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Lost bones, dreams and water: life and death at the foot of one of the largest coal mines in the world

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Indigenous communities living near the Swiss Cerrejón mine in Colombia describe their suffering over the past 40 years.

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“Where there is water, there is life. Without it, where will we live?” asks Leobardo Sierra, a 48-year-old Wayuu indigenous leader from Colombia. He lives at the foot of Cerrejón, in La Guajira, one of the largest open-cast coal mines in the world.

Sierra built her house using traditional Bahareque techniques, using sticks and mud. On his wood stove, he boils water to meet his daily needs. tinto, plain coffee with water. He leads a humble life, far from consumerism, which comforts him. “I don’t need millions of euros to live well,” he says.

The Cerrejon mine hit the region like a black hole in 1984, causing damage water supplyhealth, spirituality and culture of the communities of La Guajira.

Pregnant women fear that their children will be born sick. Sheets left to dry outside turn black because of particles from the mine. And denouncing the mine is accompanied by reprisals, threats and forced evacuations.

Sierra grew up without the face and her childhood memories are vivid. “Before, we went fishing, hunting, collecting and gathering medicinal plants. Today, it’s almost impossible because they send people to watch over us. If the mine had never come, things would be better,” he said.

A few meters from his house is one of the few water sources that the community has managed to save: Bruno Creek.

In 2017, mining company Cerrejón obtained permission to divert the stream three kilometers from its natural course, but local communities challenged the decision in court.

The Colombian Constitutional Court agreed with them, finding that there was uncertainty about the social and environmental impacts of the diversion. But five years later, the body monitoring that decision found that Cerrejón had not complied.

Locals say coal arrives in Europe ‘stained with blood’

Where indigenous and African-descended communities saw their homes and trees sacred, mining giants saw a million-dollar opportunity to extract tons of coal.

Cerrejón exports most of its coal abroad and is owned by the Swiss multinational Glencore – a source of grievances among the Guajiros who feel they live in poverty while others prosper.

According to Cerrejón’s 2020 annual report, 43 percent of coal was exported to the Mediterranean region and 15 percent to other non-Mediterranean European countries.

Cerrejón is the second most profitable mining company in the Colombia. In 2022, its revenues increased by 149 percent. But these business success figures contrast sharply with the living conditions of the population.

“They say we are rich because there is a business that generates a lot of profit, but in reality, people are poor. Before, we were the rich ones,” Sierra says.

“It is not fair that we are forced to die drunk and forced to uproot ourselves in sadness and pain while a multinational transfers the money to another country,” says Afro leader Samuel Arregocés. He claims that the coal arrives in Europe “stained with blood”.

The data confirms the devastation of this region without drinking water, including 25 Indigenous communities were moved. La Guajira has the highest rates of child malnutrition in the country and 39.7 percent of the population lives in conditions of extreme poverty.

Sierra claims that when the mine arrived, they deceived people by promising them a better life and imposing an idea of ​​progress that he rejects.

“I learned that progress is something very different from what we know today. Progress is not about destroying the environment but about protecting life. This is a setback because without water we die “, he said.

“We don’t know where our family’s bones are”

Arregocés belongs to the Afro-descendant community of Tabaco, displaced in 2001 to make way for the mega mining project. “Some of us were expelled (after being deceived), and others were forced and threatened,” he says.

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In 2002, a ruling from the Supreme Court of Justice of Colombia ordered the reconstruction of the Tabaco community in a suitable location, which has not yet been achieved. “My grandparents died while waiting,” he adds.

Arregocés is still moved when he remembers his life before the mine. His grandfather raised the animals they ate and they had access to drink water almost all day thanks to a water supply system they built themselves.

“We went from these amenities to their loss, then to unemployment and cultural displacement. Our young people have not even learned to know our community,” he laments.

There was also spiritual dispossession, he says, with the desecration of the cemeteries of his communities. “We don’t know where our family’s bones are. It caused us emotional trauma; I stopped being a happy person,” he says.

Being a social leader is not an easy task in the country with the largest number of environmental activists murdered on the planet. This is why Arregocés does not leave the house without his bulletproof vest. “For a while, there were people watching me 24/7, and we were afraid they would kidnap or harm my two-year-old nephew,” the leader says.

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Despite this, there is a glimmer of hope. This Afro authority finds comfort in the broad social support it receives, such as through a change.org campaign, supported by more than 222,000 people from 166 countries, demanding the return of Bruno Creek to its natural course.

“This shows that it’s not just us; there are organized citizens in Colombia and around the world who are fighting to defend water,” he says.

The dream of Wayuu women

Mónica Lopez lives with her partner, Misael Socarrá, on the 4 November reserve in La Guajira. For her, understanding the role of women in this process is essential. “Our essence as Indigenous populations It’s our spirituality, and it’s us women who master it,” she says.

THE mayors, usually the grandmothers of the family, are the spiritual guides of the Wayuu people. Depending on their worldview, they can avoid future misfortunes through their dreams. “When they dream that something bad is going to happen to someone, we perform a ritual with clothes in the river to prevent it,” she explains.

But that changed forever when more than 150 kilometers of railroad tracks were built across Wayuu territory to transport millions of tons of raw materials. coal each day. “The sound of the train stole our mayors of their sleep. The connection they had to their spiritual journeys no longer exists,” Lopez says.

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Wayuu women transmit spirituality to their children. However, they are often forced to migrate to cities in search of support and education, which can lead to the loss of their cultural essence. “We maintain our culture through practice. No matter how Wayuu we are, if we don’t practice it, we forget it,” she emphasizes.

Likewise, Lopez explains that having children brings a lot of uncertainty. “When you’re pregnant, it’s not the same because you’re afraid that the baby will be born sick because of the mine,” she says.

Her daughter’s face is covered in pimples and rashes, and no matter how many times they visit specialists, she doesn’t recover. “In the past, these children did not have these illnesses, but today they do. Today, children are constantly suffering from the flu because air that we breathe is contaminated,” she says.

A UN expert called for certain activities to be stopped in Cerrejón, highlighting the health impacts on the population, which have been the subject of numerous studies.

“The turn of death”: miners also suffer

Miners also fight allegations abuses by Cerrejon. Igor Díaz, president of the Sintracarbón union, recalls episodes of worker repression and says their jobs are constantly in danger.

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“They fired 226 workers, most of whom were union members, after a 92-day strike demanding an end to what we call the ‘death shift,’ which forced us to work almost 60 hours more per day. week,” he said. According to the union, this means greater exposure to fatal workplace accidents due to mental and physical exhaustion.

Their main struggle is that of recognizing the diseases to which they are susceptible. “Working in the mine can lead to musculoskeletal and respiratory diseases. Our struggle is to demand that the Colombian social security system recognizes these professional diseases and proves that they result from mining,” he emphasizes.

The union leader considers the struggles of indigenous peoples, Afro-descendants and farmers in the region as inseparable from the struggles of workers. “We raise our voices when the company turns a deaf ear to the demands of communities because that’s where our families are,” he says.

Will the new EU due diligence law help?

As struggles continue in northern Colombia, the European Union negotiates an agreement due diligence law hold companies accountable for their impacts on human rights and the environment throughout their supply chains.

Yukpa indigenous leader Juan Pablo Gutierrez, exiled in Paris after being the victim of assassination attempts for opposing the Cerrejón mine, criticizes the law as a way to maintain colonialism while going.

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“It is a diversionary measure because it maintains the logic of exploitation of Mother Earth and does not call into question Europe’s unbridled consumption model,” he says.

More than 8,000 kilometers from Brussels, Léobardo looks with concern at the black mountains of the mine but never loses hope.

“My ancestors fought for my future, now I fight for those who will come. This place is no longer mine but belongs to those who will come after us; that’s what my grandparents told me and it’s what keeps us alive,” he concludes.

What does Cerrejon say?

In response to a request for comment regarding the impact of its activities on Native and Afro communities, Cerrejón said he “deeply regrets the humanitarian crisis in La Guajira, which takes place in a complex context, where the efforts of local and national governments have been insufficient to remedy the structural situation.

“Cerrejón rejects accusations of a link between this dramatic situation and the company.

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“On the contrary, Cerrejón has strengthened its social investment, both mandatory and voluntary, to achieve greater reach and greater impact on communities dispersed in a territory with difficult climatic and geographical conditions. »


euronews

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