Communities in Cesar struggle to be heard in public hearing on coal mining

Communities in Cesar struggle to be heard in public hearing on coal mining

Written by Thomas Power, FOR Peace Presence accompanier. Para la versión en español, haz clic aqui.

We were mistaken in the past. We no longer exchange life for money.” Community members from Boquerón, in central Cesar, Colombia, directed these words at the Colombian environmental licensing agency (ANLA) and transnational coal-mining companies during public hearings on January 28th and February 5th 2016. The multinationals Drummond and Glencore are planning to expand operations, and have solicited ANLA for a modification to their environmental license. In response, affected communities petitioned to hold public hearings on the proposed expansions to make their preoccupations heard.

Boquerón is a traditionally Afro-descendant community. As such, in Colombia the community has the right to prior, free and informed consultation, a process in which the community based on reliable information either refuses or grants its permission to carry out the proposed mining projects. However, as only the departmental and not the national government, has recognized Boquerón’s status as an Afro-descendant community, this right has consistently been denied. Many believe that the government has denied the community this recognition precisely because the right to previous consultation would complicate mining activities in the region, which is an important economic engine in the national government’s eyes and the region’s principal economic activity.

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Map of Cesar and Magdalena of current coal mining projects

The Colombian government has valued coal extraction to such a degree that it has been quick to implement mega-projects led by multinationals. So quick, in fact, that these are the first environmental public hearings to be held for these projects in over 20 years of mining operations in Cesar. The past 20 years have led to radical changes in the way people work and socialize, as the traditional economy based in agriculture and fishing is no longer viable due to contamination from the mining projects. The most radical change has been the involuntary resettlement of the communities Boquerón, Plan Bonito, and El Hatillo as the levels of atmospheric contamination are too high for human habitation.

In 2010, the Ministry of Environment ordered Drummond, Glencore and Colombia National Resources to resettle these communities. As a result, the Colombian NGO Tierra Digna began providing the community of Boquerón legal advice, helping them to understand and demand their rights as well as what responsibilities the coal companies and government have towards the community. When Drummond and Glencore announced their plans to expand operations, Tierra Digna supported Boquerón and surrounding communities collect at least 100 signatures so their mayor’s office would solicit the ANLA for a public hearing. The Mayor’s office of La Jagua de Ibirico and Becerril successfully petitioned the ANLA for such hearings.

These hearings are a unique opportunity for community participation in the process of mine expansion. To obtain the approval from ANLA in changes to their environmental management plans, the companies Drummond and Glencore must submit studies on possible environmental impacts of the project as well as a plan to manage, mitigate, and remediate damages. In the public hearings, the company must present this plan to the public and the communities will have an opportunity to respond.

During the socializations of their proposals, the companies recognized that the affected municipalities will be El Paso, Becerril, and La Jagua de Ibirico. They also recognized the use of subterranean waters, emissions of particulate material (coal-dust), forestry exploitation and changes in wildlife habitats, among other impacts. But of particular concern for the community was the proposed diversion of the San Antonio River in Drummond’s project.

After the companies presented their projects, politicians and specialists from the affected areas had an opportunity to speak. Some politicians spoke favorably of the companies, others lukewarmly, but one official from El Paso spoke strongly against the mining activity. He spoke on the social changes caused from the loss of small-scale farming and fishing, on the lack of development and increase in unsatisfied basic needs in the area, and on the impact of involuntary resettlements for local populations, among other issues.

Finally, community members were allowed to speak. First were community members solicited by the audience, in which one community member focused on lack of economic opportunities. “They can’t repair the damage they’ve done,” he said, “but at least they could compensate us so our families can live with dignity.” And he continued, “We didn’t come here to ask for, but to demand that commitments be fulfilled.”

The following intervention solicited by the audience was Flower Arias, who grew up in Boquerón and has been heavily involved in supporting he community through the resettlement process. He focused on the cultural loss Boquerón has suffered, and read a poem1 he wrote about Boquerón. “Damned black stone/that changed my history/A humble village cries/ The ill-fated abandonment of a whole life,” he said.

After interventions solicited by the audience, people who had registered with their local municipalities were given five minutes to have their voice heard. During the public audience of Drummond, while some people spoke in favor of mining, many community members focused on the diversion of the San Antonio River. “The San Antonio River is an important source of fishing resources, a water supply for local wildlife, and also a water supply for crops,” one community member explained after the public hearings, “but also of a cultural tradition, of recreation for families, for swimming.”

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Protest signs prepared by affected community members.

During the public hearing on the expansion of the mine Calenturitas, owned by Prodeco, people from affected communities showed up with posters and signs protesting mining activity. During the interventions, in which the community focused on the loss of their culture, the loss of fishing, the loss of agriculture, those with signs came to the front to assure that the ANLA and the companies read their messages. “The contamination is killing us slowly- S.O.S.” “How long will we be waiting?” “Boquerón needs a solution soon!” “ANLA- We want previous consultation,” were just some of the messages from the community for the authorities.

Tierra Digna also spoke, based in their investigative work. Among other things, they pointed out how the studies were done without the intervention of a neutral third party, and how they don’t take into account the cumulative effects of 10 large scale mining projects in the area. They even questioned the constitutionality of the projects, as the Colombian Constitutional Court ruled in 2013 that ANLA must adopt the World Health Organization’s standards for atmospheric contamination, something the ANLA still hasn’t done despite being give two years to do so. 2

In spite of protests from many sectors of society, such participation has fallen on deaf ears as in April 2016 the ANLA authorized the expansion of Drummond’s “La Loma” mine, which will require the diversion of the San Antonio River. Tierra Digna legally appealed the decision. As a result of their work supporting communities in Cesar and other departments, Tierra Digna is heavily threatened, having been robbed for information in January 2016 and one member was pursued by an unidentified person on motorbike in Bogotá in April 2016. Nevertheless they continue their work.

Decade long coal-mining in Colombia has caused severe irreversible environmental impacts without yet any effective remediation mechanisms for affected communities- and has even led to the involuntary resettlement due to contamination. How many more?

2 More information can be found in Tierra Digna’s report “Colombian Coal: Who wins, Who loses?” (in Spanish).

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