Cerrejon coal in Colombia: rehabilitating the land, removing the humans


18 July 2016

Last month, Global Justice Now and Colombia Solidarity Campaign (both of them member groups of London Mining Network) supported me to take part in a delegation to La Guajira in Colombia, visiting communities affected by the massive Cerrejon coal mine.  Cerrejon is the largest opencast mine in Latin America and is owned by three mining companies listed on the London Stock Exchange: Anglo American, BHP Billiton and Glencore – all among the biggest mining companies in the world.

I last went to La Guajira two years ago, and that visit was a shock. Cerrejon Coal's social responsibility personnel had been telling us for years about the high quality of their work relocating farming communities to make way for the mine. What we found was that scattered, rural communities had been crowded into suburban settlements on the edge of a local town, with insufficient land to carry on farming, and that many of the new 'productive projects' which the mining company had funded to give people alternative livelihoods had gone bust.

Since that visit, communities have made progress legally, winning recognition of their constitutional right to free, prior informed consent before economic development projects are allowed to affect their land. But despite this, the last remaining members of one of the old villages, Roche, were forcibly evicted in February.

Now mine workers and communities together are working to stop the company diverting an important local stream, fearful of its impact in such a water-stressed area, where thousands of indigenous children have died of malnutrition in the past few years.

Communities' complaints and demands were summarised in an open letter to the company sent in June by London Mining Network and others.

The mine's owners keep telling us that mining is bringing prosperity to La Guajira. Local activists, using Colombian government statistics, assure us that it isn't.

When the Witness for Peace delegation met Cerrejon mine officials in June, 2014, some of the officials complained that we never say anything nice about them (they made the same complaint this June!). So I made a special effort in the blog I wrote about that visit: I wrote, 'The mine workers that we met, officials from the mine’s health and safety and environmental departments, were very proud of their work, proud of the ways in which they were trying to improve the mine’s safety record and regenerate the land once an area has been mined out and the pit refilled.... They deserve recognition for their efforts.'

This year, I got a different feeling altogether from the people working on land regeneration.  They were still doing a creditable job of filling in mined-out sections of the coal pits and restoring the vegetation. It looked beautiful. One of them asked us to look across the broad expanse of native trees and bushes growing again on what had once been a vast coal pit, and compare its lush diversity with the sparser vegetation growing on the hills beyond. What was the reason for the difference? It was because of the farmers! They didn't say, “those pesky, backward small-scale farmers!” but I sensed that it was what they were thinking. Where farmers were operating, there were areas where trees had been cut down to create fields. It had damaged the biodiversity. So it was really important to make sure that the regenerated areas within the mine lease got some kind of legal protection to prevent farmers coming back in once the mine was closed, and ruining everything.

Coming back in? Yes! Because parts of the mine lease area were farmland before mining began. Indeed, to add insult to injury, some of the huge pits within the mine lease area are named after the villages destroyed to make way for them. Given the level of social dislocation caused by the forcible relocation of those farming communities, and the profound psychological dislocation experienced by many of those who have lost their agricultural livelihoods, one might have thought that allowing people to move back on to their land once the mining has finished would be some kind of consolation to whose who have lost so much and suffered so much from the expansion of the mine. But no: they are to be seen as the enemy, the destroyer of nature, and kept away at all costs.

I grew up in south-east England. I love the local countryside very much indeed: the fields, the woods and the hedgerows feel like part of my own body, their familiarity forming my sense of what nature is about. But it has to be said that the clearing of native forests in the Neolithic period damaged the natural biodiversity of the area. From a conservationist perspective, it might well be desirable to clear Kent, Surrey and Sussex of people and allow the apple and cherry orchards, the raspberry and strawberry fields, the grain fields and market gardens, the vineyards and hop gardens to return to natural mixed broad-leaved forest. I love broad-leaved forests too – but I would be a little upset if my family were removed and food production ended. I might possible starve a little too – I am partial to a bit of food once in a while.

So the attitude of the environmental regeneration department at Cerrejon Coal was another shock. Taking small farmers' land by force, destroying their livelihoods and dividing their communities, digging enormous holes in the ground, disturbing local hydrology and re-routing water courses, mining coal for combustion in power stations, driving the climate change that helped fire the devastating recent three-year drought in La Guajira – that's all okay as long as you regenerate the land after mining; whereas making a living on a piece of land for a couple of hundred years by small-scale farming, and aspiring to continuing to do so, is some kind of environmental crime.

It reminded me of an episode of Star Trek (I am afraid I can't remember the title or much of the detail of the plot) where the crew of the Enterprise visit a planet in a far-flung corner of the Federation to persuade its human inhabitants to move out because a treaty has assigned the sector to a rather unsavoury group of aliens who are demanding the removal of 'the human infestation'.

As long as Cerrejon Coal continues approaching local people as a problem, mining-related conflicts are going to continue.

And we are on the side of the local people.

The delegation was arranged by US organisation Witness for Peace  and led by US academics Avi Chomsky and Steve Striffler, with whom Colombia Solidarity Campaign has been working for many years to support communities displaced by the Cerrejon mine. There will be another delegation next year – I strongly recommend these delegations to anyone interested in learning more about the issues and getting involved in solidarity work.

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