MAC: Mines and Communities

Colombian coal mining puts a community on the rocks

Published by MAC on 2009-07-07

The following article was written by an English woman after she experienced for herself the impacts of Colombia's Cerrejon coal mine on the community of Roche in La Guajira province.

The human price of coal mining

26th May 2009

Fifteen years ago Roche was a hub of rural activity in the municipal of Barranca, La Guajira, a dry arid region in the northeastern tip of Colombia. It was home to 500 families but 483 families have gone. In their place is a sea of red and white striped posts, marking out the plots of land that until recently contained the daily lives, cultures and family memories of the thousands of people who have been forced to leave their lives. The posts mark out the land that is now owned by Cerrejón, one of the largest opencast coal mines in the country.

To walk among these posts filled me with an intense feeling of sadness of lives being slowly suffocated as the mine creeps forward. To live among these posts, with the whines of mine machinery playing over the sound of the wildlife, appears to me like psychological torture for the remaining 17 families.

The majority of Roche's residents, along with those of nearby villages Patilla, Chancleta and Tamaquito, lived off the fertile land by the banks of the River Rancheria. Life revolved around growing food crops both for themselves and on larger farms as hired hands, rearing cattle, hunting rabbit and goat, and fishing. The Roche residents who remain spoke to us of life now.

The land has been poisoned by the coal dust and is no longer productive. The track down to the river from which they used to collect sand for making cement had a trench dug across it preventing vehicle access. Men have been detained by the police when fishing, told that Cerrejón now owns the river that runs past their village and thus illegal to fish in it. Men have been detained when hunting, for trespassing on what was once village lands but is now the private property of Cerrejón.

The local socio-economic system of the area is being obliterated, forcing people from the communties of Patilla, Chancleta, Roche and Tamaquito, an indigenous community, to leave in search of a source of food and income elsewhere. The highest levels of displacement in Roche came post 2001 when a nearby village, Tabaco, was razed to the ground by bulldozers protected by the Colombian armed forces.

"Tabaco pyschologically affected us and people began to sell up for whatever price the company was offering. Cerrejón took advantage of the fear to buy the land for next to nothing and people had to leave Roche, their community." Resident of Roche

Former residents of Tabaco recently signed an agreement with the owners of Cerrejón, BHP Biliton, Anglo American and Xstrata in which they will be relocated and compensated. I was shown the payment slip for the compensation by a woman wanting answers I could not give. She could not understand how the compensation was for just $200,000 pesos (about £50). "Is this it? Is this our compensation after everything we suffered and 8 years of fighting for some justice? It is an insult."

While there is an urgency for a solution, the communities are adamant that they deserve at the very least a dignified compensation for their physical and psychic losses, and to be relocated to a site of their choosing with a quality of life at least equal to what they had before the communities social fabric was unpicked.

"Every day we feel the contamination getting worse, we need solutions to this now. The good practice of the company would be to relocate the entire village in one go, instead they are doing it individually, and only with people born in the villages, and so dividing the communities."

On Wednesday 20th April, at the invitation of the communities of Roche, Chancleta, and Tamaquito, and under pressure by a visiting international delegation and Sintracarbon, the union representing Cerrejón workers, representatives of Cerrejón attended a meeting with around 150 people from the communities. More would have liked to have participated but health issues, which they connect to the mine's presence, made this difficult.

The first issue on the agenda was about the resettlement process. Involuntary resettlement due to mining projects, according to the World Bank, should be done in coordination with the affected communities.

"First Cerreón has to work with us in making a list of what relocation involves, housing, productive projects, amenities. After this is done, they should consult around every one of these points. But they didn't, their first error. Second error, which can be considered more serious, is that despite the company not doing this, they published on their webpage a completed plan for settlement and said that they had consulted with the communities of Roche, Chancleta and Patilla.

What did the company want with this lie? Trick the community? the international community? the local governance? all of the above?"

Roche village leader, community meeting with Cerrejón, 20th May 2009

Other issues presented by the community were around the productive projects, health issues, and the behaviour of the company towards the communities. The final issue of the day was around independent advisors.

Community members had previously reflected that whereas Cerrejón has access to an expert team of advisors, the communities have nothing and as such are being manipulated and lied to by the company. For example, one member spoke about how they were invited to a meeting in the mine, where Cerrejón's legal advisor told them that they did not need advisors, as the company would just negotiate directly with them.

Recognising the near comicalness of being told this by a very advisor of Cerrejón, the communities of Roche, Tamaquito and Chancleta united and presented a proposal to Cerrejón. No more negotiations until they have independent advisors, paid for by the company. Cerrejón must give a yes or no by the 31st May.

The following day we met with community members from Barranco, another village. They told us how representatives of Cerrejón are holding meetings and visiting families to talk about future relocation. What was interesting was how the people had been convinced so quickly that they had no other choice, but to go. They know though that they will have to fight for this to be in a dignified and just manner.

It appears to me that Cerrejón is willing to spend the money necessary on its well paid Corporate Social Responsibility and public relations team but not willing to spend the money necessary for a dignified and just relocation of the communities who live on top of the valuable coal.

What is the thinking, individually and institutionally, that justifies these decisions? The dangers of what a just relocation precedent would mean globally? Historical white racism that sees these communities as inferior and therefore not as deserving?

And what thinking justifies extracting the coal out the ground at such an incredible speed that, according to Sintracarbon, in 30 years there will be no coal left, the mine will close and the dominant economy of the region will collapse?

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