Oct. 14, 2007 A case study of the world's largest open-pit coal mine reveals the hidden costs of coal from Colombia, in particular the effects on indigenous and Afro-Colombian villages.
In The People Behind Colombian Coal: Mining, Multinationals and Human Rights, University of Arkansas anthropologist Steve Striffler and colleagues Aviva Chomsky and Garry Leech have assembled a comprehensive collection of reports on the impact of the Cerrejon mine, located in La Guajira state in northern Colombia.
Opened in 1983, the continual expansion of the Cerrejon mine - at the rate of about 1,482 acres a year - has led to the forced displacement of indigenous Wayuu and Afro-Colombian communities. Some assessments have been made of the environmental effects on ground water, marine life and air quality - all of which affect the rural and fishing communities.
The Wayuu, who have inhabited the region since before Europeans arrived in 1499, had retained a large degree of autonomy while their region remained undeveloped. Although one of the largest and most complex tribal groups in Colombia, the Wayuu have no centralized political power, which has made it difficult for them to effectively confront external pressures.
Striffler has visited the area four or five times, and he and his colleagues have acted as intermediaries for the communities, helping them develop relationships with the mining company and with the labor unions representing the miners.
Several essays in the book detail the effects of land expropriation on the villagers. From the beginning, the mining companies chose to negotiate with the villagers on an individual basis to assess compensation for land and houses. However, Striffler reports, most communities want to conduct collective negotiations to obtain a new area to rebuild their village with houses, land and an infrastructure of roads, schools and churches.
"At this point, the mining companies have recognized that they had not handled land acquisition well and that the villages need to be relocated," Striffler said. "The question now is how these negotiations will occur. The details have not been worked out."
The labor union, an important force at the mine with more than 5,000 members and considerable financial resources, has become a valuable ally for the villagers. The union had not realized initially that the indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities existed. Typically, the miners have come from other areas of the country and are relatively well-educated and well-paid compared to the local villagers.
In his discussions with the displaced villagers of La Guajira, Striffler learned of their need for a collection of the various reports and assessments that had been written over the years. The People Behind Colombian Coal includes socio-cultural and environmental studies, human rights and health reports, and accounts of international support by nonprofit, environmental and religious organizations.
The book concludes with a testimony and other documents from several displaced communities. For example, the testimony from the village of Tabaco narrates how the village was established by former slaves and their sense of the community as one family. Initially, they did not realize the coming of the mine would mean the end of their community and the introduction of health problems, such as tuberculosis, related to the coal dust.
"When the mine first came, we all thought that our land would be preserved intact, that the mine wasn't going to cause us problems," a villager reported. "What we didn't know was that what they called 'progress' was going to mean the destruction of our towns."
In addition to compiling the reports, the editors supplied a detailed timeline of the development of the Cerrejon mine. All reports have been translated, and English- and Spanish-language editions of the book are available.
Striffler is associate professor of anthropology in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences. His travel and work with the communities in La Guajira have been supported financially by the University of Arkansas Graduate School, the Fulbright College dean's office and the department of anthropology.
Chomsky is a professor of Latin American history at North Shore Community College in Massachusetts, and Leech is an independent journalist living in Nova Scotia.
The People Behind Colombian Coal is published by Casa Editorial Pisando Callos in Colombia. Striffler and Chomsky are at work on a book about sustainability and coal, which will include a more extensive history of the coal industry and a history of the coal mining region of Colombia.
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