Posted by Tim Nafziger on 02/15/08 at 04:55 PM
“The benefits you are working for will benefit all of us,” said the community leader in Puerto Wilches as he pledged his neighborhood to a general strike in support of local palm workers.
Since the 30th of January, more then a thousand workers on the African Palm plantations in Puerto Wilches, a city down the river from Barrancabermeja, have been striking for better conditions (Vanguardial Liberal, Feb 4). For more then two weeks, the company, Agropecuaria Monterrey, refused to negotiate with workers, so the striking workers asked for community support.
On Feb. 13, Christian Peacemaker Teams, along with Human Rights Workers Forum (ESPACIO) of Barrancabermeja, accompanied a public meeting between the striking workers and Puerto Wilches’ community representatives to see if the community would support the striking workers through a general strike. One by one the representatives of all 12 neighborhoods came forward to share the results of the meetings, surveys, and consultations they had done in their respective constituencies. Each and everyone pledged their support for the general strike. The crowd of workers roared their approval with shouts of “Viva!” and “The people, united, will never be defeated.” A lay leader from the Barrancabermeja Pax Christi group gave a rousing message that despite the risk of reprisals it is Christian to stand up for justice, the way Jesus did.
Once the decision to call a general strike had been made, the meeting began to assign various neighborhoods to blocking the various roads and ports into Puerto Wilches. When the zero hour came, at the toll of the bell from the local church, each neighborhood would proceed to that intersection in order to block it.
The next morning at 4 am was zero hour. The church bells rang and the neighborhoods took their appointed positions at five key points around the city, pushing logs into place to block the road. There was one reported attack by a police officer on an observer, but discipline and nonviolence among the blockaders held. This morning, the Vanguardia Liberal (regional newspaper) reported that the mayor said the general strike had paralyzed 90 percent of the economic activities of the city.
Photo from Vanguardia Liberal
The Vanguradia goes on to quote the community on their reasons for backing the strike:
What the community rejects is “the repression of laborers, where we are fined for loose seed in batches, failure to harvest bunches, or stems too long. Secondly we must buy our own tools to do work that benefits the company, “explained Jose Angel Parra, palmero worker.
Will the general strike succeed in getting better conditions for the palm workers of Puerto Wilches? According to reports we heard from partners, Thursday afternoon the riot police were being sent in. But with so much of his populations supporting the strike, it’s politically dangerous for the mayor to take any action against those blockading. The real danger is more likely to come from paramilitaries in the area hired by the owners of the Palm oil corporations.
If the strike succeeds in Puerto Wilches, it would set a positive precedent for underpaid and exploited palm workers across Colombia. African Palm oil is a major ingredient in bio diesel, so as demand for alternative fuels increases, more traditional food crops will be replaced by African palm.