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Living with the tiger

23. February 2021

The production of coal accused of social and environmental rights violation in Colombia and sponsored by multinationals

By Zuadi Pinto 

Even though the world has advanced rapidly in the development of renewable energies that replace coal, the high demand for this raw material continues to cause a social conflict that has affected the environmental and human rights of communities in countries that produce it. That is the case of Colombia, where the largest open-pit mine of Latin America, Cerrejónis locatedIt is owned by the English company Anglo American, the Swiss multinational Glencore and the Australian firm BHP Billiton. 

The giant mine was built more than thirty years ago in La Guajira, Colombia, one of the poorest and most affected departments by systematic problems such as malnutrition and water lack for years. La Guajira is also home to minority communities such as afro-descendants, Campesinos and the Wayúu indigenous. Although the government has taken actions to solve the social problems, it was criticised for abandoning the region. Furthermore, since the mine started operating, human and environmental rights violations have been denounced on various occasions. 

The Cerrejón mine produces more than 25 million tons of coal every year, which are transported to the coal wharf with nine trips per day during the whole year. From there, they are exported to countries all over the world, mainly to Mediterranean and European countries. Until 2020, Cerrejón represented 45% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of La Guajira. However, the constant criticism and frequent demonstrations of the local communities reveal nonconformity with the social and environmental treatment by the company in the region.  

The main factor of the environmental damage is the pollution of drinking water by the mine and its usage of more than 15 million litres of water per day, exacerbating the water scarcity. The water is extracted from th  Rancheria River, the local community's primary water source. This river is fed by the Bruno stream, which Cerrejón currently diverts causing other rivers to dry out. The environmental damage is not limited only to the contamination of waterThe dust that emanates from the explosions ends up being highly damaging for the people living in the surrounding areas and their fields. These are often the main source of food and income for local families. It seems that over the years, people had to get used to sharing their territory and resources with this company that looks more like a predator, a tiger. 

Cerrejón has been singled out by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) for its responsibility in the forced displacement of indigenous, Campesinos and Afro-descendant communities. Additionally, cases of violence by third parties have been reported: in an interview made by Contagio Radio, José Silva, Spokesperson for Nación Wayúu, points out that six community members have received death threats for defending their territories against exploitation. Years ago, Cerrejón released a statement confirming an agreement with the Wayúu indigenous people. However, there was no proof an agreement was made, and the community denied its existence. 

Although the mine transmits a message of social and environmental responsibility in their website and publications supported by various reports, the reality seems different when observing the numerous documentaries and investigations, such as "Las Huellas de Cerrejon" by Sebastian Coronado Espitia, which shows testimonies of the afro-descendant families, Campesinos and Wayúu indigenous that lived in the territory before the arrivalThe Cerrejón mine has already faced accusations from social and environmental organisations and, according to Green News’ article, countries that import large amounts of coal have been asked to reduce their consumption. However, none of these actions had a significant impact. tanenhaus, cc by 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via wikimedia commonsIn January 2021, the case caught the public attention because of three new lawsuits filed by multiple NGOs and presented to the OECD. According to Global Legal Action Network, the purpose is to "progressively close down the mine, restore the environment in the surrounding area to the fullest extent possible, and provide financial compensation to the affected communities". Cerrejón, as in similar situations before, responded by reiterating its commitment to Colombian legislation and international guidelines that govern human and environmental rights.  

Undoubtedly, the problem has acquired the international relevance that those affected were looking for, but that does not mean that the problem has reached a solution; the demand is just the tip of the iceberg. For now, it is expected that this new action will call for the protection of environmental and social rights for the department and its habitants from international entities.

This problem must have even more relevance now that the supply chain law supporting fair production is discussed in various European countries, and international organisations are working to share the importance of open a conversation about fair trade. 


Notably, the halt to coal production in Colombia would cause a decline in the country's economy since mining represents a crucial part of the GDP. However, it is necessary to have international standards that protect human and environmental rights. Besides, listening to the communities’ demands is highly important, because it will support the development of the society, without neglecting economic development. 


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