Pedro Josse Velasco Tumiña, outside the annual general meeting of Smurfit Kappa, raising awareness about Colombia’s environmental issues and corporate activities, Dublin, Ireland, April 29, 2022 (The Times)
UPDATE, MAY 12:
Smurfit Kappa has responded with a press release which highlights a “dialogue process”, mediated by Javeriana University, since December 2022 with the indigenous Misak community in Colombia. It cites “meaningful and constructive” meetings in December 2022 and in January and March 2023, with more planned for later this year.
ORIGINAL ENTRY, MAY 10:
Dispossession, human rights violations, intimidation, ethnic and cultural invisibility. This is what has always existed in our territory.
We are now seeking a discussion that takes historical memory into consideration and understands the complexities of our territory.
Pedro Josse Velasco Tumiña, “Taita Pedro Velasco”, is a Misak indigenous leader in Colombia. His is one of the prominent voices denouncing the operations of world-leading paper and cardboard production company Smurfit Kappa in Colombia.
Last year Taita Pedro Velasco brought the campaign to Dublin. This year he could not make it — but there were many others who did.
On April 28, activists and non-profit groups attended Smurfit Kappa’s annual general meeting at the Herbert Park Hotel. They asked the company to give land back to the Misak and Nasa indigenous communities and to small-scale farmers, otherwise known as “campesinos”. They appealed to governments and the international community to provide human rights protection in Corporate Sustainability.
In a Briefing for Smurfit Kappa’s shareholders, 40 international NGOs supported the environmental and human rights of the affected communities, calling on the company, the Republic of Ireland, the Republic of Colombia, and the European Union to address the issue. They sought requirements for EU-based companies to address threats against human right defenders and to be accountable for the socio-environmental impacts of their transnational activities. They called for independent investigations on alleged human rights and environmental violations.
The April 2022 protest over Smurfit Kappa and Colombia’s environment (Photo: Ekō)
Destruction of Environment and Communities?
Smurfit Kappa owns about 68,000 hectares of land in Colombia. Non-profit organization Ekō (formerly SumOfUs) says the operations can look beautiful but are in fact the devastation of “green deserts” in the Cauca region in the southwest of the country. The extensive industrial plantations of eucalyptus and pine crops, non-native species endanger endemic plants and animals. Needing a vast supply of water, the monoculture farming alters the region’s ecosystems and biodiversity.
A joint report by international NGOs concluded in 2022, “Smurfit Kappa has contaminated water sources, dried up aqueducts and reduced the availability of water. The company has used the clear-cutting method to remove native trees, built roads and facilities for logging, and used large amounts of fertilisers and agrochemicals.”
Activists claim that more than three decades of Smurfit Kappa’s operations have exacerbated territorial conflicts with indigenous, campesino, and Afro-Colombian communities. While seeking to recover land, those communities have been facing threats and rising violence. The local community’s protest entering Smurfit Kappa’s land and their subsequent forced eviction resulted in the deaths of two men and the injuries of several other, in clashes with police and unidentified armed men in 2021 and 2022.
Taita Pedro Velasco has persisted despite death threats and intimidation. Last year, in the first protest in Dublin, he drew international media attention when he voiced the community’s demands to Smurfit Kappa CEO Tony Smurfit. Fiona Nic Dhonnacha, Ireland’s Ambassador to Ireland, visited the land, but Velasco says that more “drive and will” is needed from local and international authorities as well as from the packaging giant.
As a video of Velasco was projected on a giant screen last Friday, chants from the activists echoed in front of the Dublin hotel: “Smurfit Kappa leave the Cauca”. Alys, Ekō’s campaigns coordinator, denounced what she called Smurfit Kappa’s necolonialist practices. Tom, a young Irish man studying sustainability, spoke up against cash crops and the commodification of land. Juan José, a Colombian living in Dublin, blamed greed for the destruction of biodiversity in Colombia and for putting the next generation’s quality of life at risk. A member of the Irish Dáil, Richard Boyd Barrett, compared the situation to the British Empire’s destruction of “Ireland’s biodiversity, natural habitat, and the livelihoods of the people who lived and worked on the land”.
This year’s protest (Photo by Author)
CEO Tony Smurfit told reporters after the meeting, “We have an absolute right to the land that we have, but we are prepared to negotiate and mediate.” He said that the AGM was not the forum for the conversation; however, discussions will continue. He claimed that local communities caused forestry damage after “unlawful invasion” of Smurfit’s land in 2021.
In contrast, protesters assert that the company “is not as sustainable as it claims to be and does not live up to its standards”. They support the March report of Front Line Defenders with case studies highlighting the importance of preventing reprisals against human rights activists.
The report by the 40 NGOs, like the activists in Friday’s protest, emphasizes the need for governments and the European Union to oversee multinational operations on foreign lands. They say this would guarantee the protection of human rights defenders and the environment in what could be, if successful, an unprecedented regulation of trans-Atlantic business operations.
The UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor, summarizes:
I continue to follow the situation of the human rights defenders in the case and encourage the Colombian Government and Smurfit Kappa to engage in good faith with the communities raising concerns.