The Colombian mining locomotive: in whose benefit?

13 June 2014

The day I arrived in Colombia was the day of the first round of the country’s presidential elections. Across the country, a little more than a third of the people voted. None of the candidates reached the required 50 per cent of the total vote, meaning that another round of voting is due to take place this weekend, with voters choosing between the top two candidates. Colombian people I have spoken to have said there is little between the candidates, and that most people do not feel represented by any of the parties standing.

One of the lowest turnouts was around the north-east coastal region, where the foreign-owned Cerrejón mine, which the World Development Movement has campaigned on for over a year, is based. Cerrejón was not an election issue. In fact, none of the foreign-owned mines in Colombia were on the election agenda, something that some Colombian friends I have met have lamented.

One of the key ‘development’ strategies of both the leading presidential candidates in Colombia is attracting foreign investment, with the mining and extraction industries being one of the key focus areas. This ‘mining locomotive’, they suggest, will help bring development to the country.

However, over the past ten years, as the government has worked together with the state security – the police and the military – to ensure safety for multinational companies to invest here, the ordinary people of Colombia have seen little benefit. Foreign investment has increased threefold, and much of this ‘investment’ has been in the mining sector. Meanwhile, for those living in extreme poverty, income levels have barely shifted, and Colombia is one of only three Latin American counties where inequality has risen in recent years.

At the same time, the lives of people living around the Cerrejón mine continue to be ripped apart. Over the past few days, I have heard tales of forced displacements, with communities feeling that they were being held between ‘a sword and the wall’ when they were asked to agree to settlements with the part UK-owned and UK-financed Cerrejón mine.

Over the past thirty years of the mine’s existence, communities have become wise to the tactics of the mining company. They are now clear that these ‘agreements’ have repeatedly left them with insufficient land to continue their agricultural livelihoods. The agreements have failed to compensate them for negative health impacts, or to provide adequate health care. Some people still living close to the mine had suffered hearing damage. National laws around indigenous and Afro-Caribbean land rights have been forgotten. The tactics the company has used have ripped apart both families and communities, pitting people against one another. And water is now so scarce that there is barely enough for drinking, let alone agriculture.

Meanwhile, high street banks back in the UK increase their profits through investments in the companies behind these kinds of projects, whilst continuing to act with impunity. And most of the coal being mined by these companies is exported to other countries, such as the UK, which gets a quarter of its imported coal from Colombia. Coal imports enable us to continue with business as usual, without having to address the impacts our energy consumption is having on the rest of the world.

As one community member, Samule, said to me, “The say they're going to contribute to growth, but really all they do is leave behind poverty.”

When we hear about mining ‘investments’ in countries like Colombia, we must ask, whose benefit are they really in?



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