FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

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.

December 17, 2018
Susan Abulhawa
Marc Lamont Hill’s Detractors are the True Anti-Semites
Jake Palmer
Viktor Orban, Trump and the Populist Battle Over Public Space
Martha Rosenberg
Big Pharma Fights Proposal to Keep It From Looting Medicare
David Rosen
December 17th: International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers
Binoy Kampmark
The Case that Dare Not Speak Its Name: the Conviction of Cardinal Pell
Dave Lindorff
Making Trump and Other Climate Criminals Pay
Bill Martin
Seeing Yellow
Julian Vigo
The World Google Controls and Surveillance Capitalism
ANIS SHIVANI
What is Neoliberalism?
James Haught
Evangelicals Vote, “Nones” Falter
Martin Billheimer
Late Year’s Hits for the Hanging Sock
Weekend Edition
December 14, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
A Tale of Two Cities
Peter Linebaugh
The Significance of The Common Wind
Bruce E. Levine
The Ketamine Chorus: NYT Trumpets New Anti-Suicide Drug
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Fathers and Sons, Bushes and Bin Ladens
Kathy Deacon
Coffee, Social Stratification and the Retail Sector in a Small Maritime Village
Nick Pemberton
Praise For America’s Second Leading Intellectual
Robert Hunziker
The Yellow Vest Insurgency – What’s Next?
Patrick Cockburn
The Yemeni Dead: Six Times Higher Than Previously Reported
Nick Alexandrov
George H. W. Bush: Another Eulogy
Brian Cloughley
Principles and Morality Versus Cash and Profit? No Contest
Michael F. Duggan
Climate Change and the Limits of Reason
Victor Grossman
Sighs of Relief in Germany
Ron Jacobs
A Propagandist of Privatization
Robert Fantina
What Does Beto Have Against the Palestinians?
Richard Falk – Daniel Falcone
Sartre, Said, Chomsky and the Meaning of the Public Intellectual
Andrew Glikson
Crimes Against the Earth
Robert Fisk
The Parasitic Relationship Between Power and the American Media
Stephen Cooper
When Will Journalism Grapple With the Ethics of Interviewing Mentally Ill Arrestees?
Jill Richardson
A War on Science, Morals and Law
Ron Jacobs
A Propagandist of Privatization
Evaggelos Vallianatos
It’s Not Easy Being Greek
Nomi Prins 
The Inequality Gap on a Planet Growing More Extreme
John W. Whitehead
Know Your Rights or You Will Lose Them
David Swanson
The Abolition of War Requires New Thoughts, Words, and Actions
J.P. Linstroth
Primates Are Us
Bill Willers
The War Against Cash
Jonah Raskin
Doris Lessing: What’s There to Celebrate?
Ralph Nader
Are the New Congressional Progressives Real? Use These Yardsticks to Find Out
Binoy Kampmark
William Blum: Anti-Imperial Advocate
Medea Benjamin – Alice Slater
Green New Deal Advocates Should Address Militarism
John Feffer
Review: Season 2 of Trump Presidency
Rich Whitney
General Motors’ Factories Should Not Be Closed. They Should Be Turned Over to the Workers
Christopher Brauchli
Deported for Christmas
Kerri Kennedy
This Holiday Season, I’m Standing With Migrants
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail