The Irish Times | Sorcha Pollak | May 11, 2019
Ireland is directly sponsoring climate chaos and human-rights violations, critics claim
Hidden away among the rolling hills of northern Colombia, nestled between Caribbean white sand beaches and the Venezuelan border, is a vast stretch of arid land known as El Cerrejon. There the largest open-cast coal mine in Latin America (and one of the largest in the world), its hub stretching for 40 miles, extracts coal for use in prosperous countries across the western world.
More than 7,600km away, in view of Dublin’s St Patrick’s cathedral and just steps from the popular Fumbally cafe, is the headquarters of CMC-Coal Marking. Inside this nondescript grey building on Dublin’s New Street South, a small office co-ordinates the sale and delivery of millions of tons of coal from the Cerrejon mine to energy operators worldwide.
Its work includes supplying the Moneypoint power station in Co Clare, where almost 90 per cent of the coal comes from Colombia. Two-thirds of the coal burned in Moneypoint comes directly from Cerrejon.
Local children are suffering from skin infections, and women have a much higher rate of developing breathing problems or breast cancer
On a recent visit to Dublin, Jakeline Romero Epiayu sips tea in the Central Hotel’s Library Bar on Exchequer Street. She has come from a meeting with members of the Oireachtas at Government buildings, and is preparing for a series of engagements with human rights and environmental groups before flying back to Latin America.
Since the Cerrejon mine began operating in 1985, Epiayu, an indigenous Wayuu woman from the La Guajira region, has witnessed her ancestors’ land deteriorate into wasteland with the production and exportation of 32 million tonnes of coal per year. In the process 35 indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities have been forced from their lands.
More recently, she says, the coal industry’s over-reliance on river water in the area, combined with a lack of rain, has led to drought, and resulted in the death of more than 20,000 cattle.
“What little water is left is contaminated by metals; it’s no longer suitable for human consumption or animals,” says Epiayu. “Obviously if there’s no water left this will negatively affect the social, cultural and economic fabric of the society. The mining is condemning our people to a life of poverty.”
Jakeline Romero Epiayu: “The mining is condemning our people to a life of poverty”
Mining activity has not only destroyed La Guajira’s natural environment and cut off its communities’ access to safe, clean drinking water, but has also led to a rise in malnutrition, illnesses and deaths among the local population, says Epiayu.
In 2015, the Shipia Wayuu indigenous organisation reported that 4,700 children had died of hunger between 2010 and 2015, while Human Rights Watch says at least 193 children under the age of five died due to malnutrition between 2013 and 2017.
In its report into the area Human Rights Watch found communities had limited access to food and water, and warned of the government’s failure to root out local corruption in the area.
“Children are suffering from skin infections, and women in the area have a much higher rate of developing breathing problems or breast cancer. The mining is destroying the natural environment and water sources, but also uses too much dynamite and chemicals in its activities. It has broken the social fabric of our communities.”
She says the majority of coal produced in Cerrejon is not used in Colombia, but ends up across Europe, Asia and in the US. “They believe it’s okay to stop producing coal in their own country but to buy it from another region. The people of Europe are consuming energy stained with our blood.
“We’re seeing children die of malnutrition, and access to water is almost impossible. Our only river has been destroyed by mining activities. They’ve given us a slow death sentence.”
The Colombian government is in the pocket of the miners and paramilitaries, according to Prof Aviva Chomsky. ‘It really is a perfect storm that’s hit populations there’
While certain Wayúu communities affected by the mining have been relocated to homes in more urban areas, the vast majority of resettlement projects have failed, according to Prof Aviva Chomsky from the Salem University of Massachusetts, US. Deforestation, the diversion of rivers and overuse of water have all contributed to the drought in the area, she adds.
Paramilitary violence and intimidation towards groups resisting coal extraction is also a real problem in the region, says Chomsky, who has campaigned for greater accountability around mining activities for more than 20 years.
“The mine’s union has been subject to numerous threats and attacks, and a number of leaders were assassinated in the early 2000s. They’re still under threat. The paramilitaries have remobilised and they’re very powerful in the region.
“There’s no government authority to turn to. The national government is totally in the pocket of the miners and paramilitaries. It really is a perfect storm that’s hit populations there.
Chomsky says US companies moved towards Colombian coal, which is “cleaner” and has a lower sulphur and nitrogen content, because of environmental regulations. European countries are doing the same thing.
“The US is seeing reductions in carbon emissions because we’ve off-shored production. Those of us in the first world need to restructure our economies so that we consume less and so that people in the third world can at least have access to clean water and vaccinations – things we take for granted.”
Every piece of coal from the Cerrejón mine is bought and sold through an office off Fumbally Lane in Dublin. What will make a difference is taking a strong political stance
A system of restorative justice is needed to protect the Wayúu people and other workers at the mine, say Chomsky, adding that if the mine suddenly shut tomorrow 10,000 people would be left without jobs.
“It’s not just that we stop mining coal. There has to be a process by those who caused the problem for those who are victims of coal production. We’re all beneficiaries of this unjust system, we all have a responsibility to the people who have been harmed by it.”
Sian Cowman from the Latin America Solidarity Centre says the Irish Government should not only cease importing coal from the Cerrejon mine but take a “strong political stance” on the human rights abuses towards those living in the region.
Ireland is complicit in the Cerrejon’s coal production in two ways, says Cowman.
“There’s the purchase of coal by the ESB for energy production in Moneypoint and then there’s the fact that Cerrejon’s global sales company CMC has its international headquarters in Dublin. Every piece of coal from the Cerrejón mine is bought and sold through an office off Fumbally Lane.
“Ireland only purchases a relatively small amount of this coal and somebody else will come in and buy it if we leave. But what will make a difference is taking a symbolic, strong political stance on human rights that will make other purchasers think twice.”
Cowman also accuses the Government of “real hypocrisy” in offering support for the Colombian peace process while turning a blind eye to the treatment of workers in the northern mining area.
Speaking in the Dail in April, Sinn Fein TD Sean Crowe underlined that a “key component” of the Colombian peace process was land rights, and that the importation of coal from Cerrejon “directly undermines” Ireland’s solidarity with the process.
“Ireland is directly sponsoring climate chaos, environmental destruction and human rights violations through its continued reliance on Colombian coal,” said Crowe.
Asked to comment on the alleged human rights abuses in the La Guajira region, a spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs said the new Irish Embassy in Bogotá was “following the situation closely”, and that officials plan to visit the mine and meet with local human rights groups.
He said while “significant challenges remain”, Ireland was “fully committed to support Colombia’s transitions to a peaceful post-conflict society”.
ESB, which is 95 per cent State-owned, noted in a statement its decision to join the Bettercoal group in 2014 as part of its “commitment to use responsibly-sourced coal”.
The statement said a 2016 Bettercoal assessment of the Cerrejón mine, and visits to the site in 2018, found the mine’s operating principles were in line with best practice codes. A continuous improvement plan had been drafted to enhance compliance with the Bettercoal code.
It said ESB representatives recently visited the mine, and would remain “vigilant” to the issues raised during the assessment. ESB felt “encouraged” by the positive engagement between Bettercoal and management at Cerrejón. However, there was a “continued challenge to reaching agreements within the community”.
We have made significant efforts to improve the living conditions of the families while respecting their values, traditions and how they see the future
The Dublin-registered CMC company – which is owned by Glencore, Anglo American and BHP – did not respond to questions, but forwarded the queries to the Cerrejón company in Colombia, which also referenced the Bettercoal assessment of the site.
On community displacement, a company spokeswoman said the mining group had carried out all land purchases “in good faith”, and had paid fair prices above market value for land.
“We have made significant efforts to improve the living conditions of the families while respecting their values, traditions and how they see the future,” she said. “This has been a learning process both for the communities and for Cerrejón.”
She said the arrival of immigrants from Venezuela and the 2014-2016 drought, which was caused by the El Nino phenomenon, had placed increased pressure on the region, and led to the collapse of its health system.
Cerrejón had “continuously requested the authorities prioritise care for children in indigenous communities”, the spokeswoman said, adding that the company had been actively involved in initiatives to address water shortages.
For Epiayu it’s vital that people in Ireland know where their coal is coming from.
“What we’re trying to do is show people what our daily life is like; how the mining has taken away our land, destroyed the local environment and destroyed our water sources. These corporations carry out investigations where they talk about meeting international standards. But our independent investigations show different results.
“The mining company is using a strategy to tire people out and force them to lose hope in life. It’s all part of the systemic abuse of our human rights.
“The government is also responsible; it’s part of a system which promotes the extraction of coal to make it easier for foreign companies to work out of Colombia.
“Civil society has a responsibility to question the energy that we consume; where does it come from, how does it get here?
“Irish people should realise that this coal is being bought and sold here in Dublin. We’ve suffered 25 years of exploitation. We never wanted to work in the mines, but that’s the reality we face today.”