For Colombia’s northernmost province of La Guajira, August 7 was noteworthy — and not only for the first drops of rain that fell in over seven months. It also marked the beginning of a regional forum on the effects of coal mining by Cerrejón, the company behind Latin America’s largest open-pit coal mine.
The forum, which took the format of a court of public opinion, was organized by residents of indigenous Wayuu reservations and Afro-Colombian communities in southern Guajira, as well as Colombian human rights NGOs that accompany them. Over the course of three days, more than 100 participants from Colombia, Europe, Canada and the U.S. visited communities near the Cerrejón mine and heard dozens of testimonies about the effects of coal mining on residents’ quality of life, health, environment and culture.
Cerrejón is jointly held by three companies: BHP Billiton, Anglo American and Glencore-Xstrata. While the Cerrejón website touts its corporate social responsibility program as one of the region’s most advanced, its neighbors told a different story.
“Before the exploitation of coal resources started in the 1980s, we had plenty to live on; we produced yucca, beans and rice,” said one indigenous Wayuu witness during public testimonies. “Each family had 20-30 goats, which also produced milk. Now, we’re lucky if we can have even one. There is a high level of pollution from open-pit mining—everything is polluted. For us, these companies are a threat to the very survival of the Wayuu people, to our culture, to the free use of our territory.”
Other participants highlighted issues of food security and access to clean water exacerbated by mining.
“We want to be able to produce [what we need], to have a dignified life, to have water…each day 1-2 elderly people die from diseases and 1-2 children die of malnutrition,” said Rodrigo, an Afro-Colombian leader from the Tabaco community.
A recent visit from the National Ombudsman’s Office confirmed that 37,000 children in La Guajira suffer from malnutrition and that 15 children died of malnutrition in the first six months of 2014. However, the office acknowledged that there are likely many more deaths that have gone unreported due to local practices of burying their dead on traditional lands without informing the regional government.
Participants in the conference said La Guajira’s naturally arid climate is aggravated by a confluence of the El Niño weather phenomenon, climate change, a lack of state investment in infrastructure for water treatment and storage and Cerrejón’s round-the-clock operations that demand high volumes of water—as much as 34 million liters a day, by some participants’ estimates.
On August 9, Cerrejón announced a donation of a little more than US$1 million to supply more water to La Guajira. This is in addition to the US$500,000 the company spent in April of this year on donations of bottled water to communities.
Despite this gesture, community members were still critical of the mine’s impact. “Cerrejón is violating our right to water and to our rivers. We’re forced to buy bottled water now,” said Wilson, a Wayuu leader.
The “Mining Engine”
Cerrejón’s regional dominance is in line with economic policies supported by the Colombian state and foreign countries like the U.S. and Canada. Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos has called extractive industries the “engine” of the Colombian economy, and as much as 60 percent of Colombia’s national territory has been licensed or is under concession to mining interests.
Recent free trade agreements (FTAs) signed with the U.S., Canada and the European Union allow Colombia to import agricultural products, food, electronics and other goods instead of producing them domestically. While this has been a boon for U.S. exports to Colombia, it has had a devastating impact on Colombia’s agricultural sector—particularly on small-scale farmers and herders, like many of La Guajira’s inhabitants.
Implementation of the U.S.-Colombia agreement was supposed to have been contingent on improving labor conditions in Colombia. The mining sector was highlighted as a particularly egregious offender, and the Colombian government was supposed to take steps to improve safety for workers and unionists. But Cerrejón workers say they have seen few changes.
“I’ve worked for Cerrejón for 31 years,” said a member of the Sintracarbon union, which represents workers in the mining sector. “I’ve had a number of health problems and I had to put up a fight to get the company to recognize that yes, perhaps they were the result of 31 years of operating heavy machinery. In the mine we work 12-hour shifts and often have repetitive motion injuries, respiratory illnesses…but our health insurance sends us to company doctors who insist that nothing is wrong, or they try to prescribe us pills that do nothing for us.”
“Yes to life, no to the mine”
The forum concluded with two Wayuu indigenous reservations taking a symbolic vote on whether they wanted Cerrejón to leave their territory. Both soundly rejected the mining giant: out of 432 votes cast, 427 were in favor of Cerrejón leaving. Similarly, an international jury of observers from Colombia, Switzerland and Canada found Cerrejón guilty of displacing and failing to resettle communities; damaging community health and the environment; and human and labor rights violations.
On August 11, community organizations in La Guajira began a civil strike, protesting what they see as state abandonment. Their demands include creating a development fund for La Guajira financed by coal and gas revenues, repairing social and environmental damage, protecting environmental resources and investing in other economic opportunities in addition to coal mining and improving social services.
Riot police armed with tear gas and rubber bullets were deployed to quell what demonstrators called a peaceful protest. Protestors later agreed to remove their roadblocks in exchange for a dialogue table with the provincial government, but continued to report abuses by the riot police, including harassing indigenous Wayuu authorities, use of excessive force and property damage, including of water sources.