Traveling on Coal’s Death Route: From Puerto Rico’s Jobos Bay to La Guajira, Colombia

Aug 14, 2018
12:27 PM

By Hilda Lloréns and Ruth Santiago

Last week we joined Aviva Chomsky and several other Witness for Peace delegates on a visit to La Guajira, Colombia to learn about, bear witness, and hear testimonies from communities affected by coal mining. Often said to be the “world’s largest open-pit coal mine,” Cerrejón is owned by Anglo American, BHP, and Glencore, all listed in the London Stock Exchange. But Cerrejón’s motto, “responsible mining,” seems far removed from the realities we witnessed in La Guajira.

Wayúu and Afro-descendant community members testified about having been displaced from their ancestral lands. We heard that when ancestral lands were lost to the mine, lost also were the burial sites of loved ones, sacred places, and ancient trees. We heard that for many, being displaced or resettled has meant losing traditional ways of making a living and access to quality of life. They told us that their mobility, their freedom, and livelihood, including the pasturing of goats were severely restricted.

We saw a child who lives near two active coal pits suffer an asthma attack. We toured the mine and visited an active pit called Patilla, the smallest of the six pits in operation, and the enormity of the pit left us stunned. We saw dried up streams and lagoons and extreme water scarcity in the communities while Cerrejón has all the water it needs to operate. We heard about the threats and attempted murder of social and environmental leaders. We heard residents’ say that to stifle negotiations with communities, the multinational uses tactics such as  “divide and conquer” and “making us fight with each other.” We were told, more than once, that, “we have become strangers in our land.” Finally, at a hearing with mine executives and community members, we witnessed the executives’ outright disregard for the local ecological, traditional, and ancestral knowledge of community members and indifference to their trauma and suffering. It seemed, as if everywhere we traveled in La Guajira, the shadow of Cerrejón loomed.

“Cerrejón: Irresponsible Mining.” Graffiti on a wall in Riohacha, Colombia. (Photo by H. Llorens, 2018)

In Puerto Rico, the AES coal-fired power plant, which burns coal for energy generation, spews contaminants into the air, land, and water, adversely impacting nearby communities and the Jobos Bay environment. Puerto Rico’s southeast, with its Caribbean Sea coast and semi-desertic climate and vegetation, and its large number of Afro-descended residents, is strikingly similar to La Guajira. Similar also is the staggering number of residents suffering from respiratory illnesses, cancers, kidney diseases, water and air contamination, and noise pollution.

We traveled to La Guajira with the aim of gaining a firsthand understanding of the impacts of coal mining on local communities and the environment. Although our understanding is that the coal burned at the AES plant located in Guayama, Puerto Rico, comes from Colombia, we also know that it is shipped from the port of Santa Marta, which handles coal mined in El Cesar by Drummond, LTD, to the AES port in Las Mareas harbor. In contrast, Cerrejón ships its coal from Puerto Bolivar.

Coal at the AES plant in Guayama, PR. (Photo by H. Llorens, 2018)

Water for Mining, Not for Residents

It is well-known that multinational corporations tend to operate with only a concern for the bottom line, but we were unprepared for the astounding suffering and trauma wrought by Cerrejón upon the Wayúu and Afro-descendant communities we visited. On the first day we joined the delegation we visited El Rocío, a Wayúu community fighting to keep its access and rights to the Arroyo Bruno, one of Ranchería River’s tributaries. Since beginning its operation three decades ago the mine has been responsible for the disappearance of an estimated fifteen tributaries that fed the Ranchería River. At El Rocío we were told that they have depended on and cared for the Arroyo Bruno since time immemorial. In this semi-desertic region, water is a scarce and precious resource, and everyone we met is fighting for the right to the region’s dwindling water.

In El Rocío, the community’s “autoridad” (authority), that is, the man or woman charged with voicing collective decisions, explained:

Some say that mining has brought development but we don’t see it that way. The owners of the Cerrejón mine are the only ones who have benefited and the only thing we have received from the multinational has been prejudice. We endure environmental, educational, and health injustice. They have only brought us more poverty. They don’t understand that people live here and we need to live here. We are here because we were born here, because we love this place, and because this is where we are from. They don’t understand that if the water ends, if there is no more water life will end. Arroyo Bruno is the blood that runs through our body, I don’t believe that the body can live without blood. If they intervene with the Arroyo Bruno, they will drain the life out of our bodies.

Arroyo Bruno at El Rocío (Photo by H. Llorens, 2018)

In La Guajira, the population lacks access to potable water or sometimes any water in their homes and most residents’ only access to potable water is through the purchase of small plastic bags of water. On our visit to Cerrejón, we were each given refreshingly cold water from plastic bottles and a bag of snacks that included a plump apple and mixed nuts. They treated us, the delegation, quite well. Throughout the tour, attentive employees answered our questions patiently, even when we pressed them to clarify what we perceived were inconsistencies in their narrative.

One such inconsistency had to do with the mine’s use of water. In fact, in a place experiencing water scarcity, water was foremost on everyone’s mind. On the long trip throughout the mine, we were driven for at least 15 minutes on a bumpy air-conditioned ride from the heavily guarded entrance to the Patilla pit, we saw water trucks spraying copious amounts of water on the mine’s roads. All the roads at the mine were either wet or moist. We soon learned that water is used to control fugitive dust throughout the mine’s grounds, surely no easy feat given that the entirety of the mine’s territory seems like a giant dust bowl.

Road at Cerrejón mine (Photo by H. Llorens, 2018)

Mining requires astronomic amounts of water and Cerrejón uses about 34 million liters of water per day. The company line is that they use low quality water that is unfit for human consumption. They also assert that they collect rainwater that is captured at the bottom of the pits and that they do not drill wells to access water from the aquifer. Residents have a different perception. More than once, we heard elders say that the “rains don’t come anymore,” and that they have observed that mining has had an adverse impact on water supplies.

The Patilla Pit, the smallest of the six active pits due to close in two years. (Photo by H. Llorens, 2018)

At Charito, a community that abuts the mine’s 150-kilometer train track, which divides the territory and with it entire communities and families, the village authority explained that their water source is severely contaminated. The mine denies that coal mining and transportation has anything to do with the widespread contamination reported in a recent Indepaz report, and instead blames the communities for letting the animals defecate in the water.

The Patilla Pit (Photo by H. Llorens, 2018)

At Charito, a Wayúu community, the authority told us:

For Cerrejón, our culture doesn’t exist. We Wayúu feel threatened, restricted, we are not respected and they say we are part of the guerilla and we are afraid they, the military or Cerrejón, will kill us. When we told them the water is being contaminated by coal they told us that it is not the coal contaminating the water, that it is our animals fault. For me that feels like an insult, it feels as if they are mocking us. Why do they say such a thing when we know our animals are not contaminating the water, when our ancestors raised animals and the water was not contaminated?

There is the widespread feeling among affected residents that Cerrejón does not respect their right to equality, to practice their culture, and to live in harmony with their environment. Another Wayúu authority shared that Cerrejón has asked for permission to drill deep wells: “But to that request we say, no and no! No to the intervention with our water sources or deep wells, if we don’t stop them they will leave us without water!”

“+water –coal” Graffiti on a wall in Riohacha, 2018. (Photo by H. Llorens, 2018)

“I Don’t Think They Realize That It Is People Who Live Here!”

At Oreganal, a resettled Afro-descendant community, we heard testimonies from several people who felt duped by Cerrejón because the company has yet to give residents property titles to their houses. Houses which, residents say, are beginning to crack and fall apart. In fact, throughout our trip, we heard this many times, that the houses built by Cerrejón would crack and fall apart as a result of the tremors caused by the open-pit blasting that cut ever deeper into the earth in search of coal.

One spokesperson in Oreganal exclaimed: “We have suffered incalculable economic, political, social, emotional, psychological, environmental, and territorial abuse and our collective pain pulses in each of us gathered here today.” Another said, “they resettled us as if we were enslaved, as if we were animals, I have been criticizing the multinational and the State because they have a marriage of convenience and they both trample our rights. We don’t have any rights. Our community is not even on any map of La Guajira, it’s like we don’t even exist!”

Like Oreganal residents, several others, such as the still unsettled community members of Tabaco, mentioned that they had been urbanized against their will. Residents explained that they had made their living from agriculture, that they are peasants, and that the move to towns or houses with no land for cultivation has meant that they have no way to make a living. “We have no way to earn a living, we have no land to plant or cultivate our traditional crops, we are living in extreme poverty,” explained an Oreganal resident.

Residents lamented that elders who were resettled lived out their last days suffering from great emotional distress. An Afro-descended man from Manantial explained: “Our elders in the cemetery of Manantial, my grandparents, my parents, my aunts and uncles, and other family members, have not rested in peace yet. They are not resting because their graves have been intervened in Cerrejón’s search for coal. Here in La Guajira we say that the coal is stained with blood.”

Devaluation of Life Calls for the Fierce Defense of the Right to Life

As Afro-descended women who are involved in the fight against coal (in our case, we fight against the burning of coal and the disposal of toxic coal-ash in Puerto Rico), we were deeply moved by the plight of the Wayúu and Afro-descendants affected by “la gran minería” (large-scale mining) in La Guajira. It is clear that the outright devaluation of life and to the right to live harmoniously with our environments is severely threatened by the quest for wealth of multinational corporations (such as Cerrejón and AES).

We repeatedly heard residents ask: “Will we ever beat this colossal monster?” This is a question that we have often asked ourselves in reference to the seemingly unrestrained power of multinationals, over local peoples and environments.

To this question, we have no easy answers.

But we do know that our ancestors, those who were indigenous to the Americas, as well as those forcibly resettled from Africa to toil in this continent, have for centuries waged a fierce battle against the extractive forces of global capitalism. It is clear to us, that as Cedric Robinson (1983) argued, racism is a core structure to the logic of capitalism. And “racial capitalism” as Laura Pulido (2017) expounded, deepens understandings of capitalism as more than just a system of wealth accumulation to underscore the historical as well as contemporary human processes —racism, colonization, enslavement, imperialism, nationalism, war, environmental injustice— that sustain it.

For defending the use and access to water in areas where mining companies want to establish themselves. #beingaleaderisnotacrime #theyarekillingus #lifewillwin. (Photo by H. Llorens, 2018)

But fierce resistance to the devaluation of our lives and environments is also alive and well. If history has taught us anything, it is that the indigenous and Afro-descendants people of the Americas will continue to resist death and demand the right to life. We left La Guajira feeling that as long as there are people like those we met resisting death and demanding the right to life and to their cultural practices, not all is yet lost.

We were heartened by the emphatic answer a Wayúu man gave us when we asked whether the Wayúu language was widely spoken and without a moment’s hesitation he exclaimed: “El wayúu está más vivo que el castellano! (Wayúu language is more alive than Spanish!)


Hilda Lloréns PhD, is an anthropologist at the University of Rhode Island.

Ruth Santiago JD, is a community member and environmental lawyer in Salinas, PR.