22 July 1999 Edition
Shareholders slam Smurfit
Report accuses company of exploitation in Colombia
The shareholders met the Paez Indians and trade unionists who had been sacked by Smurfit in contravention of the law and others who are facing criminal charges levelled by Smurfit.
When the Jefferson Smurfit Group decided to issue an invitation to the Smurfit Environmental and Human Rights Shareholders group to visit the company's operations in Colombia, it could not have expected a report full of criticism of Smurfit's activities in the South American country.
Gearóid O Loingsigh, Christina Warner, John Wann and Stephen Coyne, members of the shareholders' group, travelled to Colombia for two weeks in November 1998. The first week was spent in the company of Victor Giraldo, the vice-president of Smurfit Carton de Colombia, responsible from natural resources, as well as Jim Fitzharris, assistant secretary of the Jefferson Smurfit Group in Dublin. The second week was spent with the group's own contacts. ``Five years ago, reports starting to arrive from Colombia in relation to the Jefferson Smurfit Group's operations in that country, including rumours of the environmental impact of the company's pine and eucalyptus plantations, and also about a forestry concession on the Pacific Coast and a land dispute with the Paez Indians,'' explains Christina Warner. ``In order to investigate this, we decided to buy shares in the company and in the AGM directly question Michael Smurfit about these allegations. So we did that and eventually we were invited to go to Colombia and see for ourselves.''
The result of their journey to Colombia is a 126-page report, which deals with the ecological, environmental and social impacts of the Smurfit's eucalyptus and pine plantations, disputes with the indigenous group based in the area, the Paez Indians, and labour relations.
During their visit, the group had the opportunity of meeting environmentalists who have spent years working around this issue. Some of them have been dragged into courts and threatened with jail by Smurfit, points out Gearóid O Loingsigh. Also, they met the Paez Indians and trade unionists who had been sacked by Smurfit in contravention of the law and others who are facing criminal charges levelled by Smurfit. ``We met human rights and labour lawyers and talked to them as well''.
Gearoid O Liongsigh points out that their findings are ``quite condemnatory of Smurfit'' in environmental and social terms. ``They have chopped down 30,000 hectares of rainforest and sought permission for another 100,000 hectares. The effect of chopping down the rainforest as well was the complete destruction of the local culture, the local economy, and now the company is gone, there is no forest, there is no ecosystem to go back to. There is no other chance now other than to live a marginal life within a money economy.''
Before the Indians in Colombia were given rights under the constitution, Smurfits sold the land to a group of peasant farmers in the area. We looked at the contracts that were signed between two different subsidiaries of Smurfit and these peasants, and the reality of those contracts is that the peasants cannot do anything without Smurfit's permission, and Smurfit can do anything without theirs
The Group of Concerned Shareholders said that the company has deprived the Paez Indians, a community that has inhabited the area known as La Paila since 1912, of the ownership of part of their traditional territories. ``Before the Indians in Colombia were given rights under the constitution, Smurfits sold the land to a group of peasant farmers in the area. We looked at the contracts that were signed between two different subsidiaries of Smurfit and these peasants, and the reality of those contracts is that the peasants cannot do anything without Smurfit's permission, and Smurfit can do anything without theirs. Smurfit can even mortgage the trees they have planted on the land without consulting with the peasants.''
Gearóid O Loingsigh denounces the ``systematic campaign of harassment of trade union leaders''. The report says that trade union leaders and members have been sacked ``without reason being given''. Smurfit has complied with the law, paying compensation to those who have been made redundant, but it also presented charges against the entire trade union executive three years ago, charges that have not been dealt with yet by a court of law.
These charges relate to the release of classified company information. The union leaders released the salaries of the president and vice-president of Smurfit Carton de Colombia and gave them to the workers in the plant so they could compare their own salaries with the directors' salaries.
The group that travelled to Colombia confirmed that all the points that appear in the report were discussed with Smurfit Carton of Colombia during a meeting that lasted nine hours, ``so, any claims of being unaware of what it was in the report are nonsense''. They also point out that in the report they quote official Smurfit documents: ``The problem is that their own investigations do not support their own thesis. That is not our fault.''
In a press release in response to the Concerned Shareholders group, Jefferson Smurfit Group plc describes the report as ``selective, unbalanced and, in many cases, an untrue reflection of the real situation in Colombia''.
Smurfit defends the operation of the company in Colombia and points out that ``many of our employees there are shareholders in the company and we and our Colombian colleagues take great pride in these operations. The company is widely seen in Colombia as being a very good employer''.
The Jefferson Smurfit Group points out that they operate programmes with ``a number of community groups (campesino and Indian) to help with plantations for firework and timber, infrastructure, health education, small scale low-tech industry and crafts'', while reaffirming their commitment with a healthy
environment. ``We exceed, often by a considerable margin, the regulatory standards for environmental emissions. Our forestry programme is specifically geared for tropical conditions and is regarded as one of the most advanced in the world. We have committed significant resources to ensuring that the local environment in which SCC operates is properly protected.''