Colombia: UN links coal mining to rise in poverty, putting progress in poverty reduction at risk

A new UN report reveals that large-scale coal mining activities have brought a significant increase in poverty in the north of Colombia, denting President Santos’ claims of poverty reduction success.

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Research carried out by UN officials has concluded that large-scale coal mining in the northern Colombian department of Cesar has led to a rise in poverty rates in recent years. The report, drawn up after officials visited the area in March 2013, concludes that the districts of El Hatillo, Plan Bonito and Boquerón, located within the municipalities of El Paso and La Jagua de Ibirico, have undergone significant and negative social and economic transformations as a result of mining activities.

“Since the 1990s, the presence of large-scale coal mining in the immediate surroundings of these districts has provoked sharp changes in the lifestyles of the local population”, according to the report. Mining has had an impact on access to water, local inhabitants’ health, and the development of local small-scale agricultural activity, while also causing changes in the region’s landscapes as mountains of waste from the extractive process pile up on a daily basis. Furthermore, the report alludes to a growing food crisis, environmental degradation, and social phenomena that are beginning to embed themselves and become more apparent. “There is also a high incidence of prostitution among the young, including university students, and of drug addiction, particularly among men”, noted the report.

Cesar department is home to roughly half of Colombia’s coal mining activities. In 2011, the latest year for which figures were available, 43,687 kilotons of coal were produced in the region, out of a national total of 85,803 kilotons. The bulk of the coal mining is carried out by foreign – mainly US – companies, with Drummond and Glencore being the biggest names. Drummond have been in trouble with Colombian authorities lately over environmental damage caused by coal spills, and they along with four other companies were ordered in 2010 by a Colombian court to relocate 2,000 inhabitants of the districts mentioned earlier, due to the effects of contamination on their communities caused by coal mining. More than three years later, they have yet to comply with the ruling.

Coal mining is a major feature across parts of northern Colombia. Photo courtesy of Noticias Caracol

The news that a top-level organisation such as the UN has made a connection between mining activities and rising poverty flies in the face of the message President Juan Manuel Santos is trying to convey to the world and to his own citizens in the build-up to this year’s elections, where he is hoping to be re-elected for another four-year term. In his New Year address, Santos claimed that 2013 had been “one of the best years that [Colombia] has ever had”, citing solid economic growth and near-full employment, poverty reduction and social development, and some light at the end of the tunnel as far as peace negotiations with left-wing FARC guerrillas are concerned.

Shortly afterwards, he claimed that during the first three years of his mandate, his government had helped lift 1.3m Colombians out of extreme poverty, and a further 2.5m above the general poverty line. The country has also registered the greatest reduction in its Gini index (which measures economic inequality) out of any country in the world over the past three years, although it remains one of the most unequal countries in Latin America, itself the most unequal region in the world according to many measurements.

The risk is that for all the progress that Colombia is making in terms of poverty reduction, the economic growth that is helping to drive this reduction is based largely on extractive activities such as those seen in Cesar, which could lead to poverty-reduction strategies being undermined by the very nature of the Colombian economic and productive base, with all the social and environmental fallout they bring. If economic growth continues to be centred around extractive activities by foreign companies who often fail to comply with strict – in theory at least – environmental and social norms, then Colombia’s poverty reduction strategy will most likely continue to give with one hand and take with the other, as the contradictory nature of these two recent insights from the UN and Santos suggest.

The President of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos
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