Teófilo Acuña talked with Jo Lateu
Asked about his family, Teófilo Acuña’s expression saddens. ‘I have a small family. They are very worried about me and I’m obviously very worried about them. But I also have a very big family – my community. I have been displaced for a long time and being separated from both of these families affects me a great deal.’
Teófilo is the founder and leader of FEDAGROMISBOL, the Federation of Agro-Miners in the South of Bolívar, Colombia. He represents thousands of small-scale campesinos who are dependent on gold-mining and agricultural work. Their livelihoods are being threatened by a company called Kedahda, which has applied for 2,114 mining concessions in the area. Since the company’s expression of interest, paramilitary intervention and human rights abuses have increased, blockades have been set up to prevent access to food and supplies, and social, political and community leaders have been detained – all tactics aimed at forcing the agro-miners into moving off their land.
In one sense such paramilitary intervention is nothing new. Colombians have for years suffered from the ongoing struggle between the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and the US-backed Colombian Government. Since 11 September 2001, the US has backed off from encouraging peace in the region, citing the ‘war on terror’ and the ‘war on drugs’ as reasons to hand over $700 million a year in military aid. Kedahda, part-owned by mining giant Anglo-American, is now one more enemy at the gates.
Teófilo has been instrumental in organizing the campesinos against this latest threat. ‘The Federation’s founding principle is our right to remain in our territory. We work to protect our small-scale miners against the injustices that are being committed against them,’ he says. As a result of his involvement, he has been subject to death threats, illegal detention and ongoing separation from his family and friends, since it is not safe for him to return to his home.
‘It’s not just me who’s received threats; many others have too,’ he is quick to point out. ‘People are being threatened – there’s even more persecution now than there was before. Acts of silencing people such as me, making them disappear, framing them or killing them…’
Teófilo tails off, remembering his colleague Alejandro Uribe Chacón, who was killed by the Colombian Army on 19 September 2006. ‘He was one of the youngest leaders of the Federation. He was very forward-thinking and involved in issues such as education. The people in the municipalities reacted to his death by mobilizing over a period of 45 days. They called on the state to explain exactly what had happened and to respond to his death. On 30 October 2006 the Government signed a number of accords in response to the petitions we were making, saying they would not only look into Uribe Chacón’s death, but also at the whole mining question and the human rights violations that were taking place. Since 1985 the Government has made lots of accords with our organizations, but they are never fulfilled.’
FEDAGROMISBOL came into being in 1998, when the Government told the campesinos that it would not engage in a dialogue with them because their existing organization did not have a high enough profile. ‘By changing ourselves into a federation, we achieved a level of legality which won us certain accords. But in spite of this legality we go on being persecuted and stigmatized and labelled as guerrillas, by the same governmental authorities with whom we are having this interchange. On 26 March 2006 our public assembly decided to reject the entry of transnational corporations into our territory. To reject the exploitation, the resource extraction, and in turn all the violence, unemployment and displacement that it generates.
‘We decided that the gold in our territory should be life-giving, it should not bring about death. Following the assembly’s declarations, the Government decided that it would move into this region and militarize it, whatever the cost. Since then we have seen a marked increase in human rights violations and the reactivation of paramilitary forces, which are working in conjunction with the state security apparatus.’
The mobilization of the community after Uribe Chacón’s death and Teófilo’s detention in April 2007 (he was released after 10 days, following an international protest campaign) is proof that by working together, the campesinos can have a voice. But when asked if he believes that the miners can continue to hold out against the might of the transnationals, Teófilo responds cautiously at first: ‘I don’t exactly know how we can draw out a concrete solution… you see the same struggle in so many parts of the world; these corporations have left many large regions desolate. We hope we can reach a solution because we don’t believe that anyone with morality and principles, who is a human being, can invest a single peso in the displacement and massacre of people in foreign lands.’ Then, as he speaks, his determination and passion reignite: ‘We believe that resistance will go on and must go on. Our struggle is one which is being carried out around the world. We need to globalize this struggle so that we can achieve a better world.’