The alliance between Sintracarbon and the Wayúu is proof that it is possible for an industrial union hold a meaningful pro-workers agenda as well as standing against the expansion of the fossil fuel industry.
Misael Luis Soccora is a leader of a Wayúu community, in La Guajira, Colombia. The Wayúu are an indigenous community whose ancestral lands have been carved up by Cerrejón, a vast opencast coal mine that has devastated local communities.
Today Misael finds himself in Newcastle, UK, telling an audience of environmental activists about the forced displacement, coal dust pollution, and death threats that he and his people suffer as a consequence of the mine.
He then gives the floor over to his ‘companero’ Aldo Amaya. Aldo enlarges an image of the Cerrejón mine, its crater dwarfing the dinosaur-like machines within it. He points to the biggest one: ‘This is the machine I operate.’
Misael and Aldo seem like unlikely allies at first. Aldo, his voice rough with decades of coal dust, explains: ‘When mining first came to the region in the 1990s, we were so keen for the jobs, we didn’t pay any attention to the effects of the mine.
"We were young and uneducated. We built the strength of our union and won many victories for the workers. We know that the company takes advantage in order to make more profit whenever it can. In time we became conscious of how they were making communities and the ecology suffer.’
On a visit to North East England with the Coal Action Network this October, the pair are accompanied by Rosa Maria Mateus Parra from CAJAR, a lawyers’ collective in Colombia.
Rosa explains that the community activists and the Colombian mineworkers’ union Sintracarbon, of whom Aldo is the General Secretary, have been officially working in solidarity for over a year to stop the expansion of Cerrejón.
This is a mine so enormous that you can still make out its grey smear if you zoom out to view the whole of Colombia on google earth.
The lawyers’ collective works to expose the wrongdoing of the mining company in a region in which the Colombian state are at best absent and at worst complicit with the mining company’s misdeeds.
The two regions represented in the room, Northern Colombia and the North East of England, share a common history and a common present.
When coal mining was violently withdrawn from the UK’s North Eastern coalfields in the 1980s and 1990s, it was violently imposed onto Northern Colombia with the support of paramilitaries.
What manifested as class struggle in the UK manifested as neo-colonialism in Colombia, as multinational companies centralised ownership of coal extraction by appropriating land.
During the 1984-85 miners’ strike and every year since there has been a significant percentage of coal imported to the UK from La Guajira.
At times this was as much as 30 percent of the UK’s coal use, to compensate for the closure of the deep pit mines, which used to support entire communities and local economies, many of which are still in recovery today.
What remains in both locations is privatised, opencast coal extraction, where the land is opened up to extract coal in vast quantities using explosives and heavy machinery.
On a brisk morning, Misael, Aldo and Rosa walk together around the UK’s newest opencast coal mine, ‘Bradley’, in the Pont Valley, County Durham, with some of the residents who held off the project for over 30 years until it finally opened in June 2018.
The community are now fighting to get the mine closed. The site is a fraction of the size of Cerrejón. Nonetheless, Misael surveys the terrain with a heavy gaze; the beginnings of the coalworkings eating into the diverse green landscape amidst a backdrop of villages and rolling countryside.
‘Opencast mining is bad wherever it takes place. It’s like a monster which grows and grows’, says Misael. Indeed, Banks Group are seeking to open two other open-casts in the North East, undeterred by the UK’s ‘coal phase out’.
I ask Misael if he is surprised by how close people's homes are to the mine. ‘No. I am surprised by how close the mine is to people’s homes’, he replies.
In La Guajira, the train line which takes the coal to the port to be exported to the UK, Europe and elsewhere, has sliced Misael’s community in two. Heavy coal trains pass by his village 24 hours a day, spewing coal dust and creating all but ceaseless noise.
Misael explains what this does to the ‘spiritual health’ of the people there. ‘As a people, we are dreamers,’ he says.
‘We dream every night and our dreams guide us in our waking life. But because of the noise at night we cannot sleep deeply, so we cannot dream deeply.’
As a consequence, the Wayúu are in an increasing state of ‘spiritual displacement’, in addition to being physically displaced and threatened.
Shortly before he left for the UK, a death threat directed at Misael was posted in public places around a village he was passing through. For this reason he chose not to have his photograph appear in this article.
Coal mining companies operating in the UK are eager to point out the human rights abuses in Colombia in order to justify fossil fuel extraction in the UK instead.
But Misael and Aldo appear deeply troubled by what they see in Pont Valley. ‘I have never seen a mine this close to homes’, says Aldo, who is keen to share with the Pont Valley residents his insider knowledge of coal workings.
He explains that the risks to their homes and their health is worse than Banks Group claim. Homes near to opencast mines can fall apart due to underground subsidence caused by blasting away the earth to get to the coal, something which coal companies routinely deny.
‘They lie.’ Misael adds, ‘It doesn’t matter where you are in the world; mining companies lie. They don’t know what it does to communities. Only communities can know that.’
Health and safety
Banks Group argue that jobs brought by the mine will benefit the community. Aldo squints through the binoculars at the rumbling machines pitching black dust into the crisp air, ‘This is a small team. A very small team’.
The UK’s opencast mines are operated by a tiny workforce. Around 130 people work in opencast mining, despite providing around 30% of the coal burned in UK coal-fired power stations.
The Bradley opencast supports 20-30 jobs. The privatisation of the coal industry is now widely acknowledged to have been a deliberate attempt to crush power of the unions as part of a neoliberal agenda – fewer workers, more machines, more profit and less trouble.
Aldo’s union Sintracarbon, by contrast, is at the top of it’s game. Their achievements in less than three decades against three of the world’s biggest mining companies are impressive (Cerrejón is owned by BHP Billiton, Anglo American and Glencore).
These range from improved working hours and health and safety standards, to scholarships for children of coal workers so they can seek a new industry after the closure of the mine, which is set at 2034.
With a strong presence throughout the supply chain, Sintracarbon possesses the formidable power to shut down Colombia’s coal exports from pit to port.
Aldo seems very much at ease with their position against the expansion of the mine, despite the fact that it supports his members’ jobs. He knows that coal mining is not forever, even though it may well have a longer life in Colombia than in the UK.
The alliance between Sintracarbon and the Wayúu is proof that it is possible for an industrial union to hold a meaningful pro-workers agenda, as well as standing against the expansion of the fossil fuel industry that they are part of.
It also holds a lesson for the climate movement in the UK; the more power the union movement has, the more confidently it can take a position against fossil fuel extraction.
To be able to do this, UK union struggles need active solidarity from all sectors of civil society. In the UK’s ‘coal phase-out’ plans there is no comprehensive vision for workers at the end of coal.
It’s time for those of us who want to see an end to fossil fuels to take our cue from Misael and Aldo, to seek justice from coal companies for both workers and communities.
Isobel Tarr is a campaigner with the Coal Action Network, a grassroots campaigning organisation which works to end open-cast coal mining and burning coal for electricity in the UK.
Coal Action Network works in solidarity with communities affected by open-cast coal mining and pollution, both in the UK and internationally, towards a just end to coal now.