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.
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