Not just transition? Coal and a Colombian miners union

Last week, along with colleagues at London Mining Network, global union IndustriALL, Colombia Solidarity Campaign, Justice for Colombia and War on Want, we hosted Jairo Quiroz and Igor Diaz, members of Sintracarbon, the union that organises workers at the Cerrejón coal mine in Colombia.

Cerrejón is owned by three multinational companies, Anglo American, BHP Billiton and Glencore which receive billions of pounds of financing from the UK financial sector. The mine’s steady expansion has led to the destruction of whole villages and damage to the local environment while the coal is almost exclusively exported to rich countries, with local Colombians seeing few benefits.

Sintracarbon organise workers at Cerrejón for better conditions and has been particularly focused on winning security for outsourced workers there. The union is also working with global union IndustriALL towards forming a unified energy union in Colombia. But as Sintracarbon’s president, Jairo Quiroz, explained to a British Universities Industrial Relations Association seminar in London last week, their work goes beyond simply the immediate interests of the workers.

The union recognises that coal extraction is a short-term project but that ensuring the local community has access to resources like water is vital now and in the long-term. So Sintracarbon has been a key player in the local movement to prevent the diversion of the main local river, which serves as one of the main water sources in the area. The company argued that this is necessary in order to expand the mine and access more coal, but Sintracarbon argued that there were other ways to reach the coal, keeping the mine open and protecting the jobs of their members. The coalition of local and indigenous communities and workers has prevented the diversion from going ahead, but now they are facing the threat of one of the river’s tributaries being moved, which would still cause problems for water supply in this arid region. Igor Diaz, Sintracarbon’s education secretary, explained that with lower international coal prices, the company is threatening job losses if the new expansion plan doesn’t go ahead. But the union is holding firm, keeping members who are on zero hours contracts on board with their track record of getting workers in precarious jobs secure work.

But as coal miners, how are Sintracarbon dealing to the threat of climate change? They can already see the impacts locally, with a recent drought leading to child deaths from hunger and lack of water. With responsibility for education within the union, Igor is clear that awareness-raising is key. But their response doesn’t stop there.

Sintracarbon opposes calls for divestment, highlighting the impact the union’s 32-day strike for better conditions had on the economy in the area, which is one of the most poverty-stricken in the country and currently heavily reliant on the mine. Jairo points to the way in which the Thatcher government destroyed the coal mines and their communities in the UK three decades ago, exporting the industry to places like Colombia, which now supplies around a quarter of the coal used here.

“Just moving the problem elsewhere isn’t a just transition”

So their call is “yes to mining – but not like this”. They are clear that many of the problems in Colombia have their roots in the unjust extractivist model on which the economy is built.

Specifically, Jairo says that they would like to see the mine taken back into national ownership, which would enable the resources from the mine use to benefit Colombians. A new model of development based on public rather than corporate control could be more sustainable and genuinely benefit the country’s population. He points out the potential for the development of other industries in the region, including wind power, tourism, chemical manufacturing from the variety of locally-available minerals, and water processing to help tackle the local scarcity.

In conversation with UK members of the global Trade Unions for Energy Democracy in London, Igor pointed out how trade unions need to take the initiative with climate change and together build a new vision for our energy systems and whole economies with a global perspective, rather than being caught on the back foot.

No one has a blueprint for this but many of us left these conversations feeling inspired and increasingly convinced that taking back democratic control of our energy resources is a key part of the system change we need to meet everyone’s energy needs and stop catastrophic climate change.

>>> Take action in solidarity with the workers and community at Cerrejón

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