Wayúu call on UN rapporteur in coal-mine dispute


Provincial Indigenous Reservation residents demonstrate outside El Cerrejón, an enormous strip-mining operation they say is responsible for health and environmental problems. (Photo courtesy of Yasmina Uriana)

For Yasmina Uriana, an indigenous Wayúu mother of two who lives in northeast Colombia’s La Guajira Department, the disturbing thing about coal strip-mining in her region has been its implacable expansion—and the relentless erosion it has visited on her people’s lives.

“As the mine expanded over the years, it bought more and more land and closed in on us,” Uriana, who is 34 and pregnant with her third child, told EcoAméricas by telephone from her home. “Today it borders our property and there’s a [coal] pit where they are working just 800 meters from our houses. We experience the dust, the noise, and the pollution of the rivers. The [mining] company gives 1,000 liters of water to each family every 15 days, but for many that’s not enough. And many times the mining trucks have killed our animals.”

Living where she was born—the 462-hectare (1,142-acre), 740-resident Provincial Indigenous Reservation, one of some 30 collectively owned, government-recognized indigenous reserves in La Guajira—Uriana is one of two women from the reservation who sued in 2017 over the mining’s impacts. Their complaint, filed after a three-year-old local girl had died from a lung infection, asserted that coal operations were violating their community’s constitutional right to health and a healthy environment.

The complaint targeted El Cerrejón—one of the world’s largest open-pit coal mining operations. Co-owned in equal shares by the multinational mining companies Glencore, BHP and Anglo American, El Cerrejón has rights to exploit 70,000 hectares (173,000 acres). It sends all the coal it extracts—25.7 million metric tons in 2019—by private rail 150 kilometers (93 miles) to Puerto Bolívar on the Caribbean coast, and from there by ship to foreign markets, with Turkey being the principal destination.

Uriana and her co-plaintiff, Mary Luz Uriana Ipuana, won after a lengthy legal battle. On Dec. 16, 2019, Colombia’s Constitutional Court ordered the Colombian company set up to operate the mine—Carbones del Cerrejón—to control its particulate air emissions and stop polluting rivers and wells with heavy metals and chemicals. It also required that an English translation of the order be prepared and sent to the company’s corporate owners.

But Uriana and other community members eventually concluded the ruling did not prompt improvement. So they enlisted high-profile support—David Boyd, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment. On Sept. 28, Boyd called on the Colombian government to “implement the directives of its own Constitutional Court.” Boyd also urged closure of the coal pit closest to the reservation, at least during the Covid-19 pandemic, saying pollution amid such an emergency “can be a deadly threat.” Experts affiliated with the UN Human Rights Council have endorsed Boyd’s call.

“As has happened many times in Colombia, the [court] sentence did not end the conflict,” says environmental attorney Dora Lucy Arias, who has worked with Wayúu communities for 17 years. Arias says the company’s strategy has been to divide indigenous people by selectively doling out jobs and economic benefits which, taken together, contribute little to the livelihood of the local population.

Agreement announced
Arias asserts this strategy appears to underlie El Cerrejón’s Nov. 10 announcement of an agreement “with the majority of the traditional authorities” of the reservation. Under the accord, an air quality standard will be developed and implemented in cooperation with the Colombian Environment Ministry, and 248,000 trees will be planted to help restore the local ecosystem. The company also pledged to help local residents secure “expert advisory services” to produce an air standard that is acceptable to them, the company and the government.
The next day, indigenous community leaders rejected the agreement and accused the company of “lying and attempting to trick the country and international authorities.”

With a workforce of 10,000, El Cerrejón is far and away the biggest employer in La Guajira and thus carries enormous clout in the department, where an estimated 53% of people live in poverty and 24% in extreme poverty. In its response to Boyd’s statements, the company noted that it represents 45% of the department’s GDP and has paid US$8 billion over the past 19 years in taxes and royalties.

“Even temporary suspension of El Cerrejón operations would have a devastating impact on the economy of La Guajira and Colombia, which would compound the socio-economic challenges caused by the Covid-19 pandemic”, Claudia Bejarano, the company’s CEO, said this month in a letter to Boyd and seven other UN Human Rights Council special rapporteurs.

Dwindling demand
Bejarano’s remarks, however, come amid declining demand for Colombian coal. Europe, once Colombia’s top coal customer, is weaning itself of fossil fuels to curb its carbon emissions. At the same time, economic activity worldwide has plunged due to the pandemic. El Cerrejón coal output in the first half of this year—9.5 million metric tons—hit its lowest level in 18 years, prompting pay cuts and layoffs. Pushing back, workers’ launched a strike that, as of mid-November, had dragged on for three months.

“The world has changed, and thus we should change and adapt so El Cerrejón can continue to exist for many more years,” Bejarano said in remarks to reporters in October.

Mauricio Ramírez, a social researcher and former La Guajira government official, says the department’s plight—and its economic dependence on coal mining—is extreme. “La Guajira is highly dependent on El Cerrejón because there is barely any other production [in the department]. Its crisis, taken together with the pandemic, practically paralyzed the department’s economy and has serious consequences. So far this year, 37 indigenous La Guajira children have died of malnutrition.”

Rosa María Mateus, member of a lawyers’ cooperative that represents the reservation, acknowledges it is hard to talk in La Guajira about the prospect of El Cerrejón shutting down. “The mine certainly won’t close to protect the environment and the health of the population, but will do so because the world needs to decarbonize and [coal] prices will keep declining,” Mateus says. “The company doesn’t want to talk about that, but an abrupt closure would cause a socio-economic catastrophe, which would come on top of the environmental legacy. There needs to be public discussion of a 3- to 5-year shutdown process, a period in which economic alternatives could be found.”

- Daniel Gutman

In the index: Some of the coal waste commonly found in the Ranchería River, which runs through the Provincial Indigenous Reservation. (Photo courtesy of Dora Lucy Arias)

Dora Lucy Arias
Bogotá, Colombia
Email: dlagtierrayterritorio@gmail.com
Jeremy Laurence
Media Officer
UN Human Rights Office
Geneva, Switzerland
Tel: +(41 22) 917-7578 
Email: jlaurence@ohchr.org
Rosa María Mateus
José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers' Collective (Cajar)
Bogotá, Colombia
Tel: +(571) 282-4270 
Email: rmmateuscajar@gmail.com
Mauricio Ramírez
Land planner and social researcher
Riohacha, Colombia
Email: mauricioenrique@live.com
Yasmina Uriana
El Provincial Indigenous Reservation
La Guajira Department, Colombia
Tel: +(57 319) 339-4267 
Email: yasmiuriana@hotmail.com