Last week, London Mining Network reported that “the last family of villagers who had returned to the old village site at Roche out of frustration at conditions in the new settlement constructed by Cerrejon Coal were brutally evicted by Colombian police. The wholly unnecessary violence was reminiscent of the notorious eviction of the village of Tabaco in 2001 – an event the like of which we had hoped would never occur again.”
“At approximately 11 am, ESMAD members arrived in the community yelling insults, and throwing gas canisters, and rubber and steel projectiles at the crowd. After 20 minutes of confrontation, two people were injured: Ronald Emilo Palmezano Carrillo (a young man who is intellectually and developmentally disabled) suffered a broken arm after being hit with a projectile thrown by ESMAD and Mr. Angel Pereira suffered open chest wounds also as a result of the projectiles thrown by ESMAD. Additionally, several people including women and people with disabilities received wounds from the projectiles and choked on tear gas.”
“Most of the families from the communities of New Chancleta and New Patilla, and some of the families from New Roche, have decided to go back to the sites near the Cerrejon mine from which they were moved by the company, in protest at what they say is the failure of the company to keep its promises about employment skills, productive projects, water and health care in the new communities. They say they will start rebuilding houses in the old sites unless the company attends to their concerns immediately.”
La Guajira’s ecosystem, classified as dry tropical forest, is very sensitive to even micro changes to the climate. Therefore the indigenous and afro-descendant populations who depend this environment to provide water, practice agriculture, and graze their animals are extremely vulnerable to climate change.
This week, Yasmin Romero Epiayu, a Wayuu leader and Member of La Fuerza de Mujeres Wayuu (Wayuu Women’s Force), is traveling to Paris to attend the UNESCO event “Resilience in a time of uncertainty: Indigenous peoples and climate change,” which precedes the COP21 Climate Talks. She will speak on the impacts of climate change on Wayuu food sovereignty. Yasmin is heading a new research project with La Fuerza that focuses on Wayuu people’s perception of changes to their agricultural calendar over the last forty years. She is particularly interested in how climate change impacts Wayuu women who are responsible for the domestic economy, and therefore the most effected and sensitive to environmental changes.
La Guajira has suffered a severe drought since the summer of 2014 that has devastated regional agriculture and led to terrible community water shortages. Many Wayuu families lost their crops and livestock, leading to higher rates of child malnutrition among already vulnerable people. In some areas of the lower Guajira, people have died of dehydration. The drought has been an environmental disaster. At the same time, the Cerrejón coalmine is proposing to reroute the Arroyo Bruno, a tributary of the Ranchería River – the main water source for all of La Guajira. Yasmin, like many local activists, has been instrumental in organizing local resistance to this plan. In her presentation in Paris, she will speak of the ongoing environmental pressures of mining and climate change that have robbed Wayuu people of their ability to provide for their families and follow traditional agricultural cycles. Yasmin believes that the answers to finding more sustainable forms of economic development lie in a better understanding of traditional Wayuu practices and their innovative strategies to cope with climate change.
The UNESCO event is an important call to incorporate indigenous voices in the climate action agenda. It is imperative that world leaders attending the COP21 listen to and learn from the people who are most effected by climate change.
On a June 2015 visit to Nuevo Espinal, a local woman, wearing a scarf to shield herself from the immense heat the region has experienced in the last few years, brought us to the deep red cave of a dried riverbed, sewn through with the roots of trees that when drinking from it also kept the soil in place and erosion at bay.
Those riverside trees have since then died, along with more than four hundred Wayuu children, brought on by the malnutrition and poor hygiene (such as non flushing toilets) the lack of water has created. Locals leaders estimate the death toll in the thousands, since many births go undocumented on their ancestral, pre-colonial land. This is a region of dry tropical rainforest which is suffering from exceptional drought over the past few years. In fact, only two rainfalls were sighted in all of 2014. According to Javier Rojas, leader of Wayuu Shipia, “I get weekly reports of the deaths of at least three children.” (4)
A new study by the University of La Guajira in Riohacha, Colombia, capital of the region, has been released citing the potentially unsustainable consequences of a duplicate river that could, according to the University, not function the way the present one, Arroyo Bruno, does.
The reason for interfering with a natural, truly life-giving resource, in the desert? The mining company Cerrejón wishes to expand their extraction practices of carbon northward, and they cannot access the mineral that lies under the river unless they move it.
They have been granted a contract to execute the reroute in the next fourteen months, and in their official documents have stated that they have the consultation backing of Ross Hardie and Australian firm Alluvium.
The University of La Guajira investigated the region for evidence of the plan’s potential to succeed or fail by studying the geology adjacent to the river. After comparing their April 2015 field findings with the documentation detailing the proposed methods to maintain the Arroyo Bruno’s river flow in a manmade sediment bank, the researchers published their conclusions.
They found that, while the mining corporation Cerrejón does establish a seemingly well-intended philosophy of creating a new river as close to exact to the existing one, there are three major flaws with the proposal that could effectively destroy the river and magnify the already dire situation in La Guajira.
The first problem the study cites is the false promise of designing the new riverbed in the shape of a natural one. Although the projected design includes a meandering, sinuous curvature, it is entirely dependent on two “jarillones” keeping it that shape. This is a term used by Colombian hydro-engineers which refers to inexpensive control mechanisms created to mitigate problems with river flow, which have been used, for example, when problems emerged with the rivers San Jorge and Sinú in the Cordoba region (5). The Arroyo Bruno does move and change its position over the earth’s surface, and the University found sedimentary evidence to prove that it has done so in the past. This would not be possible with the manmade boundaries holding the water flow in place.
The second problem is that the proposed channel dimensions for the water flow do not create the depth necessary to secure the water would not overflow, and if it did, the potential for collapse in these artificial banks would occur.
The third issue is that, in order to ensure the manmade jarillones stay put and that river not burden these constructed banks, a series of longitudinal structures would be put in place to control the speed of the water flow. This is problematic because the natural river is already in the process of slowing down, and redirecting and controlling the flow would make the problem worse; the existing issue would be exacerbated.
Ultimately, the study states that the new structure is fundamentally poorly thought out because manmade structures are neither organic nor permanent. They also question whether the company would burden themselves with the upkeep of potential engineering failings, which would continue being at risk of occurring well after Cerrejón’s contract expires in 2033.
The area is surrounded by dry tropical forest, an endangered ecosystem according to the World Wildlife Fund. The trees that have grown along old banks of the river have died, and subsequently the earth has suffered erosion. Indeed, the long-established conservation group states this ecosystem is “highly sensitive to excessive burning and deforestation”.
The decision to relocate the river threatens the local environment and puts the vulnerable people who have lived on the land for centuries in risk of continued personal loss.
“Sukaia susutain Kolompia,” wayuunaiki for “Happy Colombian Independence Day;” a sentence that doesn’t have the same meaning after my trip to La Guajira. Independence? Not for the Wayúu and Afro-Colombian communities that live near Cerrejón. Rather, I would argue that they enjoyed their independence until Cerrejón arrived and signed their first contract in 1976. Slowly, the big multinational corporation began to displace people from their homeland, driving them to move to nearby cities, border towns in Venezuela, and if lucky, gave the people houses in an unfamiliar urban setting. Those who live in new towns orchestrated by Cerrejón suddenly have the “independence” to find a new way of surviving in a harsh and uneven environment where they have been set up for failure. In the past, these communities had access to rivers; they fished, hunted and lived off of their agriculture. Now, they are enslaved to neo-colonization practices which force them to abide by unfair laws and drive them to work on “productive projects” in order to make a living. These attacks on human rights need to stop, Colombia needs to wake up, the world needs to get involved.
Suzanne Kent on the Witness for Peace Delegation 2015 Letter to Cerrejón.
This letter was a part of the delegation’s efforts to maintain solidarity with community members impacted by mining activities. The writing process for the letter began in Colombia. The Witness for Peace delegates had several discussions regarding the current priority concerns stemming from the activities of Cerrejón. The first of these dialogues took place the evening before our meeting with community representatives and a team from the mining company and the second dialogue occurred on our last afternoon in Colombia. The brainstorming sessions were helpful as they provided an outline of key topics; without this, the letter would have been quite long as the number of concerns and problems resulting from open pit mining operations in Guajira are too many to count. In writing the letter, I also referred to my notes from our meeting with the community leaders and Cerrejón. The CENSAT publication [http://censat.org/apc-aa-files/686468646b6c61736a6b6c646a61736b/informe-arroyo-bruno-rf.pdf], which evaluates the proposal to relocate the Bruno stream, also informed the section of the letter that argues against the relocation of that stream.
After I had drafted the letter, I circulated it amongst the delegates. Several people provided feedback, and a shared suggestion was that the letter should be more assertive. I revised the letter based on the feedback and advice. We sent the letter to Cerrejón contacts, community leaders in Guajira, and representatives of the parent companies, BHP Billiton, Anglo American and Glencore.
Ashajiraa is the wayuunaiki verb, conjugated, meaning “hacer escribir”, which means “to make one write”.
In June 2015 I, along with twelve other women from all walks of life in the United States and United Kingdom gathered to travel to La Guajira, an arid region of Colombia sitting on the Venezuelan border. We investigated the consequences of mass-scale modern coal mining by interviewing locals, largely marginalized agricultural communities of indigenous and african ancestry.
Here we will come together to continue our analysis of the situation and inform you on the human toll of our current energy models of extraction and consumer demand. We seek to create better informed citizens and apply an objective eye to provide necessary, under reported, and interesting insights to a corner of the world that goes largely forgotten.