Colombia: blood on the coal

LA GUAJIRA, Colombia — Cerrejón, the world’s largest open pit coal mine, materialized 25 years ago in the midst of the Afro-Colombian and indigenous Wayuu peoples living in this northeast corner of Colombia. The region is named after La Guajira peninsula, which juts into the Caribbean Sea.

Since 1981, 400 million tons of coal has been taken out of La Guajira’s subsoil.

Despite this economic “success,” the communities living here — situated on coal reserves estimated at 3 billion tons — are slated for destruction by the company and government of President Alvaro Uribe.

The unequal contest between giant multinational corporations and La Guajira’s communities plays out in an arid landscape marked by scrub-covered plains and distant mountains.

The forced exit of one community already, and the suffering of the remaining people living in half-empty, decrepit villages, has outraged activists and labor unions worldwide. This is nowhere more evident than in the countries that consume Cerrejón’s coal. Solidarity actions with the peoples of La Guajira are picking up.

A giant energy complex

Cerrejón, once the property of the Colombian state and Exxon, is now owned by multinationals BHP Billiton, Anglo-American, and Glencore (Xstrata). It generated $1.2 billion in earnings last year.

The companies operate a 90-mile-long railroad, a highway and their own seaport. The mine, 30 miles long and 5 miles wide, sells 22 percent of its coal to North America, 59 percent to Europe and 19 percent elsewhere. Last year the mine exported 25 million tons of coal.


Leaders of Sintracarbón, the national union representing Cerrejón workers, have taken up the cause of the beleaguered communities as they begin their own contract negotiations with the company. The union has over 3,100 members. Leaders of both the communities and the union are counting on a boost, however, from international public opinion.

The power of international solidarity was apparent earlier this year when the nation of Denmark banned coal from Alabama-based Drummond Company, a notorious anti-labor energy company, pending a U.S. court’s decision about Drummond’s possible complicity in the murder of three Colombian labor leaders in 2001.

The Dutch power generating company Essent indicated recently that it, too, would not be signing new coal supply contracts with Drummond, pending the court’s decision.

‘Blood coal’ in Salem

History professor Aviva Chomsky learned that a power plant in Salem, Mass., where she lives, was using Cerrejón coal. She and other activists there and in Nova Scotia, Canada, another consuming region, have turned Cerrejón into a symbol for “blood coal.”

This year, Chomsky recruited labor and human rights activists, physicians and academicians from Canada and the United States to visit La Guajira from Oct. 29-Nov. 3 to learn, carry out a requested health survey and prepare for solidarity work on their return.

Sintracarbón and organizations representing Wayuu and Afro-Colombian communities had invited them to Colombia. When the delegation arrived, its members were greeted by union and community leaders, who subsequently accompanied them on the tour. The present writer joined the group’s medical contingent.

A solemn declaration

Responding to the owners’ plans for continued mine expansion, Sintracarbón leaders issued a declaration on the communities timed for the visitors’ departure. What it describes mirrors some of the impressions they took back to North America.

The declaration notes, “These communities are being systematically besieged.” The company has denied them access to employment, grazing land and rivers. The communities “do not have even the most minimal conditions necessary for survival,” it said.

The document continues: “The multinational companies that exploit and loot our natural resources in the Cerrejón mine are violating the human rights of these communities.”

Sintracarbón, the union, aims to “help unify the affected communities, to participate in their meetings, to take a stand with the local and national authorities … to begin a dialogue with the company.”

Meeting with the communities

Interviewing residents of four communities, the North Americans learned that local schools and health facilities are virtually non-existent. To secure food and work, Wayuu people have to trek over mountains into nearby Venezuela. Harassment from company police and the national army is rampant.

Government officials have denied indigenous and Afro-Colombian people rights guaranteed them under the nation’s 1991 constitution. They refuse the official certification that would place the communities into protected categories.

Displaced former residents of the Afro-Colombian community Tabaco, living nearby in cruel circumstances, recalled the bulldozers, soldiers and company police that on Aug. 9, 2001, evicted them, destroying their village. Neither Cerrejón nor neighboring Hatonuevo municipality has complied with a Supreme Court ruling May 2002 to provide homes for the victims.

Before and later, some residents did settle individually with Cerrejón. Others, members of “Tabaco in Resistance” led by Jose Julio Perez, demand collective negotiations, collective resettlement, and reparations for loss of livelihood and community integrity.

U.S. and world solidarity

Richard Trumka, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, and Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers, have called upon the company to honor labor and human rights. Gerard wrote the mine’s owners, “We applaud Sintracarbón union’s courageous and unprecedented step in including in its bargaining proposal demands that the collective rights of the Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities affected by the mine are recognized and addressed.”

Chomsky reports that solidarity groups are active in Massachusetts, Nova Scotia, London and Switzerland. She and others have formed an international commission to monitor developments in La Guajira, including union negotiations for a new contract.

For more information, visit


W.T. Whitney Jr. (atwhit @ writes on international affairs for the People’s Weekly World. He lives in rural Maine.

Building people-to-people solidarity

Aviva Chomsky

SALEM, Mass. — It was in April of 2002 that a group of people here first learned that our power plant was importing coal from the Cerrejón mine in Colombia, then owned by Exxon.

Two representatives of local communities affected by the mine were coming to the United States to speak at the Exxon shareholders’ meeting about the mine’s abuses against the people in the region. They were eager to come to Salem to meet with people who were using coal from the mine.

So we scrambled to put together an ad hoc committee to organize their visit. To our surprise, the issue piqued the interest of many.

When she arrived, indigenous Wayuu leader Remedios Fajardo told Salem’s mayor, its city council, and others: “We want to tell the people of Salem that this coal has its origins in violence. Our communities have suffered greatly. Their human rights have been violated, their territory has been usurped, their houses destroyed and demolished, and they have had to shed their blood in order for this coal to arrive in Salem and other parts of the world.

“We beg the city of Salem to express their solidarity with us, because we have a relationship with them because of this situation,” she said.

Since that day, we’ve been trying to do just that.

Our campaign has mushroomed over the past four years. We’ve invited activists from La Guajira to the U.S. and Canada to bring their stories to coal-consuming communities. We linked up with solidarity groups in London, Switzerland and Australia, where the three companies that bought the mine in 2002 have their headquarters. We started attending their shareholders meetings and asking tough questions.

Here in Salem and in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, Canada, our organizations have been pressuring the coal importers to press the mine on human rights issues. A Danish investigative report last spring led to DONG Energy in Denmark cutting off its purchases of coal from the U.S.-owned Drummond mine in Colombia, where three union leaders were killed in 2001. The New Brunswick Power Company recently wrote to the mine asking it to negotiate in good faith with the union and the affected communities, and to respect the communities’ right to collective relocation and reparations.

High levels of violence against unionists in Colombia have helped mobilize unions in the U.S., Canada and Europe to join the campaign.

When the Sintracarbón union at the Cerrejón mine decided to prioritize its relationship with communities affected by the enterprise, workers at the Ekati diamond mine in Canada’s northwest territories noted the similarities: the two mines are partially owned by the same Australian company, BHP Billiton, and both have usurped indigenous land and displaced communities.

The Public Service Alliance of Canada, which organized the Ekati mine in the country’s Northwest Territories two years ago, sent two representatives on our recent delegation to express their solidarity and to have a chance to exchange experiences.

Both the union and the communities have told us repeatedly that only international attention will pressure the mine owners to respect their rights. We hope we can bring the attention they need and deserve.

Aviva Chomsky teaches history at Salem State College in Massachusetts.

‘We are compañeros and friends who are forever united’

Following the delegation visit, Jairo Quiroz of the Sintracarbón union sent the visitors these reflections:

“This kind of experience is what brings us the strength and conviction that we need to continue our struggle against the social inequalities in our country. Our experience with you allowed us to come close to these uprooted and displaced communities that are suffering from desperation and depression because of the way they are humiliated and assaulted by the strength of foreign capital, with the blessing of the Colombian state.

“Their fundamental rights have been violated. Beginning now, we as a union are proposing that just as the company has a social responsibility for the way it runs its business, our union, seeing the destruction that the Guajira communities are suffering at the hands of Cerrejón, has a moral and political responsibility.

“The company generates huge profits through the misery, poverty, and uprooting of these populations. The communities have to pay a very high price for the company’s profits.

“We are convinced that only the unity among the different peoples of the world can allow us to confront these economically powerful and inhuman multinationals in the name of the communities that have the misfortune to be located in the path of the mine’s expansion.”

Quiroz had been asked the meaning of compañero. He explained by quoting Che Guevara: “We are not friends, we are not relatives, we don’t even know each other. But if you, as I, are outraged by any act of injustice committed in the world, then we are compañeros.”

Quiroz adds, “We also now consider all of you to be our friends and our relatives. Forever united.”

W.T. Whitney Jr.