Mineworkers and Wayuú communities paralyze the operations of the Cerrejón mine in Colombia, while Anglo American files a lawsuit against Colombia

Cerrejón, the largest opencast coal mine in Latin America, has had to cease its operations in the north-east of Colombia as protesters have been preventing the arrival of fuel. On 5 May, amid mass protests against the government, which have been brutally repressed by security forces, dozens of ex-employees obstructed the railway line which supplies the mine.

The railway line which supplies the Cerrejón coal mine, blockaded by former workers. They carry a Colombian flag with SOS written on it.

The Cerrejón mine, jointly owned by BHP Group, Anglo American PLC and Glencore PLC, is again in disagreements with the local indigenous Wayuu communities and their biggest union, which organised a 91-day strike last year. Towards the end of May, the company announced a force majeure and ceased operations due to two blockades which impeded the arrival of supplies including petrol. One blockade was put in place by disgruntled workers after recent job cuts, and the other by the Wayuu community which has made repeated complaints against the company for environmental reasons. 

Discussions with the ex-employees blocking the railway line which serves the company and the Media Luna community (a blockade which was also affecting a highway beyond the Cerrejón site) ended in agreements to lift the protest at the end of last week, after which Cerrejón announced on May 29 that it would gradually restart operations. However, the group of 226 former workers, who left the company in February, have again blockaded the railway line.(1)  

Cerrejón had begun operating again on 1 December after three months of paralysis due to a strike which triggered the company’s plan to sack dozens of workers, aiming to mitigate the low demand resulting from the pandemic and the collapse in the price of coal. During the strike, workers joined forces with community and indigenous leaders from the department of La Guajira (the headquarters Cerrejón operations), who denounced contamination related health problems linked to the mine. The United Nations added its voice to the environmental complaints, which have also been recognised by the Constitutional Court of Colombia.

La Guajira, where the mine is located, is a department deeply afflicted by poverty and hunger; 65% of its population is not able to meet basic needs, despite the energy mining sector being the main driver of Colombian exports. In 2020, Colombia produced 48.4 million tonnes of coal, compared with 82.4 million tonnes the previous year, the state’s National Mining Agency has said.(2)

The road closures have become a sticking point between the right-wing Iván Duque’s government and the most visible sector of protesters. At least 58 blockades are obstructing supply in several Colombian regions, in the middle of massive anti-government demonstrations which have left 43 people dead and more than 1,700 injured in almost a month and a half of protests. The government has concentrated on clearing the blockades by force, while the National Strike Committee has criticised the excessive presence of the security forces and is asking for their withdrawal from the protests.

Anglo American files lawsuit against Colombia

The Anglo American mining company has filed a lawsuit against a ban which prevents the Cerrejón coal mine in Colombia from developing its La Puente quarry. The latest lawsuit comes after Cerrejón shareholders, BHP and Glencore, filed separate lawsuits for the same reason on 27 April and 1 June respectively.(3)

Cerrejón has not been able to do work in the north section of the La Puente quarry since November 2017. The constitutional court of Colombia forced them to suspend their operations due to concerns about the impact that altering the course of a stream would have on the local water supply.

The decision of the Colombian Constitutional Court SU-698 of 2017, protects: ‘The right to health, water and food security of indigenous communities in the face of the threat of violation by the project to divert the channel of the Bruno Stream that the Cerrejón company is pursuing ‘, but this was ignored by Cerrejón and the State Institutions when they authorised the diversion and destruction of the natural course of the Bruno Stream with the objective of expanding and continuing coal extraction.(4)

According to technical experts in hydrology, the diversion of the Bruno Stream is causing perpetual and irreparable damage with the destruction of the aquifer and the loss of underground water storage capacity, generated by the siphoning effect on the groundwater generated by the large hole in the mine next to this channel. This is very worrying in an area of water scarcity which is highly vulnerable to climate change.

Cerrejón had planned to develop La Puente to compensate for the reduced production expected at other sites. The quarry contains 25 million tonnes of proven coal reserves and it was hoped this would allow Cerrejón to make up for falls in production of 3 million tonnes per year in other quarries during the period of 2015-2033.(5)