MAC: Mines and Communities

Colombia: Update On El Cerrejon

Published by MAC on 2006-08-09

COLOMBIA: Update on El Cerrejon

World's largest open-pit coal mine forces Afro-Colombians to abandon their lands:

U.S. coal consumers and trade unionists join forces with small farmers in rural Colombia

by Aviva Chomsky and Cindy Forster

9th August 2006

Riohacha, Colombia

Delegates from coal-burning communities, up and down the Atlantic seaboard of North America are joining forces with Afro-Colombian villagers today to protest forced removals by the multinational Cerrejón coal mine, commemorating the resistance of a community called Tabaco that was razed five years ago on August 9.

"We are Blacks and Indigenous of the mining corridor and before the mine came, the entire region was fertile in yucca, plantains, rice, we had cows and goats. The rivers were so full of fish we'd pull them out in nets," said Jose Julio Perez whose face bears the scars of the blows he received trying to videotape the police destroying his village.

The mine was owned by Exxon-Mobil in 2001 when the police attacked, and it supplies coal to power plants from Florida to Nova Scotia. For centuries Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities shared the remote peninsula that juts into the Caribbean, where some of their ancestors liberated themselves from slave ships. Said Enrique Epiayu, an elder of Colombia's largest Indigenous community called the Wayuu, "We are the first people here, the founders, and now the mine has shut us into this tiny piece of land that our houses stand on. A few days ago they threatened to kill our animals. We don't want to fight. We are here because it is ours."

The mine began operations in the 1980s. Coal is Colombia's second export, after oil, and transnational companies have been deeply involved in developing Colombia's oil and coal industries. First the sector was privatized, then the company lawyers were given free rein to impose reforms that favor foreign investors. Soldiers guard hundreds of thousands of tons of Colombian coal, as they leave the open pits by company rail, making their way to the company port. This Latin American country is the third largest recipient of U.S. military aid in the world, and much of that aid goes to repress peaceful organizing in the mining and energy regions.

"My father almost died that day from the beating they gave him," said Ines Perez talking about the forced removal of Tabaco. Other communities suffering the same process of expulsion are Patilla, Chancleta, Roche, Tamaquito. Said Perez, "I went to get our goats that day and the security forces had a barrier and wouldn't let me through. They said they had orders to kill."

The health situation in the region is grave, and the corruption of local officials worse. "My husband is very sick, his lungs are shot," said a woman requesting anonymity. Her small daughter is hacking dry coughs as she tells us, "If you think the coal dust is bad now you should have seen it a few days ago before it rained. My adolescent son has constant pain in his chest. The doctors always give us the same three prescriptions and they never cure us."

Said another villager listening to the conversation who did not give his name, perhaps because the army had just wandered through the meeting, "Look at all these medicines, and nothing helps me." He holds out his baseball cap, filled with prescription medicines and two respirators. "If I walk 100 meters, I have to stop to rest 50 times. I don't even work at the mines, I just eat the falling coal dust all day long."

One of the 20 delegates investigating the displaced communities in Colombia is Debbie Kelly, a grandmother and consumer of the Cerrejon company's coal, and also a national vice president of the union representing thousands of public sector workers. "In 27 years as a union activist I've lived through waves of mine closures in northern Canada. Because of our industries, we have the highest cancer and child asthma rates in the entire country."

A Wayuu man with a sleeping child across his knees said "People are terrified and manyn't say anything." He was crying silently. "The other day my livestock were hacked to death with a machete."

When Jose Julio Perez, representing the displaced village of Tabaco, visited Salem, Massachusetts in March, 2006, the City Council there declared, "as a community hosting a coal powered generating facility, we encourage the establishment of an ongoing relationship with organizations in the Guajira working peacefully for the human and democratic rights of the Wayuu indigenous people and the villagers of Tabaco." Dominion Energy, which imports the coal to Salem, stated that it was "sympathetic to the problems this village faces" and asked for a "just resolution."

Mining used to be a heavily regulated sector in the United States and boasted a strong union, which contributed to the decision of companies to open overseas operations. Since the 1980s the unions have been decimated and the regulatory system undermined. Meanwhile coal from the ancestral lands of the Wayuu and the descendants of communities of free blacks, fires power plants across Europe and the U.S. A swathe of villages standing in the way of the multinationals went "from being productive communities, to become communities of paupers," in the words of another community leader.

The Cerrejon Mining Company recently changed hands to joint British, Australian and South African capital, but the issues remain the same, as do most of the mine officials. They insist that the communities are neither Afro-Colombian nor Indigenous, until decreed as such by the Colombian state. So far, neither police nor company lawyers have crushed the spirit that guided these communities over centuries. An Afro-Colombian farmer from Chancleta, a community slated for disappearance, comments, "It many be the largest coal mine in Latin America, but they've taken our land and our jobs, they are starving us out and I ask you, if there is a company that is slowly killing us, is that not terrorist?"

Contact: North Shore Colombia Solidarity Committee:

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