Rigoberta Menchú visits Cartagena
Residents of El Centro, Cartagena's historic central district, could be forgiven for rubbing their eyes twice yesterday if they spotted an entourage of foreigners including a woman in brightly coloured traditional Guatemalan dress walking from Teatro Heredia to Plaza Bolivar. It was none other than Rigoberta Menchú, the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner, author, and proud defender of the Mayan culture and human rights. Rigoberta is in Cartagena as one of the international delegates for the III Cumbre Mundial de Ministeros de Medio Ambiente, a conference convened for Ministers of the Environment from more than 140 foreign governments. Followed by reporters, TV cameras and curious locals, she stopped and asked to enter the Palacio de Inquisicion, where she spoke in a hushed tone about how many indigenous and creole lives had been lost for 'no creer en dioses impuestos', which translates as 'not believing in imposed gods'. At one point, she passed a building under restoration where workers downed tools to talk to her and shake her hand. However her warm welcome came to an abrupt end when she arrived at the conference venue, Cartagena's Centro de Convenciones...

In front of the Convention Centre were around 50 angry placard-waving and slogan-chanting protesters from ASPROLIG, a pressure group representing people from the Bajo Sinú region. ASPROLIG was formed in opposition to the URRAI hydroelectric scheme. Their list of grievences include displacement of families, rising salt in the subterranean water table, drying out of wetlands, and destabilization of waterways, both during the contsruction of the dam and as permanent damage after completion. They were also protesting about spraying of cotton fields with insecticides and weedkiller, which is polluting the Sinú River, contaminating the supply of drinking water for people and livestock.

Inside the convention, Colombian President Andrés Pastrana signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Canada aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emmisions, and referred to the 900,000 tonnes of chemicals which have been sprayed on illegal drug crops in the last 15 years. He described the spraying programme as the lesser of two evils in the face of the escalating drug problem that Colombia and the world faces. He urged farmers to take advantage of the crop-substitution alternatives the government is offering. He also linked the drug growers to the guerrillas, and called on the rebels to stop destroying water aqueducts and other essential infrastructure, saying they were guilty of crimes against all Colombians, rich and poor.

Perhaps he could have talked with Rigoberta, who earlier in the day had said to a group of listeners in the street that the way forward for Colombia was to no se utilice la guerra contra la gente más humilde de este pais , - stop using the war against the poorest in this country.

posted 15 February 2002 by Glen David Short, a freelance writer based in Cartgena. His new adventure travelogue, "An Odd Odyssey: California to Colombia by bus and boat" .has just been published by Trafford Publishing.

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Text and Photos Copyright 2005 Glen David Short