“Blood Coal”: Human Rights Row Haunting Colombia’s Cerrejón Mine 

As tourist attractions go, the Hitachi EH5000 is a big one. The mining machine is more than 24 feet tall. You can comfortably stand inside the circumference of its monstrous wheels. The hulking earth-mover, weighing roughly the same as 37 African elephants, lays idle near an abandoned Barrancas theme park in Colombia’s La Guajira province. Free of charge, people can “get to know” the largest thermal coal mine in Latin America via a massive haul truck viewable from space. 

An impressive feat in engineering, the truck is a reminder of the sheer scale of a mining operation that sits on the doorstep of people in La Guajira. One of Colombia’s poorest regions, La Guajira is home to the open cast mine Cerrejón. Production at the mine has almost doubled in two decades.

Resettlement rows and changes to the landscape have caused outrage among the indigenous population and environmental groups, leading to accusations that the Cerrejón mine is in violation of its neighbours’ rights. Disputes about the mine continue to spill into courtrooms, as well as overseas to countries accused of dealing in “blood coal”. 

Mining disputes

Despite a decline in the market, coal is Colombia’s second largest export, which makes it a major economic interest to continue the mining pursuit. Since mining began at the Cerrejón mine, contractors have taken more than 650 million tonnes of the fuel from the soil. But at what cost?

Sebastian Muñoz, programmes officer for anti-poverty charity War On Want, visited the mine in June. He says that indigenous communities in La Guajira have paid a high price for living above such a lucrative resource. 

“The mine is aggravating the fragile climate of La Guajira,” he said. “The main thing you can see is the loss of livelihood. These are indigenous communities with an agricultural vocation. You have impacts related to water, farming and the breaking of the social fabric. 

“The argument has been that coal is necessary for the development of the area. Communities are saying ‘we’ve been farming and fishing here for centuries – we’re poorer now.’”

Once a joint partnership between ExxonMobil affiliate Intercore and Colombian state owned organisation Carbocal, the Cerrejón mine was acquired by Glencore, BHP Billiton and Anglo American in 2002. 

Mining at Cerrejón has been ongoing since the 1980s. The surrounding landscape has therefore transformed dramatically, forcing the movement of communities. Following complaints, including its association with the expropriation of the Tabaco township, the mining company established a social review panel in 2007.

The independent panel stated that “success in production was more marked than success in building trust”. It suggested that the company could “do more to contribute to a better life for people in affected communities.”

Residents of Tabaco and Roche in La Guajira claim that Cerrejón management has failed in subsequent resettlement promises. According to Mr Muñoz, former Tabaco residents are awaiting resettlement to this day. But Cerrejón management deny responsibility for the remaining issues, stating that after the mine donated land to the Tabaco community, the responsibility to build houses was left with the local government. 

La Puente Project and indigenous communities

A decision to divert part of the Arroyo Bruno (Bruno Stream) for Cerrejón’s La Puente Pit is the latest mining controversy in La Guajira. The project was suspended by the constitutional court in 2017, while technical studies and roundtable talks involving the government and stakeholders were established. The future of its mining pit depends on the “partial modification”, according to Cerrejón.

The communities of La Horqueta, La Gran Parada, and Paradero say they have been omitted from discussions on what is an “important tributary” to the Ranchería river. 

Our right to participate in the roundtable has been repeatedly ignored even though, in line with the court’s ruling, the impacted communities and the associated parties have repeatedly insisted on effective involvement in the debates,” an open letter signed by residents read. The community of El Rocio, made up of about 30 families, say that they fear forced eviction from beside the stream. 

That such changes are taking place amid already difficult economic, environmental and social conditions contributes to the upheaval. It cannot be said that La Guajira enjoys the same economic wealth that it generates. In July, demonstrators barricaded roads towards the mine in protest over a lack of government funding. The indigenous Wayuu population has experienced a hunger crisis, according to Human Rights Watch. The human rights organisation blamed “extremely poor access to basic services” like water and “limited government efforts to root out local corruption” as a major cause. 

Just 68 percent of the region’s population has a connection to water. The Wayuu people often walk miles to collect untreated rainwater. It has resulted in a “high incidence” of water-borne diseases, according to the World Bank. Activists opposed to the mine believe that the Cerrejón coal company is complicit in the region’s plight. Jakeline Romero Epiayu, an activist with Force of Wayuu Women, believes that Cerrejón is harming people’s health, as well as local land and water resources. 

On a recent press tour, she said that mining is condemning La Guajira residents to poverty and death. 

Cerrejón’s response

In a statement, Cerrejón said all mining operations are conducted within the law. 

The company suggested that weak national and regional institutions in Colombia have failed to meet people’s basic needs in La Guajira, adding that it is committed to “improving our management of the impacts caused by the operation, and… to improving the life conditions in the territory.” 

The company said that resettlement obligations are being fulfilled. Regarding maintenance complaints by resettled Roche residents, the company said of the 15 buildings needing repairs, “11 have already been fixed and four are in progress.”

Environmental management plans are in place, such as monthly monitoring of local rivers and land rehabilitation, according to Cerrejón. Meanwhile, fog cannons and nonpotable water are used to reduce dust particles. 

“We have 11 stations located within the mine that allow real-time measurement of wind direction and the concentration of tiny particles. There is also an early alert system for taking immediate measures to avoid affecting any worker and the communities,” the company said. 

“According to our tracking and modelling system, the air particle levels are lower than the limits established by Colombian regulations.”

On water concerns, the mining firm admitted that sulphates, chlorides, and solids have been found in water running past the mine. The levels “do not exceed the regulations established in Colombia”, it said.

“No results have been found indicating effects on the water quality from the river that place the survival of the aquatic flora and fauna at risk, nor effects on the health of the communities located downstream.”

Cerrejón described allegations that it is involved in the eviction of El Rocío families from beside the Bruno Stream as “misinformation”. “The owner of the property, who is not related with Cerrejón, is the person pushing the legal action of eviction with the corresponding regional authorities.” Cerrejón also rejected claims that communities have been excluded from discussions about the Bruno Stream diversion. 

Cerrejón customers

It is estimated that more than 50% of Cerrejón coal is sold to European countries. In Ireland, coal from the mine is used at the semi-state owned Moneypoint power plant. The connection, along with the fact that Cerrejón’s marketing arm is located in Dublin, has caused concern among critics. 

Raising the topic in Ireland’s parliament, Sinn Fein Party politician Sean Crowe described the import as “blood coal”. Ireland’s Deputy Prime Minister, Simon Coveney, said that Irish officials now plan to visit La Guajira to assess concerns.

“I continue to be concerned by reports of the detrimental impact of the mine on the environment and on local communities,” Mr Coveney said. “[Irish] Embassy officials intend to visit La Guajira in the near future and meet with human rights defenders and civil society groups.”

Only when governments like Ireland stop purchasing “blood coal” can they claim to be committed to human rights, the Latin American Solidarity Center (LASC) in Ireland told InsideOver

“Ending the use of Colombian coal on human rights grounds in Ireland would set a precedent for the EU and countries around the world that import this blood coal, sending a strong signal to investors.

“Ireland’s complicity in the Cerrejón mine, through the purchase of blood coal and presence of the mine’s sales and marketing company in Dublin, belies any claimed commitment to human rights and sustainability,” a LASC spokesperson said.

It remains to be seen whether local and international campaigners will change mining habits in La Guajira. But economic factors could indeed play a factor. Receding profits are a concern for Cerrejón. The company’s CEO Guillermo Fonseca has spoken of making the most of the operation as the European coal market shrinks. It might not mean much for aggrieved residents, but maybe the decline could one day spell the end of mining in La Guajira. However, a large scale project would unlikely fade overnight. It’s more likely that coal-stuffed La Guajira freighters bound for Europe would turn first to Asia, where energy plants firing coal are heavily concentrated and could be for some time.