Generating Power and Poverty in Colombia

Many of the communities in Colombia’s remote northeastern department of La Guajira exist on the periphery of the country’s violence. The semi-arid landscape is not conducive to guerrilla warfare and looks more like the southwestern United States than any other part of Colombia. While the region’s geography is responsible for keeping much of the country’s violence at arms length, it is the cause of another form of conflict currently being waged against numerous La Guajira communities: economic globalization. In the early1980s, ExxonMobil—through its wholly-owned subsidiary, Intercor—and Colombia’s state-owned coal mining company Carbocol began extracting coal from the El Cerrejón mine in southern La Guajira. El Cerrejón soon became the world’s largest open-pit mine as it grew to its current size of 30 miles long and five miles wide. This continuing expansion has wreaked havoc on local communities, some of which have already been gobbled up by the mine, and others that are targeted for destruction over the next couple of years.

In January 2002, bulldozers completed the demolition of the village of Tabaco after many of its residents had been forcibly evicted from their homes in order to clear the way for the mine’s expansion. Some of Tabaco’s 1,100 Afro-Colombian residents, many of whom are direct descendents of the town’s original founders, were violently attacked by the more than 200 soldiers and police dispatched to remove those who refused to voluntarily abandon their homes. According to one of the victims, Emilio Ramón Perez, “The police beat and broke my head in four places and took me out of the house. I was unconscious in the hospital for 20 days. They destroyed my house without letting me take my things. They took everything: my refrigerator, stove, television, chairs, they took all of my things.”

Many of Tabaco’s 350 families are now displaced. Some of them have fled the region for a life of hardship in Colombia’s cities, where the official unemployment rate is close to 20 percent. Others have moved to neighboring communities and are determined to continue their fight against the mine’s expansion while suing for compensation. Tabaco families that refused to accept the $1,000 offered by Intercor prior to the village’s destruction received no compensation for the homes and lands from which they were forcibly removed by soldiers and police.

In May 2002, Colombia’s Supreme Court ruled that the municipality of Hatonuevo, in which Tabaco was located, must allocate resources to build new homes for the former residents of Tabaco. But such resources are scarce and villagers have no means of ensuring that the court’s ruling is implemented. The Supreme Court also decreed that all future mining projects in indigenous areas could not proceed without discussions being held with the affected communities. While this ruling might provide some protection to the Wayúu indigenous community of Tamaquito, it does little to alleviate the threatened displacement of Afro-Colombian communities in the vicinity of El Cerrejón.

One such community is Chancleta, some of whose residents have already abandoned their homes due to the mine’s encroachment. Seventy-three year-old Juana Arregoces Dias has lived in her current house for 19 years and in Chancleta her entire life. Like the majority of the region’s residents, she survives by growing a small amount of food crops, raising small animals and fishing in the local river. But the mine has now seized the land through which the river flows and the company refuses to allow local residents fishing access. Those villagers who were dependent on fishing to sustain themselves have already had to abandon their homes. As a result, Chancleta is an eerily semi-deserted village of mud huts and dirt roads patrolled by the mine’s security guards who ride around in pick-up trucks intimidating any villagers willing to talk with outsiders.

Juana’s humble wooden house is less than 1,500 feet from the edge of the mine. She endures the dust, pollution and blasting noise on a daily basis. In all likelihood, she will soon have to decide whether to accept an offer from the company or face forced eviction. Juana has no family left in the region and, after a long life of rural subsistence living, is now faced with the probability of having to adjust to the alien environment of a large town or city with no job prospects. The plight of Juana and other residents in the El Cerrejón region is typical of that experienced by millions of impoverished rural victims of economic globalization throughout the developing world.

In the 1980s, 60 percent of Colombia’s coal was used domestically, primarily to generate electricity. But the globalization process brought companies like ExxonMobil to La Guajira and Alabama-based Drummond Mining to the neighboring department of César in search of cheap Colombian coal. As a result, coal has become Colombia’s third-largest legal export, a fact illustrated in El Cerrejón where less than one percent of the 18 million tons of coal extracted annually remains in Colombia. Some 71 percent of the coal is shipped to Europe and 28 percent to the United States. Colombia has now become the number one supplier of foreign coal to the United States.

In March 2002, ExxonMobil sold its 50 percent share in El Cerrejón to its partner, a multinational consortium consisting of three of the world’s largest mining companies—Anglo-American, BHP Billiton and Glencore—which had acquired the Colombian government’s share of the mine in December 2000. Now that the consortium is the sole owner and operator of the mine, ExxonMobil can conveniently say that it is no longer responsible for the displaced citizens of Tabaco.

In order to address some of the social and economic problems related to the mine and the 115-mile railway line used to transport the coal to the Caribbean coast, the mine’s owners established the Cerrejón Foundation in 1984. But with an annual budget of only $80,000, which has to cover staff salaries and the cost of its suite of offices in the departmental capital, Riohacha, it is uncertain how effectively the Foundation can address the needs of the 70 communities that fall under its sphere of operations.

Executive director of the Cerrejón Foundation, Yolanda Mendoza, says the Foundation provides micro-credit programs to small businesses and indigenous communities, while a field staff helps teach the communities new farming technologies. But when asked what the Foundation was doing to help communities displaced by the mine, Mendoza replied, “They are not really displaced. They are not displaced because there are no communities where the mine is at this time. There was a process a long time ago, but now there are no communities there.” When reminded of the recent destruction of Tabaco, Mendoza became visibly tense and stated, “I don’t think that is true. But it is a topic you have to speak about with the El Cerrejón mine company, because I don’t have the authority to talk about it.”

It appears that denial is the company’s first line of defense regarding the displacement of local communities. And when forced to address the issue, a spokesperson for the mine, Ricardo Plata Cepeda, said the company is waiting for the Colombian courts to determine how much it has to pay those forcibly evicted from Tabaco. Undoubtedly, the mine’s owners know full well that there is little likelihood of any judicial rulings being effectively enforced. Meanwhile, the Colombian government has extended the company’s operating contract until 2034, and at that time, given the mine’s current growth rate, the dominant feature in the landscape of southern La Guajira will be an ecologically devastating 70-mile by 12-mile hole in the ground.

Current and future victims of the mine’s expansion have begun focusing on raising international awareness of their plight. There are several groups in the United States and Europe that are helping to shed light on the human catastrophe unfolding in La Guajira. One such organization is the London-based Colombia Solidarity Campaign, which attended BHP Billiton’s annual shareholders meeting on November 4 and called on the company to provide fair compensation to the displaced villagers of Tabaco.

In the United States, the North Shore Colombia Solidarity Committee in Salem, Massachusetts, is working to increase community awareness that the electricity generated by PG&E-owned Salem Harbor Power Station comes from Colombian coal extracted at a great cost to Colombian peasants. “We’re the consumer of the product that is throwing people off their land. We’re the beneficiaries of something that is unjust,” said Avi Chomsky, a professor at Salem State College and founder of the North Shore Colombia Solidarity Committee.

Local council member, Colombian-born Claudia Chuber, met with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe in Washington D.C. in September and presented him with a copy of a resolution passed by the Salem City Council. The resolution expresses concern about villagers displaced by the mine and urges that the Colombian Supreme Court’s decision calling for the building of homes for Tabaco’s former residents be carried out expeditiously.

Sadly, it is unlikely that Uribe will allow the plight of impoverished Colombians displaced by the El Cerrejón mine to distract him from his primary goal of escalating Colombia’s conflict. Shedding light on such a human rights issue would only undermine the U.S.-led process of economic globalization that lies at the root of Washington’s escalating military intervention in Colombia. In the meantime, and in the face of great odds, 73-year-old Juana Arregoces Dias and the other remaining residents of Chancleta, as well as those living in neighboring communities also threatened by the mine’s expansion, continue to struggle for social and economic justice in their remote and often forgotten corner of Colombia.

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