A Toronto-based company is trampling on the rights of workers, indigenous people and the environment in Colombia, but Canadian officials are more concerned with strengthening business ties in the country.
As president of Canada's largest energy union, I recently participated in a 17-person Canadian delegation to investigate alleged abuses committed by TSX listed Pacific Rubiales Energy (PRE), Colombia's largest independent oil producer. On July 13 and 14, I was a juror at a preliminary hearing of the Popular Tribunal Against Extractive Policies in Colombia, which took place near the Pacific Rubiales oil fields in the Eastern town of Puerto Gaitan.
The testimony was heart-wrenching. Representatives of indigenous communities told the Tribunal about how oil exploration on their lands had forced them to move to makeshift villages in housing constructed of plastic sheeting, cardboard and sticks. Women from outlying communities showed the jury bottles of orange and charcoal-coloured water, which they said was from their local water source, a river carrying effluent from PRE's extractive process. Union officials described the living conditions of workers forced to rotate off their shift to catch a few hours of sleep in a bed occupied by three other workers on different shifts.
Bay Street headquartered PRE has waged a vicious campaign against the Unión Sindical Obrera (USO). After a 2011 strike by thousands of USO members the company fired those who refused to disaffiliate from the 90 year-old energy union and join PRE's preferred "union". During that strike, Colombian Senator Alexander Lopez, who testified at the tribunal, said he was blocked by public security forces from freely travelling on a pubic road to the Rubiales oil fields. Lopez concluded that PRE's actions in Colombia warranted their expulsion from the country.
The testimonies at the Tribunal were disturbing, but what has transpired since may be even more troubling. Two days after, a USO member who helped organize the Tribunal was personally threatened. On July 16, Héctor Sánchez, who lives in a town near PRE's oilfields, received a note at his house declaring: "We see every step you make with your family. ... Don't ask for a stupid death, the same for your wife and child.... Don't leave them behind as orphans and a widow and don't become a widower yourself."
With right-wing para-military thugs active in the country and 20 Colombian trade unionists killed last year, this threat is not to be taken lightly.
Four days after Sanchez was threatened, the office of one of the organizations that convened the Tribunal and housed most of the Canadian delegation in Bogotá was robbed. Computers, cameras and sound recorders used to conduct research on PRE and other oil companies was stolen from the house of the Brotherhood and Solidarity Network with Colombia (Redher). Money in a cash box and credit cards were left behind.
The Canadian delegation that participated in the Tribunal brought the information we had learned about PRE's abuses to the Canadian embassy in Bogota. But officials there were non-plussed, saying they meet monthly with their "customers" such as PRE. In fact, the ambassador's representative expressed more concern about PRE's lack of interest in Canadian Export Development Corporation financing than in the company's social practices.
This lack of interest in the social impacts of a Canadian company flows from the Conservatives' foreign policy in Colombia designed to advance corporate interests and deepen ties to a country seen as a right-wing ally resisting the left-leaning shift in the region. In 2011 Canada signed a free trade agreement with Colombia.
The Conservatives have also made this mid-income country a priority destination for Canadian aid and in December they added Colombia, the worst human rights violator in the Americas, to the Automatic Firearms Country Control List. This list includes those nations that Canadian defence companies can export prohibited weapons to.
As Canadians we need to stand up to say "not in our name" when corporations like PRE do things that would never be permitted in this country. My union has committed to support USO in their efforts to win justice for Pacific Rubiales Energy's workers and we call on the federal government to stop supporting the company's operations in Colombia.