by Bruce Mason
Photos: Juan Pablo Gutíerrez/Amnesty International Canada
• “A picture’s worth a thousand words,” Confucius observed. But sometimes there’s more than meets the eye and big pictures require text, as well.
For example: “This is What We Want to Tell You,” the powerful Amnesty International Canada/National Indigenous Organization of Colombia photo exhibition, available to communities, coast, to coast. It’s a case where words are urgent, including your own, to stop Canada’s ongoing complicity in “social cleansing,” exacerbated by a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and subsequent deals..
“State security forces are firing on people, the number of injured keeps growing. We’re in shock. It’s a state of emergency,” reported exhibit photographer Juan Pablo Gutíerrez in a recent phone call to Amnesty’s Toronto office..
Describing the call as “grim, the tension palpable,” Kathy Price – Amnesty Columbia campaigner – says: “Only days earlier, he miraculously escaped a shooting on the vehicle in which he was traveling.
“Indigenous people across the country took to the streets publicly protesting repeated failures by the Colombian government to uphold promises,” Price explains. “Paramilitaries wrote to demonstrators to return to their communities within 24 hours or face “social cleansing,” threats that have to be taken incredibly seriously, given their bloody record.”
In 2009, Colombia’s Constitutional Court determined 34 Indigenous nations in imminent danger of “extermination, an emergency which is as serious as it is invisible.” It ordered government to act, but protection hasn’t been implemented.
To make the injustices visible, Gutíerrez took photos. People in 12 images remain anonymous but “speak” directly to Canadians, “face to face,” sharing heartfelt, hand-written messages. In a decade, more than 90,000 Indigenous people have been driven from lands vital to their identity and livelihoods. Massacres, assassinations and other atrocities have decimated communities and are linked to resource development megaprojects.
A man in one Gutíerrez photograph wrote: “People of Canada, the Zenu people need your support.” Pressure from Canadians will make a significant difference, particularly given the “special” relationship between the two governments.
The Zenú have suffered in defending their territory and rights. In 2009, the Constitutional Court gave the government six months to devise and implement a plan to protect Zenú, but they remain at risk of extermination.
The FTA was implemented in 2011. Two-way trade totaled more than $1.4 billion in 2010, when Canadian investment in Colombia was $824 million, primarily in oil, gas and mining. This is growing exponentially as the Harper government vigorously promotes further resource extraction, without human rights guarantees.
Canadian companies secure government permits to operate, despite complaints by Indigenous peoples that their right to be involved in decision-making is routinely denied. Projects coincide with contamination and health problems, as well as militarization and violence, forcing entire communities to flee.
In 2012, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights heard testimony about impacts of large-scale mining, including environmental contamination, the loss of plants and food crops, and increased cancer rates.
Independent UN expert on indigenous people’s rights, James Anaya, said natural resource extraction and other major development projects in, or near, Indigenous territory constitute one of the most significant sources human rights abuses, calling for a visit by the UN’s Special Adviser on Prevention of Genocide.
Last year, Canada and Colombia signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Defence Cooperation. Minister Peter MacKay reported: “current areas of collaboration include military exercises, military training, and defence policy talks,” and other opportunities include “knowledge sharing on counter-improvised explosive devices.”
Asserting the FTA gave Canada more influence to press for human rights, the Harper government also signed agreements covering labour and environmental cooperation. Pressure must be brought to honour these, as well as trade deals.
To host the exhibit in your community, visit the Amnesty Canada website.
You will also be invited to join Writeathon, the world’s largest letter-writing event, held on International Human Rights Day, December 10th. In more than 80 countries, governments will be pressed to respond to human rights abuses, including forced evictions and effects of extractive resource activity.
Last year, nearly two million messages were sent. If you’re concerned about Canada’s rapidly deteriorating reputation and record, visit www.amnesty.ca.