The United Nations is being asked to call for the suspension of coal mining in the Provincial Reserve in la Guajira, Colombia, due to the COVID-19 emergency.
Statement from Colectivo de Abogados José Alvear Restrepo (José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective), Bogota, Colombia, 20 June 2020.
The Cerrejón coal mine is owned by three mining companies listed onthe London Stock Exchange: Anglo American, BHP and Glencore.
The indigenous Wayuu communities of the Provincial Reserve in la Guajira, are making an urgent call for UN intervention, due to the increased COVID-19 risks they are facing as a result of their constant exposure to poor quality air and the violation of their right to water.
“What we are demanding of Cerrejón is our children’s health. We are fighting for our rights to live in a healthy territory, in a reserve without pollution, just as it was before Cerrejón came in. Here, we are exposed to mining pollution 24 hours a day. I have children, and if I have to fight against the whole world for them, I will do it. I will go wherever I have to, for my family and to honour the memory of all of the children that have died or fallen sick because of the pollution. How is it possible that we, as Cerrejón´s neighbours, don’t have access to healthcare? We don’t have potable water. We don’t have decent housing. We live in absolute poverty”(1) Luz Ángela Uriana
At the request of Wayuu women who are extremely worried about their sick children, lawyer Mónica Feria-Tinta has been contacted by the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers Collective (CAJAR) and urgent communications have been sent through the UN Special Procedures to: the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment; the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation; the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food; and the United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights, alerting them to the public health emergency caused by Covid-19 that sharpens the already high levels of vulnerability of the Wayuu indigenous community of the Provincial Reserve in La Guajira, particularly for their children due to the emission of dust or particulate matter produced by the exploitation of the largest open-pit coal mine in Latin America located less than a kilometre from their territory (2).
Recent global studies carried out during the pandemic have shown the relationship between air pollution and an increase in death rates from Covid-19. (3) These studies show that even a single unit increase in PM 2.5 particulate matter increases the risk of respiratory problems that can be lethal for patients with coronavirus. In addition to this concern, international reports show that mines around the world have been instrumental in the spread of Covid 19. (4)
Serious COVID-19 cases become respiratory diseases that would have a higher mortality rate in people with pre-existing respiratory health conditions, such as the Wayuu community of Provincial.
After an extensive debate on all of the evidence and arguments, the Constitutional Court’s ruling verified the serious health effects that this community already suffered before the pandemic, including: “risk of alterations at the cellular level, cancer, unspecified bacterial pneumonias, pneumococci, chronic bronchitis, massive fibrosis, mixed asthma, bronchial asthma, acute obstructive laryngitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), unspecified acute infections of the lower respiratory tract, and other acute multiple site infections of the upper and lower respiratory tracts”.
The petition to the different UN rapporteurs, denounced the fact that back in 2014, in a report on the humanitarian crisis in La Guajira, the Ombudsman pointed out that according to statements by the local authorities in the town of Barrancas (where the Provincial Reserve is located): “The most relevant environmental problem in the municipality is contamination by dust emissions due to the exploitation of the Cerrejón coal mines, which affect the health of the inhabitants.” (5)
The request warns that given the new scientific evidence on the characterization of the risks of the pandemic, it is an urgent priority that in application of the precautionary principle, that the suspension of the mining pits adjacent to the Provincial community should be maintained. The Colombian State is obliged to provide protection and adopt effective measures in favour of this community, as to do otherwise would mean accepting the risk of extermination a millennial ethnic group.
It also denounces the ways that the emergency health situation being experienced due to Covid-19, aggravates and deepens the conditions of vulnerability in which the Wayuu community finds itself due to a lack of effective guarantees for the right to water. The company Carbones del Cerrejón systematically denies any responsibility for the violation of the right to water of the indigenous communities surrounding their coal mine. However, the impact of the mining operation in the dramatic transformations of the water system of this territory in the last 30 years is undeniable.
Carbones del Cerrejón argues that (89%) of the water it uses for its mining operation is of very poor quality, not suitable for human or animal consumption, or for crop irrigation. However, it does not mention or provide clear information on its contribution to the contamination of the Ranchería River. According to Colombian Constitutional Court ruling T-614 of 2019, much of the evidence presented showed the effects of the mining operation on the bodies of water surrounding the Provincial indigenous Reserve.
In addition, the Colombian State has not guaranteed truthful and impartial information on the relationship of the impacts of the mining operation carried out by Carbones del Cerrejón with the water shortage in La Guajira.
Likewise, in ruling T-302 of 2017, the Constitutional Court declared the existence of an unconstitutional state of affairs in relation to the effective enjoyment of the fundamental rights to food, health, drinking water and participation on the part of Wayuu children. The Court ordered an independent study to determine the causal relationship between large-scale mining activity and water scarcity for Wayuu communities and, if this is proven to be the case, to determine where this is the case in the Department of La Guajira. However, after consultations made by the CAJAR to the State entities, it was established that as of May 2020, this order has not been complied with.
Urgently requested measures
For the reasons laid out, it is respectfully requested that the Special Rapporteurs declare that:
- The Wayuu peoples have the right to life and to a healthy environment, to clean air, to water and to food, and that the situation described above violates these rights.
For all of the above, the UN Special Rapporteurs should call for:
- In application of the precautionary principle, an immediate suspension of the mining operations of Cerrejón in the pits and dumps of Carbones del Cerrejón that are surrounding the community of the Provincial Reserve in the context of the Covid-19 emergency.
- A fair, equitable and participatory transition process to be initiated for the termination of the Carbones del Cerrejón mining operations, with full compliance with the legal obligations of the closure plan and of human rights commitments in light of the flagrant violations of the human rights of the Wayuu people due to the exploitation of the mine, as established by numerous decisions of the Constitutional Court, the most recent of which is (T-614 of 2019), recognizing the massive contamination caused by the Cerrejón mine to the detriment of the Wayuu indigenous peoples (including children) of the Provincial Indigenous Reserve.
- That, in accordance with its Paris Agreement obligations, relevant in order to guarantee the human rights of the Wayuu people, the Colombian State should gradually eradicate coal mining.
1) Video declarations 2017 “Provincial Reserve on strike” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SB9ah5Yu2a8&t=662s
2) Carbones del Cerrejón is owned by three multinational corporations, two of which are registered on the London Stock Exchange: Anglo American (British Company), BHP Billiton (Australian company) and Glencore (Swiss Company).
3) Air pollution linked to increased Covid-19 death risk, 20 April 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/health-52351290, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/apr/07/air-pollution-linked-to-far-higher-covid-19-death-rates-study-finds, https://www.downtoearth.org.in/blog/air/covid-19-why-long-term-exposure-to-air-pollution-is-worrisome-70433, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/14/climate/coronavirus-soot-clean-air-regulations.html
4) Mines are hotspots for spread of Covid-19, study finds. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jun/05/mines-coronavirus-hotspots-report-us-canada?CMP=share_btn_tw
5) Humanitarian Crisis in La Guajira, 2014. Colombian Ombudsman’s Office. https://www.defensoria.gov.co/public/pdf/informedefensorialguajira11.pdf