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Wednesday, December 7, 2016
Catholic priests fear for Colombia's indigenous people
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 Indigenous communities in Colombia ­ 3.5 per cent of the population - are being devastated by armed conflict and the destruction of rainforest to create more palm oil plantations, according to two Colombian priests who visited London last week. Fr Luis Evelis Andrade, president of the Indigenous Organization of Colombia and an Embera Indian, said that communities "are threatened by armed groups and the arbitrary detention of indigenous leaders". He criticized President Alvaro Uribe for not signing up to the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which went before the United Nations in New York recently. "There is a really high risk of extinction of 18 indigenous groups," he reported, "and many feel there is a deliberate policy to get us out of the way to leave the path open for foreign interests to move in". In the last four months, 107 Embera children ­ from his own indigenous group ­ have died in the department of Chocó of respiratory infections and other ailments because they had no access to medical treatment. More than 300 indigenous leaders are currently in prison, "because civil movements are criminalized if they protest". The exploitation of Colombia's natural resources by transnational corporations was blamed for displacing many people. Fr Andrade was critical that the Colombian government turns a blind eye to violence while regions are being made secure for penetration by companies. He singled out Anglo American and BP as two British-based companies involved in extractive industries which bring little benefit to local communities. "We don't want to be seen as a block to progress," reflected Fr Andrade, "but the government, the military and other players must enter into respectful dialogue with us". He commented that, "in my work I am accompanied by the spirit of Jesus and the spirit of my ancestors". Another Colombian priest, Fr Henry Ramirez Soler, reported that large parts of the indigenous population of the Chocó region has been driven from their lands by paramilitary groups for the plantation of oil palm trees. Oil palm is an intensively-farmed monoculture crop that requires huge tracts of land. Much of this land was previously tropical rainforest with primary woodland. The companies that control the cultivation of the palm employ staff under extremely harsh labour conditions. They have no social security; there are no fixed contracts and on many occasions the companies don't pay with money but rather with tokens that the employees can use only in shops owned by the company. When workers demand their rights, they are threatened and persecuted by paramilitaries and members of the army and police. "The palm oil business is very much linked in with the paramilitary project in some regions of Colombia" said Fr Ramirez; "I am concerned by President Uribe who seems very supportive of the cultivation of palm". The visits were organised by the Colombia Solidarity Campaign and Justice for Colombia.
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