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7 January 1999 Edition

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Smurfit stay silent on Colombian claims

There is an area of land in Colombia, less in size than Michael Smurfit's golf course in Straffan, Co Kildare, that has been a thorn in the side of Smurfit Plc since 1986. The area known, as Buenos Aires, is in the Paila district in the south-west of the country and has been the home of the Paez Indians for longer than anyone can remember.

The Paez are the original inhabitants of the region, having retreated there upon the arrival of Spanish invaders 500 years ago. The Paez never had legal titles to their land because it was never necessary. They believe that you cannot own land but that the land owns you.

Non- indigenous farmers took over part of the land, exploiting the Paez's lack of legal claim, but in 1981 the Paez peacefully reoccupied it. The Paez farm corn and yucca on the land and it is their only viable income; to have no land on which to grow food in Colombia means joining the throngs of unemployed in the cities where many are forced to turn to crime and prostitution in order to survive.

The Paez live in extreme poverty. They have no running water, electricity or proper healthcare facilities. The farmland is no more than 1,150 hectares in size yet it has become of major importance to one of Ireland's largest multinationals, Smurfit Plc.

In 1986 Smurfit Plc inherited the disputed land when it bought a 50% stake in a US multinational, CCA, who at the time held the deeds to the farmland.

Smurfit Plc grows pine trees in Colombia which are used to make cardboard and paper packaging. It is a highly profitable business. In 1992 Smurfit's Colombian operations had sales of IR£114million with IR£24.5million profit. The Colombian government badly needs foreign capital as few multinational companies invest in what is seen as a drugs ridden and corrupt country. Smurfit therefore was welcomed with open arms and the Colombian government does all it can to facilitate Smurfit's needs.

The Paila farmlands only account for 1% of Smurfit's land holdings in Colombia yet within months of acquiring them Smurfit employees allegedly destroyed the Paez's harvest. Since then the Paez have been locked in a bitter dispute with Smurfit and the Colombian government for the rightful ownership of the land.

In 1990 things began to look brighter for the Paez claims when a new national constitution was approved which radically altered the legal status of Colombia's one million indigenous people. The old Constitution from 1886 divided the indigenous into two categories: savages with absolutely no rights; or simply property of the church. The new constitution gave indigenous people the right to legally own land in the form of reservations. The Paez applied for a reservation in the Paila district but Smurfit Plc, possibly sensing a favourable response to their claims to the land, sold the disputed farms to a group of non-indigenous farmers. The small print of the land sale reveals however that the new owners can never sell the land and it can only be used for the growing of pine trees for the Smurfit corporation. In reality, without holding the deeds Smurfit still controls the land.

The Paez continued to peacefully occupy the land in the hope that the government or Smurfit would eventually recognise their claim as legitimate. They never gave up hope.

In October 1997 two members of the Paez community visited Ireland with the help of AFrI to try to publicise the struggle in Ireland. They spoke at a land conference in An Creagan in Co Tyrone and in Dublin, where they were very well received by many Irish NGOs.

They were here to try to meet with representatives of Smurfit Plc and resolve the issue once and for all. They believed that Smurfit Plc would finally realise how much this land meant to them when they saw that they were prepared to travel halfway around the world to talk to the company in their own back yard. At first Smurfit was extremely hesitant about meeting the Paez, knowing that this whole issue coming to light in Ireland would be an embarrassment, but eventually, with the help of AFrI, a meeting was arranged. A representative of the company met with the Paez and stated that Smurfit Plc would review its position in relation to the disputed farms. A meeting with all concerned parties was promised upon the return of the Paez to Colombia.

Smurfit Plc have not as yet kept their promise. Over two months later no meeting has taken place. It remains to be seen if Smurfit Plc will review their position or if they will in any way recognise the Paez's claim to their land. The Paez's position was probably best summed up by Roberto Uncle, a former native Governor of the Paila, when he said ``After 500 years of exploitation and killings, we have the right to this small patch of land''.


Cuba celebrates 40 years of revolution



By Soledad Galiana

The Cuban cry ``Socialism or death'' has echoed throughout the Caribbean island as its inhabitants this week celebrate the 40th anniversary of the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to government.

Ernesto Che Guevara, the man who fought for socialism and justice in different countries of Latin America and Africa, and who died fighting in Bolivia has personalised the spirit of the rebellion. But Cuba's revolutionary legacy is best represented by free education and health services, and the skill of its surgeons and GPs who try to do their best in spite of the lack of medicines imposed by the US blockade. Even today Cuba is teaching the world about pride, resistance and freedom.

The first act of the celebrations was Fidel Castro's speech in Santiago. ``More than three centuries of colonialism and nearly 60 years of neo-liberalist Yankee domination were finished on 1 January 1959 and Cuba then and forever became a free land''.

Forty years ago, during the New Year's Eve celebration of 1959, Castro was not much further away from the city. He was with his officers outside the city of Palma Soriano, in the west of Cuba. His guerrilla group - 300 strong - had taken the village on 20 September as planned in an effort to control all the villages around Santiago.

Another group of 250 men under Ernesto Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos were fighting near Havana. This was the group that organised Castro's arrival in the Cuban capital, after news of the escape of the then president, Fulgencio Batista, reached the rebel forces. The march of Castro to Havana became a celebration for the nearly six million inhabitants of the island. The five days it took him and his men to travel the 900 kilometres to the capital were a huge feast for freedom. Castro and his 500 ``bearded men'' had beaten an army of more than 30,000 men. By the time they arrived in Havana, the troop was 6,000 strong, as the soldiers joined the march of the rebels.

Forty years later, Cuba is still fighting against the blockade imposed by John F. Kennedy in 1960 which has destroyed the economy of the island and caused misery and pain to the Cuban population. The devastation caused by hurricanes George and Mitch, which destroyed the banana and sugar cane crops, has undermined even more the already impoverished economy of the island.

An Phoblacht Magazine

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