Despite all the rhetoric on boosting renewable energies and CO2 emissions reductions targets in the context of the so called energy transition, fossil fuels are currently experiencing a massive boom. German industry, including energy corporations such as E.ON and RWE and companies like Bayer, still imports large amounts of cheap coal – in fact 80% of its requirements – from abroad, with Colombia being an important supplier. The north Colombian province of La Guajira has the largest open cast mine in the world: the 69,000 hectare mine El Cerrejón founded in 1976.
The multinational corporations Xtrata (taken over by the commodities trader Glencore in May 2013), BHP Billiton and Anglo American, all of whom are listed on the London stock exchange, each own one third of the mine. Almost all of the coal mined at El Cerrejón is exported to rich industrial nations, while the local population often struggles with power cuts. Currently 32 million tons of coal are exported mainly to Europe and North America, with a view to increasing this to 40 million tons.
The area where the mine is located is populated by the indigenous Wayuu people, Colombians with African ancestry, local peasants and other indigenous groups. Before the multinationals arrived, these peoples lived well through fishing, rearing animals, hunting and growing crops. But due to the constant expansion of the mine about 60,000 people have been displaced, often violently. Whole villages were destroyed or just wiped off the map under the diggers. The village Manantial was the first to be destroyed in 1986; the communities of Roche, Chancleta, Tamaquitos, Tabaco, Palmarito, El Descanso, Caracoli, Zarahita, Patilla are just a few among many to have followed its fate.
Moreover, the mine has led to massive environmental pollution and serious health problems. Many animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, including many important herbs and plants used in traditional rituals. A grave problem of the mine is the coal dust, mainly caused by the daily explosions, killing off plants and leading to respiratory illnesses such as silicosis and eczema in humans. Furthermore, the waste from the mine is contaminating the scant water sources and rivers in the desert region. All of this has led to 64% of the local population living in poverty today.
Plans by the mining companies to expand the mine further would require the rerouting of 26km of the most important river in the province of La Guajira, to enable access to the coal deposits underneath. But after vehement protest of the local population, for whom the Rio Ranchería represents the only accessible water source, these plans have been put on ice. However, there are plans to expand the mine in other ways, meaning there is a risk of new displacements.
The mining of coal and its negative consequences for humans and nature have already led to intense protests and resistance in Colombia and other countries, with a huge variety of actions. In February and March 2013 the union Sintracarbon staged a five week long strike whose demands included a wage rise as well as better environmental and health standards and rights for the workers of sub-contractors. The strike ended on March 8th with significant progress for the workers’ rights. At the protests the rail track for the coal transport was blockaded amongst other things. The resistance movement is no longer limited to the affected mining region and has now spread to the big cities of Colombia, Germany and the UK. For example, during a national day of action in Colombia more than 10,000 citizens went on demonstrations in 20 different towns.
Protest outside the AGM of Anglo American in London, April 2013
In London regular protests take place on the occasion of the AGMs of the mining corporations registered at the stock exchange there. They are co-organised by the London Mining Network and among the attendees travelling to London are for example representatives of FECODEMIGUA (Federation of Communities displaced by mining in La Guajira). London Mining Network is a coalition of human rights, environment and development organisations working to expose the role of the mining corporations registered in London, their financiers and the UK government in mining projects such as El Cerrejón. The City of London plays a special role since almost all of the biggest and many smaller mining companies in the world are listed in London; London is the biggest financial centre for the mineral industry and the metal trade and this is where the most important lobbyists of this industry are located. The German movement Gegenstrom 13 is directed against the coal-fired power station Moorburg and against the planned importation of coal from Colombia; recently it staged a protest action at Hamburg harbour.
Colombian trade unionists and activists often receive death threats – Colombia is the country with highest number of murders of union representatives in the world. The government responded to the growing resistance with increasing militarisation by sending 5,000 additional troops to La Guajira to protect the coal industry and to intimidate the population. But the people are not deterred by this because what is at stake is their survival and dignity.
To give but a brief overview of the protests, struggles and resistance in the northeast of Colombia Gegenstrom 13 has put together a small illustration highlighting just the events during a six week long period in July/August 2012.
Another map gives an overview of the coal extraction, including the categories “direct deaths from coal mining”, “armed security of mines: military, paramilitary, security guards” and “attacks and assassinations by the guerrilla”. The dotted line refers to the map above.
Click on the map to enlarge it
The situation in Colombia – and around the world – is depressing. But we should also not lose sight of the positive developments. In October 2012 the peace talks between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia –People’s Army (FARC-EP) and the Colombian government were officially launched. There seems to reasonable hope for a genuine peace, which is what the majority of the Colombian people desperately want.
According to Gegenstrom 13 the first substantial paragraph with “preamble status” of the remarkably progressive, jointly adopted paper consequently says:
“The construction of peace is a point of the society in conjunction that requires the participation of all, without distinction; The respect of the human rights in all of the confines of the national territory is an end of the State that should be promoted; The economic development with social justice and in harmony with the environment, is a guarantee of peace and progress.” Read the complete text here.
It is up to us to ensure that the energy transition will not remain a meagre promise and that fossil fuels will soon be consigned to the past. We must educate the public about what is really going on and exert massive pressure on the corporations and governments with noisy and colourful actions, and hit them where it hurts them most – in the pocket.
More information and resistance: