MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Union-Community Solidarity in Colombia: Sintracarbón Takes a Stand

Published by MAC on 2007-02-19

Union-Community Solidarity in Colombia: Sintracarbón Takes a Stand

Suzanne MacNeil, Colombia Journal

19th February 2007

Violence in Colombia has historically affected certain groups disproportionately. Labor unions suffer the highest rates of assassination and repression of any country in the world, while rural communities suffer poverty, massacres, and forced displacement at the hands of armed groups. Meanwhile, multinationals go about their operations in Colombia with complicity or direct involvement in human rights violations when it serves their interests. But when the most powerless and vulnerable people join forces, even the most influential business players in the global economy find themselves on the defensive.

A number of Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities clinging to survival in the northeastern department of the Guajira have found an ally in Sintracarbón, the national union of coal industry workers, which represents employees of the multinational-owned Cerrejón Mine. At a time when unions are most vulnerable to attacks by armed groups, and when their own rights as workers are at stake, Sintracarbón made a courageous stand in their most recent collective bargaining proposals and insisted on including demands centered on the mine's unjust treatment of local communities.

In a statement issued in November 2006, the union declared, "These communities are being systematically besieged by the Cerrejón Company. The company begins by buying up the productive lands in the region surrounding the communities, encircling each community and destroying inhabitants' sources of work. Sintracarbón has committed itself to the struggle of the communities affected by the mine's expansion."

This surprising tale of solidarity has its origins in the forced displacement of Tabaco, a small Afro-Colombian community. A long process of coercion and intimidation of residents culminated in the destruction of Tabaco by state and mine security forces in August 2001. The forced displacement was carried out to make way for the expansion of Cerrejón, the world's largest open-pit coal mine.

Tabaco's former residents were left with little or no compensation, no recognition of being an Afro-Colombian community, and a Colombian Supreme Court ruling in their favor which, having been thus far unenforced, is a source of cold comfort in a region where the powerful consortium of multinational mining companies-BHP Billiton, Anglo American and Xstrata/Glencore-holds considerable political sway.

Other Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities living on the periphery of the encroaching Cerrejón Mine are not only in danger of meeting the same fate as Tabaco, but are also suffering the day-to-day difficulties of living in uncomfortably close proximity to the mining operations. None of the Cerrejón's employees live in the affected communities, and the following statement reflects the extent to which the company's treatment of the communities was a shocking revelation to the union. As Sintracarbón observed, "The United Nations has established categories of 'poverty' and 'extreme poverty,' but these communities have been reduced to the conditions that we could call the 'living dead.' They do not have even the most minimal conditions necessary for survival. They are suffering from constant attacks and violations of their human rights by the Cerrejón Company."

It is common for corporations doing business in Colombia to contract the army, irregular armed groups or their own private security forces to defend their operations, and the Cerrejón is no exception. While Cerrejón management point to the need to protect operations from guerrillas and subversives, the people of the communities recount ongoing instances of harassment, theft of livestock and restrictions on their freedom of movement.

Intimidation via security forces is only one problematic aspect of the mine abusing its power. As some of the communities start to enter the "negotiating" process with the mine concerning their land, they recall with apprehension the same dynamic of deliberately misleading tactics, followed by threats and coercion, all suffered by Tabaco's residents before they were finally driven off their land. "Another of the company's macabre tactics has been to cut off the communities' electricity periodically," Sintracarbón points out. "This is just another element in the systematic process of annihilation of the communities, to create despair so that they will negotiate from a position of weakness, desperation and hopelessness, and agree individually to the company's terms."

Sintracarbón's contract negotiations with the mine ended with only a few of their own demands being addressed and with the company remaining intransigent with regards to reparations and collective relocation for Tabaco. However, the union succeeded in its insistence to be included in the future negotiations that the mine holds with communities for their land. "Initially the Cerrejón Company's position was that it would not discuss the communities issue at all at the negotiating table," said Sintracarbón member Jairo Quiroz Delgado, noting that international solidarity from groups in North America and Europe helped change the company's mind. "The results may not be everything we hoped for, but knowing these multinationals, we feel it is a political advance. From now on the union will participate in everything related to the company's social programs, and it will have a presence at the negotiations with the communities."

Having the support of a union such as Sintracarbón goes a long way towards lending a bit more leverage to people who otherwise have few resources and technical assistance at their disposal, and helps to mitigate the enormous advantage enjoyed by a company that can largely set the terms of bargaining in its own favor. As Aviva Chomsky, a history professor who has worked to create awareness of the plight faced by the mine-affected communities, notes, "Here we have some of the most powerless people in the world-indigenous people with no resources, no electricity, no water-and some of the most vulnerable-a union in a country with the highest rates of assassination and repression against union activists in the world-taking on some of the most powerful multinationals in the world today. We have a lot to learn from their example."

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