Environmental Disaster and Health Crisis in Cerrejon, Colombia, by Yanis Iqbal

El Cerrejon (Contreras)

Image by Lee Bosher via Flickr

by Yanis Iqbal
Writer, Dandelion Salad
Aligarh, India
July 25, 2020

At Cerrejon (Colombia), the largest open-pit coal mine in Latin America owned equally by BHP (Australia), Anglo American PLC (United Kingdom) and Glencore (Switzerland), the situation of the indigenous people is progressively worsening. Cerrejon Limited has informed the workers that “all the existing shifts will be unified into a single 7-day work, for three days off.” With the enforcement of the new shifts, “workers would go from working 15 to 21 days and the mine would go from 4 to 3 shifts, leaving at least 25% of the current workforce unemployed.” The new shift pattern is likely to aggravate the health of workers as long working hours increase the number of work-related pathologies. Current work shift arrangements have already led to more than “700 pathologies associated with musculoskeletal, respiratory, cardiovascular and ear diseases, among others.” As the level of work becomes more stressful, these occupational diseases will start multiplying.

The present-day actions at the Cerrejon mine are one among the myriad manifestations of transnational capital’s cruelty. Cerrejon mine is located in the dry department of La Guajira which is home to more than 900,000 people. 45% of the population is indigenous, with most of the people belonging to Wayuu and the remaining coming from smaller groups such as Arhuacos, Koguis and Wiwas. 8% of the population is Afro-Colombian, thus making La Guajira the department with the highest presence of indigenous people in Colombia. When mining companies arrived in 1983 in La Guajira, they encountered these indigenous people as an obstruction in the path of development. Consequently, the appropriate solution to this problem was the initiation of “development-induced displacement.”

In 1981, the brutal behemoths of mining began shredding the social fabric of indigenous existence and left deep scars of development on the collective psyche of indigenous people. In order to make way for the Puerto Bolivar Port, mining multinationals chose to systematically exterminate the Wayuu village of Media Luna. Paradoxically, negotiations began after the displacement in which “Some 750 residents who lived in Media Luna entered into negotiations with the company for their collective relocation, but were targeted with anonymous threats of violence, which appeared to be linked to the negotiations and later led to the collapse of talks…. Subsequently, the company ordered the village to relocate for a second time and, when seven families refused, a metal fence was erected around their homes and armed guards stationed to watch over – a strategy interpreted to intimidate them into leaving.” This was a particularly counter-intuitive way of conducting negotiations wherein irregular violence, strategically organized arm-twisting and silent terrorization forced the Wayuu into accepting development.

The largest displacement came later in August 2001 when the Afro-Colombian community of the Tabaco village was violently dragooned into fleeing from the region. Eviction happened through the carefully coordinated action of the military, police and armed forces, interspersed with the presence of marauding bulldozers. Ines Perez, one of the victims of the calibrated evisceration of Tabaco, said that “The community was evicted from the land by force, with anti-riot police, in cold blood. We were thrown off our land. They destroyed our homes with machines. They punched us. They hit me and my papa. We were left nearly in a coma, with the houses torn down, in ruins. We’ve been struggling for 13 years and we’re still fighting for our health, for our food, for everything. We are demanding to be relocated and to receive compensation. We just want our lives back.”

Cerrejon mining companies have, till date, no qualms for plundering, gutting and decimating an entire village through an expeditious eruption of violence. Comprehensive reparations, relocation and apportionment of productive lands have not occurred. Even where such processes have commenced, the efforts are insubstantial and inadequate. Samuel Arregoces, a former inhabitant of Tabaco, expresses the plight of those who have been devastatingly relocated and impoverished by the dehumanizing operations of money-grubbing mines: “They destroyed the entire village. They took all our land away. We lost all our livestock, everything. They relocated us to other districts, where we now live in poverty since we cannot grow anything. Where we used to live, where the Tabaco river flows, we grew cassava, maize and bananas. For many years, our cattle grazed the land and we also had fruit trees, but today we have to buy everything. We have become destitute, since we no longer have a village.”

Another catastrophic byproduct of Cerrejon mining operations has been the unprecedented and utter ransacking of regional ecosystems. Open-pit mining is environmentally destabilizing because it “flattens mountains and devastates ecosystems. In this process, forests are clear-cut to expose the tops of mountains, which are then blown off with explosives. Coal is extracted using large machinery and the unused soil and rock are dumped into adjacent valleys, filling them up and creating a flat landscape.” After this, “New, gigantic, flat-topped walls of debris called overburden are dumped between tiny communities and along the periphery of open pit mines. They swallow farmers’ fields, impede the movement of grazing animals, disrupt rivers and streams, and leach poisons into the earth and water.”

The cultural loss associated with this disruptive process is profound as territories are spiritually significant for indigenous collectivities such as the Wayuu. In Wayuu community, communication with ancestors is a part of the primordial ethics of indigeneity and this happens primarily through the interpretation of dreams. The dream world, therefore, is the main modality for dialoguing with spirits and ancestors. But Wayuu people can only dream when they live on their own sacred territories. Correspondingly, when sacred territories are destroyed by open-pit mining, Wayuu lose their ability to dream and get culturally stripped of their distinctive identity.

Apart from cultural loss, Cerrejon mining extractivism has ecologically-materially impacted the department of La Guajira through two phenomena: water scarcity and high levels of pollution. In La Guajira, “people are dependent on tributary streams and their corresponding aquifers as a water source for agriculture, household use, and animal ranching” because the department “is a drought-prone region with two rainy seasons that are unpredictable and inconsistent.” Rivers are, therefore, extremely important for the existence of indigenous communities. Cerrejon Limited has apparently failed to comprehend the importance of rivers and has been trying consistently to completely colonize the rivers.

In 2012, Cerrejon companies had tried to divert 26km of the Rancheria River (the primary source of water) to access the 500 million metric tons of coal contained underneath the river bed. But this planned diversion was met with organized resistance and Wayúu spokesperson Jazmin Romero Epiayu has appropriately described the social unity with which the diversion was met: “In 2012, the proposal of this multinational was to divert the Ranchería River, the principal river we have in our department, and the principal river that feeds the whole department of La Guajira… Since before colonialism this [river] has represented the veins of Mother Earth, Wounmainkat, which is to say, it’s the blood of the earth. And one of the proposals in 2012 was to divert this river we have because below it there were 500 million tons of coal. But what did we say? Us, Wayúu communities, Afro-descendant communities, campesino communities, the union, the magistrates… all these sectors united in protest to stop the diversion of this river.”

Despite the united efforts of the La Guajira community, the Rancheria River has been contaminated by the mining companies. According to a study by Fulbright researchers, the Rancheria River contains high levels of mercury, making it potentially dangerous for consumption. Furthermore, the Cerrejon mine consumes more than 24 million litres of water per day (which is equivalent to the consumption of more than 70,000 people) while the Wayuu people don’t even “have access to the basic requirement of 2 l of water per person per day for cleaning and for preparing food.” Due to the aggravated effects of water scarcity, approximately 5000 children of the Wayuu tribe died in the 2007-17 period.

Not contented with contaminating water, cumulatively increasing the hardships of the Wayuu tribe and killing children, Cerrejon mining companies have embarked on a neo-colonial voyage to divert the Arroyo Bruno stream to the La Puente pit. Bruno stream has 40 million tons of coal reserves under its river bed, a valuable treasure for avaricious mining corporations. On July 8, 2020, the affected communities of La Guajira visited the artificial channel and natural channel of the Arroyo Bruno stream and observed that “the company plugged the natural channel to divert the waters in 3.6 kilometers to the new artificial channel. The alarming thing is that there is no water in either of the two channels. This situation worries the experts… who warn that the Bruno stream is at high risk of disappearing.”

In order to completely colonize the river, the company has tried three times to displace El Rocio, the community living on the bank of Arroyo Bruno. In spite of Cerrejon Limited’s aggressive efforts at strong-arming indigenous people, the general mood is militant in the department and the following statement from the Guajira Dignity Group reflects the anti-imperialist fervor of the masses: “The government cannot continue granting mining titles here, and Cerrejón cannot come every two years and say – we are planning the deviation of this stream – and tomorrow another, and so on. We have to limit this expansion because this is a deserted region and has a limited water supply. Cerrejón cannot continue diverting streams to increase profits.”

Pollution levels in La Guajira are high due to the spontaneous ignition of mined coal, daily coal blasts and coal dispersal happening due to the movement of open-top coal wagons every day. This has led to a staggering number of people afflicted with respiratory diseases, indicated by the fact the 48% of the patients arriving at the local hospital Nuestra Señora del Pilar (Our Lady of Pilar) suffer from acute respiratory problems. Air pollution has made the indigenous communities of La Guajira more vulnerable to Coronavirus as it has been found that air pollution is directly correlated to an increased Covid-19 death risk.

In La Guajira, children are more likely to get negatively affected by the presence of toxic materials and pollutants in air, soil and water. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, “Children are more vulnerable to the localized environmental impacts of mining activity than adults – particularly water, air and soil pollution – due to their progressive and incomplete physical development; the fact that they spend more time playing than adults and hand to-mouth behaviour that makes children more likely to ingest pollutants; and their varying stages of mental development, for example, inability to read hazard and warning signs.”

As the Covid-19 pandemic wreaks havoc on La Guajira, it is becoming clear that transnational coal interests have existentially damaged the indigenous communities. Through years of imperialist pillage, multinational mining companies have converted La Guajira into one of the poorest departments of Colombia with 65% of the population living in poverty. Decades of coal mining by corporate giants to quench the coal thirst of Europe and USA has methodically undermined local agricultural arrangements and disallowed indigenous communities from achieving food sovereignty. Eder Arregoces Pinto, president of Chancleta’s community action council, pithily encapsulates the adverse effects of large-scale mono-industrialization: “It [Cerrejón Coal] may be one of the largest coal mines in Latin America but most families here can eat only one meal a day.”

Pollution and water scarcity have drastically weakened the collective health of indigenous communities and now, these immiserated people are left unprotected from the virus. Luz Ángela Uriana, an indigenous woman from Province Reserve in the south of La Guajir, painfully expresses the historical injustice which has been done with them: “What we are demanding of Cerrejón is our children’s health. We are fighting for our rights to live in a healthy territory, in a reserve without pollution, just as it was before Cerrejón came in. Here, we are exposed to mining pollution 24 hours a day. I have children, and if I have to fight against the whole world for them, I will do it. I will go wherever I have to, for my family and to honour the memory of all of the children that have died or fallen sick because of the pollution. How is it possible that we, as Cerrejón’s neighbours, don’t have access to healthcare? We don’t have potable water. We don’t have decent housing. We live in absolute poverty.” The present-day imperative is to help these people fight against the predatory and remorselessly exploitative practices of Cerrejon mining companies.


Yanis Iqbal is a student and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at yanisiqbal@gmail.com.

Previously published at Dissident Voice, July 21, 2020

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