Colombia: the dark side of its coal mining “success”

Large-scale mining activities are destroying environments and wiping out communities, but companies are failing to respect rights of those whose livelihoods are being put at greatest risk, says indigenous activist.

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Colombia is booming. A country that for decades has been ravaged by civil war between guerrilla insurgents such as FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and the Colombian State and the paramilitary forces that support it, has finally started to show signs of economic growth coupled with increased political and social stability. This is best illustrated perhaps by the transformation of several major cities, such as Medellín, which has gone from being the murder capital of the world and backyard for notorious drug kingpins such as Pablo Escobar, to a thriving city of the 21st Century driven by technological innovation and cultural prestige, of which its innovative cable car system (pictured below) used to connect deprived shanty town suburbs to the city centre is one of the most visible examples.

Cable cars used for public transport in Medellín, undoubtedly one of the main symbols of one of Colombia’s greatest success story of recent times

But at what cost has Colombia’s “success” come? Economic growth can be largely attributed to Colombian exports of its primary resources, with agricultural goods such as coffee, tropical fruits and flowers being among the more traditional products. However, in more recent times the country has expanded its mining sector, with exports of oil and coal leading the charge. Coal mining in particular has picked up steam, transforming the Colombian countryside just as it did England’s green and pleasant lands all those years ago, as huge mines dig deep into the heart of the Andean foothills and outskirts of the Amazon basin to get at the coal that provides Colombia with significant export earnings from China and the EU, among other destinations.

The environmental damage that this industry causes is monstrous, both at the local level through deforestation and pollution, and at the global level by releasing huge amounts of greenhouse gases and particles into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming and climate change. However, given the spread of Colombia’s many indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities across rural areas, the fallout from mining often has a human face as well, as entire villages are routinely forced from their land, or at the very least have to live with polluted surroundings and loss of natural habitat that is crucial to their land-based way of life.

Such is the case with the Wayuu people, from the La Guajira peninsula straddling the Venezuelan border on the Caribbean coast, and whose Colombian population numbers close to 300,000 (to go with the 400,000 or so who are reckoned to live over the border). They have been greatly affected by the presence of the Cerrejón coalmining complex, in operation since the early 1980s and with a yearly production rate of over 32 million tonnes. They were never properly consulted about the construction and opening of the mine, and many communities were forcibly displaced from their ancestral lands to make way for the complex.

Recently, one Wayuu member travelled to the UK to raise awareness of the impacts of large-scale mining felt by Colombia’s many rural, indigenous and Afro-Colombian inhabitants. Her name is Yasmin Romero Epiayu; she is a leading member of the Fuerza de Mujeres Wayuu (Wayuu Women’s Force), and with the help of the UK-based NGO World Development Movement (WDM) and various other organisations embarked on a tour of UK venues to contribute to a series of talks organised by WDM that dealt with the impact that these mining operations have on rural peoples around the world, and the way in which they are often bankrolled by some of the UK’s largest and best-known financial institutions, such as banks, hedge funds, and pension funds.

On 24 October I went to the talk held at the University of London Union, where Yasmin gave an impassioned speech about the ways her community has been affected by the operation and recent expansion works of Cerrejón, and about how her people have consistently been deceived by the mining companies and lied to about plans to expand the mine, with blatant violations of their rights as established by various internationally-recognised and ratified texts, such as the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and the International Labour Organisation’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (ILO 169).

Cerrejón Mine, La Guajira, Colombia

Speaking in front of a modest-sized but attentive audience, Yasmin tells us that Colombia is in the midst of a phase in history where indigenous and rural groups are mobilising and rising up against ‘neoliberal extractive policies’, and that she had come to the UK to raise awareness of the problems faced by indigenous groups in Colombia, so as to inform the international community of what is happening not just to her community, but also to many Afro-Colombian and other sectors of Colombian society.

Yasmin’s view of the companies that run the Cerrejón mine – BHP Billington, Anglo American, and Xstrata – is that they are ‘like a circus’, where investors ‘play’ with their money; for them it is simply a ‘question of power and money’, which as Yasmin explains is ‘completely contrary’ to the Wayuu way of life and their cultural values. While in London, she had managed to attend the AGM of BHP Billington, assisted by WDM, Colombia Solidarity Campaign and London Mining Network, and during a question-and-answer session stood up and directly asked board members of the company ‘when are you going to get out of my territory?’ They refused to answer properly, something which Yasmin said she considered to be an insult and a mockery to her people and to her personally.

In one of the more emotive passages of her speech, Yasmin talks of the thirty years of saqueos constantes – ‘relentless pillaging and plunder’ – that her people have had to live through, as well as violations of their human rights. There has been a militarisation, by ‘illegal armed groups’ in Yasmin’s words, of Wayuu territory, unlike anything they have ever experienced before, not even in the days of the Spanish conquest and colonisation half a millennium ago. These violations of rights are not limited to those of humans, however: the mining activities go against the rights of nature, with Yasmin’s assertion that ‘coal is like the organs of Mother Earth’. She also tells us of the violent evictions of the Afro-Colombian community of Tacabo, a horrifying story but one which, as she claims, nobody outside of the area knows about. This is but one example, she says, of the ways in which mining companies ‘are in a state of impunity’ and feel they have less of an obligation to respect the environment and societies that surround their sites.

Yasmin Romero Epiayu, a member of the Wayuu community, whose territory has been greatly affected by coal mining

Cerrejón’s website has entire sections dedicated to “Sustainable Development”, “Corporate Social Responsibility”, and other such PR-friendly banners, with their so-called “Cerrejón Way” (Estilo Cerrejón) asserting that the owners of the mine have “strengthened [their] dialogues with stakeholders more and more in order to understand their view of [the mine’s] operation and its impacts so that [they] can undertake actions to make the Company ever more efficient and responsible”. In a list of 11 company principles, one pledge reads “We aspire to have the communities pleased for us to be part of their environment and to want us to continue to be so”, while another claims that in the context of social responsibility, the mine aims to “do the maximum possible and not the minimum necessary”. But the experiences of the Wayuu people as told by Yasmin suggest that these promises are not being kept, that communities most certainly are not pleased to have the miners in their territory, and that if anything, at times not even the minimum environmental and social standards are being met.

And now they want to expand their operations. What has been Wayuu territory for generation upon generation has been set aside to be swallowed up by these expansions, according to Yasmin. ‘Why is this fair?’ she asks, almost pleading with those of us in the audience. It is ‘pure murder’ of nuestros hermanos – ‘our brothers and sisters’. And not just in the sense that their homes are to be wiped out by the coalminers. Yasmin tells us of the many health crises being played out in Wayuu communities: previously-unseen skin and eye conditions, lung and urinary infections, with women being especially affected, and babies being born with strange deformations. It is unlike anything they have ever had to put up with, according to Yasmin. However, the health centres set up in the area as part of the deal to allow the mines in the first place are extremely reluctant to link up the spate of health problems with the mining operations, instead suggesting that they are down to ‘increased sexual activity from a young age’, Yasmin tells us. Her strongly-held suspicion is that the companies are ‘buying off’ the doctors and medics, meaning that they don’t say what is really causing the increase in illnesses.

The Wayuu have known about Cerrejón’s plans for expansion since around 2009. These plans include the diversion of the only main river in Wayuu territory – the one that according to their culture and worldview provides life to all wildlife and societies of the region – and have led to threats being made against community members and those who have voiced their opposition, as well as the ‘criminalisation’ of Wayuu leaders and stigmatisation of their entire society.

Earlier last month, several thousand indigenous people blockaded the main road leading to Cerrejón, reportedly shutting down 40% of the mine’s operations, and then continued to block the railway used for transporting coal and cargo from the mine to the seaside port that also forms part of the Cerrejón complex. Nevertheless, the fight is far from over, and the Wayuu still want to hear a credible explanation and response from the companies that run the mine. The locals’ rights to free prior and informed consultation (FPIC), as laid out by ILO-169 and UNDRIP, are not being respected, and they are fed up of being kept in the dark as to the companies’ real intentions. Yasmin tells us that her community have held ‘grand forums’ and invited the companies so they could provide these explanations and participate in a wider debate on the operation and expansion of Cerrejón. But they have never shown any inclination to doing this. They have said that they have thought about it and that they ‘might’, rather than ‘will’, go ahead with the expansion, saying that nothing has been confirmed so far.

‘But how the hell [her words were a fair bit stronger than that!] are we meant to believe that?’ exclaims Yasmin, ‘when behind our backs they have already consulted 109 other communities about it’. She says that her people simply cannot contemplate any further mining, and promises that they will continue to resist the plans for expansion in their community. She even goes so far as to claim that people will die for the cause if that is what is needed.

Yasmin concludes with a plea to the audience: ‘You are our allies!’ The “you” here is aimed at citizens of the ‘consuming countries’ of the West / Global North, with a call for those citizens to exert pressure on their governments and institutions and to spread the story of what is really going on in Colombia, as so eloquently and emotively told by Yasmin. This responsibility stems from the fact that the companies running Cerrejón, as well as countless other similar mines across the globe, are all from and based in these countries, and in the EU in particular. On this point, Yasmin also raises the question of what exactly the role of the EU is, when it signs however many treaties concerning the rights of indigenous groups, only for these rights to be continually ignored or violated by those companies that are based in or even sponsored by the EU.

The event continued with a talk by a representative of Indonesian communities similarly affected by the operations of coal mines and factories. There were then presentations by several WDM speakers which gave an insight into their ‘Carbon Capital’ campaign. This is centred around the financial backing given to companies such as those that run Cerrejón by numerous high-profile UK banks and other City of London financial institutions. To learn more, watch their promotional videos, or find out how you can support them in their campaign to try and curb the activities that are contributing to climate change and destroying communities like the Wayuu, you can pay the campaign page on their website a visit. You can also watch the video on Carbon Capital below, which in this case specifically presents the facts that link UK finance with deforestation and coalmining on Borneo, although many of the issues also relate to Cerrejón and the story of the Wayuu people, as they do to countless other rural and vulnerable peoples around the world. Oliver Balch also wrote two articles on Cerrejón in The Guardian earlier this year, which give more of an outsider’s perspective on the social impact of the mine’s operations and information on its behaviour over the years. These can be found here and here.

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