MAC: Mines and Communities

The Dirty Story of Where we Get our Coal

Published by MAC on 2005-03-26

The Dirty Story of Where we Get our Coal

The Chronicle-Herald

Opinion, Saturday, March 26, 2005

Ralph Surette

NOVA SCOTIA POWER gets the best quality coal it can at the cheapest price on the international market. Always sensitive to the price of electricity and, increasingly, to pollution, Nova Scotians would blame it if it did any less.

But there's an underside to the story. NSP gets that coal from the El Cerrejon Norte coal mine in northern Colombia, a notoriously dirty piece of business in that unfortunate country where it's hard to tell which is worse: the army and its paramilitary killers, the armed narco-traffickers, the rebel insurgents or the foreign corporations backed by the World Bank.

El Cerrejon Norte, one of the world's largest open-pit mines - occupying an original area 50 kilometres long and eight wide, and expanding constantly - is a continuing horror story of forced relocations of indigenous people, human rights violations, environmental destruction and other assorted injustices that one human rights group calls "a perfect example of globalization gone horribly wrong."

The subject comes up because Francisco Ramirez, president of the National Coal Miners Union of Colombia, was in Halifax this week trying to make a point. The most remarkable thing about Ramirez, apart from his immense courage, is that he's still alive. A total of 74 unionists were killed in Colombia last year alone and Ramirez says he has dodged seven assassination attempts.

He wants NSP and anyone else with clout to pressure the multinationals and the Colombian government to respect human rights. Despite the reasonableness of this request, he doesn't appear to have received much of a hearing at NSP. What should we think, then, since our demand for coal is part of the problem?

First, here's more of the story. The mine began as a joint venture between the Colombian government and Exxon Corporation 25 years ago intended to supply cheap, high-quality coal to North America and Europe.

It bordered on and partly covered reservation land of the indigenous Wayuu people, whose way of life has been largely shattered.

In 2000, as a result of pressure to privatize from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the Colombian government sold its half to an international consortium. In 2002, Exxon (now Exxon-Mobil) sold its half to the consortium as well - but not before the community of Tabaco (pop. 700) was bulldozed flat to expand the mine.

It was done so quickly and without notice that residents, pushed out by 500 soldiers and 200 police who accompanied the mine operator, didn't even have time to retrieve their personal effects. When the job was complete, the village's school and clinic were also razed and the cemetery desecrated. There was no compensation. Critics accused Exxon of doing this as part of the deal, before it bowed out.

If such corporate degeneracy, done in our name as First World consumers, shock us, what can we in fact do?

Here's one thing. In 2002, representatives of the Wayuu visited Salem, Mass., where the power plant imports coal from the mine. Salem city council promptly passed a resolution supporting their struggle, and the power plant manager called the El Cerrejon Norte operators telling them the town expected them to negotiate with the Wayuu and find a just settlement.

Since our electrical system in Nova Scotia (80 per cent coal) functions on these people's misery, don't we owe them as much? If we are indeed a moral people, why wouldn't our legislature pass a similar resolution and NSP similarly convey its expectation that justice be done?

The Wayuu representatives, in their U.S. tour, went on to the Exxon-Mobil shareholders' meeting where their story caused some embarrassment. International support has been growing. Meanwhile, the Colombian supreme court has ruled that the residents of Tabaco be compensated - although collecting has proved elusive.

Nevertheless, a half dozen communities beyond Tabaco that were expected to suffer the same fate by now - their names are Tamaquitos, Guamachito, Provincial, Roche, Patilla and Chancleta - haven't yet. Meanwhile, the company's publication, which I found on the Internet, is bragging about supporting a couple of medical clinics in the area. Maybe even they are having twinges of conscience. Can we do any less?

Ralph Surette is a veteran Nova Scotia journalist living in Yarmouth County.

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