UK Coal Costs Colombia

7 December 2017 - 11:30am
War on Want in the news

By Mark Metcalf, originally published in Big Issue North 27 NOV - 3 DEC.

Claims human rights violated in Colombia

UK-owned mine is vital to local economy

 Mariana Greif Etchebehere

A worker at Cerrejon coal mine in Colombia. UK owners are accused of displacing locals and environmental damage. Photo: Mariana Greif Etchebehere

A major coal supplier to UK power stations has denied claims by Colombian indigenous leaders that its mining operations in the South American republic have violated human rights.

Cerrejon, which is jointly owned by three London Stock Exchange-listed companies, Anglo American, BHP and Glencore, is a large coal mine in La Guajira in northern Colombia close to the Venezuelan border.

At 270 square miles, Cerrejon is the biggest opencast mine in Colombia, which last year was the biggest supplier of coal to the UK, with imports exceeding 2.6 million tonnes. Cerrejon, much of which is still to be exploited, is vital to the economy of La Guajira, accounting for half of the region’s GDP and employing nearly 12,000 employees and contractors, with over 48,000 in its supply chain.

Indigenous leaders recognise Cerrejon’s economic importance but also want to see major changes in how the company operates. They accuse the company of displacing residents and environmental damage.

“Poor practices”

Last month the charity War on Want organised a tour to Britain that gave two Colombian indigenous leaders an opportunity to meet politicians and pension fund managers, speak at public meetings and attend as shareholders the BHP annual general meeting.

Angelica Ortiz from the Wayuu Women’s Force Movement said: “We sought to raise awareness of what is happening in my region because of poor mining practices that include forcibly displacing over many years around 35 local communities. Just five have been partially resettled.

“Access to uncontaminated water is a problem and this is confirmed by the Colombian courts who have ordered, without success, the mine to reduce water and air pollution levels. We worry that with the company intending to extend its operations there will be further violations.”

Ortiz quoted the case of Moises Daniel Guette, whose mother Luz Angela won a court case in 2015 against Cerrejon for its impact on her son’s health and alleges that the company has failed to reduce pollution levels.

At the AGM in London, Ortiz asked BHP directors to compensate displaced communities, safeguard the cultural identities of local people, reduce contamination levels, guarantee the supply of safe drinking water and cease forced evictions.

Ortiz was accompanied by Luisa Rodriguez from the human rights organisation the Centre for Popular Investigation and Education, which since 2001 has helped Cerrejon communities caught up in the armed struggle – lasting from 1964 until last year – between the government and Farc rebels.

“Communities in Cerrejon suffer because companies trading on the London Stock Exchange won’t tackle ongoing poor practices when digging up the coal that produces electricity used in Britain. We have asked people on our visit for help in stopping these practices,” said Rodriguez.

Rodriguez reported how the concerns of Colombian activists are mirrored by communities living in Barra Longa, a small Brazilian town left devastated by the 2015 Mariana mine waste spill. Brazil’s worst environmental disaster, it killed 20 people when the Fundao tailings dam burst, unleashing millions of tonnes of toxic mud that has left hundreds of miles of land needing to be decontaminated. The dam is owned by Samarco, a joint venture between BHP and Brazilian mining giant Vale.

“Last resort”

Representatives of people affected by the spillage also attended the BHP AGM thanks to War on Want, whose spokesperson Seb Munoz said: “We assist communities to speak for themselves about how unhappy they are because of the mining operations involving BHP in Brazil and Colombia. The company should tackle the problems these communities have identified and which now have legal backing because of a series of court rulings.

“We facilitated meetings with MPs to alert them to ongoing problems. In the meeting with the local authority pension fund we asked those who have invested in companies that operate Cerrejon to consider whether such a policy is ethical.”

In response to a series of Big Issue North questions, the owners of Cerrejon said: “We refute the allegation that Cerrejon has systematically violated human rights. In 2007, a third party review by NGOs and a group of independent academics found no instances of human rights violations and all the recommendations they made that we could undertake were carried out.

“Mining is critical to La Guajira. It needs to continue and, of the water used there only 7 per cent is high quality and that is used by employees and their families. Cerrejon is open to rigorous and autonomous measurements of air and water quality. Cerrejon does not promote the eviction of community members. Evictions are a last resort and are undertaken according to Colombian law and international standards.”

– Mark Metcalf

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