On 5 May 2020, Anglo American, a London listed multinational mining company (MNC) will hold their Annual Shareholders Meeting behind closed doors. Anglo-American is one of three MNC that jointly own the Cerrejón Open-Pit Coal mine in La Guajira, northern Colombia.
Cerrejón is one of the largest open-pit coal mines in the world covering over 69,000 hectares of land in the middle of indigenous Wayuu and Afro-Colombian farming communities’ territory. These communities have for years been struggling against forced relocation, health issues, environmental degradation and destruction of their rivers allegedly caused by the mine.
Furthermore, between 2010 and 2018 over 4,770 indigenous children in La Guajira, died from malnutrition, yet Cerrejón in a ‘slow’ year made a profit of six billion Colombian pesos.
Communities around Cerrejón have struggled in the courts to prevent the destruction of their rivers. At least 19 rivers and floodplains have been impacted by the mine. In an area that suffers from drought the Cerrejón mine uses 4.2 million gallons of water per day.
“Coal is not a human right, we can live without the exploitation of coal, but we cannot live without water and culture.” said Luis Misael Socarras, a Wayuu leader and environmental defender working with Fuerza de Mujeres Wayuu, a grassroots organization fighting to protect Wayuu Indigenous rights.
The Colombian government’s “stay-at-home” orders have in turn highlighted the deep structural inequalities that exist in La Guajira, where Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities face this pandemic without water, without food and without the minimum guarantees for subsistence. The pre-existing humanitarian crisis has now been exacerbated by the current COVID-19 pandemic.
The key challenge for the communities in this coronavirus pandemic is access to water:
handwashing is one of few protections against the virus. Despite a constant legal struggle to uphold their rights, communities around the Cerrejón mine, and those relocated to other areas, struggle to meet their basic needs. The communities’ own sources of water are being cut off making them dependent on the company for handouts. As COVID-19 hits Colombia the lack of access for these communities to food and clean water is now, more than ever, a matter of life or death.
“What the Wayuu and Afro-Colombian communities demand is that the company allow the waters of their rivers and streams to flow freely along their natural course. Because they are sacred and provide for well-being - they are their sources of drinking water, cultural practices, crop cultivation and washing. In line with the Constitutional Court Judgment, the communities are urgently calling on Cerrejón to remove the tap placed on the Arroyo Bruno that is redirecting the river and return it to its natural course” said Luisa Rodriguez, a researcher and advocacy advisor for the Center for Investigation and Popular Education (CINEP).
Although Cerrejón is supporting the distribution of water and humanitarian aid the denial of
communities’ right to water in the first place makes them more dependent on these forms of aid. Instead of having access to clean water from the main rivers and tributaries, water is having to be manually distributed to communities in self-isolation.
“Water is a human right and essential in the Cosmovision of Wayuú traditional culture. Defending rivers, water, territory is a practice that costs lives in Colombia. Indigenous leaders and environmental defenders protesting against the mine have been threatened and killed and this is totally unacceptable” said Carlos Mejia, Executive Director of OXFAM Colombia.
With scant regard for the health of the communities and their workers, Cerrejón announced that it would resume operations beginning on April 27th 2020, even though COVID-19 has not reached its peak in Colombia, with the government ordering a population lock-down until at least the end of May.
Cerrejón will also bring people in from outside La Guajira to continue mining activities. This will expose the Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities and the local workers, with little access to health facilities, to the COVID-19 virus.
Protection of the communities’ rivers has not been prioritised either by local authorities or by the Cerrejón mine. There are more and more sentences from the Constitutional Court and local courts in which Cerrejón is sanctioned for the damages caused by open-pit coal mining. But Cerrejón persistently fails to comply.