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Native leader confronts Smurfit Kappa chief over rainforest

Patrick O’Donoghue (The Times, 30 de abril de 2022)

Martes 3 de mayo de 2022

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Stephen S T Bradley

The leader of an indigenous community in Colombia flew to Dublin for Smurfit Kappa’s AGM to highlight the alleged damage its business operations were causing to the environment.

A group of 30 protesters staged a demonstration at the Herbert Park hotel in Ballsbridge yesterday where the Irish multinational paper and packaging company held its AGM.

The protesters accuse the company of harming the ecosystem in Cajibio in the Cauca region of Colombia, where it has planted non-native pine and eucalyptus forests. They also accuse the company of displacing the indigenous Misak community, and Paez or Nasa people, and of depriving the communities of their agriculture. All of these accusations have been comprehensively refuted by Smurfit Kappa which also said that it was willing to meet the Misak community and that the company only became aware of their concerns and protestations last year.

Stephen S T Bradley

The indigenous communities claim an ancestral heritage to the land owned by Smurfit Kappa, and their campaign to reclaim it has led to conflict with the multinational and the Colombian authorities.

The protest group, formed by the campaign organisation SumOfUs and the Latin American Solidarity Centre (LASC), brought a van to the demonstration carrying a billboard with an image of Anthony Smurfit, the company’s chief executive, with the caption: “Destroying indigenous ancestral lands since 1986.”

Chants of “Smurfit, Smurfit, Smurfit: Out, out, out!” and “Long live the Misak people” were repeated before the protesters entered the hotel foyer.

Smurfit established its Agricultural and Technical Institute in Colombia in 1986. It has operated in Colombia since 1944 and employs around 6,800 people. It owns 67,000 hectares in the country.

Pedro Josse Velasco Tumina, a leader of the indigenous Misak community, travelled outside of Colombia for the first time to be at the meeting.

“I have travelled thousands of miles from my home to look the CEO of Smurfit Kappa in the eye and ask his company to stop destroying our ancestral lands. Now they are trying to silence the voice of my community,” he said.

Tumina said he was pleased with the outcome of the protest.

“The aim of the journey, which was to communicate personally with the company, has been met. We were able to communicate the damage and the destruction of Smurfit Kappa’s activities in Colombia,” he told The Times.

After initially barring Tumina, the company allowed him to enter along with another activist and translator.

As Anthony Smurfit entered the meeting room, protesters heckled him about “land destruction in Colombia” and requested a “simple talk” to discuss the group’s allegations.

Smurfit did not respond as he went inside.

Other members of the group bought shares in the company before the AGM in an attempt to gain access to the meeting as shareholders and secure speaking rights. They also planned to put critical questions to the company’s management but were denied access to the meeting room.

In response to Tumina’s questions, Irial Finan, Smurfit’s chairman, said the company “emphatically rejects” the allegations of “illegality” in the acquisition of forests in the region and in the conduct of its employees.

“We unequivocally reject these unfounded allegations which do not reflect the reality of our contribution to the local community and our environmentally sustainable management of the forests,” he said.

Finan also said Smurfit had made attempts, and continues to be “willing”, to engage with the Misak community.

“They refused to attend a meeting in October 2021 led by Colombian governmental authorities which was attended by Smurfit Kappa and other local community representatives,” he said.

Smurfit would be “happy” to arrange a meeting with the Misak community to discuss the indigenous group’s concerns, he added.

Tumina claimed Smurfit’s response showed the company was not listening to the indigenous people.

“It’s never been their interest to listen to indigenous or local communities. They keep on denying the damage their activities do on the land, but actually the result of their activities has been forced displacement, destroying ecosystems, drying up the water and leaving local communities without any water because of the pine and eucalyptus that is planted. They never listen,” he said.

Alys Samson, a campaigner with SumOfUs, said the group was there to stand in solidarity with the Misak community and to “protect” people and the planet.

Narella Forte, coordinator of the LASC, said: “A company that creates a greenwash slogan saying: ‘There’s no planet B’ while destroying the natural ecosystem of indigenous lands in Latin America can’t be accepted.”

Findings from a report published yesterday by the Observatory of Multinationals in Latin America, SumOfUs and LASC stated that the company had cut down large areas of rainforest, depleted water sources on the land and that Smurfit’s presence has “aggravated” conflict between indigenous communities and security forces in Colombia.

Commenting on the report, Erika Gonzalez, a researcher at the observatory and its author, said the company’s monoculture plantations “deepen the pollution and the deterioration of the ecosystems”.

In a statement, a spokeswoman for Smurfit said it does not harvest or use any wood from rainforests, and that all natural forests are protected and conserved through programmes with the local authorities and universities. She said the company had complied with all relevant Colombian legislation and “consulted” with indigenous communities where required.

“We first became aware of the Misak community’s protestations against Smurfit Kappa’s activities in July 2021,” she said.

Smurfit Kappa has previously said it reported “alleged representatives” of the Misak community to the local authorities after sections of its forests were “cut down or burnt”, causing “irreparable damage to protected and richly diverse ecosystems”.

More than 150,000 thousand people have signed a petition calling on Smurfit Kappa to give its lands in the Cauca region to the Misak people.

Ver en línea : The Times, 30 de abril de 2022.

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