The heavy cost of Colombian coal

Cerrejon is one of the biggest coal mines in the world for energy production, in the middle of indigenous Wayuu territory. Today they suffer from high rates of malnutrition and disease.

Situated in the Guajira department, in the north-eastern part of Colombia, close to Venezuela, Cerrejon is one of the biggest coal mines in the world, and the largest open-pit coalmine in Latin America. It covers around 69,000 hectares. The coal extracted from Cerrejon reaches many places around the world – like for instance Italy, Germany and several other countries and regions. It is owned by British Glencore and employs more than 5,000 people. The mine also lays in the middle of indigenous Wayuu territory – the biggest indigenous group in Colombia and Venezuela. The Wayuu suffers from high rates of malnutrition and disease. Also, more of half of the one million people living in La Guajira live in poverty and the department has the country’s highest rate of illiterate. One part of affections by the coal extraction are the human ones. Then comes the whole environmental ones. And obviously those two are infinitely intertangled. One resource is being strongly affected – and an extremely important issue in desertic Guajira: Water. 

While the mine uses 16 million litres of water a day, the region suffers from drought, and the locals from a shortage of water © Nicolò Filippo Rosso

The Bruno stream, high environmental cost of coal mining

At least 19 rivers and streams have been impacted by the Cerrejon mine. While La Guajira suffers drought the Cerrejon mine uses some 16 million liters of water per day. In the village of El Rocio, Leobardo Sierra Frias has been fighting for years to defend the Bruno Stream – once a vital aquatic resource in desertic Guajira. “We will no longer be La Guajira, we used to be the agricultural pantry and we might probably need to displace from here. Because if we do not have water what are we going to live on? We are leaving aside the essence of life – the water. We will become another Sahara. The State does not care about us here in la Guajira”.

The thing about the Bruno Stream – and many other streams and rivers – is that they have been redirected by the mining company for them to extract coal underneath. This with serious environmental consequences. In 2017 Colombia’s Constitutional Court ruled (Su-698) these activities near Arroyo Bruno to be suspended, but in September this year, several human rights organizations complained that the mining activity in that particular area had been reactivated.

Roche, a village displaced by coal mining

Another deep affection of the population in La Guajira by the coal extraction are the many displaced people. In the village of Roche 2, Luis Alberto Ramirez, 67, says: “The place I was born was close to the Rancheria River. It was a place where you did not need to irrigate to cultivate and harvest. Rain fell almost always. We cultivated corn, manioc, tomatoes and chiles.” Roche 2 is notoriously a place with little activity, just some houses, some roofs. It seems like a place no-ones want to be no one want to stay, but the inhabitants of Roche, like Luis Alberto, have not really other choice. In 2010 they were forced to leave for the Cerrejon coal company to expand their extraction area.

“The one that mattered to me was Roche Viejo, the old Roche. Because this here is of no importance to me, to any of us living here. I have been living here for eleven years and I still feel like a stranger here. Every moment I want to leave because I don’t feel good here,” says Luis Alberto from his dark and dusty kitchen. “Because here you don’t live well, we don’t have enough territory to out agriculture – and we can’t go hunting. I really miss Roche Viejo, honestly,” says Luis Alberto.

When the inhabitants of Roche had to leave in 2010 they were offered new houses in another place – now named Roche Nuevo. The value of the houses was discounted from the amount the people were offered from Cerrejon for the trouble. But the new houses lasted only a few years, then they began to fall apart. Some years ago, Luis Alberto had to go living in his old father’s house, until he managed to build his own. “Cerrejon hasn’t done anything to fix our housing-issues. Look I have had to make my own new house with my few savings. Because of those bad guys,” the last words he shouts into the smokey air of the simple house. He is clearly angry, feet up.

Luis Alberto remembers how a representant from Better Coal – where Italian Enel is part – visited Roche a few years ago. He has a clear message to the Italians: “I want them to demand Cerrejon to fix our houses, because I think, since there has passed 5 years – they are never going to do so,” he says. Luis Alberto is bitter, on Cerrejon and everything that has to do with the mining and their displacement: “I do not have any benefit from the Cerrejon mine, the impact of the presence of Cerrejon has been enormous. My life would have been really different if it was not for Cerrejon. Because they first fooled us by saying that you are going to move but you are not going to lack work – but we do not have work. Cerrejon for me represents total destruction, nothing less,“ says Luis Alberto.

In his house, the one he was offered, when he was forced to leave his home in Roche Viejo, is only living a pig and some wild plants, the roof has felt off and several of the walls had the same destiny. The house has the same abandoned vibe as the village, like a ghost house and a ghost village. “Now I am waiting to see if they come to fix the houses. If they do not come really soon, I am going to block the road. Even if they send someone to kill me, like they have been used to doing. Because there have been threats,” so ends Luis Alberto.

View of coal mining © Nicolò Filippo Rosso

Disappearing communities, cultures and traditions

One of those people who have suffered many threats is Samuel Arregoces who is legal representive from the Community Council of Ancestral Blacks of Tabaco. Samuel is in charge from the community to dialogue with companies and institutions regarding the physical and social reconstruction of Tabaco, that was an Afro-descendant community, located in the strip of bordering Venezuela. It belonged to the municipality of Hatonuevo. When speaking about Tabaco Samuels’ eyes glimpse of nostalgia – and he only speaks in past tense.

“There we had what we call the tasty life”, says Samuel. They lived around 250 families there. The last census from 2012 of Tabaco families is now of 427 families. “Our problem began in the 1990s, when the Cerrejon company approached our territory and informed us that it was interested in buying our lands because the Expansion Project of the mine was going to the community of Tabaco. They began to close the roads to us, they began to buy all the lands around us, leaving us completely surrounded. And then we began to have problems with the public force and employees of the company, security. We didn’t anymore have access to hunting, fishing which was our daily livelihood.
Once these lands were lost because people had less land to graze, less land for animals, that caused a big problem. At this time, in 2001 the new mining code of Colombia was approved”, recalls Samuel.

“An article declares that the subsoil belongs to the State and there – the Colombian state began an expropriation process – August 9, 2001 – in the community of Tabaco, to our community, causing a great commotion because we had never had that amount of public force that we had this day, they were prepared with tanks with – at this moment Esmad – anti-riot force of the police, the army – everything. Then a Barrancas judge ordered the forced eviction of Tabaco, so they went to our territory and began to tell the people that they had to hand over the houses, when the authorities were leaving, they began to put machines in the town. And to evict people by force”.

“Many people still do not have a home today because we cannot afford to buy a house”. The last judgement from the Constitutional Court of Colombia from December 2019 gave Cerrejon 18 months to reconstruct Tabaco – but then came the pandemic and there is still no solution for the now more than 400 families.

Also the size of the place for the new Tabaco is a challenge. Tabaco had around 5.000 hectares – and what has been on the table for the new community is around 180 hectares. “We had all the possibilities of exercising our agriculture. And the cattle ranching and herding of animals in this area. We also had our own roots, our own culture, which we dedicated ourselves to exercising – we were a differential ethnic community, due to our culture, our traditional games, gastronomy, typical foods, this identified us as Tabaco inhabitants. That worries us now how to rebuild this social community”.

Where my community existed, Cerrejon gave way for the mining industry. Samuel Arregoces

July 6th, 2015. LA GUAJIRA, COLOMBIA. Community “Rancheria” Mashalerain – Municipality of Manaure. The school built by the government has never hosted students. A result of general corruption; so-called “white elephants” such as schools or water infrastructures have been built but never functioned © Nicolò Filippo Rosso

Being an activist in La Guajira

For the Wayuu and Afro populations, dreams are an essential part of their daily life. Dreams are signs or advice that one should follow.

I dream of taking this process forward. May this all be resolved once for all. I have dreamed of my grandparents who are gone now. But especially the old territory. It’s what I’ve dreamed of the most. I have dreamed of the community, as it was. With the stream, the waters, my grandparents living there. For me the dreams are messages. Dreams are very important to us ethnic communities. They are messages sent to us that tell us you must advance in this, you must do that,” says Samuel.

“To be a social leader in Colombia and in La Guajira is practically to be an enemy of the so-called development. Many colleagues with whom I have shared the scenario I have had to see them fall in this fight, in the country. All the leaders who carry out organizational processes in La Guajira have received threats and persecution. I have been persecuted in the communities dawning via telephone, calls – do not go near the candle because you are going to burn, remember that you have a family, things like that. And threats come after something – when we go out on a tour, when we are denouncing something or when we are negotiating something. They come when you are putting pressure on the company or the government. I have no problem with anyone, this can only be because I am leading these community processes and accompanying communities affected by mining,” says Samuel with a worried expression.

To be a social leader in Colombia and in La Guajira is practically to be an enemy of the so-called development

Samuel Arregoces, legal representative 

“Until it was my turn in 2017 – I had to leave my territory, and even my country. I had no conditions to stay, and they followed me to my house they parked cars there. I could see that it was not only with me but with my family, my mother, my brothers, my nephews. So, I left. I’m not shameful to say it. When I left, I cried every day. Why did I have to leave as a criminal?”

And after Samuel returned from his safe place somewhere in Europe, the persecution continued, and being an activist has had a high cost for the 41-year-old social leader: “My life changed. I can no longer be exposed in public places I have to be locked up in my house. My stress level increased. My family have entered this paranoia. When an unknown car comes, they think they are going to attack me! That also leads us to emotional problems because there are times – your partner does not understand these conditions of a threatened and persecuted person and most of us leaders end up having problems with our partners,” says Samuel.

Also, Samuel has a message to people in Europe, some of the consumers of the coal extracted from La Guajira: “European People, here there are communities that suffer, they arrest us, they take us out of our territories, to make way for what they call development. Please put your hands on your hearts and demand that these multinational companies in their territories comply with this social and environmental damage that they have committed in La Guajira, and in Afro and indigenous communities that they have dissociated from their territory,” says Samuel.

For him looking towards the future there is a simple step: “I think it is extremely important to stop this extraction of coal. Because this will continue generating more uprooting and more pain. We need a fair transition towards green energy – but without repeating these violations of our rights,” says Samuel. Meanwhile the inhabitants of Tabaco and Roche, like Samuel and Luis Alberto, to wander around without a proper home, a proper place to belong. As do the souls of their dead ancestors. The human and environmental price of a resource extraction like coal is high.

We have contacted Cerrejon to get a comment on this piece, but they have not wished to participate.

This project was supported by a grant from CLEW – Clean Energy Wire

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