Do or Die

An article from Do or Die Issue 10. In the paper edition, this article appears on page(s) 148-150.

Plan Columbia's New Canal

''Empire of Death' for the River People

CAP: Market on the Atrato river, department of Chocó, Colombia.

Plan Colombia is not a plan to eradicate narcotraffic at all, but to impose new projects run by American companies (oil, dams, motorways, quarrying) and to eradicate the political opposition from guerrillas and from native resistance.

One of these programs is the ultra-profitable new inter-oceanic Canal: the estimate is that it will make somewhere between $1.3 and $1.8 billion per year. It will link the Atlantic and the Pacific, through North Colombia.

At present, the Panama Canal is the only way to cross between these oceans without going all the way round South America. The Americans controlled the Panama Canal Zone, and managed to get several extensions on handing it back to the Panamanian government before finally returning it in 1999. Despite the control that they have over the government and via the multinationals that operate in the Zone, this is still far too big a loss for American foreign policy. Also, the Canal was built in 1914 and is quite outdated, as it is not big enough for the ship traffic currently using it. The proposal to link both oceans through Colombia is an idea that has been around for a long time, like similar projects in Mexico and Nicaragua [See article on Plan Puebla Panama in this issue.]. It is based on the linking of the rivers close to the Panama isthmus: the Atrató (Chocó and Antioquia) and the Truandó.

The Atrató river crosses the area with the highest pluviosity [rainfall] in Colombia and one of the richest in biodiversity, pretty similar to the Amazon rainforest. In this area there are no cities, but - due to geographical characteristics - just isolated communities of mainly African Colombians (90%) and Natives (5%). The main Native groups are the Embera, Cholo and Wounan, as well as the Kuna [see the interview with a Kuna activist in this issue], Noanamá and Katía. The good state of this habitat is due to the respect these communities have for it. The Black communities are descendants of slaves and in some cases they even keep African traditions. This heritage has reinforced a sense of identity through the centuries as well as links with nature and the land which are pretty similar to those of the Native communities. As they say in a communiqué, the current situation is "an attempt against biodiversity and natural and 'super-natural'[1] resources of this area which is so vital for the planet". The remaining 5% of the area's population is made up of white and mixed race people, who also live in extreme poverty and are victims of paramilitary terrorism.

The canal project is one of the hidden agendas of Plan Colombia. It requires a massive area of land in order to enlarge the river and make it navigable. All this means a huge environmental impact but mainly a huge human impact, as those peoples inhabiting the riversides have to leave the area. But as well as the canal, the project includes other new infrastructure (motorways from Medellín to Pereira and from Urabá to Maracaibo, and a train route between Medellín and Buenaventura) which will force even more people out. And it will be subject to yet more destruction as the Chocó is very rich in oil and has already been used by the American army as a source of oil for their bases. (From 1999 Colombia has increased the contracts for oil exploration and exploitation with BP-Amoco, Chevron-Texaco, Shell, Exxon, Canadian Oxy, Talisman and Alberta Energy). Also exotic wood: logging has gotten out of control in the Lower Atrató and in the last ten years there has been a real shortage. Then the logging companies homed in on the Middle Atrató, where the forest has been preserved after being declared a natural reserve. The companies pressurised the government to allow them to get in, but the Afro-Colombian and Native communities stood up to defend the forest from the multinationals. As if this weren't enough, the Chocó is also rich in minerals: gold, platinum, silver, bauxite (aluminium ore), manganese, radioactive cobalt, zinc, chrome, nickel and copper.

This is why the US has given Colombia $7 billion! To clear the way for this mega-project so they can plunder its resources. American aircraft as well as NATO forces based on the Dutch islands of Curaçao and Aruba have been bombing this area to evict their inhabitants. To these terrorist forces we have to add the paramilitaries, who are closely linked to the Colombian military, which funds and arms them. It is clear that these funds and arms come from the Plan Colombia money that the Colombian government receives from the USA. The training and support provided by US Marines to paramilitaries in their terrorist activities is also known. The Atrató was very strategic for the Spaniards as it was the only way to the gold mines. They built forts (one of which is now a paramilitary base - 'Vigía del Fuerte', the Fort of the Watcher), and even banned sailing on it. Paramilitaries have their bases in the lower Atrató River, which is the main way to get to the cities on the coast and they control the access, detaining, intimidating and disappearing people.

In Colombia the massacres have already exceeded 425 deaths per year! And this is clearly aimed against the resistance: 4,000 activists killed and 3,000 trade union leaders in 14 years. In 1999 half of the trade unionists killed worldwide were Colombian, and one peasant union has counted 1,700 of its leaders killed in the last decade! Between 1995 and 1999 more than one million people were displaced, and this increases every year: from January to September 1999 225,000 people had to flee their homes!

This is something which is not new for Colombia - during the phase that is known in Colombian history as 'La Violencia' (1948-58), 2 million peasants were displaced and 200,000 killed. As the economist Héctor Mondragón stated, this is "a development model by blood and fire" - or what inhabitants of the Atrató call an "empire of death".

The Black Communities Process

"In Colombia, 'peace' is proclaimed while the multinationals try to silence any demands for justice with rifles. But the subversive rifles against the developing mega-projects haven't stopped"
- Black Communities Process activist

"About 25-30 % of the Colombian population is Black. Most live in cities but many communities are spread around the Pacific and Caribbean coast. The Black communities perceive themselves as the outcome of centuries of struggle for freedom. Struggles against slavery, against colonialism and now economic globalisation. They have developed forms of living which have little or nothing to do with capitalism and that are in harmony with their environment, one of the places on Earth with the highest biodiversity. They struggle to defend their right to live, their constitutional right to autonomy, identity and space to live.

Since the protests in Prague against the IMF/WB summit, the contact between PCN (Black Communities Process) and European grassroots groups has been developing rapidly.

The first exchanges have resulted in:

1) A call by PCN for support in building communication structures and skill capacity to improve communication within the communities and internationally.
2) A proposal to consider the planning of a large international presence in security zones in the Black communities, which are precisely in the way of the planned megaprojects.
3) A call to European and North American grassroots realities to build up autonomous collective alternatives as a response to the economical, political and cultural power of capitalism. Alternatives which articulate along horizontal and participatory forms, which practically implement the right to be different, support self-management capacity and develop structures independently from State structures."

From Plan Colombia, FTAA and Black Communities in the Process of Global Struggle

In the Middle Atrató, despite the brutal repression against peasants and small landowners, people are still highly organised. The Integral Campesino Association has 5,000 members, while the High Council of this area represents 40,000 members. They defend proudly "the independence and autonomy that for more than 15 years we have enjoyed as a result of our struggle for the territory, our communities' development, the preservation of the natural resources and the rescue of our identity".

These people's resistance is focused on their culture in opposition to capitalism, and the recognition of their autonomy and land rights. These rights were even recognised in the Colombian Constitution (Land Reform) in the 1990s, and many communities have got the official ownership of their land. Through this resistance, these communities identify with the anti-neo-liberalism and the anti-globalisation struggle that is taking place around the globe. For their survival, they have requested that international activists go to their communities as observers, in the same way that the Zapatista communities in Mexico have been supported..

Thanks to Colombian economist Héctor Mondragón ( for providing such good information. Héctor's life has been threatened repeatedly by the paramilitaries because of his journalistic activity. He lives clandestinely in indigenous and farmers communities.


1) By this they mean the spiritual 'powers' which they believe inhabit their land.


PCN (Black Communities Process)

Peace Brigades International (Send observers to Colombia, although not currently to the Black communities):
PBI Colombia Office, 1A Waterlow Road, London N19 5NJ, England

Colombia Solidarity Campaign, PO Box 8446, London N17 6NZ, England

Terrorism against the Native population

At Christmas 2000 in Juradó, paramilitaries entered an Embera indigenous community close to the Pacific coast. They shot dead Amando Achito with 4 bullets. They also took the radio equipment, which is essential for communication, with them. Armando was an indigenous leader and for years had been organising resistance around the recognition of the right to live and the self-determination of the community. This community just so happens to be exactly where the inter-oceanic canal is planned. The message is clear: anyone organising resistance will be threatened with the same punishment; leave before the next one gets killed. Sometimes an entire village is threatened. A few days before, 6,000 people, mostly from nearby Black communities in the north of Cauca, were forced to flee. The number of displaced and fleeing people is estimated at around 2 million, half of them from the Black communities. There were 3,000 victims of murder like Armando Achito in 2001.

Do or Die DTP/web team: