Coal Mining in Colombia

By: Dr. Suzanne Kent

In early June I traveled to the northern region of Colombia.  I was part of a small delegation of people from the U.S. and Canada investigating the impacts of open pit coal mining on communities in the region.  It was a privilege to dialogue with leaders from the indigenous Wayuu, Afro-Colombian, and peasant communities who have been displaced, are under threat of relocation, or have been ‘disappeared’ in order to make way for mining operations.  The coordinators of this trip, historian Aviva Chomsky and anthropologist Steve Striffler, have been leading delegations to this area for ten years.  In addition to meeting with community members, we also visited one of the active pits, toured rehabilitated land, and met with employees of the mining company.  The trip provided me with reminders of lessons already learned, affirmed my understanding of processes relevant to my teaching and research, and made distant and abstract processes concrete, disturbing and at times, painful.

We were in the state of La Guajira on the Caribbean coast of Colombia.  The landscape was varying, with desert-like zones and lusher, mountainous areas.  The ecosystem in the mining region includes dry tropical forest—an interesting and seemingly contradictory environment.  The area was in the midst of a severe drought at the time of our visit.  We encountered several rain storms, but many locals reported that it had been seven months since the last significant rain.  Of course, it was exceedingly hot and we all worked hard to drink enough water to avoid dehydration.

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Over the course of several days, we visited a number of communities that had been relocated in order to make way for mining operations.  The effects of this process were varying, but for peoples practicing more traditional subsistence strategies, this is often, if not always, a detrimental process.  Even if the new lands are comparable in terms of size, water availability, access to hunting and fishing, and so on, the losses are always significant.  Unfortunately, it is probably impossible to provide equal compensation in cases where people are dislocated to make way for large scale development projects.  For instance, the mining operations have significantly reduced lands available for hunting and fishing—activities which can be important for meeting the nutritional needs of a family.  For indigenous peoples, leaving lands behind often signifies a detachment from ancestors and origin points and is therefore difficult on numerous levels.  Leaders from one community told of the importance of dreaming in their culture and how, after being relocated to a semi-urban neighborhood, the elders stopped dreaming.

We also visited communities that are being threatened with relocation.  For those living near mining operations, the threat of expropriation seems constant.  Under certain circumstances a mining company can expropriate land legally and remove residents against their will.  The legal process is lengthy and complex, and for villagers, creates a permanent climate of fear and instability.  Many concerning and depressing stories were told.  For example, some households in the community of Tabaco were violently removed from their homes and lands.  A court order requires that they be formally relocated, but the process of making this happen has stalled.  The story of Tabaco weighs heavily on community members who fear losing their homes, belongings, history, and spiritual grounding and not receiving compensation for their lands.

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There are numerous other concerns which the community members raised, such as the poor quality of houses in the relocated communities, the inadequacy of lands in cases where they have been awarded, and poor quality of the tap water in the relocated communities.  Community leaders also repeatedly stated that members of their communities have not been able to find work with the mining company itself or the companies that contract with the mining company.  Additionally, the coal from this mine is for export; Colombia relies on hydroelectric power.

Currently, one of the major controversies between many in the surrounding communities and the mining company is the proposal to relocate a stream in order to access the coal beneath it.  Multiple communities rely on the stream for water, and community leaders told us that they fear it will no longer run after it is relocated.  A study released by Friends of the Earth Colombia (CENSAT) makes the case that relocating the stream will cause significant irrevocable damage to ecological systems which would negatively impact access to water for multiple communities.  The mining company states that they have conducted rigorous studies and the impacts of relocating the stream will be minimal.

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The mining company has worked to respond to concerns and problems.  Coal mining in this region began in the 1980s and the challenges have been ongoing.  The company points to the community of Tamaquito as an example of a success story.  This is a Wayuu community; the relocation of which took place through ongoing negotiations.  Of the relocated communities Tamaquito most closely approximates the original in terms of lands and the capacity to pursue cultural and subsistence activities.  The mining company also showed us how they deliberately and carefully rehabilitate lands once the coal has been extracted.  They suggest that the healthiest forests in the region are those on the lands leased by the company.  Mine workers are unionized and relative to other unions in Colombia, seem to hold some degree of freedom to participate openly and freely in union work.  Representatives of the mining company also repeatedly admitted that mistakes had been made in the past and recognized the need to continuously work to appropriately compensate those who have been or will be displaced, as well as people who are otherwise negatively impacted by mining operations.

In all, the trip was exceptionally informative.  Aviva Chomsky and Steve Striffler have been engaged with the issues for a decade, and we were therefore able to learn a great deal from them and truly be immersed in the place and the issues.  Ideally, I think this is what venturing into the home country of another should look like: immersion into history, current challenges, global processes, and local voices.

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– Dr. Suzanne Kent is a Senior Teaching Appointee with the Department of Anthropology and the Office of International Programs.  She is a cultural anthropologist and earned her MA and PhD at Michigan State University.

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