Coal Mines And Communities In Colombia: The Salem ConnectionPublished by MAC on 2002-06-15
Coal Mines and Communities in Colombia: The Salem Connection
see first Salem City Council Resolution on the Cerrejon Mine in Colombia (27 June 2002)
by Aviva Chomsky at Salem State College
Prepared for presentation at Graduate Research Day, April 27, 2002
Overlooking Salem Harbor are the belching smokestacks of the Salem Harbor Station, owned since 1998 by the U.S. Generating Company, a subsidiary of the Pacific Gas and Electric Company National Energy Group. Many local residents are aware of the environmental problems caused by the power plant, documented in an extensive study by the Harvard School of Public Health in May of 2000. Less well known is the origin of the coal that fuels the plant: not only its geographic origin, but also its social, political and economic origin.
Frequently, discussions of globalization focus on the very visible topic of manufacturing, where labels clearly tell you whether a product was made in the USA or not. But energy, while less visible, is another crucial area in which globalization shapes lives, here and abroad. The context out of which our electric power, and our pollution, emerge links us in Salem inextricably to the people of Colombia and Venezuela, whose lives have been transformed by the development of U.S.-owned coal mines in their countries. In Colombia (the largest coal producer in Latin America) and Venezuela (the third largest), U.S.-owned coal mines have displaced indigenous people and peasants from their lands, they have employed thousands of people and given rise to labor organizations, they have also witnessed and been party to the killings of indigenous people, peasants, and labor organizers. U.S.-owned coal mines have poisoned air and water and destroyed farmland. And the U.S. government has played a key role in facilitating this process.
In a larger sense, U.S. coal interests - along with oil interests - have been an important factor shaping U.S. policies towards the region. The United States has made a huge financial and military commitment to the Colombian government, despite, or perhaps because of, its documented relationship with right-wing paramilitaries and death squads, and its egregious human rights record. In Venezuela, the United States is struggling with a loss of influence since the election of the populist Hugo Chávez. As U.S. citizens, and as consumers of both the good and the bad that the Salem Power Station brings into our homes, our lungs, and our water every day, we are directly implicated in a connection that is mostly invisible to us, but has utterly transformed the lives of many in Colombia and Venezuela.
The following table traces the trail of coal from Colombia and Venezuela to Salem Harbor. Between 1994 and 1998, the plant was owned by the New England Electric System; from 1998 to the present it has been owned by PG&E. Most coal used in the United States is domestic, rather than imported. Between 1994 and 1999, coal imports hovered around eight million short tons per year, while the U.S. was producing over a billion short tons per year. Thus Salem Harbors use of approximately 400,000 short tons per year of imported coal comprised approximately one-twentieth of all imported coal used in the United States. Electric utilities have been the largest consumers of coal in the United States since the 1960s, and currently consume about 800 million short tons per year.
Thousands of short tons imported to Salem Harbor Station from Colombia
Thousands of short tons imported to Salem Harbor Station from Venezuela
The history of energy consumption and policy in the United States is clearly a history that is global in nature. We see global connections in the plants shift from coal to oil in 1969 (after the 1967 War in the Middle East seemed to cement U.S. control over the oil industry), back to coal in the early 1980s (after OPEC, and the Iranian Revolution in 1979 led to a move to promote domestic sources of fuel), and to imported coal in the 1990s, in an attempt to comply with environmental standards by using cleaner, low-sulphur coal imported from South America. President Bush's energy policies call for dramatically increasing U.S. dependence on coal-fired power plants and imported coal.
Control of energy resources has also been a crucial factor in determining U.S. foreign policy over the past century. From the Middle East to Central Asia to Latin America, U.S. policy-makers have been quite clear as to the importance of this goal. President Bushs requests to Congress for funds to protect the Los Angeles company Occidental Petroleums 480-mile oil pipeline in Colombia ($98 million in February 2002, and another $6 million in March) as part of the so-called war on terrorism show the extent to which this war is a war for control of energy resources. The Colombian army protectsthe Cerrejón Zona Norte mine from a base built nearby for that precise purpose. In the last five years, much of the Colombian economyincluding the coal industry, in which the state formerly played a key role has been privatized under IMF pressure. Privatization - heavily touted by the United States government for poor countries - allows multinational corporations, rather than the state, to control and profit from key sectors of the economy.
Colombias Guajira Peninsula
In the past two decades, Colombia's remote Guajira peninsula has undergone intensive development into the continent's major coal-producing region. In the process, decisions made in boardrooms and executive offices have transformed many lives, both in Colombia and in the United States. Semi-nomadic indigenous people in the Guajira found their unique culture and lifestyle threatened, and have formed organizations to defend their rights. Coal workers in Alabama have found their mines close and their jobs disappear, as a major coal producer there decided to move its operations to Colombias César Province, next to the Guajira. Colombian workers, including both migrants to the region and Guajiro Indians who have been forced or enticed into wage labor, have struggled for better working conditions and wages, and some have been killed for their efforts. The United Mine Workers and the United Steel Workers unions in the United States have reached across the borders to build solidarity with Colombian coal mine unionists under siege. Dust, blasting and contamination from the mine have undermined the livelihoods of local inhabitants. As the mine has expanded, it has displaced peasant communities that migrated to the area during the twentieth century, many of them escaping violence and landlessness in other parts of the country.
The Indigenous Wayúu and the Mines
The beginnings of mining in the Guajira peninsula severely disrupted the livelihoods of the Guajiro or Wayúu people, an indigenous group of approximately 120,000 that have lived since before the Spanish conquest in the northern borderlands of Colombia and Venezuela, including the Guajira peninsula. Over the course of the centuries, the Guajiro territory has shrunk as they have been pushed out of the more fertile southern Guajira lands into the dry deserts of the northern Guajira. Despite centuries-long contact that included involvement in the smuggling trade and continued encroachment on their ancestral lands, the Wayúu remained an ethnically, culturally and linguistically distinct groupthe largest in Colombia.
According to Deborah Pacini Hernandez, who conducted a major study of the Guajiros in 1983 for Cultural Survival, the Wayúu adopted horses and cattle from the Spanish and adopted a pastoral nomadic lifestyle that, in conjunction with the Spanish weapons they acquired and the desert-like character of the northern part of the peninsula, allowed them to remain substantially unconquered into the late twentieth century. They were not isolated: involvement in trade and smuggling, also a tradition since colonial times, meant that in the 1980s traditional weavings and hand-made rancherías - temporary dwellings of wattle and daub - coexisted with pick-up trucks and wage labor on Venezuelan farms. The Guajiro also have a tradition of working as middlemen in lucrative smuggling operations ranging from black market consumer goods to marijuana in the late twentieth century.
The southern portion of the Guajira peninsula is more fertile, and has attracted both large ranchers and displaced peasants from other parts of Colombia. The village of Tabaco, for example, appears to have been settled in the 1960s by mostly Afro-Colombians. Afro-Colombians are quite disproportionately represented among those displaced by violence. These twentieth century communities farmed small plots of coffee, kitchen gardens with fruit trees, and relied on hunting.
The Contract of Association establishing a partnership between the Colombian governments Carbocol (Carbones de Colombia) and Intercor (International Colombia Resource Corporation), a fully-owned subsidiary of Exxon was signed in 1977, and consisted of three phases: exploration (197780), construction (198086) and production (19862009). The project included the mine, a 150 km (95 mile) railroad from the mining area in the lower Guajira peninsula to the coast, and a port. Each of these operations is huge in scale. The mine itself was to occupy 38,000 hectares (94,000 acres); the 150-km railroad was designed for three locomotives, each pulling 100 cars carrying 100 tons of coal each, along with a twelve-meter-wide support road running parallel to the railroad at an elevation of four meters, and Puerto Bolívar, on the western shore of the entrance to Bahía Portete, equipped to receive ships of 300 meters by 45 metersthe largest port in the country.
U.S. corporations, and U.S. government support, funded this project from the start. In February 1982, the Export-Import Bank approved a $12.3 million loan to a Spanish company to purchase U.S. earth-moving equipment for Colombian mining; Canadas Export Development Bank followed with a $160 million line of credit to Carbocol to purchase Canadian equipment, and the Export-Import Bank countered with another $375 million in August. In the end the Export-Import Bank lent $1.5 billion to the Colombian government, paying for its entire share in the project.
Pacini studied the site for eight weeks in 1983 and described it in detail: The road has been completed since 1981, and the construction of the port, warehouses, workerscamps, hospital, water treatment facilities, etc., is considerably advanced. Less construction is visible at the mine area, where the task of clearing the land of vegetation for the mine and mine infrastructure is immense - much greater than that required for the port. Temporary workerscamps have been erected and more are being built to accommodate the projected peak work force during the construction phase of about 7,000 (although more recent estimates placed the eventual construction work force at 10,000). Once production begins in 1985-1986, the permanent work force of about 3,000 workers will be housed in several towns located along the southern part of the mine-port road. The infrastructures of these towns will be expanded to accommodate the influx of workers. (See below for more on the workforce.)
The mine itself is in the southern part of the peninsula, thus did not directly affect the Wayúu. The road and railroad, however, cut through the heartland of Wayúu territory. The pastoral nomadic Wayúu lacked legal title to their ancestral lands; thus when the potential for profit arose in those lands, the government declared them to be baldíosor untitled land, and granted Carbocol, in 1981, 29,000 hectares in four reservas (areas claimed by the government for economic development purposes) that it had requested for the railroad, road, port, and for construction materials. Some 200 Guajiro families were in fact offered compensation for their ranchos that were confiscated. As Pacini notes, however, the compensation was minimal (much smaller than that offered to displaced residents in the southern part of the peninsula), and it was culturally inappropriate because the lands taken were in fact part of a much larger system of migration and kinship, not just the location of specific residences.
Along the northern coast, Wayúu fishing in the Bahía de Portete was halted as the harbor was dredged and turned over to the shipping of coal. Media Luna, a Wayúu community of approximately 750 on the southern end of the bay, was the first permanent community to be displaced by the mine. After negotiations with Intercor in 1982 (punctuated by angry discussions and physical threats) residents agreed to move their homes, their farms and their cemetery to a nearby location in order to allow for the construction of the port. Despite a constant struggle with the pollution caused by the construction, when the company demanded that they move again a few years later, seven families (42 people) refused. The company walled and locked the area and surrounded it with armed guards. Despite constant harassment, including lack of water, refusal of building permits, and blacklisting of community members from employment, residents have remained there, living in conditions described as like a Nazi concentration camp.
In 1982 the Wayúu formed Yanamaa Wayúu word meaning collective workan organization to defend their rights in the face of the incursions on their lands. Yanama was successful in preventing Carbocol from leveling the Cerro de la Teta, though the sacred mountain remains inside the companys reserva. Some Wayúu also tried - mostly unsuccessfully - to appeal to government agencies charged with the defense of indigenous rights. The major strategy, according to Pacini, was invasión, or the establishment of residences directly along the railroad strip designed to establish a presence and prevent construction. In the summer of 1983, over 1000 ranchos had been built, effectively halting railroad construction. Yanama also worked to have Guajiro territory declared a resguardo (what in English would be a reservation; granting title to the indigenous community as a whole).
In 1996, a Wayúu representative described the impact of the mine on his people at a meeting in Wisconsin: The construction of the mine had a devastating effect on the lives of approximately 90 Wayuu apushis (matrilineal kinship groupings) who saw their houses, corrals, cleared ground and cemeteries flattened for the construction of a road from El Cerrejon to the new port of Puerto Bolivar, with no respect for indigenous rights. The excavation of the open pit has also caused the adjoining rivers and streams to dry up, along with people's drinking wells.
A 2001 report documented the depressingly predictable long-term effect of the mine on the indigenous Guajiro communities: the proliferation of alcoholism and prostitution, the loss of sacred spaces, a rise in death rates due to poisoning and contamination from the mine and its wastes, loss of cultural integrity and identity, and increasing poverty. The mines encroachment on indigenous lands has continued unabated over the last 20 years.
Local Peasants and the Mines
By the 1990s, Yanama had formed links with local farming communities that were primarily Afro-Colombian and mestizo in population. Perhaps some residents of these communities were Guajiro indigenous who had shifted the markers of their identity from Wayúu to peasant. In some cases, non-Wayúu peasants joined Wayúu communities. The Wayúu language is a clear marker of identity, but Wayúu identity is also associated with patterns of dress, residence, and economic survival that are linked to the desert pastoralism of the northern Guajira. Of course the markers of identity change over time, and it may be that the past twenty years have seen a shift in what it means to be a Wayúu. For example, the village of Tamaquitos, in 2001, consisted of 145 people of the Wayúu ethnicity, who live in 34 houses and are affiliated principally with the Epieyuu, Pushaina and Iipuana clansas well as six men of campesino origin who live with Wayúu women. They are not pastoralists, but rely on wage labor on the surrounding farms and ranchesall of which have slowly been taken over by the mine in the last decades.
As mining expanded through the 1990s, pollution from the mine, and then the mine itself, began to encroach on surrounding villages. Yanama seems to have expanded in recent years to unite the Wayúu with non-indigenous peoples who are threatened by the mine. By the 1990s, Yanama was represented in the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations. In 1992 Armando Perez Araujo, representing the towns of Caracoli and El Espinal, brought suit against the Colombian Ministry of Health because the contamination of coal and other dust, and the constant noise of the machinery, were prejudicial to the health of the residents of Tajo Sur. He argued that the Ministry had, in February 1991, declared a 1000-meter strip to be uninhabitable,and a 4,500-meter area dangerous, because of the contamination, but had not taken any action to protect the residents, who included both Wayúu Indians and peasant farmers. Yanama had put together a 16-page study documenting the effects of pollutant, arguing that between 1984 and 1991 the health of the community had deteriorated significantly, and twenty-four deaths (out of a combined population of about 350) had been caused by exposure to toxins from the mine. After several appeals, the court ruled in favor of Yanama and ordered the company to guarantee the protection of the inhabitants of these towns. However, with the collaboration of the head of the Office of Indigenous Affairs of Uribia, the companys solution was to remove people from their homes to lands designated as an indigenous resguardo (reservation). 
In the late 1990s, Yanama representatives contacted the London-based organization Partizans (People Against Rio Tinto and its Subsidiaries; at the time Rio Tinto had a share in the Cerrejón Central mine), and in October 2000 Richard Moody and Richard Solly, both of Partizans, traveled to Guajira to investigate conditions in the small community of Tabaco on the outskirts of the mine. They found that the towns that had protested the effects of the mine in 1992 no longer existed.
Manantial and Caracolí had been dispersed by violence; at Viejo Oreganal (near Cerrejón Central) residents were pressured to sell their land as the Rio Tinto, Billiton and Glencore companies that were operating the mine purchased surrounding pasture and destroyed the church, school and community center. At Espinal, police had ordered residents to relocate without warning to a new site at Rio de Janeiro; those who refused were forcibly removed. The pattern seems consistent: First, blasting, dust and contamination make life unpleasant, then pasture land disappears, harassment of residents follows, and finally, if residents refuse to leave, forcible eviction destroys the community. Beginning in 1997 and culminating in 2001, the community of Tabaco suffered the same fate.
In May 2001, Armando Pérez Araujo, a lawyer representing the small community of Tabaco on the outskirts of the mine, attended a meeting in London as one of several representatives of Yanama. The declaration that emerged from the meeting - signed by delegates from 23 countries - read in part:
"We have seen our peoples suffering for many years from mining in all stages and forms, and from exploration to development through to abandonment. Industrial mining has caused grievous pain and irreparable destruction to our culture, our identities and our very lives. Our traditional lands have been taken, and the wealth seized, without our consent or benefit.
Invariably mining imposed upon our communities has poisoned our waters, destroyed our livelihoods and our food sources, disrupted our social relationships, created sickness and injury in our families. Often our communities have been divided by 'imported' civil conflicts. Increasing mechanisation has denied many of us a role we once had as mineworkers."
Residents complained in early 2001 that their houses are cracking up because of blasting from the mine and that their main water source is polluted with coal dust. Pasture land is being lost as mining operations come closer. Many villagers have already left. Residents were particularly distressed at the apparent collusion between the company, the government, and the Catholic church. The priest, Marcelo Graziosi, agreed to sell the church - which had been built by the community for 38 million pesos ($16,550). Tabaco residents appealed to the priest in Hatonuevo and the Bishop, but in vain. The government closed the school (though a volunteer teacher continued to give classes there) and the health center.
In June of 2001, five people (two indigenous journalists, the president of Tabacos Community Action Group, Jose Julio Perez, a community resident, and a volunteer teacher, Mario Alberto Perez) were accosted by company police while attempting to document company measures directed towards the destruction of the community. The security agents confiscated the film, stating that the film must be for the guerrillas, and beat and arrested the five.
On August 9, 2001, private and public police arrived with bulldozers to carry out the destruction of the community. Several video photographers documented the destruction and its aftermath. Now, Tabacos smaller neighbor Tamaquitos fears that the same fate awaits it.
The Mines, the Guerrillas, and the Paramilitaries
Just to the south of the Cerrejón Zona Norte mine in Guajira lie the La Loma and Pribbenow mines owned by the Alabama coal giant Drummond. In César province, where the Drummond mines are located, there has been heavier guerrilla and paramilitary presence.
Paramilitary activity in César Province commenced aggressive operationsin the mid-1990s, as Drummonds mining activities there began in earnest. Their targets were the FARC, which had been active in the area, but also, as always, suspected FARC sympathizers, meaning, frequently, large portions of the peasant population. By 2000, the paramilitaries dominated the region and acted with relative impunity against workers and peasants, and with tacit support of the Drummond Company.
Drummond's 215-mile rail line from the mine to their own private port, Puerto Drummond, has been repeatedly bombed by the FARC since it began operations in the mid-1990s, including five times in 2000-2001. The FARC also reportedly levies a tax on Drummond's coal production. After an April, 2000 attack, the Company began to circulate flyers reading "The multinational Drummond is a source of income and growth for our city, and for that reason it has become like our heritage" and "No al Sindicalismo guerrillero [No to the guerrilla union]".
In October 1996, paramilitaries attacked the village of Media Luna, outside of Valledupar, killing six and abducting seven. (Residents later found the body of one of the seven, castrated, eyes gouged and fingernails pulled out.) While no specific motive was named, this was part of what Amnesty International called a wave of internal displacement following a paramilitary offensive in the province.
Company president Gary Drummond met with Colombian president Andrés Pastrana in 2000 to request government protection for the mine and railway.
By the year 2000, the Cerrejón Zona Norte mining complex employed between 4,500 and 6,500 workers. Who were these workers? Where did they come from? Where do they live? Under what conditions do they work?
Reports suggest that during the construction phase, most of the workforce at Cerrejón Zona Norte was drawn from the Wayúu communities, but that once production began they were replaced by non-indigenous Colombians. Armando Valbuena Gouriyu, a Wayúu who worked for the mine, stated that 5,000 Wayúu were employed in the construction phase, only to be fired when the mine went into operation. Gouyiru himself was trained as a technician, and worked in the mine from 1983 until 1988 when he and seven other workers representing a worker organization were negotiating with the mines management.
In the spring of 1990, negotiations between Carbocol/Intercor and SINTERCOR, the Sindicato de Trabajadores de Cerrejón, which represented some 80% of the 5000 workers at the mine and port, broke down. Workers had negotiated a series of two-year contracts, each time with difficulty. Until 1990, however, there had never been a strike at the mine. The key issues in dispute in the negotiations this time were wages and hours. Intercor wanted to reduce work shifts from 12 to 8 hoursand a company plan to dismantle company-owned housing and food facilities. Workers engaged in a slow-down as negotiations dragged on, though the company had already been stockpiling coal since November 1989 in anticipation.
On April 25, after a worker' assembly authorized the strike (in compliance with Colombian labor legislation), the workers walked out. (They agreed to allow non-union workers to continue to load coal for shipment at Puerto Bolívar, for safety reasons.) The Company promptly cut off the negotiations, claiming that the strike was unreasonable.
After the workers had been on strike for eighteen days, Colombian President Virgilio Barco invoked an obscure provision of Colombias Constitution and asked the Supreme Court to empower him to declare the strike illegal because it was potentially damaging to the country's economy. (This was only the third time that this provision had been invoked in Colombias history.) He then authorized the Colombian Army to occupy the mine with tanks, and force the workers to return to work. Subsequently, military presence during the biannual contract negotiations became the norm.
At the Drummond mine in adjacent César province, company advertising depicts a chubby, smiling coal miner named Drumino, wearing a bright-yellow shirt, blue pants and a bright-blue mining helmet. It's the company's answer, announced Garry Drummond, to the prototypical Colombian coffee-bean picker Juan Valdez. "This is Drumino, coal miner, saying hi", the character says in one company publication. "I am uncomplicated and hard-working, cheerful and optimistic." Reality at Drummond is not so pleasant. The active presence of paramilitaries there has made the situation even more dangerous than at the Cerrejón mine.
Drummond workers joined the Sintramienergética union early on. In addition to more traditional union issues: wages, hours, working conditions, and health insurance, Drummond workers protested the paramilitary sympathizer the company contracted to prepare their food, saying he prepared inedible slop, and the fact that they had to take lie detector tests including questions like "Are you supporting the guerrillas?" In flyers like the one mentioned above ("No al sindicalismo guerrillero") the Company also made it clear that, as far as it was concerned, union activity was subversive activity. Following a FARC attack on the railroad in September 2000, in which three employees were taken hostage, a new company flyer stated "We know that the heads of the union have a clear nexus with the subversion.... down with the guerrilla union. Down with the subversion that is against investment in the country."
The year 2001 was an especially horrific one for workers at the Drummond mine in Colombia. Union activists received frequent death threats, and protested to the Company and to the national government. In February, a group of armed men claiming to belong to the paramilitary AUC broke into Drummond union activist Cándido Méndez's home in Chiriguaná, César province, and killed him in front of his family. In March, Valmore Locarno Rodríguez and Victor Hugo Orcasita, the Chair and Vice Chair of the La Loma local of SINTRAMINERGETICA, the Colombian Union of Mine and Energy Industry Workers, were pulled out of a company bus by armed men outside of El Paso, César Province, on their way home to Valledupar from the mine. Locarno, who was originally from Fundación, Magdalena, was killed in front of their fellow workers; Orcasita, from Villanueva, Guajira, was taken away; his tortured body was later found nearby. They had repeatedly asked Drummond to abide by an agreement allowing them to sleep at the mine for their own protection, to no avail. The police commander in César province attributed these to the AUC.
On October 6 or 8, 2001, the local union's new president, Gustavo Soler, was also murdered, the fifth union activist to be murdered at Drummond that year. Soler was a machine operator who had worked at the company for seven years, and had taken over the presidency upon the murder of Locarno and Orcasita. He was pulled off a public bus by armed men while traveling from Valledupar to Chiriguaná and taken into a white pick-up [camioneta]; his body was discovered the following day with two bullet-holes in the head. Only a month earlier, Aram Roston of The Nation magazine had interviewed Soler. He wondered why Soler seemed unduly concerned that his cell phone seemed to be malfunctioning. Soler explained wryly that "this is my security" - the only step that the government had taken to protect him. Within weeks of the interview, he was dead.
All three of the groups discussed above (indigenous peoples, peasants, and mine workers) have spurred a small but dedicated international solidarity. Environmental and indigenous rights organizations have been most interested in the situation of the Wayúu; globally oriented anti-mining groups have established ties with peasants being displaced from the mine, and international labor organizations including U.S. unions have worked in solidarity with Colombian miners.
Solidarity with Indigenous Groups
Several international indigenous-rights organizations have reached out to establish ties with the Guajiro indigenous. Cambridge-based Cultural Survival, founded by anthropologists to promote the rights of threatened indigenous communities worldwide, published Deborah Pacini's original study of the Guajirathe most comprehensive and detailed English-language study in existence in 1984. In 1992, the London-based Survival International named Exxon as one of its top ten corporate offenders of indigenous rights worldwide, citing it for its oil drilling activities in Alaska and the Northwest Territories, and also for massive coal dust pollution from its open pit mine on the land of the Wayúu Indians.
The Indigenous Environmental Network of Wisconsin (an alliance of grassroots indigenous people whose mission is to protect the sacredness of Mother Earth from contamination and exploitation by strengthening, maintaining and respecting the traditional teaching and the traditional Natural Laws) invited a Wayúu representative to speak with Native American activists in Mole Lake, Wisconsin, in 1994, when Exxon was preparing to establish a mine adjacent to the Mole Lake reservation. "I am here to warn the people of Mole Lake that Mr. Jerry Goodrich of Exxon does not keep his promises. He promised us jobs and prosperity and instead worked to destroy our traditional ways and forced us from our land. This must not happen again," members of the Sokaogon Chippewa Community were told. Two years later, the same representative returned to speak at a conference on environmental genocide, also in Northern Wisconsin, as Wisconsins Department of Natural Resources continued to debate the project. Ironically, Jerry Goodrich, a former vice president of operations at the Cerrejón Zona Norte mine in Colombia, was the president of Wisconsin's Crandon Mining Company, a subsidiary of Exxon, that was proposing the mine in 1994!
Several trends in the 1980s and 90s have led U.S. labor unions to develop more of an internationalist perspective, and become increasingly critical of U.S. support for repressive governments in the third world. In the 1980s, when U.S. workers, their unions, and their supporters in Congress addressed the development of coal mining in Colombia, they voiced their concerns primarily in terms of protecting their own jobs. By the 1990s, a more global perspective of the race to the bottom, and the need for international solidarity, became more characteristic of the U.S. labor movement. The trajectory of the Drummond coal producing company and its unions exemplifies this trend.
In 1985, the Alabama-based Drummond Company began laying off workers in its Alabama mines to invest in coal production in Colombia. By 2001, two thousand Alabama mine workers had been laid off and the company was importing four million tons of coal from Colombia back to its Alabama power plants. United Mine Workers activists in Alabama described the effect of the mine closures on their communities: "By laying off so many Alabama miners, the company sucked the lifeblood out of our region," said District 20 president John Stewart. "Many miners lost their homes and cars", said [L.U. 1948 president John] Nolen. "The trickle-down effect forced some local businesses to close. While some miners got jobs through the state employment services, little assistance came from Drummond. The company is not noted for helping anyone."
"We're hurting in Walker County," said L.U. 1948 mine committee chairman Wendell Rigsby of Jasper. "Three shirt factories shut down here because our economy went south." Drummond's departure devastated many families," stressed L.U. 7813 president Ed Stover of Oakman, Ala., who worked at Drummond 32 years before retiring last year. "Many laid-off miners don't have enough money to pay their mortgages. Some small towns in Walker County no longer have the tax bases to serve their residents."
Drummond's president, Mike Zervos, cited three reasons for shifting their production to Colombia: high mining costs, global competition and environmental laws. (Union miners in Alabama earn approximately $3,000 a month; in Colombia, Drummond pays between $500 and $1,000 a month to its workers.) Together, these three factors comprise the classic equation of the race to the bottom. Workers and citizens in the United States have struggled for generations to better their conditions at home, seeking improvements like higher wages, improved working conditions, safety regulation, environmental regulation. But these very accomplishments have led U.S. companies to seek conditions more to their liking abroad, where government repression has frequently prevented workers and citizens from achieving the standards of the United States. Exxon too has cut back mining operations in the United States since it began to develop the Cerrejón Zona Norte mine in Colombia. Exxon has closed or sold all but one of its U.S. mines since the mid-1980s, cutting its U.S. workforce from 1600 to 321.
The United States government has been an active participant in this race to the bottom. While slowly putting into effect legislation and institutions that protect the rights of U.S. citizens at home, the U.S. government has simultaneously aided and abetted U.S. corporations seeking to escape this regulation. Beginning with Operation Bootstrap in Puerto Rico in the 1950s, continuing through the Border Industrialization Program in Mexico in 1965, and the rapid development of Export Processing Zones in Central America and the Caribbean in the 1970s and 80s, the U.S. government has actively helped U.S. businesses to evade the costs of doing business at homecosts especially in the area of protections of labor and the environment. At the same time that the U.S. government has directly helped businesses to relocate, with tax incentives and other advantages, it has also helped indirectly, by actively intervening militarily and politically in poor countries to maintain a favorable investment climate: that is, low wages, little regulation, and easy access to resources like land; more bluntly, what Noam Chomsky has termed the fifth freedom: the freedom to rob and exploit.
In Colombia, U.S. collaboration with a government that human rights organizations have repeatedly and vociferously condemned for its tolerance and/or perpetration of the most egregious human rights violations shows an unfortunate, but not surprising, continuation of this pattern. Trade unionists in Colombia have been among the principal victims of right-wing paramilitaries, working in tacit or even overt collaboration with the Colombian government.
United States unions, in particular the United Mine Workers and the United Steel Workers, have expressed their solidarity with Colombian mine workers at least since 1990. When the Cerrejón workers struck in April, 1990, the UMWA established a fund in support of striking workers. The International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers Unions launched an international campaign to protest the use of the military in breaking the strike and in supervising subsequent contract negotiations.
The killing of union organizers in the Colombian coal mines was greeted with a wave union activism in the United States. The United Steelworkers, the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General WorkersUnion, and the United Mineworkers immediately condemned the March, 2001 murders at the Drummond mine. The USWA sent a delegation to Colombia in March 2001 to investigate military involvement in the killing of trade unionists. On their second day there, the delegation was informed of the killings at the Drummond mine. The AFL-CIO had already taken a stand in 2000 opposing U.S. military aid to Colombia because of violations of human rights and labor rights there. USWA President Leo Gerard stated that "Our union's commitment to the fundamental rights of workers in every nation is unyielding. That's why we sent a contingent to Colombia to show our solidarity and bring attention to the workersplight . . . We are also sending a message to the U.S. government that we are strongly opposed to the amount of military aid being sent to the Colombian army when trade unionists and innocent people are being killed by the very military forces we are financing."  Tellingly, Drummond spokesman Mike Tracy clearly articulated the opposite view: "We've always supported Plan Colombia. . . We just think that it's in the best interest of the government and the business community in Colombia, and the general population."
In March, 2002, the International Labor Rights Fund, the United Steelworkers, and several Colombian unions brought a federal lawsuit against Drummond under the Alien Torts Act for complicity in the murders.
Colombia solidarity organizations in the United States and elsewhere have had so many human rights horrors to focus on that they have focused less on the Guajira, which in fact is not the most violent area of Colombia. Yet the situation in the Guajira symbolizes and plays an important role in the struggles going on elsewhere in this country, and the crucial role played by the United States government and multinational corporations in Colombia's ongoing tragedy.
see also Salem City Council Resolution on the Cerrejon Mine in Colombia