Still Burning is a network working against the global hard coal infrastructure.

5.3 Draining rivers – coal from Colombia

by | 30 Mar, 2021 | Sites of Devastation

“I wish that people became more aware of where their coal comes from. And about the consequences”, says Luz Angela Uriana Epiayu, mother of Moisés Daniel, a young child who is seriously ill with lung disease. Statements of this kind are often heard if you talk to the people in Colombia’s mining areas. But there lies the problem: nobody asks. And the supply chain for Colombian hard coal follows only one logic: that of profit. It is a prime example of modern neo-colonialism, in which the centres of the Global North outsource the disastrous consequences of their hunger for raw materials to countries like Colombia – and, in the tradition of the past 500 years, profit from it.

Colombia, country of raw materials

The booming raw materials sector is one of the country’s most important sources of foreign exchange; coal and oil exports are the top priority. Colombia has the largest coal deposits in Latin America, estimated at 6.2 billion tonnes. Coal has been mined since the 1980s, almost exclusively in opencast mines. In 2018, around 78 million tonnes were extracted from the ground under the two coal provinces of La Guajira and Cesar. More than 43 million tonnes ended up in Europe. Almost all hard coal is exported.

Colombia’s wealth of raw materials is also a curse: economic interests have been enforced with violence for centuries. Since the government’s peace treaty with the FARC guerrillas in December 2016, 591 human rights defenders have been murdered, the human rights organisation Indepaz reported in May 2019. Violent expulsions, political killings, disappearances, and extra-legal executions (murder of civilians by soldiers); most crimes are committed by right-wing paramilitary units and have an economic background. Large landowners, economic elites, and agrarian and raw material multinationals profit from this violence or are directly linked to the paramilitaries. Military and government do not care or are implicated themselves. Trade unionists are threatened or murdered, and small farming families are forcibly displaced. With more than seven million forcibly displaced persons, Colombia is the country with the most internally displaced persons worldwide. This is the political setting in which the international mining companies operate.

La Guajira

Although many millions of tonnes of coal have been extracted from La Guajira in northern Colombia over the past three decades, it is the second poorest area in Colombia. Therefore, many inhabitants say that the wealth is being extracted and that for them, only destroyed living conditions and a wrecked environment remain.

The epicentre of the coal industry in La Guajira is the Cerrejón opencast mine. The mine is one of the largest opencast coal mines in the world and belongs to the mining multinationals Glencore, Anglo American, and BHP. More than 19 indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities have been forcibly relocated to make way for the mine, often with brute force. Compensation does not make up for the loss of livelihoods and income. As one villager put it: “Cerrejón are trying to threaten and destroy the community. They are offering misery in exchange for our property”. Economic and social structures are destroyed and former smallholder families end up in suburban settlements.

The Afro-Colombian community of Tabaco was displaced in 2001 by police and bulldozers, their village razed to the ground. To date, the people have not been relocated, although courts have established their entitlement to compensation. “We have been displaced from our territory for 17 years, we have no land, many of us have no regular income”, says Samuel Arregoces, defender of the territory, water, and life of Afro-Colombian and the Wayuú communities. In order to give force to their demand, several families occupied a piece of land on 16 October 2018. In May 2020, villagers from Tabaco blocked the Cerrejón coal export railway in protest at the lack of progress in relocating them after 19 years of forced displacement and the cancellation of talks by the company because of COVID-19.

Anyone who resists must expect death threats in La Guajira. This is shown by the example of Fuerza de Mujeres Wayuú, the organisation of indigenous Wayuú women. In April 2019 they received a threatening letter from the paramilitaries of the “Aguilas Negras”. The many murders prove that the paramilitaries are putting their threats into practice.

Nevertheless, there is resistance. For example, villagers are organising to protect the Arroyo Bruno river, which the mine operators want to divert in order to be able to extract more and more coal. Opencast mining threatens the few remaining water sources in an ecologically fragile environment. While people and their agriculture suffer from massive water shortages, Cerrejón squanders 17 million litres of water every day, leaving people with only 0.7 litres of drinking water per person per day. Between 2008 and 2016, around 4,700 Wayuú children died due to a lack of water and food. The planned diversion of the Arroyo Bruno would directly affect 30 Wayuú communities and a total of 200,000 people in the region. “To divert the river would kill it. It would be like taking a child’s mother away. It would be like taking our blood, how will we live?” says Leonardo Sierra, representative of the Rocio community at Arroyo Bruno.

The people here resist. “We are pushing a process of resistance, so that we don’t have to give up even one square meter of land” says Samuel Arregoces, and adds that “all of the processes were built in a collective way”. They started a campaign with other human rights and environmental organisations, called “Paremos la Mina! – Let’s stop the mine!”. With the destruction of the rivers and water sources, a red line has also been crossed for the SINTRACARBON Coal Workers Union, which supports the communities and the demand for the protection of the streams and rivers.


The department of Cesar, located further south, is home to the mining multinationals Drummond, Glencore (Prodeco Group), and Colombian Natural Resources. They profit from the violent displacements and murders by the Juan Adrés-Alvarez Front, a paramilitary group. The Dutch NGO PAX conservatively estimates that between 1996 and 2006, the Front and its predecessors in the Cesar coal-mining area committed at least 2,600 murders that were linked to mining interests. Around 59,000 people have been displaced. To date, these crimes have not been prosecuted and solved, nor have the victims been compensated.

The American family enterprise, Drummond, is associated with particularly serious crimes. On 12 March 2001, paramilitaries murdered three trade unionists, Valmore Locarno, Victor Orcasita, and Gustavo Soler. Former paramilitaries testify that the murders were carried out on behalf of the Drummond group. The paramilitaries allegedly received USD$1.5 million from Drummond, in addition to regular monthly payments of USD$150,000.

However, the murders and the funding of paramilitary units are only the tip of the iceberg. Workers regularly complain about a lack of trade union freedom, too long working hours and poor health protection.”
Human rights lawyer Alirio Uribe

Hard coal mining has catastrophic consequences for the people in Colombia’s mining regions and along the railway lines to the ports: 

  • Their water is being exhausted. Inhabitants of formerly water-rich areas now depend on bottled drinking water. 
  • They are not, or are insufficiently, consulted before new mining projects are developed. The mine comes, the people must leave. This is a problem both for indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities. 
  • Paramilitary groups help the mine operators to push through their interests. Their methods: murders and violent displacements. 
  • Compensation for these crimes has not been, and will not be, paid. 
  • Trade unionists are threatened and dismissed.

Narlis Guzmán Angulo:

“Our women are warriors”

My name is Narlis Guzmán Angulo. I was born in Sierra Cesar, in the municipality of Chiriguaná. I am a woman. I am a mother. I am black. I am an activist and human rights defender. I draw my strength from many political struggles, not only for our territory.

I am an indigenous woman from La Sierra. The history of my people began in 1789, when many enslaved blacks fled from their colonial masters into densely forested mountains to organize themselves in settlements – in the so-called Palenques. We are a small tribe – together not even 400 families – and we have been recognized as Afro-Colombians by the Ministry of the Interior. Our history is marked by political struggles: Again and again we have fought against big landowners who wanted to take our territory away, our ancestral lands. We were wounded, captured, arrested and murdered.

Today we are the only county that has ancestral territories – more than 400 hectares in total. Our ancestors defended these territories with the same force with which we defend them today.

“Hasta que lo malo sea bueno,
lo bueno mejor y lo mejor excelente”

“Until the bad is good, the good is
better and the best is excellent”

In La Sierra we have always been able to feed ourselves with our agriculture, but that is over. Opencast coal mining ruined everything. It has brought us all this: the collapse of the social fabric, unemployment, death, missing persons, displaced persons, political corruption, the loss of the vocation of our ancestors, the loss of our roots, environmental pollution, disease, prostitution, the sexual commercialisation of children, drug addiction, and poisoned water. We cannot deny: although we are the third richest community in Colombia, more than 60 percent of the inhabitants live in extreme poverty.

Today we are a tribe that does not believe in politicians and much less in the authorities. They have abused our faith too often.

We stand out for the festival of the kettledrum, coconut and tamarind; the patron saints’ days are celebrated in May, as is the day of Afro-Colombianism. Our women are warriors, fighters, farmers, and craftswomen. These women have been very important role models, keeping the memory of our history alive. We have fought hard for our rights. We are men and women of a permanent political struggle and we keep saying that we will not give up until the bad is good, the good is better and the best is excellent – “hasta que lo malo sea bueno, lo bueno mejor y lo mejor excelente”.

Mining has just been extended for another 20 years, but who bears the social responsibility for all this?

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