Weaving a concrete thread through red dust and boiling sun, a winding two-lane highway curves through the northern department of Cesar, Colombia, carving out a familiar route. Passing between housing settlements of mud and brick stained the color of the earth, open-pit mines and mineral dumping grounds, it traces deep pockets of coal deposits. An estimated 6.8 billion metric tons of recoverable coal reserveslie throughout the country [pdf file], with the largest concentrations in the northernmost sector.
When the first multinational mining companies arrived here in the 1990s, the region was transformed. Coal production ratesincreased by 80% [pdf file] between 1999 and 2005, and traditional mining practices were all but left behind. Mineral extraction began to signify economic innovation, and the passage of free-trade agreements with the US, Canada, Korea and the European Union opened the country to foreign corporations and investment. With goals to double exports and triple mining production by the year 2021, coal production hit peak rates; a reported 85.8 million tons [pdf file] were produced in 2011 alone.
From El Boqueron, a small village of 450 homes bordering the roadside, the steady stream of transport vehicles and mining trucks serve as a constant reminder of the drastic changes that large-scale mining have brought to the area. Once reliant on their lands for food production and subsistence, local communities have watched massive mining projects grow, overtaking communal planting grounds, contaminating water and air, and transforming their way of life. Initial promises to protect the environment and minimize pollution, support community development projects and provide local jobs, have remained mostly unfulfilled.
“DANGER Private Property” Today private lots divide what were once communal farming landsA powdery, grey dust, mining residue brought by the wind, covers the leaves of local fauna throughout El Boqueron. Residents complain of respiratory diseases, cardiac and lung problems, and red, blotchy skin and eye infections. They claim local rivers have become so contaminated they no longer serve for human or animal consumption and have even reported birth deformities in livestock who rely on these water sources. They have watched as their soils have slowly become incapable of producing edible crops, crumbling as they are taken from the ground. For years the contamination was denied, and residents saw little choice but to accept conditions as they were.
On November 27, the El Boqueron community, local governing bodies, representatives and lawyers from each of the three multinational companies in the area – Drummond, Goldman Sachs subsidiary Colombian National Resources, and Glen Corporation – joined together to discuss the future of El Boqueron: a court-ordered resettlement plan. Acknowledging that pollution levels exceeded acceptable limits, they deemed the region a zone of “high contamination,” requiring the community to enter into a negotiation process. That process is led by a Canadian organization, RePlan, which specializes in resettlements such as these and was hired jointly by the three multinationals.
The meeting on the afternoon of November 27 is tense. For years, local communities and multinationals have existed side by side, but this is the first time they have met face to face. For many residents, El Boqueron is the only place they have called home, and a resettlement will be the first time they leave. Others fear the displacement process will deepen their poverty, despite promises to improve living conditions, and many remain skeptical, fearing that multinational interests will overpower the El Boqueron community.
Outlining the resettlement process, RePlan emphasizes that the entire procedure – from negotiating conditions, purchasing land, to building homes and settling in – will take five years. In the meantime, life will continue as it has: coexisting with the daily consequences of the open-pit coal mines, hoping for a better future, and knowing there is no turning back.
On November 27-28, the FOR Colombia team accompanied Tierra Digna, a group of Colombian lawyers who have been working directly with the El Boqueron community to support them through the resettlement process with RePlan.