Friday, 7 July 2017

PEACE IN COLUMBIA? ‘Grave situation’ for fragile peace

‘Grave situation’ for fragile peace

Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail’s “great joy” at the January prison release of the Colombian trade union and peasant farmer leader Huber Ballesteros is being tempered by worrying levels of violence that may affect the Peace Agreement signed between the Colombian Government and the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerrillas last year. 

In 2013, Ballesteros, vice-president of  the 80,000 strong agricultural workers’ union FENSUAGRO, 1,500 of whom have been murdered, mainly by paramilitary groups, was arrested on trumped-up rebellion and financing terrorism charges. 

This was in a period when FENSUAGRO lead a mass strike that mobilised over a million people on street protests against the devastating impact of free-trade agreements, privatisation and inequality-driven poverty. Huber was just about to travel to speak at the 2013 TUC Conference. 

“Clearly arresting him — and many other activists before and since — was aimed at disrupting Huber’s work and intimidating others looking to get involved. 

“My impression following his rightful release is that Huber has not been deterred by going to prison and remains up for the struggle to make his country a peaceful, democratic one. 

“It is great news for him personally and everyone who cares about a better world,” said Gail, who saw for herself the extreme disparities in wealth between rich and poor in Colombia when she visited in 2009. 

The British trade union movement — and Unite in particular — played a prominent role in exerting pressure on the government here and in Colombia to secure Ballesteros’ release. 

Much of this was co-ordinated by Justice for Colombia (JFC), a British NGO established by the trade union movement here 15 years ago. “The support was brilliant,” states Hasan Dodwell of JFC.

JFC, which sought peace as part of a path towards social advance and greater equality, organised a letter that was signed by hundreds of politicians from Ireland, Britain and the USA backing the peace process. JFC also worked with Colombian civil society groups to ensure their voice was heard throughout the process. 

The Peace Agreement between the Juan Manuel Santos government and the FARC guerrillas was concluded in Cuba in August last year. It followed two years of preliminary negotiations and a further four years of talks in Havana.   Throughout the process, JFC organised delegations to Cuba from Northern Ireland that included unionist and nationalist participants from the 1998 Good Friday Peace Agreement. A delegation met Santos and they were the first international group to meet the FARC negotiating team. In Washington they outlined to senior politicians their impressions on the situation in Colombia. 

The agreement as opposed by many, including opposition leader Alvaro Uribe, the one time president for eight years, and it represented a necessary compromise that ended a deadly conflict that stretched back to the 1960s and in which 200,000 people were left dead. 

“There is no doubt that an essential role was played by JFC in getting both sides to make an agreement. Taking their lead from Colombian civil society organisations such as trade unions they were pushing for peace even when that was being portrayed as supporting terrorism,” states Gail Cartmail. 

The agreement was subsequently debated by Colombian Congress members, some of whom attempted to obstruct it and succeeded in March in making many changes to the original text aimed at setting an ‘Integral System for Truth, Justice, Reparation and non-Repetition.’ Two changes stood out. The newly formed peace courts will not now examine the financing of paramilitary groups whilst possible sanctions may limit the right of FARC members to take part in the political system.

The debates took place against a background of intensified murderous attacks on civil society leaders and FARC members. One hundred and seventeen social leaders and human rights defenders were killed in 2016.

“These are extremely worrying developments” states Hasan bluntly. “There appears to be an intensification of violence by paramilitary groups, some of whom are reported to be moving into rural communities where they have previously had no presence. 

“The Colombian government has been denying the political nature of the killings and this is casting doubt on their willingness under the Peace Agreement to protect community activists by tackling the paramilitaries. 

“This is a grave situation and protection has to be ensured by the Colombian government for all those that are politically active.”  

Ellen Strange Commemoration report for 2017

Linda Charnock - Sheila Coleman - Tracey Dewe

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

LAKELAND HIDDEN GEM: Museum of Lakeland Life and Industry, Kendal

Kendal’s hidden gem is the Museum of Lakeland Life & Industry (MOLLI), which recreates how rural people lived, worked and played in the past and by doing so challenges its visitors’ perceptions of what life was like in one of the most beautiful parts of the UK.

MOLLI is in Abbot Hall's eighteen century coach house and stables. Seven hundred years earlier, commercial sheep farming by local monks helped create  a thriving wool industry. This is reflected in Kendal's motto 'Pannus mihi panis' meaning 'cloth is my bread.' 

It was the Cumbrian climate that ensured that sheep — as well as cows — were locally more suited than the growing of arable crops. Meanwhile, with Cumbria being so remote from London, nobles were frequently absent from home and this encouraged them to sell their land. 

The result was it became easier for some local farmers to swap from being tenant to land owning 'Statesman' farmers. The nineteenth century bedroom of a statesman farmer is amongst one of the permanent period rooms at MOLLI. Others include a chemists and printers as well as a farmhouse kitchen from a typical Cumbrian eighteenth century farm. 

These are certainly worth viewing but what really brings the museum to life is its desire — which was so passionately expressed by Rachel Roberts, assistant curator on collections and access, during our visit — to preserve and tell the stories of the 99 per cent of ordinary working people who live and die without leaving anything behind. 

Display boards tell the history of how Cumbria's minerals — zinc, lead, copper included — were first plundered by the Romans. Then how later on local mines attracted workers from across Britain and Europe with the German mining engineer Daniel Hechstetter granted permission in 1565 by Elizabeth I to melt 'all manner of mines and ores of gold, silver and copper' around Keswick and Coniston. 

Another important local industry was shoemaking and the Kendal Cordwainer's Guild was established in the seventeenth century to 'protect mutual interests.' Leather sold in the town was officially marked and no one outside the guild was to sell similar products. This was an early form of trade unionism. 

The Lake District's woodlands have for many centuries been coppiced as a method of harvesting trees. Quick growing trees such as oak and ash can be cut down to their shoots and within 15-40 years they can be as tall as 6 metres high. Once harvested they were used in local industries and of which the most important was bobbin mills, totalling 64 in the mid nineteenth century. 

Bobbins were in massive demand during the industrial revolution and it is estimated that in Burnley alone there was as many as 20 million bobbins turning on the cotton-weaving machines at any one time. 

"Bobbin making was a huge employer of local labour," explains Rachel "but as people moved into the towns during the industrial revolution there was also chemical and paint making. 

“Because of Cumbria's remoteness there was additionally, until the railways really took off, a greater self reliance. This meant that virtually every product you can think of was manufactured, with small workshops servicing the larger ones. There was also domestic work in people's private homes and farms." 


John Ruskin's first publication was his originally entitled 1829 poem Lines written at the Lakes in Cumberland. In the mid-1850s he taught drawing classes at the Working Men's College in London and following which he was drawn towards social issues. Ruskin College in Oxford was established to provide educational opportunities for working-class men in 1899, a year before his death. 

Ruskin lived near Coniston from 1871 till 1890. During his time he inspired the founding of the Langdale Linen Industry and the Keswick School of Industrial Art, which was opened in 1884 to alleviate unemployment by teaching metalwork and wood carving. "The aim was improve people's skills such that they would enjoy making quality products, some of which we on display here, that everyone could buy. Sadly the production costs meant the goods were only affordable by well off people. This left Ruskin disappointed,” says Rachel. 

Arthur Ransome was first educated in Windermere. He is best known for writing the Swallows and Amazons children's book series that are centred around the Lake District and Norfolk Broads. Years previously, Ransome covered the Bolshevik Revolution for a radical newspaper, the Daily News. He became close to a number to a number of Soviet leaders including Lenin and Trotsky, whose personal secretary became Ransome's wife. There is a very interesting permanent display on Ransome within the museum.  

Over the winter, MOLLI, which attracts around a thousand visitors a month,  held an exhibition of Joseph Hardman’s photographs.

This has been followed by Fun on the Fells: Walking and Climbing in the Lake District. This will run till 28 October and features early climbing pioneers through to the politics of right to roam in which one of Unite’s great heroes Benny Rothman will feature. 

“We would be delighted to welcome trade unionists to the museum and would welcome the support of branches within Unite, particularly those in the North west,” said Rachel. 

Justice denied for shepherd Brenda Sutcliffe, a remarkable woman

This is an unpublished article that was due to appear in the Landworker magazine. Brenda really was a force for good.  

Campaigner Brenda Sutcliffe, the Littleborough shepherd who became the unofficial spokeswoman for thousands of farmers and agricultural labourers who were poisoned, often with fatal consequences, by organophosphate sheep dip, died on 18 January.

Although the government's chief scientist Professor Solly Zuckerman warned as long ago as 1951 that organophosphate pesticides (OP) were deadly poisons and could be absorbed through the skin or inhalation, their use in sheep dip became compulsory in the late 1970s. Zuckerman's report remained lay hidden in the House of Commons until Brenda discovered it in 2005

Sheep dip users were left uninformed about the dangers or the need to wear suitable protective clothing to prevent serious illness. Those that became unwell — symptoms included feeling acutely tired, weak and nauseous, memory loss and blurred vision — initially found it almost impossible to be diagnosed by their doctors. 

Brenda, who suffered, along with members of her family, when forced by government officials to use OP sheep dip in 1992, faced a wall of silence when she began researching OP hazards. She eventually used the US Freedom of Information Act to uncover evidence of just how dangerous and deadly OP's can be. 

When Brenda began to publicise her research and contact the press, chemical companies, politicians and farming organisations she was inundated by requests to help from the victims of OP sheep dip. Eventually clinical tests were developed that can provide objective evidence of OP poisoning and this has assisted doctors to make a diagnosis when they are visited by potential sufferers, including military personnel known to have been exposed to the neurotoxins during tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, plus airline staff exposed to toxic air. 

Brenda calculated that between 1995 and 2005 more than 1,000 shepherds ended their own lives because of OP sheep dip. Brenda fought tirelessly — and ultimately unsuccessfully — for the victims families to be compensated. Generally the victims were the main breadwinner. 

Brenda's specially produced booklet 'Cause and effect — the search for truth' was first published in 2005. It became widely read right across the globe. In 2011, Brenda, whose husband Harold was a Unite member, received an award from Greening the North, a UK network with links to the Centre for Holistic Studies in India. She was cited for 'your work for the OP-affected, including your letters to the press.'

Brenda and other campaigners forced the HSE to issue health warnings and instructions on the use of OPs and bring to an end the compulsory order on sheep dipping. But the products — used to tackle sheep scab — remain on the market with the added requirement that anyone purchasing the dip must attend a course — costing in total £150 — to achieve the necessary 'Safe Use of Sheep Dip' licence. Each applicant must demonstrate that they understand the regulations including the necessity to wear protective clothing during the dipping operation. 

Brenda, whose work was featured regularly in Landworker, was rightly proud of her considerable efforts and achievements but when we last spoke she was, as always, forthright in expressing her views. "Justice has been denied to the likes of myself whose health was badly affected by OPs. We, with the help of people like yourself and Landworker, showed these were dangerous — deadly — products and we never hesitated to criticise the chemical companies who manufactured them. We damaged their sales but they have never sued us because our research backed up what we said publicly.  

"The government, whether New Labour or Tory, public health bodies and solicitors who were supposed to help us ran away from the battle. People still need prosecuting for their roles in this whole affair. I think we have won a number of battles but OPs are still deadly, too widely used and many products containing them need banning.” 

Around 40 people attended Brenda's funeral at which her friend Dee Uttley gave a marvellous eulogy.

Will we finally know who owns England and Wales?

This is a slightly revised - and unpublished - article I wrote for Landworker magazine in April this year. 

The rallying cry of those who campaigned to leave the EU was “give us our country back.” That's difficult as we don’t actually know the owners. There is good news though as we may finally soon have a list of all the landowners in England and Wales. 

Back in 1862 and 1875, attempts to start a land registry were crushed by the large landowners refusing to register their property. When a Land Act was passed in 1925 it allowed land that had been gifted or inherited to be left unrecorded. Large landowners who could trace their family history back generations didn't bother registering their land. 

It was not until 2001 - and the release of Kevin Cahill's Who Owns Britain colossal book, which revealed that 189,000 people owned 88 per cent of the land — that the question of land ownership in the UK was re-opened. 

In Scotland since then the issue of land reform has been high on the political agenda. Less so in England and Wales but the last Labour Government's Land Registration Act 2002 did introduce a voluntary registration scheme that has proven to be highly successful as it has led to land registration levels doubling to over 80 percent in the last fifteen years. Even the Duke of Westminster was persuaded to register and his 140,000 acres was inherited last year by his son. 

In February the Housing White Paper was released. To the surprise of many the proposals included a much more open Land Registry - which was only saved last summer from being privatised thanks to a campaign in which trade unions were prominent — working with the Ordnance Survey to 'provide a more effective digital land and property data service...that can be made more openly available to the benefit of developers, home buyers and others.' 

There was also a commitment by 'the Government to ensure completion of the Land Register…with the aim being to achieve comprehensive registration by 2030.' However, individuals such as the Duke of Westminster and Prince Charles will remain exempt from registering. A precedent has though been established and it paves the way for a future government to tighten up the regulations.

Meanwhile, Guy Shrubsole, a campaigner at Friends of the Earth who deservedly describes himself as a "troublemaker," has established a fascinating blog - WHO OWNS ENGLAND - that follows in Cahill's footsteps. Cahill listed landowners, Shrubsole aims to map them. 

The author wants to "build the most comprehensive public map of land ownership in England: a modern Domesday book." Shrubsole has made a fine start with revelations that 50 companies own 1.3 million acres of England and Wales. The 50 include housebuilders Taylor Wimpey and supermarket giant Tesco. Nine water companies own 345,977 acres. 

Grouse moors cover at least 550,000 acres of England. Thirty huge estates, which enjoy public farm subsidies and some of which are owned offshore, cover at least 300,000 acres. 

The author is set to reveal over the following year who owns the land most sought-after for house building and the best-quality agricultural land plus what the Royals Own. 

Land is a scarce resource and no more is being grown. Once we do know who owns England and Wales then surely it is time to get everyone involved in getting to choose how it is used to grow our food, build houses, create employment and provide space for relaxation, recreation and wildlife? That really would be ‘getting our country back.’ 

A booklet I edited, partly wrote and published over a decade ago. 

CLOSED OR FRANCHISED OUT: the future looks bleak for the rural post office

This article was written in April, but because of the General Election there was a delay on the publication of Landworker magazine, which has just been released this week. 

The future of six main Post Offices in rural areas has been cast into doubt after they were named in January on a list of 37 branches to be closed and franchised. All six in Petersfield, Diss, Redruth, Lancing, Camborne and Ulverston play a major role in their local communities. 

Unite represents the interests of 730 managers  in the Post Office. Along with their colleagues in the Communication Workers Union (CWU) they took part in a series of strikes late last year in protest at job losses, the closure of a final salary pension scheme and franchising, under which ‘partners’ within retail outlets such as WH Smith are found. 

The action was taken at the same time as the Tory government, the ultimate owners of the Post Office, undertook a consultation on the future of the Post Office network and for which Unite - and many others - submitted a considered response. 

Unite expressed concerns about the failure of the Post Office ‘to deliver a clearly articulated sustainable business plan’ in which ‘the ongoing provision of quality, secure, well paid jobs, via an efficient, sustainable and sought after Post office Network, is an important component of the UK postal industry.’ 

Additionally, ‘quality of services or access to all Post Office products was not being taken into account’ such that ‘the general public are not always aware of services available’ such as banking and cash withdrawal. The impact of separating the Royal Mail in April 2012 from the Post Office has made the latter “an unsustainable business in its own right” and has resulted in a  25 per cent drop in annual income from the government from £164 million to £128 million in 2016. 

Yet the ink was hardly dry when the news of further franchising was announced. No timetable to find partners has been established. The Ulverston branch in Cumbria has seven employees, including one member of Unite. 

The local Barrow and Furness Labour MP John Woodcock has denounced the proposals and told Landworker, “The post office in Ulverston has stood for hundreds of years and if the local community were deprived of this vital asset it would be a disaster for the town.

“I have sought guarantees from management that the service would not be lost, and it is worrying that those assurances have not been forthcoming.

“There is clearly a strong feeling in the town that people want to post office to stay, and I will continue to campaign alongside Unite and the CWU to defend services and jobs in the weeks ahead.”

A petition drawn up by Woodcock had attracted over 5,000 by mid-March. 

Brian Scott is the Unite officer for the Post Office. "We will fight to preserve decently paid jobs and an effective, quality Post Office network. But the negative changes going on across the Post Office, along with the Government reluctance to fund Post Office services means the picture looks less than rosy, especially as state funding is set to end next year. 

"There is evidence that the quality of services and reliability in offices that have been franchised is less than that from the original Crown Office. Why? It is clear that as well as looking to pay their workers less in wages than experienced in the Post Office, there are problems with recruitment, training and retention of workers.  

"In small franchised sub Post Offices there are now longer hours than before but the owners are experiencing no increase in postal related trade. For the Post Office Network to move forward it requires a clear strategy to be developed in which franchising is re-examined,” concludes Brian. 

Monday, 3 July 2017

Forests Under Attack - are tough times ahead in our forests about to get worse?

The Unite lead rep at the Forestry Commission, Neil Grieve, has expressed his fears after it was confirmed that the organisation will be split up in 2019.
Four years ago the FC in Wales was transferred to a new body - Natural Resource Wales. (NRW) This marked the end of the Commission’s 94 years as a GB organisation. 
The FC is Britain’s biggest land manager and costs each of us a whopping 40 pence a year! All this for looking after some of our most spectacular landscapes, providing outdoor recreational facilities for millions, harvesting timber to supply domestic industry and regenerating brownfield sites. 
No wonder that when the ConDem government sought to sell off much of England’s forests they were forced by public opinion into a humiliating climbdown in February 2011. But as a result of the government’s unnecessary austerity programme the champagne has remained on ice as many FC jobs have since been lost.   
The jobs include, according to Tony, (not his real name) a NRW employee, “many experienced expert staff, which is going to be a problem in the future.” In 2016, NRW planted no new trees, which is not a great success story.
Now the FC, which at present is a cross-border public authority overseen by the Forestry Commissioners, will be cut in two in two years’ time when FC Scotland (FCS) will be separated from its English counterpart. Following which the Scottish Government will assume responsibilities for managing the organisation.  
Galloway’s Neil Grieve, who since becoming Unite FC lead rep in 2014 has persuaded more Unite members to become workplace reps, wants to ensure that the new arrangements will not lead to a reduction in FCS direct staff or a poorer service to the public. 
The FC Trade Unions have met with the SNP’s Fergus Ewing MSP, the rural economy and connectivity cabinet secretary at the Scottish Parliament. Neil wanted to discover what the future might hold for FC Unite members in Scotland. Especially as in 2009 it was the SNP who planned to lease off 25 per cent of forestry land to private companies for 75 years. 
It was a Unite led campaign, which enjoyed massive public support that forced the proposals, which would have endangered forestry workers’ jobs and restricted access to the forests, to be abandoned. 
“We came out of the meeting with Fergus Ewing re-assured about retaining our status as public servants along with our negotiated terms and conditions and pensions. 
“The minister also assured us that there would be no less jobs. But the majority of the Scottish government’s funding comes in the form of a block grant from Westminster. This to continue falling in the immediate future. Unless monies are found from another budget then retaining the same number of jobs may be difficult,” states Neil, a wildlife ranger with 30 years experience.
Meanwhile, according to Tony “Wales has been trialling block contracts to private forestry companies.” 
This is now happening in Scotland. “Private companies are doing some of the harvesting, road repairs and replanting. This could reduce the direct workplace and we are aware that, just like in Wales, the employees are not enjoying decent terms and conditions. Some come from areas in Ireland where unemployment levels are high. They are being exploited by being employed on zero-hours contracts. For the first time in my 30 year career I have seen planting contractors who are living in tents in the forests,” explains Neil.
Further south, English FC staff have been under attack. There were reports late last year that the FC were asking forestry workers living in the New Forest in Hampshire to pay between £650 and £900 a month, instead of £500 a month previously. 
George Whitcher, Unite’s rep in the New Forest, criticised the increases. “You can’t keep forest life going if you can’t stay in the forest. It would totally change - there would be no forest life.”
Unite organised a public meeting with staff past and present who live in FC houses. But some staff are still being asked to pay substantially more - in some cases more than they earn! Unite wants to get management to justify these unacceptable increases and bring the issue to the negotiating table. 
English rural workers have, of course, suffered when they have found themselves divided from their counterparts across Britain. In 2013 the ConDem government scrapped the Agricultural Wages Board (AWB), which not even Margaret Thatcher had considered doing during her term of office.  
Thanks to the Welsh Assembly a successful supreme court challenge was mounted that helped establish a Welsh AWB leading to improvements in pay and conditions. In comparison, the English agricultural worker’s lack of union representation, means they have not obtained a wage increase. 
“I’m worried,” states Neil, “as the Tories are in power in England. If they harbour desires to sell off the forests they may use the fact that most - around 70 per cent - of the FC’s current income comes from the sale of wood from trees in Scotland. 

“England is more about conservation and recreational parks. Some Tories may try and persuade the electoral that the FC is uneconomic, which was the grounds  used by the Thatcher government to sell off forests in the 80s.” 


 Article from Big Issue North magazine of 26 June to 2 July. 
MoD plans to de-register seized land 
Residents fear their birthright could sell 
Cumbrian people feel they have been betrayed by Ministry of Defence plans that could see thousands of hectares of commons land sold into private ownership. 
The MoD wants to de-register 9,700 hectares of land near the village of Warcop that it has used as a training range since the Second World War. 
In 2001, the MoD acquired all grazing rights on three commons, near Kirkby Stephen and Appleby, against the wishes of local people, who felt use of Hilton, Murton and Warcop was their birthright. But the MoD did promise that it would continue to preserve its status as common land “in perpetuity”. 
That meant allowing the public access, on de ned paths, and farm animals to graze when there is no training, and ensuring the land is transferred back to public ownership if the MoD has no further use for it. But now the MoD has applied to Cumbria County Council to de-register the land. 
An MoD spokesperson said de-registration would help “to provide more effective military training” but “there were no plans to sell off any land within it”. 
William Patterson, vice-chair of Eden District Council and a member of the Hilton Commoners’ Association, said locals, who accept the army’s need to train recruits, feel very strongly about the plans. 
“No one was happy at having their land compulsory purchased by the MoD over a decade ago but we felt a degree of satisfaction that it would remain on the commons register,” he said. “We believe the MoD is reneging on its word and using spurious grounds to do so. 
“If the MoD marches away, the currently common land should not be left in private hands, which de-registering facilitates. As the MoD intends dumping its original commitments how can we trust its word that it won’t sell the land? Farmers and anyone wanting to follow in the footsteps of our ancestors and walk the land could turn up after the MoD departs and padlocks on the gates.” 
The Federation of Cumbria Commoners, which is dedicated to promoting commoning in Cumbria and aims to maintain and improve the viability of hill farming on common land, has made a representation to Cumbria County Council about the application. 
Its spokesperson Viv Lewis said she did not trust the MoD and wanted there to be an “open decision making process, including the opportunity for the public to comment on any report prepared by Cumbria County Council’s commons registration officer prior to a final decision by the regulation committee”. 

A CCC spokesperson said: “Once the MoD has responded, the council’s common registration service will make a decision on how to adjudicate the applications. It is therefore too early to say what the next stage of this process will be.”