MAC: Mines and Communities

Colombian Coal Fight Comes To Salem

Published by MAC on 2006-04-12
Source: The Salem News ()

Colombian coal fight comes to Salem

by Tom Dalton, Staff writer
The Salem News

12th April 2006

SALEM — A Colombian farmer whose home was bulldozed five years ago has come to Salem to fight for a new home for his family and fellow villagers displaced by a mine that supplies coal to Salem Harbor Station.

Jose Julio Perez, president of the community council of Tabaco, the uprooted village near the Cerrejon Zona Norte mine in northern Colombia, will address the Salem City Council tonight.

Yesterday, he sat down for almost an hour with Mayor Kim Driscoll, who signed a resolution supporting the villagers' fight back when she was a city councilor. Tomorrow, he meets with state Rep. John Keenan, D-Salem, and, in a private session, with officials from the power plant.

This is the fourth visit to Salem over the past few years by union activists and community leaders from Colombia hoping to form bonds with communities in the United States and Canada that use coal from the plant. They hope to draw attention to their plight and put pressure on the Colombian government and the multinational corporation that owns the mine. In particular, they point to a 2002 decision by the Supreme Court of Colombia supporting their right to be relocated, which they say the local government has ignored.

"We lived in a very peaceful atmosphere of brotherhood," said Perez, speaking through a translator, Salem State College history professor Avi Chomsky. "Since the mines arrived, violence has also arrived in our community."

Perez, 52, does not want Salem Harbor Station to stop buying coal from Colombia. He does not even want Cerrejon Norte, the world's largest open pit coal mine, to shut down. He wants the power plant and others to bring pressure on the mine to respect human rights, protect the environment and public health, treat its workers humanely and help the displaced villagers find a new home and preserve their culture and community.

Dominion, the power plant owner, declined to comment until after tomorrow's meeting.

"We're looking forward to meeting with Mr. Perez and hearing what he has to say," said Karl Neddenien, a company spokesman in Virginia. "Until then, it is not possible to anticipate what might result from the meeting."

Salem Harbor Station has received only one coal shipment from this mine in the past three years, according to Neddenien. It averages about two coal ships a month, he said. He was not able to provide information on the amount of coal in total the Salem plant and Dominion get from Colombia.

Dominion buys a lot of coal from the South American country, which is the major foreign supplier of coal to the United States, according to Chomsky.

In his first trip outside Colombia, Perez has made several stops in the U.S. and also visited Canada. In Salem, he spoke Sunday night at The First Church and also made an appearance at an Earth Day event at Salem State.

In addition to raising awareness, he also hopes to raise funds to hire a scientist to do a study on the health and environmental impacts of the mine and to set up a regional center to monitor the mine's activity and aid the displaced villagers.

Chomsky, coordinator of Salem State's Latin American Studies program, is organizing a delegation that will go to Colombia in August to "follow the trail of coal that supplies power to New England ..." The Witness for Peace New England group will meet with union members and human rights activists battling the mine.

All of these efforts, Chomsky hopes, will make a difference.

"It seems in some ways that the court of public opinion is more important than the legal system in Colombia," she said. "If the company knows there is international attention on what is going on ... that's their vulnerability."

The mine is operated by a consortium owned by British-based multinationals Anglo American and BHP-Billiton together with Swiss company Glencore.

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