Cerrejon Coal: a struggle between a tethered donkey and a tiger

Unarmed villagers resist eviction at Tabaco, 9 August 2001

Unarmed villagers resist eviction at Tabaco, 9 August 2001

For the last sixteen years, I have been working in support of communities in the province of La Guajira, Colombia, being displaced by the massive Cerrejon opencast coal mine. The mine is owned by London-listed companies Anglo AmericanBHP Billiton  and Glencore.

Cerrejon Coal has a slogan, ‘Coal for the world, progress for Colombia’. Given the sufferings of the communities most directly affected by the mine, it’s hard to know what the company means by ‘progress’. And during my most recent visit, as part of a Witness for Peace delegation in June of this year, we heard the statistics from friends at the organisation Comite Civico para la Dignidad de La Guajira showing how the advent of mining to La Guajira has helped destroy food sovereignty and local jobs.

Travelling round to various communities around the edges of the mining concession and listening to the testimony of local people, we heard similar stories over and over again (1):

* the mining company had broken promises;
* it had caused divisions in communities;
* in the early days of the mine, it had broken up communities completely and paid totally inadequate compensation for loss of homes and livelihoods;
* more recently, although it had negotiated with communities and resettled them, it used the threat of forced eviction to make people accept conditions they found unacceptable, because they felt there was no real choice;
* it had removed rural communities where people lived from the land and replaced them with semi-urban communities where people had to seek waged labour as they could no longer support themselves;
* it had encouraged people to take up new livelihoods that proved impractical;
* the change in La Guajira from an agricultural economy to a mining economy had destroyed the way people lived before, growing food and exchanging it with other growers, and now people were going hungry, and children dying of malnutrition;
* houses in the new communities were poorly built;
* it had changed people from producers to consumers;
* it had polluted the air with coal dust, and people were getting ill as a result;
* it had removed huge numbers of trees and ruined agricultural land;
* it used far more than its fair share of water, and everyone else lacked water as a result;
* now it was planning to divert an important stream, the Arroyo Bruno, and almost everyone we spoke to was opposed to this; the only people who did not oppose it just thought it was inevitable, and wanted compensation for the damage it would cause them.

Many of these concerns were contained in an open letter sent to the company shortly before the delegation visited.

One community member told us that the imbalance of power between the company and the communities is so great that “It’s a struggle between a tethered donkey and a tiger.”

Our delegation went with community representatives to meet representatives of the Cerrejon Coal company at the mine. The meeting began with young members of our delegation – students from the USA – giving their impressions of the area after several days of visiting communities. They had been horrified at what they had seen and heard. Then each community representative had a few minutes to summarise their community’s concerns. It was all unrelentingly negative, because the impacts of the mine on their lives have been so unrelentingly negative.

The Cerrejon Coal representatives were upset. They told the students and the community representatives that they should not say such nasty things about them – they were doing their best. Several of them gave the company’s perspective on what was being done on community relocation, water provision and other social and environmental matters.

After the meeting, one of the social responsibility department officials asked me whether I thought that the company had in any way improved its behaviour over the past 16 years. I said I would have to think about that.

One thing that has changed for the better is that, as a result of the review of its operations by an independent panel of inquiry in 2008, Cerrejon agreed to undertake negotiated community resettlements rather than talking to families one by one and paying them inadequate compensation to go away and find somewhere else to live. But there is an awful lot of dissatisfaction with the process and with the quality of the new communities.

Before 24 February this year, I would have said, well, at least they aren’t carrying out forced evictions any more, like they did at Tabaco in 2001. But then – on 24 February this year – they did it again at the village of Roche. Admittedly, this time it was only one family rather than a whole village. And apparently it was the Colombian State that insisted on using the notoriously violent ESMAD riot police to do it. But still…

Roche eviction 24 Feb 2016ESMAD personnel at Roche, 24 February 2016

I have not looked into the history of environmental restoration at the mine, and it’s true that  Cerrejon appears to be making great efforts to do it right. But even that’s a double-edged sword.

It’s also true that at least one colleague at one NGO in Colombia, with extensive experience of Colombian mines, says that Cerrejon is the best mine in the country. But that’s only because all the others are so dire.

While I was in Colombia, I was reading a book called Soil and Soul: people versus corporate power, by Alastair McIntosh (2). It’s a book about the Highland clearances in Scotland, the modern legacy of that injustice, and the current community fightback against it. I was struck by the parallels with La Guajira. Read ‘coal’ for ‘ new breeds of sheep’ in the following extract.

‘Between … 1746 and the dawn of the twentieth century, probably some half a million Scottish Highlanders were forced off their land. The old clan leaders had valued land for the number of people it could support, but the new breed of owners … were products of Enlightenment thought. To many of them, economy and its new breeds of sheep came before people. You had to be ‘realistic’ in the face of economic exigencies more and more determined by a frame of reference that Empire rendered not local, but global.’ (3)

Then there’s this:

‘ … the people were simultaneously being pushed on to marginal land in the name of a calculated economic rationale. In 1815 Patrick Sellar, legal agent or ‘factor’ for the Sutherland Estates, articulated this policy as follows:

“Lord and Lady Stafford were pleased humanely to order a new arrangement of this Country. That the interior should be possessed by Cheviot [sheep] Shepherds and the people brought down to the coast and placed there in lotts under the size of three arable acres, sufficient for the maintenance of an industrious family, but pinched enough to cause them turn their attention to fishing [i.e. waged labour]. I presume to say that the proprietors humanely ordered this arrangement, because it surely was a most benevolent action, to put these barbarous hordes into a position where they could better Associate together, apply to industry, educate their children, and advance in civilisation.”‘ (4)

At one level, what is going on in La Guajira is simply the colonisation by foreign multinationals, aided and abetted by the Colombian Government, of land that has been used for many generations by Indigenous people and people of African descent, in the interests of shareholders in the UK and elsewhere, and those of the national and local elites whose economic interests coincide with theirs.

But it is accompanied by a cultural imposition as well. I have heard members of the local political elite speak of the small farmers in the communities we support as ‘primitive’. They have to be moved out of the way for the sake of ‘progress’. One of the Cerrejon Coal representatives I spoke to a while ago said that urbanisation is ‘inevitable’ – so the peasants have to go. Indigenous people complain that the mining company treats the land in a completely different way from the way Indigenous people treat it, and sees Indigenous attitudes as quaint and unscientific. One Wayuu woman, speaking of the planned diversion of the Arroyo Bruno (Bruno Stream), told us:

“The arroyo is very important to us as Indigenous People because it is a space for spiritual rituals. So we are opposed to mining and the diversion. … They say the diversion will have no impact. They speak about science and say we know nothing about that, but we do know that our spiritual ancestors tell us it will have an impact. The river created by Maregua (God) must not be destroyed by human beings. We have to take care of these things.”

Alastair McIntosh quotes psychologist Erich Fromm:

‘Fromm and the Frankfurt School of which he was a part saw necrophilia as the bottom line of domination, the driving dynamic that destroys both community and environment. It converts, he said, the ‘world of life’ into

“…a world of ‘no-life’; persons have become ‘nonpersons’, a world of death. Death is no longer symbolically expressed by unpleasant-smelling faeces or corpses. Its symbols are now clean, shining machines; men are not attracted to smelly toilets, but to structures of aluminium and glass. But the reality behind this antiseptic facade becomes increasingly visible. Man, in the name of progress, is transforming the world into a stinking and poisonous place (and this is not symbolic). He pollutes the air, the water, the soil, the animals – and himself. He is doing this to a degree that has made it doubtful whether the earth will still be liveable within a hundred years from now. He knows the facts, but in spite of many protesters, those in charge go on in the pursuit of technical ‘progress’ and are willing to sacrifice all life in the worship of their idol. In earlier times men also sacrificed their children or war prisoners, but never before in history has man been willing to sacrifice all life to Moloch – his own and that of all his descendants.”‘ (5)

I think that passage pretty much sums up the world view that makes places like the Cerrejon mine seem acceptable to so many.

So we’ll carry on our work of solidarity with communities seeking justice from Cerrejon Coal and its London-listed multinational shareholders Anglo American, BHP Billiton and Glencore.

I don’t doubt that the social responsibility department at Cerrejon Coal are well-motivated people, genuinely wanting to do a decent job. Nor do I doubt that the company’s behaviour in 2016 is an improvement on its behaviour in 2000 when I first visited. But the whole enterprise is part of a massive, structural injustice which is causing continuing suffering to the communities it affects and enormous damage to local hydrology and ecosystems and, through the burning of its coal, to the planet as a whole. We in Britain are implicated in this injustice because so many of our banks, insurance companies and pension funds invest in the three multinationals which own the mine, and some of our electricity is generated by the coal it produces. So it’s our problem.

As one of our friends in La Guajira told the Witness for Peace delegates in June:

“The only way we can defend our interests is mobilisation, and for that international solidarity is crucial. Your annual visits help give us energy and help us continue the struggle. Our struggle is your struggle, so we continue – hasta la victoria siempre!”


(1) See extracts from community testimony below.
(2) Aurum Press, London, 2004, ISBN 978 1 85410 942 2
(3) Soil and Soul (2004) page 89, from chapter 9, Voice of Complicity
(4) Soil and Soul (2004) pages 93-4, from chapter 9, Voice of Complicity
(5) Soil and Soul (2004)  page 114, from chapter 11, World Without a Friend

Extracts from the testimony of community members

At El Rocio, people are asking for employment at the mine, because they have already been forced from their land by paramilitary activity. They are now calling for compensation for environmental damage if the diversion of the Arroyo Bruno goes ahead. One man said: “Before, we had more of an economy of exchange of agricultural products and children did not die of hunger.”

At the community of Oreganal, relocated in 1998, one woman told us:

“We have land titles but Cerrejon occupies the land. If they won’t buy the land then they should give it back. We claim the right to equality with other communities. We have had to give land up and have received nothing. We have no title to land in the new community though we are looking after houses and land. We want to reclaim our land.”

Another woman told us:
“I was never given a house. Some people were given new houses. More recent residents were not. The company only bought 300 square metres of my land. I had 2395 square metres and they only bought 300. In the community of Las Casitas they did buy land. For buying my house they only gave me two million pesos (700 US dollars). When we came to Nuevo Oreganal they showed us a model house and we thought we’d all get one like that, so we agreed, but the actual houses were different.”

She also told us: “Sometimes the company does classes about how to make food, how to make fast food, as there is a food company in the area which might provide work. But the classes ended and nobody got work. Then came a course in sewing, and how to make the rags used in the mine, but the money was lost. Women here don’t work – Cerrejon won’t provide work. Anyone over 40 won’t get work. Cerrejon sometimes helps three or four people but not the rest. They had a working group [mesa] but paid community leaders to be part of it. There was supposed to be money to help people over 50 to find jobs but that commitment was not fulfilled either.

At the village of Chancleta, we were told: “Like all the African communities we have resisted for 280 years. Since the 1980s with the presence of the mine, we have resisted – we had been poor but able to support ourselves, but the mine changed everything. We passed from poor to very poor, in part because the mining company owned everything and we could no longer produce everything we needed to survive. There used to be a series of communities around us, now many don’t exist and those left are struggling. Mining has brought many illnesses. In our communities there are few older people because in the process of moving around, many died, and those left behind did not last long.”

A man from the dispersed community of Tabaco (still waiting for the village to be resettled fifteen years after its eviction) told us: “Another problem was that the army and police began to take control of our water sources. People began to see they had no water, and began to leave, so the state and the company said they were leaving voluntarily, which was not the case. We were forcibly evicted and then revictimised: some elders were forced to wear Cerrejon shirts saying Cerrejon was helping people. Another problem is that Cerrejon implants conflict in communities, ruptures the social fabric and relationships. We feel as if we don’t have autonomy: we have no territory so no autonomy. Cerrejon imposes itself and directs the destiny and way of living of the people. Tabaco is now drowning in extreme poverty. People are in poverty because they have lost subsistence and are no longer able to support their families.”

A man from Las Casitas, a village currently being resettled, told us: “We have a huge problem with the high pollution from Cerrejon. We were a prosperous community made up of simple people who lived from the land. We’ve had thirty years of problems from the mine. It changed everything. They told us we’d become more prosperous because of the benefits brought by mining coal. The prosperity they promised is not here. Instead, total destruction.”

He went on: “The mine is the enemy of the communities and we don’t see a process where we can be friends. They say things but they don’t fulfil them. We’ve been in negotiations with the company since 2009 and we’ve seen that the company wants to take advantage of our lack of knowledge, of our innocence. It is an unequal process conducted in the interests of the multinational. … We tried to enter a collective negotiation process. The company said they would not move anyone until the last person had been negotiated with – a collective process. But that’s not what has been done. There are still people here resisting. It is not easy. We have had no help from the government at local, departmental or national level. It’s a struggle between a tethered donkey and a tiger.

“We are very alone in confronting the multinational. We hope to get something, albeit small, from the company, but it seems very difficult. The multinationals have all the advantages and the government gives them these. We have nobody in government who comes to ask us what is happening to us. You and other NGOs come and give us the opportunity to express our thoughts and clarify them.”

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