.  It seeks to solve problems through dialogue and collective initiatives rather than resorting to violence.

Naturally, the armed actors of the conflict did not accept this type of “neutrality.”  A community that refuses to supply any information or food, and denies them entry into their territory represents an unexpected threat.  The army and paramilitaries, therefore, decided to destroy the community; and the FARC turned them into a target because the Peace Community would not sell them food or provide them with information. The Inter-American Commission spoke up in favor of the community, demanding that the government respect and protect the lives of its members.  In April of 2004, the Constitutional Court of Colombia passed decision T-558/03, recognizing the Colombian Government’s obligation to comply with the Commission’s directives.

In spite of all this, terror and impunity continue to reign.  The conduct of the Seventeenth Brigade of the Colombian Army controlling the region is particularly notorious.  The threats made by its officers are constant, and torture, sexual assault, robbery, illegal detentions and patrols with paramilitaries continue.  The multi-national corporation Chiquita Brands paid banana companies to maintain control of the region through the use of paramilitaries.  The heroic resistance of the Peace Community is an example to the world of perseverance in the face of extreme adversity.

CSN-Madison maintains constant communication with the Peace Community, organizes visits there each year, launches urgent actions, puts the community in contact with Colombian and international organizations, and ensures that U.S. politicians remain abreast of the situation. And CSN through community outreach in Madison co-sponsors with the local Returned Peace Corps Volunteer organization an annual fundraiser—a footrace.  Money raised at the event goes toward funding food projects.

School Children of San José de Apartado. Photo from CSN website

CSN Mission Statement

The Colombia Support Network is an activist grassroots organization that works through sister communities to help Colombians create a peaceful participatory democracy and an economically just Colombian society. The organization condemns violations of human rights by all actors involved in a conflict, including guerrilla groups, military, paramilitary, police, multinational corporations and foreign agents, including U.S. defense contractors. The Colombia Support Network supports and provides political space for organizations and individuals that work for a non-violent, just political solution to the conflict in Colombia.

 

1 thought on “Colombia Support Network – Interview with Steven Pegelow and Chelsea Match about Delegation Trip”

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