Three-story-high dumptrucks carry coal out of Cerrejón for export to Canada and other countries.
Words and photographs by Chris Arsenault
Thirteen years ago, the world turned upside-down for Miluolis Arregoces and his five children.
The family lived in Caracolí, a small farming community in Colombia’s parched La Guajira province, until bulldozers contracted by El Cerrejón, the world’s largest open-pit coal mine, demolished their home. Buttressed by a heavy police presence, mine officials confiscated land from around 30 families in Caracolí. The mine says some residents were compensated. Mr. Arregoces says he received nothing.
The mine officials “just came with trucks and said we had to leave and put our possessions in the trucks” said Mr. Arregoces.
The family now lives in a two-room shack outside Hatonuevo, a town close to the mine. Their story isn’t unique in this neighbourhood. Hundreds of families displaced by the mine eke out a living in barrios like this. Some sell cell phone minutes on street corners, others cook massamora (a sweet thick corn beverage) and sell it for pocket change to passers-by. Without fertile land to sustain themselves, these former farmers must scrape together the cash needed to sustain their families however they can.
“Everyone is unemployed after losing their land” Mr. Arregoces told me as we sat in front of the dilapidated shack he rents. “Life in Caracolí was very good. We had our animals, corn, yucca [a root vegetable], and nobody bothered us. This neighbourhood has lots of problems. There is no work. We are farmers“”that’s what we know how to do, but we can’t do that now.”
Arregoces and his family are very far from the day-to-day lives of Canadians, but their suffering has more to do with us than we might think. Roughly 17 percent of the coal burned in Nova Scotia and 16 percent in New Brunswick comes from Colombia’s Cerrejón coal mine. New Brunswick Power imports one million tons of coal from Cerrejón each year, according to David D. Hay, CEO of NB Power Holding Corporation. Nova Scotia Power is also a major importer.
In March 2005, Nova Scotia Power spokesperson Merle MacIsaac told media outlets in Atlantic Canada that Cerrejón is, “run by large companies. They appear to run a good operation.”
“We care about the Colombians who are mining the coal we buy” said MacIsaac.
In the last 20 years, Cerrejón has violently displaced several primarily indigenous and afro-Colombian farming communities, including Manantial, Caracolí and Tabaco.
Alexa McDonough, the NDP’s foreign affairs critic and MP for Halifax, says Nova Scotia Power has “done nothing” to investigate complaints that it is fostering human rights abuses. “We’re talking about criminally responsible conduct that has resulted in people dying” said McDonough in March 2006. “That’s why it’s called blood coal.”
José Julio Perez is one of 700 farmers to have been displaced from the village of Tabaco. He has since emerged as a community leader in the struggle for compensation from the mining company.
“It has been five years since we were ripped away from our friends, our community” Perez told a 2006 conference in La Guajira. “We feel international pressure will help us receive justice.”José Julio Perez and his family at their rented tenement near the mine.
Such international pressure has, indeed, begun to emerge against Cerrejón. In November 2006, Aviva Chomsky, professor of History and Latin American Studies at Salem State College in Massachusetts, led a fact-finding mission to northern Colombia that interviewed 61 heads of households from families displaced from Tabaco. “We heard the same story again and again” Dr. Chomsky told Z Magazine after completing the most comprehensive research available on the Tabaco displacement.
““˜We are peasants, we are farmers,’ people told us” said Chomsky. ““˜We used to be productive people, we used to support ourselves and our families. We were not rich, but we worked our land and we provided our children with what they needed. Since the company took our town and our land, there is nothing for us to do. There is no work.’”
Canadian companies like Nova Scotia Power that purchase coal from Cerrejón deny culpability for the marginalization and displacement of villagers living on the mine’s periphery. But according to Edgar Sarmineto, Cerrejón’s Director of Land Acquisition and Community Affairs, “one hundred percent of Cerrejón’s coal is exported to Canada, the US and Europe.” Thus, growing demand from developed countries is the only factor pushing Cerrejón to expand its operations.
In 2004, to meet this growing demand, Cerrejón committed to boost its annual production capacity from 26 million to 33 million tons. This increased production will require further displacements; the mine admits that three more villages“”Pantilla, Chancleta and Roche“”will soon be destroyed.
Displaced Colombian farmers and their supporters argue that Canadian power companies that purchase coal from Cerrejón and refuse to speak out against human rights abuses are fueling a climate of impunity in a land already burning with it. “These stories [of displacement] raised the level of violence in a country that is demanding peace and justice” said Rem Medios, director of Yamata Indigenous Organization, a Colombian group working in solidarity with farmers displaced by the mine.
Decades of civil war between various interests in Colombia, including international drug cartels, the American government, Marxist rebels, and reactionary land-owner-backed paramilitaries, have internally displaced three million people, according to United Nations figures.
While there is no evidence to link Cerrejón with the most notorious and violent paramilitary groups, including the United Self-Defense Forces (AUC), mine officials admit to hiring hundreds of “private vigilantes.”
“The majority of security don’t have any guns. They are just eyes in the area” says Cerrejón’s spokesperson Edgar Sarimento, who maintains that the forces are necessary to protect the mine from leftist guerrillas and other groups.
Those “eyes” have been doing more than watching, according to Tomas Ustatie, a farmer in Roche, a village on the mine’s periphery awaiting eventual displacement.
“People from the mine come and block the rivers so we can’t get water and block the roads so we can’t get our products to market” says 48-year-old Ustatie as he milks his cows in Roche. Two men on horseback, who don’t live in the village, watch Ustatie closely as we speak. Ustatie identifies them as vigilantes paid by the mine.Two men on horseback, who don’t live in the village, watch Ustatie closely as we speak. Ustatie identifies them as vigilantes paid by the mine.Tomas Ustatie poses with his cows in Roche, a village awaiting displacement. “The mine has promised to relocate us to a better village, but they haven’t done anything but bother us” said Ustatie, as two of the mine’s “˜private vigilantes’ watch us closely.
Large-scale coal mining at Cerrejón started in 1985 as a joint venture between Exxon and Carbacoal, a corporation run by the Colombian government. A variety of factors, including privatization schemes, led the Colombian government to sell its share in November 2000. Cerrejón is now controlled by a consortium of three multi-national mining companies: BHP Billiton, AngloAmerican and Xstrata.
After leading me on an extensive two-hour tour of Cerrejón, Edgar Sarimento, a gentle La Guajira local with a shiny bald head, admits that Cerrejón has made mistakes when expropriating land from residents in Tabaco, Caracolí, and other communities. “We cannot qualify ourselves as the number one company in the world. We are improving our ways of doing things.”
Sarimento was educated in Bogota, but unlike many from the economically depressed La Guajira, he was able to find stable employment close to home because of the mine. He now works as director of land acquisition for Cerrejón.
“We may not reconstruct things [in Tabaco] the way they were in the past” he says. “But there are things that need to be done. It’s the direct responsibility of the mine to take action on this.”
Caption: Edgar Sarimento, director of land acquisition for Cerrejón.
In May 2002, Colombia’s Supreme Court ruled that the people displaced from Tabaco must be relocated in such a way as to be able to reconstruct their community“”meaning that they needed land to farm as well as new public infrastructure to replace what had been destroyed. The edict from Colombia’s top court hasn’t been enforced, however, because the responsibility for reconstruction was placed on the municipality of Hatonuevo rather than on the mine itself.
Officials from Cerrejón claim the mine donated 57 hectares of land on which to re-build Tabaco. The mayor of Hatonuevo, however, says the municipality doesn’t have the money to reconstruct the village.
“It has been so hard for us to keep this a peaceful struggle” said displaced farmer José Julio Perez. “But we know that the only way we will reclaim our cultural rights and our way of life is through peace. We know a lot of people are supporting us.”
In November 2006, a delegation from Sintracarbón, Colombia’s National Coal Miners’ Union that represents 4700 Cerrejón employees, met with farmers displaced by the mine and toured their current living spaces. “These communities have been reduced to the conditions that we could call the “˜living dead,’” wrote Sintracarbón’s Jairo Quiroz. “The multinational companies that exploit and loot our natural resources in the Cerrejón mine are violating the human rights of these communities.”
In a powerful example of social unionism, Sintracarbón demanded a better relocation package for former Tabaco residents and other displaced people during contract negotiations with Cerrejón. The union signed a new collective agreement with management on January 31, 2007, but concrete action for the displaced has yet to follow.
On November 14, 2006, after much pressure from activists in Atlantic Canada, New Brunswick Power CEO David D. Hay wrote a letter to Cerrejón CEO Leon Teicher, encourging the mine to “negotiate in good faith with the Union and the affected communities and conduct these negotiations openly and fairly.”
Even the editorial board of The Halifax Daily News, a generally conservative paper owned by Transcontinental Media, has jumped on the solidarity bandwagon, writing in its editorial of March 27, 2006, “There was a time when the “˜blood coal’ tag could have applied to mines in Cape Breton. If we can help to improve the conditions of mines and communities in Colombia “” let’s do it.”
Chris Arsenault is a Halifax-based activist, journalist and columnist with [HERE] Magazine. Funding for this article was made possible in part by the Nova Scotia Public Interest Research Group.
Readers like you keep Briarpatch alive and thriving. Subscribe today to support fiercely independent journalism.