CERREJÓN mine in north-eastern Colombia is a fifth of the size of Clare but supplies the majority (approximately 90%) of the coal for Moneypoint power station, Ireland’s largest energy generation station and greenhouse gas emitter. The coal sourced from this area is tainted by the abuses suffered by the local people who endure threats, intimidation, police brutality, forced displacement and human rights abuses. Their indigenous lands and homes have been destroyed to make way for this colossus of a mine that continues to expand and leaves a trail of human suffering in its wake.
The Irish Government, through the ESB, has purchased 11.2 million tonnes of coal from Colombia in the last seven years, most of which is from Cerrejón and continues to do so, all while well-documented cases of wrongdoing by the mine are available from various NGOs.
Under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the ESB and Ireland have a responsibility “for human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations…even if they have not contributed to these impacts”.
Dr Noel Healy, native of Ennistymon but lecturing in Salem State University in Massachusetts, has witnessed the Colombian injustices and human rights abuses, and conducted a study on energy injustices, and is leading the call for Moneypoint, the ESB and, in turn, the Irish Government to turn their back on their business dealings with Cerrejón.
“What the mine allegedly do is they will use ‘conquer and divide’ tactics. They will get permission from one community member to buy land and say that the community are on board with the relocation. There isn’t community consensus in these coerced relocations, though.
“In the case of the Tabaco village, they literally bulldozed the place as people were dragged from their homes. The mines will always say they have the law on their side and they are abiding by Colombian law and communities will say otherwise. A lot of it will come down to how the mine uses coercion and how they use tactics in terms of signing leases and a lot of the time community members won’t know what they’re signing. Communities have been forcibly displaced for over two decades, so it is good that new light is being shined on this.”
“Some of these communities are relocated but the facilities that they’re relocated to are substandard. These are folks that live off the land and are subsistence farmers and then they’re forced to live in an urban setting. They just can’t live there, as they don’t have any means to now make an income.
“Irish people are no strangers to displacement with ‘To hell or to Connacht’ and it is very reminiscent of that level of displacement. Those that stay in these urban settings are living in a form of hell. Burial grounds have been disrupted or they can’t access them and they can’t fish or hunt the land that they used to and can’t grow the same type of crops they used to, due to a lack of access to water. The mine has a lovely nine-hole golf course within the confines of their compound, though, and it is a vastly different level of facilities within the mine compared to what happens to folks outside of the mine,” he claimed.
Extraction conflicts in Colombia are nothing new due to the political instability and mineral-rich nature of the land. There were three mining union officials murdered in a nearby province to Cerrejón in 2001 and in the last few weeks, eight officials of US coal-mining giant Drummond have been called to testify before investigators about allegations that the company supported far-right paramilitary death squads.
In La Guajira, there is a spike in community leaders that are resisting the expansion of the mine and while it can’t be determined who is making these threats against those who stand up to the mine, Dr Healy says it is clear that, “they are receiving these threats because they are resisting the expansion. They wouldn’t be receiving these threats if they were not resisting the expansion.
“I am unsure if the Irish government would be legally obliged to end the contract due to human rights but it certainly would be encouraged to adhere to international standards on human rights, and at the very minimum to explore or investigate how their purchases may be contributing to human rights. The government have a responsibility to realise they are implicit in the injustices that are taking place there, and to be non-responsive to these issues raised in the Dáil is immoral and unethical and at the very least they should have to justify why they wish to continue purchasing coal from Cerrejón,” he claimed.
A similar sentiment was shared by TD Seán Crowe when he raised the issue in the Dáil, saying: “The mine is slowly exterminating the indigenous people in this land. The communities do not want this mine. The community and human rights defenders standing up for their rights are being harassed and threatened, and the police and army have attacked these protests on the mine’s operation.
“The mine and the community cannot survive side by side. One of them has to go and it should be the mine. We are part of the problem by importing the coal. It is not for someone else to worry about. As the main shareholder in the ESB will the Government direct it to stop importing coal from this mine immediately and end the use of coal, which is the dirtiest of all fossil fuels in Ireland?” the Dublin Deputy said.
When contacted, a spokesperson for the ESB said they joined The BetterCoal organisation four years ago, which was “established by a group of major coal buyers to promote the continuous improvement in the mining and sourcing of coal for the benefit of all the people impacted by the industry – both workers and their communities”. The ESB states that the group carries out its work based through assessments of individual coal mines and the Colombian mine is in the process of being assessed and that they “are currently waiting the output of that assessment”.
Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney addressed the issue in the Dáil in July, when questioned by Deputy Crowe and he said he “understood that there were complaints from NGOs regarding private sector activities in Cerrejón” and that he was aware of the negative publicity surrounding the mine for some time and admitted he “remained concerned at reports of mining activities having a negative impact on local populations or on the environment, as well as of reported abuse of workers”, concluding that the issue will continue to be monitored closely, facilitated by the opening of an Irish Embassy in Bogota in early 2019.