Colombian villagers are unionising to fight against multinational mining firms

| 24th November 2017
Coal dust washed up on the beach marks the hands of a local villager in Columbia.

Coal dust washed up on the beach marks the hands of a local villager in Columbia. (c) Marina Kelava

In Colombia, whole villages are suffering due to the mining of coal which is destined for Europe. However, the local villagers are now unionising and fighting for more rights. MARINA KELAVA reports.

The course of the river has been changed, the forest has been cut, and we are prisoners in our own village

"We were poor before, but we had rivers, we went fishing, we grew some food and we lived well. Now our children can only see that on TV. The course of the river has been changed, the forest has been cut, and we are prisoners in our own village", explains Hilario Vega, resident of the village of Boqueron in the northeast of Colombia.

The whole village has been waiting to be relocated for seven years. The air pollution coming from the coal mines surrounding the village is so severe that it is endangering their lives. In Boqueron there is no asphalt nor health clinic, but besides public services, they are also lacking a safe natural environment.

Respiratory problems

The Colombian institutions decided seven years ago that the whole community had to be relocated because the air pollution was so high that it was seriously endangering human health. But although this problem has been officially recognized, the villagers, including many children, are still in the same place. The multinational corporations that run the coal mines that created this problem are still working and polluting - without any obstacles.

Boqueron is 10 kilometers away from La Jagua de Ibirico, a small town in the Cesar region bordering with Venezuela. 90 percent of the coal produced in Colombia comes from Cesar and one other region, Guajira. The coal from these two regions are widely acclaimed because of its high quality and low production price, the biggest buyers currently being the Netherlands and Turkey.

La Jagua consists of one main street and a couple of side streets. Streets vendors occupy the pavement, and in the town’s only hotel we see only workers from the mines, recognizably wearing overalls and carrying helmets in their hands. In one of the non-asphalted side streets lives Elisana Sanchez, biochemist, green politician and activist, whose husband works in one of the coal mines.

"I came to live here around ten years ago and since then I’ve been experiencing the problem from different perspectives. My husband has four discus hernias caused by the job in the mine and he suffers from great pain. Most of the workers are suffering from similar problems caused by strong vibrations in the workplace.

"I am also not able to work at the moment since I have respiratory problems, maybe because of the dust in the air. It is difficult to prove that the respiratory problems are connected with the mining, but many people in this town are sick from this type of health problems, and some of them even have life-threatening diseases like silicosis“, said Sanchez.

Apocalyptic movies

Around 50 meters from Elisana Sanchez's house there is a small nature reserve, a sort of botanical garden that one of the companies planted as compensation for destroyed habitats around the mines.

Between palms and eucalyptus trees and many other species, iguanas, parrots and other animals are hanging out. Only one man, Pedro, is now taking care of this reserve. He had also worked in the mines for many years before finding this much more tranquil working place.

But seven large coal mines owned by American corporations Drummond and Murray Energy Corporation and also Prodeco, which is owned by Anglo-Swiss corporation Glencore, are occupying a much larger area in the region of Cesar and the rare compensation measures like the nature reserve are not enough.

There are no romantic picture of miners going underground to work here. Mines here are open cast mines where huge machines completely remove the surface cover of the Earth, and what is left can be only used as scenography for apocalyptic movies.

Since Drummond opened its mines in the region 20 years ago, 20 workers have died, and two thousand have been injured, claim members of the Sintramienergetica union we met in Valledupar, capital of the region.

Severe consequences

"Every dead worker means one family that lost its means of living. When we organize ourselves in unions to fight against human rights abuses and for better work conditions, we get punished or fired”, Augusto Almeira, president of the local union branch, claims.

Carlos Rojas, Sintramienergetica member and worker in Drummond's mine, has been fired three times already and then returned to work after court orders.

"According to the company it is already a crime if we talk to you about our experiences, but we see it as our obligation. We are not against mining, we just want the companies to respect us, our work and our families. We want responsible mining, and not the kind of mining that extracts coal, and leaves only misery and poverty and injured workers“, Rojas told us.

Trade unions are particularly concerned about the practice of subcontracting workers. Namely, of the fifteen thousand workers in Drummond mines around Jagua, five thousand of them are directly employed in the corporation, while others are employed in other smaller companies that Drummond hires.

Workers employed through subcontracts with other companies are paid less, and the unionists claim that these workers are often not trained for specific jobs, which has already resulted in accidents with severe consequences.

Resettlement process

Union activism in Colombia is extremely dangerous. Murders and attempts of murders of unionists are common, and those who ordered it are rarely found.

There is a picture hanging on the wall in the union branch in Valledupar of former President of the union Valmore Locarno who was killed in 2001 along with the Vice President Victor Hugo Orcasito by members of the AUC paramilitary group. In 2013, Jaime Blanco, a former supplier of Drummond's mine La Loma, was sentenced to 38 years in prison for ordering the murders.

In the surroundings of the mines around Jagua we encounter plantations of eucalyptus - beautiful densely planted trees. Eucalyptus is not a native species here, and it was planted to dry up the underground water so it would not leak into the mines.

At the same time, the road that runs along the plantation has to be sprinkled with water from trucks in order to reduce the dust. However, the dust settles on the leaves of the trees widely in the surrounding area. Along the road one can often see trees with leaves turning brown and dying.

The inhabitants of Boqueron have to buy water because they don't have clean drinking water, and drainage of underground water and pollution caused by dust turned what was once an agricultural community into a community of hungry people without hope. The resettlement process got stuck when they requested collective relocation.

Incredible environment

They want to avoid the fate of the neighboring village Plan Bonito that no longer exists as a community because each family has been displaced to a different location. The only thing that remains from the village is a water tower now surrounded by high grass.

"The community is gone, it is spread across the region, and they lost their history and social fabric and today are generally poorer than before. That's why we want collective relocation and we will not give up“, said Lesvy Rivera, a member of the Committee for negotiating of relocation.

Isabel, an elderly resident of the village, shows me some big cracks on the floor and walls of her modest house. A lot of houses in the village have been damaged by vibrations and they do not receive any compensation from the corporations or from the government for this.

What is left for them is "total misery," claims Jose Baron Ortega. All the crops that they used to grow themselves they now have to buy in the shop in La Jagua. "It is the rainy season so it looks as if everything is green, but in the summer it becomes a desert which no one from outside can endure“, he adds.

The coal that is dug up in Cesar travels by rail to the port in Santa Marta, a city located in an incredible environment between the Caribbean coast and the mystical mountain chain of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.

Small boats

Along the coast one can see the scenery well known from many Mediterranean spots - buildings with tourist apartments and hotels - sprawling everywhere. Between the old and the new port for the export of coal and a few hotels, the community of Don Jaca is nested. The settlement of 700 people is cut in half by a highway and railway used for coal transport.

A handful of Don Jaca residents worked in the old port, but when the coal companies closed the old one and opened the new port, they were all left without work. Nobody from Don Jaca is employed in Drummond or Prodeco, the coal companies that use this port for export.

"They say they cleaned everything after closing the port, but in reality they did nothing. They just went away and left everything how it was“, says Fredy Martinez while he picks up lumps of coal from the ground. Martinez also worked for years in the old port, and after the port was moved he was left sick and without work.

Most of the inhabitants of this village used to survive from fishing, but today the noise coming from the port and the heavy ship traffic has led to the almost complete disappearance of the fish.

"We used to grow tomatoes half the year and half the year we went fishing. Over time the fish began to disappear, and we also couldn't grow food anymore. Our small boats are also in danger because the large ships can sink them. People also started to get sick", explains Jose Hilario Castro, who has himself had three eye operations and has problems with his lungs.

Mining concessions

The people in Don Jaca live in similarly harsh conditions as the people in Boquerón. There is no water supply system in the village, no sewage system, no asphalt on the streets and no health clinic.

"We lost everything. There is no fish. No crops. No jobs in the port“, says Francisco Delanoz, president of the Don Jaca community action board.

This community also suffered in the decades-long armed conflict in Colombia, but people here, as with others we met in the mining regions, are not completely convinced that governmental efforts to end the 50-year civil war are going to bring them peaceful lives.

The Colombian government sees armed conflicts as an obstacle to investments in mining in Colombia, and as a consequence, Colombians living in mining areas see the peace process as preparation of the path to give away the land to private interests.

It is an official governmental plan to make Colombia "un pais minero“, mining state, by 2020. In line with this goal, the Government made a Strategic Mining Areas Plan that allows 17% of the territory to be given to companies in mining concessions.

Price of coal

The plan has been overthrown in court by an NGO that works with mining victims, Tierra Digna, but the government has made a new plan which is even increasing the concession area. Now Tierra Digna is again starting another legal battle.

"We are certain that the peace process will bring even more foreign companies, and the ones that are already here will seek permits for new projects. A recent newspaper article claimed that the number of requests for environmental permits has risen by 35 percent since the peace treaty with FARC has been signed.

Foreign capital in Colombia has had the door opened wide and doesn’t have to concern itself with people or the environment. Local communities are very rarely consulted. That leads to new conflicts“, Rosa Pena from Tierra Digna claims.

Whether it is all worth it, at least as far as the money for the Colombian budget is concerned, was the question Andrea Cardoso, environmental economy professor from University Magdalena in Santa Marta, asked herself.

She calculated all the damage that people in mining areas described, and compared it with the price of coal per ton. "Economically, the damage to society and environment from the coal mine in Cesar is three times bigger than the price of coal per ton.

A community is dying

"If this extraction would generate other activities that would be more acceptable from the economic point of view, but with the extraction of coal there is no added value for Colombia, it does not open any related production capacities such as for example in the case of oil processing”, she told us.

Meanwhile, Colombia uses little coal to generate electricity, it produces almost two thirds of its energy from hydropower. Building dams also causes similar problems with forced relocation of people and degradation of environment, and last year's drought severely lowered the amount of energy produced.

Droughts in the region have been more common and more and more severe due to climate change effects and climate change is being sped up with the burning of coal worldwide. So, the poor of Colombia pay the cost of burning coal once again.

"We want people to understand, to know who the people who are affected by coal mining are. This community is dying and it is all because of the pollution from coal“, appeals Flower Arias Rivera from Boquerón, while his neighbor Eusebio Perez Cordoba adds: "Europe must stop using coal.“

This Author

Marina Kelava, is an environmental journalist based in Zagreb, Croatia. She has just returned from Colombia after visiting communities affected by coal mining.