Coal mining in colombia: breathing easy impossible

The village of Provincial in Colombia is located near the country’s largest coal mine. The residents defend themselves against the noise, dirt and stench.

In the past, it was safe to take a bath here, but today? Photo: Knut Henkel

It has been raining in Provincial, a village in Colombia, and the smell of rotten eggs hangs in the air. "This is the sulfur that is washed out of the rubble around the mine," says Carmen Rosa Uriana.

Uriana is one of the women from the 700-inhabitant village inhabited by the Wayuú, an ethnic minority. It is located a few kilometers from the Colombian provincial town of Barrancas and near the country’s largest coal mine, El Cerrejón. For Uriana, the stench is part of everyday life – as is the fight against it.

She meets regularly with Marco Brito and others – as a group they have come together to fight pollution in Provincial. Uriana is one of the spokeswomen for the Wayuú village.

Most recently, because of Corona, it was quiet for two months behind the huge tailings piles that tower not far from the village and are clearly visible from the river, the RIo RancherIa. The lockdown provided Provincial with some respite: "Respiratory infections and skin diseases have decreased among children and us adults," Uriana reports.

With 300,000 people, the Wayuú are among Colombia’s largest indigenous peoples. They live in the La Guajira district in the north on the border with Venezuela. It is hot and dry there.

Down to the RIo

Provincial’s future is bleak; coal mining is having a massive impact on living conditions. "Only the river and a narrow strip of green where we used to harvest mangoes, watch iguanas and see game separate us from the mine," says Marco Brito.

Brito is a young man with short, curly hair. He has recently been going down to the RIo more often to enjoy the peace and quiet. The river meanders leisurely through the landscape; from afar, the green stripes to the left and right of the river’s course can be seen.

Marco Brito used to go swimming in the RIo RancherIa, catching fish and watching deer on the banks. The Wayuú from Provincial were doing well – they lived from cultivation, hunting and cattle breeding. "In the past, the river had a higher level and was clean," Brito says.

"Today, it is contaminated by coal dust and discharges from the mine." The tailings piles on the far bank are sprinkled to bind the dust and stabilize the debris. "Millions of liters of water seep away there, and we suffer from water shortages, barely having enough to water our livestock," Brito says.

Water is scarce in La Guajira, and the situation has recently worsened. Where once it was necessary to dig five meters deep to reach the groundwater, it is now fifty, complain the villagers along the rail line that transports coal to the port of Puerto BolIvar.

What responsibility Carbones de Cerrejón Limited, the full name of the mine, has for this is unclear. What is indisputable, however, is that living conditions in the village of Provincial have deteriorated with coal mining and its expansion.

This was confirmed by a constitutional court ruling on December 16, 2019. Two women from Provincial had filed a lawsuit to close the mine, citing the high number of children with respiratory and skin diseases. Coal dust from the mine, which stretches over 69,000 hectares, was the cause, he said.

The mine is operated by Swiss company Glencore, British-South African company Anglo American and British-Australian BHP Group, and in 2019 supplied around 26 million tons of hard coal around the world – including to Germany.

Advocates write UN special rapporteur:in.

According to the complaint, the mine violates fundamental rights to health, hygiene, adequate nutrition, and economic, social and cultural rights of the villagers. All of this was substantiated with expert opinions, videos and testimonies of those affected.

The constitutional judges followed the arguments of the plaintiffs, who were represented by Rosa MarIa Mateus, a lawyer with the Cajar Human Rights Law Firm. For Mateus, the verdict is a stage victory: "The state institutions and the company were sentenced to adjust the funding conditions. In concrete terms, this means reducing emissions, noise and vibrations from blasting, and stopping the contamination of water sources," Mateus says on the phone.

This is a text from the taz at the weekend. Always from Saturday on the kiosk, in the eKiosk or immediately in the practical weekend subscription. And around the clock on Facebook and Twitter.

But even six months after the verdict was handed down, nothing has happened, say Brito and Uriana. No representative of the responsible ministries has shown up, and the mine resumed operations a few weeks ago, they both report. For Mateus, the lawyer, this prompted her to ask the Constitutional Court and, through her British colleagues at the law firm Twenty Essex, to approach the United Nations.

In June, the London-based lawyers wrote a letter to the UN Special Rapporteurs on Human Rights and the Environment asking them to take action. For Mateus, this is both a reaction to government inaction and to the company’s actions. Although it claims to be complying with Colombian law, the company has appealed against the ruling of the Constitutional Court.

Cerrejón officials defend themselves: "We help the Wayuú where we can. Good examples are the well drilling projects, the delivery of drinking water for communities, including Provincial, as well as advice on cultivation projects," answers Cerrejón representative Susana Loaiza when asked by the taz.

The allegedly one-sided representation of the law firm Twenty Essex was rejected by the company in June and it announced that it would provide the UN Special Rapporteur:in with all current data on water consumption and emissions.

This would be the first time that the residents of the village would be provided with this information. "We don’t have access to the results of the measuring stations, we don’t know how much the air is polluted, nor how much water is pumped out of the river. We first had to sue for our drinking water supply from Cerrejón," says Marco Brito. 1,000 liters is given to each family in Provincial every 14 days.

"Too little for the large families, who often still have livestock to feed," says environmental and human rights activist Samuel Arregoces. He advises several communities and has been to Germany several times to draw attention to the situation of the villages near the mine and along the railroad line. "Cerrejón pursues a media strategy that perfectly stages the company’s aid projects, but never asks why these projects are necessary," he criticizes.

Split village

In 2017, during a tour with environmental and human rights organizations, he tried to talk to coal-importing companies in Germany. With mixed success: coal imports from Colombia have fallen from ten million to currently less than two million tons.

At Cerrejón, the pressure has only led to the company looking for new customers, for example in Asia, and presenting itself under the slogan "MinerIa responsable" – responsible mining.

There is no sign of the latter. The blasting operations and the coal dust, which can be seen as a glittering cloud in the sun above the mine, continue to ensure lousy prospects. Not only because the village is being deprived of its agricultural livelihood, but also because Latin America’s largest coal mine has divided the village, Brito says, the future is uncertain. "Many of our elected representatives receive money from the corporation," he says. There has been pressure on the environmental activists from the village leaders. He does not know what will happen next.