Colombia: Focus on CENSAT Agua Viva
An artist performs a water ritual during a demonstration in support of a referendum that would have water included as a basic human right in the Colombian Constitution.
In 2011 CENSAT-Agua Viva celebrated a number of achievements, including its 22nd anniversary and victories in its struggles against mining and water privatization in Colombia. Danilo Urrea, Coordinator of the cross-program project on water, tells us more.
CENSAT (National Center of Health, Environment and Work) was originally founded as a group focused on worker's health. Through the course of the group's work it became clear that there were many environmental issues in Colombia that were not being addressed, the organization turned to those issues and changed its name accordingly to CENSAT-Agua Viva, meaning living water, as we know it today.
The group campaigns on forest conservation, food sovereignty, water issues and opposition to mining.
The campaign “Water as a common good, not a commodity” began seven years ago. It is a cross-cutting campaign that forms part of the organization's main activities.
Danilo says: “Water has always been an important issue. When the project began we aimed to promote research on the situation in Colombia. So we carried out research as well as communications and training work for the most affected communities.”
In 2005 as part of a campaign against water privatization a call for a referendum was launched before congress that would have included a vote on whether water should be declared a basic human right.
More than 5,000 groups from all over the country joined the initiative and over 2 million signatures were collected. CENSAT was responsible for the environmental aspect of the referendum campaign. Unfortunately, despite popular support, the government did not grant the referendum call.
However, CENSAT not only wanted a constitutional reform, they also wanted to work with the communities potentially on the receiving end of water privatisation.
In Danilo's words, their aim was to “build a movement for water, which has now evolved as the movement against dams, called Rios Vivos.
"The movement has strengthened the organized communities that provide water services, known as community aqueducts.”
CENSAT has contributed to the creation of a national network of community aqueducts to face the privatization of water management.
"This was done through the communities' self-management and self-determination.They see CENSAT as an organisation they can trust to coordinate projects because of its ethical and philosophical values of solidarity and reciprocity,” says Danilo.
Building alliancesCENSAT has built alliances with many like-minded organisations and social movements over the years, especially with indigenous, peasant and African descendant groups. The organizations CENSAT collaborates with are very diverse, depending on the project.
“On the work against dams and mining we collaborate, for example, with the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca, the Association of Indigenous Cabildos in the north of Cauca, the National Agrarian Coordinator and we continue to be allies of the Black Communities Process.
“In the north of Colombia we work with the Association of Fisherfolk (ASPROSIC) and with many different actors that have joined the struggle throughout the years,” said Danilo.
Struggles that have born fruitU'wa women in demonstrate against drilling of their ancestral lands by US oil company Occidental Petroleum.
CENSAT's collaborative approach is paying off. Last year the Canadian mining corporation Graystar was denied a licence to mine gold and silver in the Saint Urban area thanks to environmental concerns cited by CENSAT and others.
"The pressure of social mobilizations has been critical in this process," says Danilo.
"Besides the formal petitions to the Santander governor and the formal complaint before Congress, the public hearings and educational sessions, over 40,000 people protested in Ucaramanga, 1,000 in Bogotá and another 5,000 in Cucuta in the days prior to the final decision."
CENSAT has also been active in the struggle against coal mining in Almorzadero. After fifteen years of campaigning, the Municipal Council finally declared the area free of mining.
These achievements are really important, but the “success is also to coordinate and mobilise the communities to struggle for these things, especially in a country with such harsh conditions like Colombia,” says Danilo.
On being a member of the Friends of the Earth International
CENSAT became a member of the federation in 2001. Since then, it has felt many benefits as a result of being part of an international federation of grassroots groups.
"Being part of the federation, and especially exchanging experiences with other groups in Latin America and the Caribbean has enabled us to consolidate our perspective of the problems of the region and to think about how to work together to confront them, ”says Danilo.
He also highlights the work of the federation in exposing the struggles of Colombia through different communication tools such as Real World Radio, Friends of the Earth International's web based radio station.
Danilo (middle) at a Friends of the Earth International programme meeting.
"Being part of Friends of the Earth International is also crucial at key moments when we need to put pressure on the Colombian government to enforce human rights and community rights. The urgent actions carried out with the support of the federation have been crucial in these cases.”
About Danilo Urrea
Danilo joined CENSAT in 2003. He is currently the coordinator of the water program. He also collaborates with Real World Radio, as Colombia correspondent.
Danilo's motivations to work in the organization are clear and inspiring:
“CENSAT is a leading organization in the environmental struggle at a national and international level, which gives me the chance to exchange experiences with other colleagues who are also committed to social change and respect nature and other communities” he concludes.