MAC: Mines and Communities

Mine Boggling: City, Company Called To Condemn Human Rights Violations

Published by MAC on 2006-03-24

Mine boggling: City, company called to condemn human rights violations

By Dinah Cardin /

24th March 2006

José Julio Perez, accompanied by Avi Chomsky, speaks to Salem State College students about Colombian villagers displaced by coal-mining interests. (Staff photo by John Harvey)

Wiping away tears, caused possibly by the biting wind he's not used to, but more likely by stirred emotions, José Julio Pérez stood on Blaney Street Monday morning, staring out at the black pile of coal delivered to Salem Harbor Station. "The misfortune of La Guajira," he said, referring to the region in Columbia where he lives.

With the cooperation of the government, the region is being systematically wiped off the map by the owners of the world's largest open-pit coal mine. "It's very sad," he continued, through an interpreter, "to see what benefits some people, brings harm to many others."

The Cerrejon Norte mine was a joint venture between the Exxon Corporation and the Colombian government. When Exxon first came into the region in 1976, those in his village of Tabaco were told they would be able to keep their land, said Pérez. Then, 20 years later, "a sea of suffering" came to them.

According to an unnamed spokesperson at the Salem Harbor Station power plant, only about one ship a year delivers coal from the Cerrejon mine.

Karl Neddenien of Dominion Energy, the Virginia-based owners of the Salem plant, says the last time it received a delivery from the Cerrejon mine was sometime in 2005. The plant has been increasing the use of coal from South America in general, however, since last January.

The "Coal Americas" journal of April 2005 reports that Dominion has plans to significantly increase its use of Colombian coal, specifically. South America yields low-sulfur coal and Dominion, said Neddenien, is committed to reducing emissions at its power stations. The Salem plant made the conversion to low-sulfur coal last fall.

Asked if it angers him to see Salem and its residents benefiting from his misfortune, Pérez said, "I feel some sadness, but it's not the fault of the people here. [It is] the economic powers and our government."

Being heard

Pérez has the attention of Avi Chomsky, Salem State professor of history and Latin American Studies, and the daughter of MIT professor and political activist Noam Chomsky. She is his key U.S. contact as he embarks on a month-long tour that will take him across this country, spreading the sad message of his people.

Chomsky says, according to Department of Energy statistics, one third to half of Salem Harbor Station's coal came from Colombia during the 1990s. When a power plant is sold, however, there is a period when they don't have to report such statistics, she said, and the plant has been sold several times in the last few years.

"We're not trying to make the plant look bad," said Chomsky, who came to Salem State in 1997 from Bates College in Maine. "We're not asking that they stop buying Colombian coal. We're listening for them to make a statement for those whose lives are being ruined because of the coal production."

Communities surrounding the Cerrejon mine have been subject to constant noise and dust from blasting, loss of farmland, and contamination of the river that was their main source of water.

According to Pérez, the environmental problems are causing people in his region to suffer respiratory and skin diseases, all so the mine can continue producing 84,000 tons of coal daily, at a price of $50 per ton.

Everyone was "bought" along the way, he said, referring to lawyers, judges and community leaders.
Some peasants were bought out by Exxon, but others refused to leave. Two thousand soldiers rousted 300 families living in Tabaco, destroying it completely in August of 2001 to make way for the expansion of the mine.

Last May, a delegation of 45 people from several South American countries visited the region and observed coal dust blowing from the trains traveling 150 kilometers from the mine to Puerto Bolivar, the peninsula near Venezuela from which ships bring the coal to U.S. destinations, including Salem.

While the less expensive, low-sulfur coal may be more environmentally friendly and could translate to more cheaply produced energy, it could also be linked to the death squads that massacred 12 indigenous Wayuu living near the port owned by the Cerrejon mine, as well as the execution of labor union leaders.

Chomsky is heading up a group to follow the coal route in Colombia this August, a trip arranged through the grassroots organization "Witness for Peace."

She hopes Pérez' talk about the other side of globalization at the First Church next month, as well as his appearance at Salem State College on Earth Day, will drum up interest in the 12-day trip to Colombia.

There, the group will meet with human-rights activists, trade unionists and members of Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities, as well as others affected by coal production in Colombia.

Hitting home

In our own living rooms, Salem Access TV has aired "What's the Cost of Salem's Coal? The Destruction of Tabaco." Still, said Chomsky, Salem residents have a "low level of awareness" of the city's connection to human rights violations taking place in the northeastern part of Colombia, both against mine workers and those who live there.

Since 2002, some Salem residents have been involved in bringing the case of the village of Tabaco to the public eye, creating international pressure on the mine to relocate the village's former residents.

In June of that year, the Salem City Council passed a resolution recognizing that Exxon bulldozed the village and that, in May 2002, the Colombian Supreme Court granted the villagers' request for relocation and reconstruction of their town.

The resolution recognized a series of visits by Colombians who had sought the support of Salem residents. The document asked that any mine expansion be conducted peacefully, and that the villagers be accorded basic human rights.

"As a community hosting a coal-powered facility, we condemn violations of human rights by all actors involved in Colombia's conflict," read the resolution, including guerilla groups, military interests and U.S. defense contractors.

The resolution was sent to the president of Colombia and the country's minister of the interior, as well as the Exxon Mobil Corporation. It was sponsored by Salem resident Claudia Chuber, a native of Colombia, who was a city councilor at the time.

"We weren't advocating that they not buy the coal." she said. "We were just saying the natives were being exploited."

When passed by municipalities, such documents are not able to change much nationally, especially in another country, according to Chuber.

"It was pretty symbolic," she said, "but I was happy it was passed."

In 2006, authorities in Colombia have refused to enforce their own Supreme Court's decision, and the displaced villagers remain with relatives or in neighboring countries. Pérez maintains the owners of the mine are eyeing other nearby villages for demolition.

Salem's City Council is again looking into the issue, scheduling some time with Pérez to meet with the its Subcommittee on Public Health, Safety and the Environment next month. They are also considering a similar resolution to the one passed in the summer of 2002.

Councilor Thomas Furey remembers signing the resolution and calls Pérez a "profile in courage."

"The power plant is the goose that laid the golden egg and we need it to stay in Salem," he said. "It's so critical that we have it, but we need to send a message that products in Colombia shouldn't be on the backs of the workers."

Furey said he is strongly in favor of continuing such a resolution, and of voicing a policy of zero tolerance for accepting Colombian products as long as the mistreatment continues.

Meeting of the mine

The North Shore Columbia Solidarity Committee formed to further educate people here about the human rights violations. The group is sponsoring Pérez' visit next month.

A part of the group's demands is that representatives from Dominion meet with Perez while he is here. They are also looking for the company to issue a public statement about their intent to take reasonable action to help Colombian mine workers, as well as to increase efforts to seek alternative, renewable forms of energy.

Although previous owners of Salem Harbor Station have met with representatives from Colombia's La Guajira region in the past, Dominion is just getting used to its new relationship with that country. Dominion's Neddenien said the company "would be pleased" to meet with Pérez, but said it is not making any more promises at this point.

"I think what we need to do is talk with the gentleman and hear what he has to say," said Neddenien. "That's what we've committed to so far."

A spokesperson at the plant said no one there has seen an invitation to meet with Pérez, but would be more than willing to.

A few years ago, Francisco Ramirez Cuellar, president of a Colombian mining union, came to Salem. Chomsky, who has researched the history of Colombian coal mining and its tragic effects on the country today, translated into English the labor leader's book, "The Profits of Extermination: How U.S. Corporate Power is Destroying Colombia."

In Colombia, it was published amid death threats.

Jeff Crosby, president of the North Shore Labor Council, an organization of 50 local unions from Saugus to Cape Ann, has met with Cuellar a couple of times, including once in Bogota D.C., Colombia's capital.

Crosby compares the responsibility Salem Harbor Station has to the people of Colombia to that of large clothing companies that rely on sweatshop seamstresses.

"Clearly, any company that receives raw or finished materials from suppliers or vendors in other countries has a responsibility to see to it that the human rights and labor rights of workers involved in the production are protected," he said.

Crosby added that even if the plant takes only a small amount of coal from the Cerrejon mine, the plant's owner still has a responsibility.

"If you're going to globalize profit-making, if you're going to globalize corporations, then you have to globalize human rights," said Crosby.

James "Red" Simpson of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers 326, with which Salem power plant workers are affiliated, was contacted by the Gazette this week, but he refused to comment.

Pérez spoke to Professor Chomsky's World History class Monday morning, telling students that before the mine, his people lived a good life, but now can't even afford to send their children to school.

"That was my house," he said to the class, pointing to a slide image of himself in front of bulldozed rubble. "We have nothing now. That's because we tried to oppose the company, so we were punished by the company."

Pérez, a father of 10 children, is jeopardizing his own life by publicizing the plea of his countrymen. In the summer of 2000, he was attacked by armed security officials at the mine as he tried to film the conditions surrounding his village.

When asked about his level of danger, Perez says much has already been taken from him.

"But we feel," he said, "that we have to make ourselves heard."

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