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The Colombian mining locomotive has halted


by Joan Martínez-Alier.

President Santos of Colombia continues to preach the virtues of what he calls the “mining locomotive” of the economy, based mainly on coal, nickel and gold. But this is met with resistance. In El Cesar (northeast Colombia) in February 2012 a protest––due to the pollution caused by coal mining––blocked the road between La Jagua de Ibirico and La Loma, where coal leaves the mines La Francia, El Hatillo and El Descanso Norte for the port of Santa Marta. The companies Prodeco, Drummond, and Vale had not fulfilled their obligation to relocate populations. A “tractor-trailer” was crossed onto the tracks, immobilising the train several times a day carrying 135 wagons, each of 60 tonnes, bound for Santa Marta.

One year later, ANLA, the national environmental licensing authority, announced on February 5th, 2013 that licenses to increase coal mining in La Guajira and El Cesar had been denied to several multinational companies. Here, some 90 million tonnes a year are mined and exported to Europe, the United States and other countries. The intention was to increase this figure to 180 million tonnes.

On 13th January 2013 a Drummond barge capsized near Santa Marta and the coal was lost to the sea. ANLA has temporarily removed the company’s license for the shipment of coal. All is not well.

In La Guajira, another railroad carries coal from El Cerrejón to Puerto Bolivar. The Wayúu people have never consented to the destruction of their territory. The main reason for the protests is the poor air quality, which causes respiratory diseases affecting the vulnerable population. The water obtained from springs and wells is contaminated. There have been great losses of both soils and forests.Coal exports have a large water footprint. On average one tonne of coal leaves a material footprint (slag and waste materials) of ten tonnes. The bulk of Colombian coal goes at present to Europe. Meanwhile, importers in Germany and elsewhere, happy and ignorant, burn coal and produce carbon dioxide. This is real “consumer blindness”.

In La Guajira and El Cesar, the expansion of coal mining requires the evacuation of residents, and their relocation to other environments with new housing and new public services (schools, hospitals). This has not been carried out. Companies save these displacement costs. They do not pay for poor health. Neither do they pay for damages to the natural environment. There have been no prior consultations in places with indigenous populations in La Guajira or the Afro-Colombian populations in El Cesar.

Still nobody is calculating these environmental liabilities for damage to biodiversity, the morphology of rivers and groundwater levels, and also to human health. The GDP (gross domestic product) of La Guajira and El Cesar, and the GDP of Colombia itself, are misleading numbers. If the companies’ accounts are wrong because they do not subtract environmental liabilities, then macroeconomic accounting is also incorrectly measured.

The Santos’ “mining locomotive” is losing speed. The large Cerro Matoso nickel mine belongs to Billiton. Amidst controversies on the royalties it pays, its licence was recently renewed but the decision might be reversed. Among protests, Anglo Gold Ashanti has not yet been able to begin gold mining in Cajamarca (Tolima), whilst Greystar failed in its attempt to take gold from the paramos of Santurbán. Mining in the páramos is legally prohibited but this is not always respected. There  is a furious debate at present on coal mining in the paramo of  Pisba in Tacso, Boyacá.

In southwestern Antioquia (whose capital is Medellin), several small municipalities have banned multinational gold mining companies from their territories (Tamesis, Jardin, Urrao). A judge suspended on February 11 all activities for six months by mining companies in nearly 50,000 hectares of indigenous lands in the noththwest belonging to indigenous Embera Katio communities because of lack of previous consultation. True, small scale gold mining is also terribly damaging in some areas in the country. President Santos likes to compare the imagined environmental virtues of large scale mining to the damage (including mercury spills) from small scale mining.

The scale of open cast coal mining is enormous. Colombia’s has a population of 47 million; the departments of La Guajira and El Cesar have only a million each. These are areas earmarked for ecological and social sacrifice. There, as elsewhere, environmental conflicts are caused by an increased social metabolism. Annual coal mining in Colombia represents almost two tonnes per person, more than five kilograms a day, about 40 000 kcal. Colombia sells cheap energy with serious social and environmental costs in these areas of extraction, and also on the beaches of Santa Marta which are badly affected by the transfer of trains and barges full of coal. In Santa Marta, the tourist industry complains.

On top of all this, on 7th February 2013, the El Cerrejón workers union went on strike. This mine belongs to BHP Billiton, Xstrata and Anglo American, it exports over 30 million tonnes of coal per year. The union represents 3 000 workers. Among their demands is a wage increase and a change in the status of 7 000 outsourced employees. The list of demands also includes two further themes: occupational diseases caused by mining and the prohibition of the brutal diversion along 27 kilometres of the River Rancheria. The River Calenturitas in El Cesar has already been destroyed by coal mining.

We see that environmentalism is not a luxury of the rich but a necessity for all. There is an environmentalism of the poor and indigenous in the coal mining areas, there is an environmentalism of hotel owners in Santa Marta, and there is an environmentalism of the labour unions.


  1. False accounting has continued to present fake growth statistics and force destructive policies driven by mining – particularly of fossil fuels.
    Due to the unholy wedlock between the State and the corporations it is clear that only democratic popular mass actions will put these locomotives permanetly in the scrap yard.
    Leave the coal in the hole!

  2. Dear all, social pressure and environmentally engaged media is moving public opinion very strongly against mining “locomotive” in Colombia. International concern on the harm produced in vulnerable ecosystems is very welcome to stop the occupation of mining entreprises in indigenous and minority territories!

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