Where does the myth that coal is still necessary come from? It comes from the lobbying and influence of those corporations who benefit from continued coal exploitation and sales. While coal is presented as a cheap source of energy and mines portrayed as ethical and even green job-creators, the real cost to people and the environment is incalculable, as a visit to Colombia’s Guajaira region demonstrates.

El Cerrejón is an open coal pit mine in the Guajaira region of northeast Colombia. In January 2015 I met with communities in the area who have been relocated from their villages and their ancestral lands because of the mine. The threat of relocation hangs over more communities unlucky enough to find their whole lives within the scope of the mine’s expansionist ambitions. Among El Cerrejón’s shareholders is the British-South African transnational corporation Anglo American — the subject of the report How Corporations Rule Part 4, launched at the UNFCCC climate change conference in December 2014 by the Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), Transnational institute (TNI) and Friends of the Earth International (FOEI). The report talks about Anglo American’s lobbying efforts and its “solutions” to climate change.

The Wayuu indigenous community Tamaquito has been moved just recently. El Cerrejón’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) policy celebrates the move as a success.  Jario Fuentesepiayu, a representative of the community, told his story.

“We negotiated with Cerrejón for seven years and it was a hard battle. The most difficult part of all was to negotiate about the sacred land and our cultural and spiritual values. No white person could understand this”, he says. “The company offered us money, three million pesos per family [Approximately 1115 euros], for the loss of spiritual and cultural values, which we found rather offensive”. The discussions were deadlocked. Eventually the company had to hire an intermediary negotiator of indigenous origin to negotiate the deal. As a result the company promised the community not to mine the sacred land and arranged for daily visits to the spot to make sure that the promise is being kept.

 

 

In fact, the Tamaquito community has been very successful in negotiating with the mine. Their success comes from their unity and uncorrupted leadership. Firstly, they have kept a record of the mine’s impacts on the community and asked the company to recognise the impact. Secondly, they demanded rules and preconditions for negotiations, one of the main clauses being that the company had to negotiate with community representatives, not each family individually. The community would then have internal consultations. Furthermore, they created a list and order of topics to negotiate. By the time the negotiations concluded and the contract was finally signed in August 2013, the Tamaquito community had managed to negotiate new houses for all thirty one families affected, a school and some scholarships, but they got much less land for the village and agriculture than they had asked for (300 instead of 500 hectares).

The Tamaquito community is one of the cases El Cerrejón brags about in corporate social responsibility reports. In reality, the seven year negotiations for resettlement were anything but smooth and the implementation of the contract has seen many problems too, with promises and agreements not kept. For instance, running water, of dubious quality, comes only twice a day instead of a constant flow as promised. Agricultural projects, not to mention quality of life, are suffering as a result.

Water is a big issue in this arid and drought affected area, where the only drinking water is bought in plastic containers, and the average water usage is only 0.7 liters per person per day. It is hardly surprising then that the locals regard the mine’s abundant water use with disapproval. According to data from El Cerrejón’s Environmental Management Plan, the mine uses seventeen million liters of water per day. While the company, as a part of its CSR obligations, provides water in tanks to some of the communities around the mine, locals complain that this water is not drinkable and is suitable only for washing. Moreover, due to plans to expand the mine, communities worry that the use of water from Guajira’s only river, the Rancheria, and widening pollution from the mine will make the situation even worse.

Water is not the only vital need threatened by the mine’s expansion. Communities are also losing their land. The mine has operated for thirty years with plans to extend the concessions for another thirty years. The vast area of 69,000 hectares the mine occupies makes it one of the largest in the world and Latin America’s biggest open pit coal mine. The region in and around the mine is populated mostly by indigenous, mixed Afro- indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities that see and utilize the land as a common or a territory of a whole community. The communities do not have legal claims to the land, as it is officially state-owned. Although the Colombian constitution recognises the communities’ right to prior and informed consent for projects like this, in reality only remote, relatively isolated indigenous communities are able to exercise this right.

Land grabs because of the mine have caused abundant conflicts and human rights violations. In 2005, following a lot of pressure by communities and Colombian and international human rights organisations, El Cerrejón adopted a human rights policy in which they pledged little more than respect for Colombian and international law. The company claims it is dedicated to responsible mining, and dedicated in its efforts to improve its image. Indeed, looking at El Cerrejón’s website, one could be forgiven for thinking it is a foundation supporting conservation of biodiversity and nature projects, cultural events and local sustainable development projects, not an open pit coal mine.

Meanwhile, people from communities who have had to abandon their land due to the mine’s expansion are telling a very different story: A story of threats and bad deals, a story where they were forced to abandon productive agricultural land and resettle in sub-urban sprawl, where they may have better houses, but no usable land and no jobs to support themselves. Resettled communities are dependent on sponsorship from the company for basic survival, because without land and water they cannot produce food. Through so-called productive projects for the resettled communities, El Cerrejón is providing some agricultural land, but often not enough for adequate production and with insufficient water. Even in the showcase example of Tamaquito, the productive projects are not currently operating due to a lack of water. The community leaders are threatening the company with an ultimatum to fulfil the contract and provide water or they will take them to court.

In a way, the resettled communities are trapped in the new houses, which they do not own. In one of the settlements, a community member showed us the contract for his house, which states that the house and the whole settlement, is owned by El Cerrejón company and not by resettled families. The company told them that this is a way to “protect” community and social cohesion as families cannot sell the houses and leave since they do not own them. But it means that once relocated, the communities are at the mercy of the company. Even in Tamaquito the leaders told us that they are still negotiating the transfer of land rights from El Cerrejón to the community because the community owns neither land nor houses at the moment.

 

Members of local communities around the mine asked us to make their case more visible at the international level, to help them to fight the powerful company who owns their land, water and lives. In doing so, we might help them to see their rights respected and to get better deals. “But, in fact, we want the mine to stop expanding and to close. We do not want another thirty years of this,” says Samuel Arregoces, a community leader from Tabaco and one of the people resettled by the mine. Others in his company agreed. Individuals and communities may prosper more or less because of the mine, but the lion’s share of the profits of coal exploitation make their way to pockets far away from El Cerrejón, while the pollution and poverty remain. We have been told that 3,000 children have died in the last three years due to malnutrition and polluted water in the area and adults are dying from cancer.

Looking at the mine’s wasteland across the horizon, I cannot stop thinking how easy it is to turn a productive ecosystem into a dead nothingness and self-sustainable communities into urban poor. Communities such as those in Cerrejón are paying the price of electricity here in Europe, where the majority of the exported coal ends up. Why, I can only wonder, are we still producing electricity from coal imported from places like Cerrejón?

My country, Croatia, plans to build at least one new coal power plant fueled by imported coal and Cerrejón is one of its potential sources. A transnational problem takes a transnational response. That’s why while Friends of the Earth Columbia (Censat Aqua Viva) works to help local communities impacted by El Cerrejón, Friends of the Earth Croatia is working with local communities to stop construction of the new coal power plant.

Coal is not cheap at all: Its cost is climate change, loss of habitats, land, water and human life and health. Neither the communities of Cerrejón nor the rest of the world can afford to continue burning it in the decades to come. The time has truly come to keep the coal in the hole.

 

Jagoda Munić is chair of Friends of the Earth International
Images: Luka Tomac and Jagoda Munić