World Rainforest Movement

Colombia: The impacts of coal mining

During the late seventies Carbocol, a State coal company, revealed the existence of major coal deposits in the Guajira peninsula. The deposits were located in the territory traditionally inhabited by the Wayuu community, an indigenous nomadic people that moved along the region bordering with Venezuela. Following a long controversy on the advisability or not of exploiting this fossil fuel, the State finally gave its authorization to this company under the argument of regional development of energy. This authorization for large-scale mining exploitation of thermic coal (used for the production of heat) not only altered the Wayuu’s customs and contaminated their environment, but was also the antecedent for a long list of violations of the Colombian State’s regulations and for conflicts between the indigenous peoples and the national and multi-national mining companies.

The Wayuu’s productive system, based on small-scale farming, the keeping of goats and other species, was then totally disrupted to facilitate the installation of the largest coalmine in the world. The major works for the transportation of 16 million tons per year of coal (roads, railways, large encampments) not only transformed the traditional life of these people but also contaminated their environment. The storing of a large mass of coal out in the open resulted in the dispersion of large quantities of coal dust in the air, causing respiratory diseases. As a result, very often the only alternative left for survival consisted of the communities’ mass displacement.

In spite of the complaints over environmental and health problems, from the eighties onwards, the mining business was increased with the establishment of the multinational company Esso, who were granted deposits by the State. Over the same period, further deposits were made known in the Department of Cesar and new coal mining companies were set up. Through partnerships with multinational companies, large-scale deposits such as those of Carbones del Caribe, Carbones Soororia, Carbones del Cerrajon were exploited, with the participation of Anglo-American and Canadian companies (Drummond, Glencore International, BHP Billiton, among others), which continue to expand and to receive World Bank loans up till the present.

It is clear that these companies have obtained considerable profits over decades. As to the results for the indigenous peoples and Colombian communities, we prefer to let a local organization – CENSAT – speak for itself: “The wealth of the Colombian territory is being dilapidated without turning into welfare, comfort, into a life for the Colombian people. The value of the natural heritage in the collective imagery of the indigenous people, the peasants, the Afro-Colombians, the miners, has been lost and now underlying in a repetitive way in their imagination is the idea of “exploitation,” exploitation of men, women and children, of nature, of the Colombian people and territory. Around mining in Colombia, one breathes sadness, laziness, corruption, lack of ethics, environmental and cultural genocide and violations of all kinds. We are confident that some time the good life will come back ‘for many’, that the trees and the land will become organized from the top to the bottom and not from the bottom to the top as is the case at present, that the waters will stop being heavy and dark and that men and women will again be able to die of old age.”

Article base on information from “Reseña histórica de la explotación carbonera en el Caribe Colombiano” by Ignacio Rangel; http://www.cerrejoncoal.com/ingles/the_operation/about_us/our_history/ ;
http://wbln0018.worldbank.org/IFCExt/spiwebsite1.nsf/0/a8263668130ddddb85256d1a007d4e79?OpenDocument ; http://www.censat.org/

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