Colombia's government and FARC rebels missed the March 23 deadline for the signing of a peace agreement. The date was set when President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC leader "Timochenko" met in Havana in September. But significant steps toward peace have been taken over the past six months. In what Timochenko called an "historic, unprecedented" meeting until recently "unthinkable," he shook hands with US Secretary of State John Kerry during President Obama's trip to Cuba this week. "We received from him in person the support for the peace process in Colombia," said Timochenko. (Colombia Reports, March 23; Colombia Reports, March 22) The FARC quickly followed up with a statement calling on the State Department to remove the guerilla army from its list of "foreign terrorist organizations." (AFP, March 23)
Venezuela's President Nicolás Maduro on March 9 ordered creation of a "Special Military Zone" in the so-called Orinoco Mineral Arc following reports of a massacre of at least 28 at a mining camp in the region. The order came after survivors and kin of the disappeared miners blocked roads connecting the remote region with the city of Tumeremo to demand action. Witnesses said the camp, in Sifontes municipality, was seized by armed men who gunned down the workers, dismembered their bodies with a buzz-saw, then forced survivors to load the remains in a truck which drove off into the jungle. "We won't rest until we find those responsible for these acts, which in the eyes of all Venezuelans are abominable," said Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino. But Bolívar state Gov. Francisco Rangel of the ruling PSUV was assailed by miners and the opposition for denying that any massacre had taken place. "So far there's not any indication of any person killed or missing," he said March 7, three days after the reports first broke. "What happened there, according to the security forces, was another clash between armed gangs that are trying to control mining activities in the area." (InfoBae, March 9; BBC News, March 8; InfoBae, March 7)
Indigenous and Black communities in Colombia's Chocó department filed a lawsuit this week, claiming 37 of their children died after drinking water contaminated with mercury by nearby mining operations over the past three years. The suit was brought before Colombia's Constitutional Court, which has ordered a thorough test of the water quality in the Riosucio and Andagueda rivers, which merge to form the Río Atrato. The affected Embera Katío and Afro-Colombian communities depend on these rivers for fishing and agriculture as well as direct consumption of water. The plaintiffs, represented by the Greater Community Council of the Popular Campesino Organization of the Upper Atrato (COCOMOPOCA), charge that unchecked gold mining in the zone has caused an "environmental crisis, which has had a devastating effect and cost the lives of the indigenous and Afro-descendant children." The Constitutional Court, in addition to asking the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) for assistance in the water quality tests, also called on the University of Cartagena to prepare a report on the health impacts of mercury and cyanide contamination. (Colombia Reports, Feb. 4; El Tiempo, El Espectador, El Colombiano, Feb. 3)
On Dec. 9, informal gold-miners in Peru's southern rainforest region of Madre de Dios suspended a paro or civil strike they had launched more than two weeks earlier. Leaders of the Alliance of Federations said they would call off the strike as talks were underway with a team from Peru's cabinet, the Council of Ministers, that arrived in the remote region that day. Since Nov. 23, regional capital Puerto Maldonado had been paralyzed by protesters demanding the national government drop its new plan to crack down on illegal mining and logging operations. Specifically, they sought the overturn of Supreme Decree 013-2015—which would supervise and control the sale of chemicals that can be used for illegal mining—and Supreme Decree 1220, a measure that seeks to fight against illegal logging. Talks are to center around establishing a "Table for Sustainable Development" in the region, coordinating national policy with popular organizations.
China's Qingdao Maritime Court on July 27 ruled that a lawsuit against ConocoPhillips China and China National Offshore Oil for a 2011 oil spill can proceed. The suit was brought by the China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation and it the first case to proceed since the country revised a law (LoC backgrounder) allowing NGOs to directly sue polluters in the public interest. The Chinese government has already fined the companies approximately $258 million for the spill. Other cases are also pending under the law, which became effective on Jan. 1.
Members of the Pemón indigenous people on June 1 blocked the landing strip of Venezuela's Canaima National Park in southern Bolívar state, in protest of illegal miners operating on their lands. The action was undertaken to mark the 20th anniversary of Canaima being declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Leaders announced via Twitter that the Pemón will maintain a state of "rebellion" until there is action on the issue. Over the last decade, illegal mining for gold, diamonds and other minerals has spread rapidly through the Venezuelan Amazon, affecting peoples including the Pemón, Yanomami, Hoti, Eñepa, Yekuana and Arekuna. Some operations run by armed gangs said to be linked to Colombia's FARC guerillas. Rivers are being contaminated with poisonous mercury used in gold mining, devastating the health of indigenous communities. In some communities, the infiltration of gangs has led to prostitution and alcoholism.
A controversial mega-project to build a transcontinental railway through the Amazon basin has caused outrage among indigenous people and advocacy groups. UK-based Survival International charges that the rail project, backed by the Chinese government, would cross through many indigenous territories and areas of high biodiversity across the rainforest in Peru and Brazil, opening them to industrial exploitation, illegal mining and logging, and peasant colonization. Survival warns that "uncontacted tribes" would face devastation from invasions into their lands, calling these peoples "the most vulnerable societies on the planet." Whole populations could be wiped out by violence from outsiders and by diseases like flu and measles to which they have no resistance.
In an open acknowledgement that it cannot secure its pipeline system from plunder by criminal gangs, Mexico's state oil monopoly Pemex announced Feb. 18 that it will no longer pump refined gasoline and diesel through the duct network. Mexico lost $1.14 billion last year to pipeline thefts last year—a 70% increase over the previous year. This is an ominous sign that the drug cartels are becoming the real power on the ground throughout much of the country—moving beyond their mainstays of illicit substances to contraband control of legal commodities like oil and minerals, establishing a virtual parallel economy. Pemex will now only send "unfinished" fuel through its more than 14,000 kilometers of pipeline, reported El Universal. The company said in a statement: "Customers should make sure that the fuel they buy has been delivered from Pemex terminals, and not buy gasoline or diesel from anyone other than gas stations or authorized dealers, given that...it could damage motors."