Biggest Coal Mine in Latin America Accused of Human Rights Violations in Colombia

Feb 10, 2021
2:53 PM

El Cerrejón (Photo by Tanenhaus/CC BY 2.0)

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Javier Rojas is a leader of the Shipia Wayuu organization and member of the Wayuu Nation, one of Colombia’s largest indigenous groups who mostly live in the northeastern department of La Guajira. Many Wayuu live in rural areas and have relied on subsistence farming, which is in crisis as only 4% have access to clean water in an arid climate.

“Our communities have been suffering due to all of the contamination for having the biggest coal mine in Latin America as our neighbor,” Rojas told Latino Rebels.

Between 2010-2018, 4,770 Wayuu children died in la Guajira due to malnutrition, and despite court orders to improve the situation, children are still starving.

For over 20 years, there has been a dispute over the impact of coal mining in La Guajira. Indigenous, Afro-Colombian, and campesino groups, along with civil society organizations, clamor that La Guajira has been sacrificed in the name of development, as Latin America’s largest open-pit coal mine has caused sickness, environmental degradation, and cultural loss.

Carbones de Cerrejón, owned and operated by a consortium of three multinational corporations, claims that it creates wealth for the people of La Guajria, the people of Colombia, and its international shareholders all the while doing responsible mining. This struggle has taken place in courts, the UN, and newspapers.

The dispute continues, as this January a coalition of Colombian and international civil society organizations filed a complaint with the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, alleging that CMC Coal Marketing Company —which buys all of Cerrejón’s coal and is owned by the same parent companies— has a responsibility for ongoing human rights violations in La Guajira.

“It’s a humanitarian crisis that hasn’t really been resolved, and frankly we’re talking about the right to life. We’re not only talking about impacts that are happening now but that are going to be hereafter,” said Jenny Ortiz of the Centro de Investigación y Educación Popular (Center of Popular Investigation and Education, CINEP), one of the organizations who joined in the complaint.

Cerrejón’s parent companies are BHP, Glencore, and Anglo American, headquartered in Australia, Switzerland, and the UK, respectively. Private and public companies have been exploring and mining coal in La Guajira since the 1970s, and these companies acquired the mine in 2000-2002. In 2019 the mine produced 25.9 million tons of coal, Colombia’s number two export.

There has been litigation on the impacts of coal mining in La Guajira since 1992, resulting in a series of court orders to the government and the company to improve conditions. Rojas has also taken this case to international courts, and in 2015 the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights, a body of the Organization of American States, issued protection measures in favor of the Wayuu.

Yet the situation hasn’t improved. “The government basically just ignores national courts, and it ignores international courts as well,” Rojas said.

Social organizations question the government’s willingness to protect its own people. The current Colombian government has prioritized oil and mineral production for economic development, as have previous governments, and relies on royalties from oil and mining for the national budget.

“The Colombian State has extractivism as an objective, and cares little or nothing about evaluating the impacts and affectations that this generates,” said Rosa María of the organization Colectivo de Abogados José Alvear Restrepo (The Lawyer Collective José Alvear Restrepo, CAJAR), another civil society organization making the complaint.

Organizations accompanying affected communities in La Guajira are once again seeking justice in international bodies, this time with the OECD. The complaint is primarily against Coal marketing Company (CMC), which is headquartered in Ireland, buys all of Cerrejón’s coal, and is owned by the same three parent companies. It argues that CMC has contributed to adverse impacts on human rights and the environment, failed to disclose information about its activities, and has not carried out due diligence.

Cerrejón has not yet refuted the specific points of the complaint, but has said that they are “committed to operating with the strictest fulfillment of Colombian legislation and court rulings, as well as international standards and recommendations on human rights and the environment.”

What impact has mining had on La Guajira?

In their 2019 sustainability report, Cerrejón holds that its practices are environmentally responsible and they have a positive impact on La Guajra’s development.

Firstly, to deal with air pollution, they implement measures to reduce the spread of harmful particles by wetting roads and areas they work, rehabilitate old land with vegetation, and have systems that can predict high dust conditions.

Cerrejón argues it uses water responsibly. 89% of the water it uses isn’t apt for human consumption, and to avoid water pollution, it has a system of 29 sensors to monitor quality and amount of surface water. “Thanks to this work, the volume of flow in the Ranchería River increases by more than 30% in its passage through our operations,” the report says.

Additionally, Cerrejón contends it has a positive impact on people’s lives. Mining contributes to 44% of the department’s GDP, and nearly half of Cerrejón’s workforce are from La Guajira. What’s more, they have invested $3.8 million dollars in social programs and have delivered 26.4 million liters of water to nearby communities.

“These sorts of reports don’t reflect reality. Anyone who goes inside the community will see there has been no improvement in living conditions, health, water, and food security,” Rojas said.

Cerrejón must take measures to reduce air pollution because coal mining releases particles undetectable to the human eye that get lodged deep in the lungs are linked to asthma and other diseases.

A study found that the 442 annual emergency room visits and 336,832 respiratory symptoms to people living close to the mine are directly related to mining operations. Furthermore, one air quality analysis found that particulate matter exceeds the recommendations of the WHO.

In spite of its water sensors, the UN has said that Cerrejón is the “largest water polluter in the region,” and that, “it not only diverts and uses an enormous number of streams and tributaries, but also returns them contaminated with heavy metals, chemicals, and sediments.”

17 waterways have been diverted… this is the assassination of a river, and this isn’t any river, it’s the only river of the department,” Ortiz said, referring the Rachería River which is the water supply for nearly half a million people. The complaint found that mining had caused irreparable damage to the hydrographic basin of the Ranchería River and that without this river the area will suffer further desertification.

Furthermore, mining has not apparently created wealth for the Wayuu people. In spite of reiterated warnings and court orders to improve the socio-economic situation in La Guajra, Human Rights Watch released a report in August 2020 documenting the ongoing health and malnutrition crisis throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The company has been made responsible by the Constitution Court, the highest judicial entity in our country, for damage and environmental contamination. Despite this, the company comes out and says ‘this, that we contaminate the air, is a myth’,” said Mateus Parra.

Cerrejón’s sustainability report had questioned the Constitutional Court’s rulings, saying the court “imposed certain measures that are more restrictive for Cerrejón than those in effect for the rest of Colombia and Latin America,” referring to air-quality levels around the mine.

In February, Glencore announced its withdrawal from its mining interests in the neighboring department of Cesar, and over the next two years it’s expected the other companies will leave Cerrejón. Mateus Parra said it was important that the communities agree to an exit plan, and that the companies don’t leave the Colombian State with the responsibility for restoring environmental damage.

Cerrejón declined to be interviewed for this story.

Mining in the Midst of Conflict

The terrifying reality is that air and water pollution isn’t the only problem in La Guajira, but also with the presence of illegal armed groups. According to Colombian organization Indepaz, 12 social leaders and human rights defenders have been assassinated in La Guajira since the 2016 signing of the Peace Accord, and leaders such as Rojas are constantly receiving death threats.

“To speak out about what’s going on here… well, you’re basically hanging yourself because dissent is silenced,” Rojas said.

There are coincidences of illegal armed groups apparently working in the interest of mining companies, even though there are no investigations of direct collusion with the company. “There are patterns, such as leaders receiving threats who are working on judicial cases against the company and the government,” Ortiz said. In 2018, leaders received threats in the weeks leading up to a public hearing about the court order to suspend the mine’s plan to expand operations.

“There are obscure interests behind all this. It’s pretty complicated and to start to look into this puts one at risk because if we’re not assassinated, we are persecuted and they frame us,” Rojas added. Rojas himself was charged with fraud, but had to be released for lack of evidence.

Organizations have denounced other coal companies for financing paramilitaries in the region, which the companies deny. In December 2020, a prosecutor from Colombia’s transitional justice mechanism charged executives from U.S. coal company Drummond for financing paramilitaries.

The complaint the organizations accompanying people like Javier Rojas know that the OECD isn’t a perfect mechanism and challenges will remain.

“This is what we face every day, and it’s our daily bread. It is the same situation every week. We receive different types of complaints from the community, and we do not have all the support we need to be able to carry out this work here in the territory,” Rojas said.


Thomas Power is an investigator and writer based in Bogotá, Colombia. He is a candidate for a master’s in Political Studies from Colombia’s National University and was an International Human Rights accompanier with Fellowship of Reconciliation. Twitter: @ahbueno55.