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In Colombia Foreign-Owned Coal Mine Expands, Defenseless People Suffer and Die

Photo by Julián Ortega Martínez | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Julián Ortega Martínez | CC BY 2.0

As it expanded operations, El Cerrejón coal mine in Colombia’s La Guajira department threatened the survival of nearby Wayúu indigenous people. Many now are malnourished and children have died. Imperialism and the way it works bear most of the responsibility.

The stage for humanitarian disaster was already set. The Wayúu, who make up 45 percent of the Guajira population, are vulnerable: in 2012, 87.7% of jobs there were in the informal sector, and 60% of workers received less than the legal minimum wage. Unemployment in La Guajira is 47 percent, and more than half the people there live in poverty; 25 percent, in extreme poverty.  Some 15,000 school – age Wayúu children aren’t attending school this year. Social services are weak, notably health care.

Wayúu people living inland have relied on subsistence farming. Despite an arid climate, water and land were available and food sovereignty was maintained. As the mine grew and land was reserved for future expansion, farmers lost land. London activist Richard Solly reports that in 1960, “104,963 hectares of the department [were] suitable for agriculture; but in 2001 only 30,752 hectares were under cultivation and in 2008 much less.”

There is also the Wayúu people’s hulking neighbor. El Cerrejón, 35 miles long, is the world’s largest open-pit coal mine. Exporting 32 million tons of coal annually, the mining company owns a 93 mile – long railroad and a deep-water seaport. It’s Colombia’s largest privately-owned export company. Three multi – national corporations share ownership.

They are: BHP Billiton (Australia), which, operating in 100 locations in 25 countries, extracts iron ore, oil, coal, and diamonds; Anglo-American (South Africa) which mines coal, iron ore, and copper in South Africa, Australia, and the Western Hemisphere; and Glencore (Switzerland), the tenth largest corporation in the world, producing 90 commodities. Profits of the three in 2016 were: $3.2 billion (July through December), $1.59 billion, and $3.67 billion, respectively.

El Cerrejón has abused nearby Wayúu communities. Beginning in 2001, in the context of Cerrejón’s take-over of new land, bulldozers destroyed Wayúu villages. Cerrejón has ravaged over 30,000 acres of forest.

The company acted to ensure water for mine operations. After 2010, dams appeared across the Ranchería River and some tributaries to divert flow to the mine. These provided most of the people’s water.  Since then – and drought has intervened – twelve rivers have disappeared or almost so, crops are no longer irrigated, farm animals are dying, and only 0.7 liters per capita of untreated water are available each day for drinking.

The diversion allows Cerrejón to remove 17 million liters every day from the river system. Toxins exuding from mine wastage contaminate water remaining in the streams.

According to one report in 2016, “around 27% of children under five are suffering from malnutrition,” According to another that year, “more than 4770 children of this indigenous community have died over eight years due to malnourishment and a lack of drinking water.” In 2016, 36 mothers died of malnutrition.  The data may underestimate the damage; government record keepers overlook the deaths of many Wayúu infants.  The Colombian pediatric society, summarizing, says that, “an indigenous child [in La Guajira] has a 24 times greater risk of dying than children elsewhere in the country.”

The Colombian government stays away. In Bogota, says one observer, “they have no idea of La Guajira, there’s laxity in understanding it, studying it, respecting it.” A socially-conscious physician writes of “abandonment by the state, violent stealing of resources, and institutional and political crisis.”

Even if departmental and national governments were so inclined, funds generated from taxation or royalties from coal mining don’t suffice to bankroll social spending in La Guajira. Formerly 85 percent of the royalties derived from mineral extraction ended up in the department where operations took place; now “only 9.3 percent of the royalties come to the producing department.” Cerrejón benefits from a concession exempting the company from taxation until 2034. Royalties are paid, but since 2009 they’ve barely exceeded the value of government subsidies to the company.

Rampant corruption within the La Guajira government sidelines help from that quarter.  Reportedly, funds sent by the national government to help pay for schooling, health care, water, and food rarely leave the local government’s offices, or are wasted on costs tagged as administrative. Cerrejón allegedly bribes officials. The department’s own development plan for 2016 – 2019 rejected official statistics on grounds of under-reporting, adding that, “you can’t govern anything you know nothing about.”

Departmental governor Wilmer González Brito recently went to prison for buying votes. In 2013 authorities arrested his predecessor, Juan Francisco Gómez Cerchar, while in office. He had been a paramilitary and narco-trafficking operative. Charged with six murders, he is serving a 55 year jail sentence.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has insisted on “precautionary measures.” Its recommendations in late 2015 dealt with malnutrition in babies and children; others a year later, with malnutrition afflicting pregnant women and lactating mothers.

The national government announced it will be managing “health, education, and drinkable water resources” in La Guajira for three years. President Juan Manuel Santos denied that a “state of exception” – or emergency – existed. Colombia’s Constitutional Court recently sent inspectors to La Guajira; they avoided southern regions of the department where suffering is concentrated. The Council of State in December, 2016 stopped the diversion of Bruno Stream, a tributary of the Ranchería River.

Conclusions are in order. First, a powerful company is laying waste to the very weak, with state collusion. Worldwide, there’s a long history: rapacious individuals and commercial entities set forth from centers of wealth and power to plunder distant territories. Hallmarks of imperialism – that’s the name – are: free rein for capitalist imperatives, concentrated wealth, and bias that marginalized peoples don’t matter.

Two, apologists for this system predominate in Colombia’s government and among ruling circles there. They presumably accept Cerrejón’s successful pursuit of imperialist goals and tolerate Wayúu suffering.  Civil war in Colombia between the government and leftist insurgents may be ending, but the kind of war typified by the fate of the Wayúu is not. What happens to powerless, abandoned people like them isn’t on the official agenda for peace in Colombia.

Three, the U.S. government for decades has backed Colombia in its internal war. To suppose a creative response from there to suffering and human – rights violations in Colombia would be wishful thinking. The upper levels of U.S. society readily accept the U.S. role of protector and protagonist of the imperialist project. Their government stays solid with the status quo in Colombia.

More articles by:

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a retired pediatrician and political journalist living in Maine.

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