The Cerrejón mine in Colombia is the biggest coal mine in Latin America. Since the 1970s, the project has eaten up several villages, displacing indigenous Wayúu and Afro-Colombian people while destroying a vast area of dry tropical forest.
Like so many dirty coal, oil and gas projects around the world, Cerrejón receives much of its life blood – finance – from the City of London: the mine is jointly owned by London-listed multinationals Anglo-American, BHP Billiton and Xstrata.
Colombian campaigner Tatiana Roa Avendaño came to London recently to call for support for local people and miners who are struggling to stop the expansion of the mine and demanding better conditions for people who live and work in the area.
‘Cerrejón is presented by the Colombian government as being an example of responsible mining. But it has been as disaster,’ she told the World Development Movement.
‘The mine is on indigenous territory and Afro-Colombian territory. In Colombia indigenous communities and black people have rights recognized in our constitution. But Cerrejón never consulted these people about this project and never respected their rights. They were thrown off their lands. People received no compensation, and disappeared to the cities and towns.’
Those who stayed face a much changed homeland: ‘Most of the territory has been destroyed by pollution,’ said Avendaño. ‘The soil is polluted, so people can’t grow crops. They had the traditional life of indigenous people. They moved their goats during different seasons, between north and south. So when the mining started, it destroyed this relationship between the people in north and the south of the area.
‘People have become ill, and their lives are very difficult because the local economy was destroyed, so now they all depend on the mining.
‘The other big problem is the conditions for the workers. The miners went on strike for a month in February and March because of bad pay and health. They have more than 700 people sick with back problems and respiratory illnesses.
‘The local communities support the miners because the union has opposed the plans to expand the mine. The Cerrejón company wants to move a very important local river: La Rancheria. They want to divert it by 26 kilometres so that they can exploit the river bed. The union doesn’t agree with this. So the miners decided to support the local communities against the expansion of the mine.
‘The Rancheria is the only river that actually crosses the whole of La Guajira region. So if this river was diverted, it would put not only the local communities but also the whole population of the area at risk.
‘We have a great opportunity to work together to show what has happened at Cerrejón, to stop the expansion of this mine and to change this destructive model in our country. Because, as I said, the government wants to use this mine as an example for our country.’
Anglo-American’s AGM is on 19 April in London, and Julio Gomez from Colombia will be attending to speak for the communities affected by Cerrejón. He will be joined by Peter Bailey from the National Union of Mineworkers in South Africa, and by campaigners from the World Development Movement and the London Mining Network.
Londoners can also hear Julio’s story on 15 April at Amnesty UK, where he will speak alongside people affected by Anglo-American and Rio Tinto’s mines around the world.