MAC: Mines and Communities

Colombia’s largest indigenous group is dying

Published by MAC on 2016-08-26
Source: Huffington Post,, Telesur, Aljazeera

The biggest threat to the Wayuu and their children is the lack of drinkable water

On August 1, the Supreme Court of Colombia ordered President Santos to take all necessary measures to ensure that Wayuu children receive access to clean drinking water, food, health care and housing.

This order follows a 2015 decision by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) which directed the Colombian government to take immediate precautionary measures to ensure the lives and personal safety of the Wayuu people in La Guajira.

The IACHR decision was prompted by the documented deaths of 4770 Wayuu children during the past 8 years as a result of thirst, malnutrition and preventable disease. 

The biggest threat to the Wayuu and their children is the lack of water, wich has been stolen from them for the private benefit of Cerrejon Coal.

The mining company is owned by a joint venture between BHP Billiton, Anglo American and Glencore Xstrata, and its concession runs until 2033.

Previous on MAC:

2013-06-03 Colombia: Wayuu women weigh in on coal at UN Forum

2014-06-25 Colombia's Cerrejon Coal: "an abusive marriage, full of machismo"

Colombia’s Largest Indigenous Group Is Dying With Media Complicity

Just as remarkable as the situation is the almost total lack of press coverage

Dan Kovalik

The Huffington Post -

3 August, 2016

Earlier this week, on August 1, the Supreme Court of Colombia ordered President Manuel Santos and other individuals and entities to take all appropriate and necessary measures, in an efficient and coordinated manner, to ensure that children and adolescents of The Wayuu indigenous community receive access to clean drinking water, food, health care, housing and other basic amenities necessary for their survival.

This order follows the December 11, 2015 decision of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) which directed the Colombian government to take similar immediate “precautionary measures”  to ensure the lives and personal safety of Wayuu children in La Guajira, Colombia. The IACHR decision was prompted by the documented deaths of 4770 Wayuu children during the past 8 years as a result of thirst, malnutrition and preventable disease.  For their part, The Wayuu claim that over 14,000 children have died. In any case, these numbers are staggering for the 100,000 Wayuu who live in the communities covered by the IAHCHR decision.  

The biggest threat to The Wayuu and their children comes from the lack of drinkable water – a fact which I witnessed on a recent trip I made to La Guajira with the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). The water that The Wayuu once had has been stolen from them – both by climate change which they had no part in creating, and by the damming of The Rancheria River which once fed their communities but which is now being used for the private benefit of coal mining giant Cerrejon. Cerrejon uses 17 million liters of water a day while each resident of La Guajira is left with an average of 0.7 liters per day to live on. 

Despite the IAHCR ruling nearly 9 months ago, the Colombian authorities have done next to nothing to alleviate the suffering and untimely death of the Wayuu children, thus precipitating the August 1 Supreme Court decision which again orders the government to take urgent measures to address this crisis. In the meantime, as the IAHCR itself explains, the chief advocate on behalf of The Wayuu in these cases, Javier Rojas Uriana, has received death threats by right-wing paramilitaries trying to pressure him into halting his legal actions to protect The Wayuu.        

Just as remarkable as the dire situation facing The Wayuu is the almost total lack of press coverage regarding their situation. Thus, while the press covers the shortages in Venezuela nearly every day, and in a quite histrionic fashion which ignores the complexities and subtleties of the situation there, there is almost a total blackout of the real famine confronting The Wayuu of Colombia just over the border.   And, it is this media blackout, even in the face of major rulings by both the IACHR and Colombia’s high court, which of course allows this famine to continue without pause.

Why does the Colombian coal industry need help from a London lobby group?

Bob Burton and Richard Solly

June 29, 2016

A few months ago the Colombian Mining Association (CMA) joined the London-based World Coal Association (WCA), the coal industry’s global lobbying group.

While the WCA rather cryptically proclaimed it would be assisting the CMA “on issues ranging from sustainable mining practice to climate change” the move reflects growing panic among Colombian coal exporters as domestic and international opposition to coal mining and burning grows, global markets shrink and the price of thermal coal plummets.

During the decades-long civil war the Colombian coal industry grew to where it now ranks as the fourth largest exporter of power station coal in the world behind Indonesia, Australia and Russia.

The growth of the Colombian coal industry came at a terrible cost, including the dispossession of communities and widespread human rights abuses against members of the mining workforce and residents. Coal not only polluted the air and water but the country’s politics as well with credible reports of at least one coal company providing support for militias involved in human rights abuses.

The growth of the coal industry also bred a deferential view that the central government should cater for the every whim of an industry touted as central to an export-centric economic strategy.

But affected communities have not taken it lying down.

When in January 2013 Drummond, a US-headquartered coal company, dumped more than 1700 tonnes of coal into the ocean from a barge at risk of sinking in Santa Marta bay – a major tourism destination – lawyer Alejandro Arias photographed the operation. His photos of the coal dumping were widely used on the front pages of major Colombian newspapers and sparked public outrage.

When Drummond ignored a January 1, 2014 deadline – set seven years earlier – requiring the use of a direct ship-loading conveyor system to minimise pollution, Arias publicised the breach through both social and mainstream media. With elections looming, the Government insisted Drummond shut down its export operation until the new loading system was completed.

A series of successful legal actions have also sent shock waves through the coal industry.

After a campaign by local communities, Colombia banned  mining in the sub-alpine tundra known locally as the ‘paramos’. The paramos are ecologically rich and play an important role in protecting water quality for millions of people living in downstream cities. In one decision, in February 2016 Colombia’s highest environmental authority directed Hunza Coal to shut one of its three pits in the paramo and to present a restoration plan within 45 days.

In a separate case, Colombia’s constitutional court cancelled 347 mining licences in the region, including for coal projects, overturning a lower court decision allowing companies to continue their operations until the leases expired.

Despite the decisions, Greenpeace Colombia found government agencies have failed [Spanish] to enforce the court ruling.

The constitutional court has also ruled in favour of a local government challenge against a 2001 law which blocked provincial and local authorities from restricting mining. The law also specified only the national government had the right to approve mining permits. The ruling, which has been criticised by the CMA, opens the prospect that local and provincial governments could block coal and other mining operations on environmental or other grounds.

Other legal actions, while ultimately overturned, have put the industry on notice that the old days -when they could do almost whatever they wanted – were over.

In January 2015 the residents of Bosconia won a night-time ban on coal trains rumbling through their town, disrupting residents sleep and polluting the air with coal dust. The Constitutional Court subsequently extended the ban to cover three other communities along Fenoco’s railway line to Puerto Nuevo coal port.

While the ban – which hit the coal exports of Drummond, Glencore’s subsidiary Prodeco and Goldman Sachs’ then company CNR – was subsequently overturned in November 2015 when the coal companies persuaded the court some noise mitigation measures were sufficient to override residents’ objections.

Cheap to produce but a long way to travel

Colombian coal has long been regarded as cheap because of low labour costs, which flowed in no small measure from the notoriously oppressive conditions for unions in the coal-producing regions. However, it relied on ready access to the booming demand for coal in Europe, which took over half the country’s exports. Until recent times the remainder went predominantly to the Americas.

With coal exports having doubled since the turn of the century, the industry dreamt the boom-time demand would keep underwriting further expansions.

Back in August 2011, the joint venture partners in the Cerrejon Coal Company – Glencore, BHP Billiton and Anglo American – were so optimistic they agreed to spend US$1.3 billion building new port, transport and mining capacity to produce another 8 million tonnes-a-year for the export market.

While the expansion has been commissioned the new capacity has barely been used, in part due to the souring global market for thermal coal and in part due to a lack of water.

To expand exports the Cerrejon Coal Company needed to expand the mine, which has intensified conflict with communities near the massive Cerrejon coal mine. Those living near the mine have persistently raised their voices about forced removals of residents, pollution and the huge environmental impacts of the projects.

The company’s determination to press ahead with the Cerrejon mine expansion continues to fuel conflict, with a riot control unit of Colombia’s police attacking a February 2016 protest against the eviction of remaining residents of the village of Roche.

The company’s plan to divert the Arroyo Bruno stream, a vital water supply for residents and of environmental significance, is one of the latest flashpoints between the consortium and local communities. An open letter to the company and its joint-venture partners has also raised concerns about the health impacts of the mine.

The accelerating retirement of old coal plants in Europe – a prime market for Colombian coal – has hit the exporters hard.

With old plants being shuttered to comply with the European Union’s 2001 Large Combustion Plant Directive and its recent successor, the Industrial Emissions Directive, European demand for Colombian coal has been under sustained pressure. On top of the closure of old plants has been stagnating power demand in major markets, the imposition of a price on carbon dioxide emissions and the dramatic rise of renewables.

The UK, which in the last quarter of 2015 sourced over half its thermal coal imports from Colombia, is emblematic of the transformation. With coal plant closures accelerating and those remaining running less frequently, the most recent data indicates UK imports of Colombian coal fell by a third in a year, a trend which will continue as more plants close.

In Europe, falling demand has also been supplemented by pressure on buyers to end buying ‘blood coal’ from companies such as Glencore’s Colombian subsidiary Prodeco until the concerns of the victims of human rights violations have been addressed.

In April 2016 the Danish utility Dong Energy informed a coalition of environmental and social justice groups it would not sign any new contracts with Prodeco “until we are comfortable that Prodeco is meeting our standards of responsible sourcing.”

As the viability of exports from Colombia has declined, companies have decided to bail out of the Colombian industry altogether.

In August 2015 Goldman Sachs offloaded its loss-making Colombia Natural Resources mines to the US coal company Murray Energy. It was estimated Goldman Sachs – hit by labour disputes, environmental controversies and falling prices – lost up to US$200 million over five years on its Colombian coal foray. (Murray Energy, hit by the rapid decline in demand in the US coal market, views diversifying into Colombian coal as a way of expanding into the international market.)

Anglo American is also heading for the exits. One of its many coal interests it is looking to off-load  its one-third interest in the Cerrejon mine. Glencore has flagged it would consider increasing its stake in the joint venture “at the right price” while BHP Billiton has been more circumspect stating it would “consider opportunities that come up.” (In its most recent investor presentation (pdf) BHP Billiton states its thermal coal portfolio – which includes Cerrejon – produces coal ranked as being in the lowest 10 per cent in terms of production cost.) [See p. 10]

As demand for Colombian coal in traditional markets has plummeted, exporters have desperately started looking further afield to other possible markets in Japan and South Korea.

While the opening of a new shipping lane with the Panama Canal may cut the transport time, growing resistance to Colombian coal exports from both within and outside the country – combined with falling demand in the seaborne coal market – could well mean that Colombia’s coal production capacity may have peaked.

This is why the peak Colombian coal lobby group has turned to the World Coal Association for PR and lobbying assistance in Europe.

Colombia Resident Says Foreign-Operated Coal Mine a Health Risk

Telesur -

29 May 2016

The Australian, U.K. and Swiss companies behind the mine say they practice responsible mining but a local resident says they've done nothing for her sick child.

Luz Angela Urina said the Cerrejon coal mine in the Colombian province of La Guajira is damaging her family's health and wants to see it closed for the well-being of her community.  

Urina told Semanario Voz the owners and operators of the coal mine are uninterested in the health of the community.

“We see that they come and extract here and there but without thinking of us, they are taking money out of our territories while our families are dying as a result of pollution,” said Urina.

La Guajiara is rich in resources but is one of Colombia's poorest provinces and has been making the news for all. Recently, community leaders from the Wayuu indigenous community traveled o Bogota to shed light on the crisis of malnutrition and to protest the deaths of children in their community. 

Since coal mining began in 1985 in La Guajira until 2009, 444.9 millions of tons of coal have been exported, generating US$18,2 billion in earnings. Of that the Colombian state only received US$1.4 billion.

Cerrejon is a joint venture between Australia-based BHP Billiton Ltd, London- and Johannesburg-based Anglo American Plc and Swiss-based Glencore Xstrata and is operating under a concession that runs until 2033.

On its website Cerrejon boasts about their “responsible mining” practices and claims to be committed to the development of La Guajira. 

Urina says that when she approached the company for help regarding her son's compromised help, they were of no use. 

“We spoke to them but they never listed to us. They say there isn't any pollution but there is,” said Urina.

“Cerrejon came here offering my elders: health, work, and potable water, but so far we have no water. We lived off the water from the Rancheria river and now we cannot access the river, because Cerrejon pollutes the water, we cannot grow because now the areas surrounding Cerrejon are private,” she tells Voz magazine. 

Doctors have told her that by living next to the mine her son is smoking the equivalent of ten cigarettes a day. 

The Center for the Studies of Carbon backs these claims, they say mining activities have led to the contamination of the air near the mine.

Urina says she sometimes went without food in order to afford travel and medical treatment for her son. 

She was eventually forced to seek a judicial order in September 2015 to get care for her son.

The ruling ordered Colombian authorities to take step to address the pollution created by “open pit mining activity deployed by Cerrejon Limited” but to date no steps have been taken.

Colombia's abandoned Wayuu people

The country's largest indigenous group is facing a fight to survive as high child death rates plague the community.

Nicolo Filippo Rosso

3 Feb 2016

The survival of the Wayuu, the largest indigenous community in Colombia, is under threat. Thousands of children have died and more lives are in danger as a result of the exploitation of land and misallocated water resources.

In 2011, the Cercado Dam was built by the government with the intention of providing water to nine municipalities. But, the dam drained the Rancheria River, the Wayuu people's only nearby source of water. Now, the Wayuu must walk for more than three hours to wells that are often polluted with bacteria and salt, causing severe diarrhea.

Around 400,000 Wayuu live in La Guajira, a peninsula in northern Colombia. It is a remote and impoverished part of the country.

They live below the poverty line and struggle daily to survive in their harsh surroundings. It is an environment that is being made ever more brutal by years of drought that has stymied agricultural.

In 2015, Colombian media published a report by the Defensoria del Pueblo, a Colombian human rights organisation, denouncing the avoidable deaths of so many Wayuu children.

According to Shipia Wayuu, a Wayuu organisation, 4,700 Wayuu children have died in the past five years.

A glimmer of hope came in December, when the Inter-American Court of Human Rights publicly stated that the Colombian government must take measures to protect the human rights of the native Wayuu community and to stop the avoidable deaths of its members.

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