top of page

Nimbyism and Colombia’s “Socially Responsible” Mine, Cerrejón

By Jeanine Legato WfP Colombia

Southeastern Massachusetts, where I am from, was deeply embroiled in a nimby (Not-In- My- Backyard) debate in 2008 about the proposed construction of Cape Wind, an offshore wind farm in Nantucket sound. The debate lasted years and only recently passed its final regulatory obstacle of approval by the Federal Aviation Association. In the meantime, it has dominated local airwaves, newspapers, and public discussion, and called the attention of just about every important national news outlet. The innocuous “How ‘bout them Red Sox” conversation in Massachusetts shifted for a long time to, “How ‘bout that wind farm?” Critics of the farm, bent on saving the view sheds of their waterfront homes have lost out over time to the proposal’s proponents, who fought for the environmental, economic and energy security benefits of renewable energy.

Yesterday, in the Wayuu Indigenous Reservation of Provincial located in the northern Colombia province of La Guajira, I witnessed another nimby scenario play out, albeit colored by much different circumstances, none so privileged as a debate over the Kennedy’s vacation home, and certainly not as well covered by the media.

Culminating a five day expedition along the banks of the Rancheria River to document its degradation since the arrival of coal-giant Cerrejón (BHP Biliton, Xstrata, Anglo American), and to call for the defense of the same ecosystem before the mine’s proposed 26 kilometer detouring of the river to mine the high quality coal beneath, communities called a press conference in Provincial and asked, “why is our resistance ignored in the media?”

The answer: Cerrejón, whose slogan is “Mining Responsibly”, dominates the press-beat in La Guajira with its multi-million investment in communications. Furthermore, while the Cape Wind project was stalled by years’ long debate and strict environmental regulations, Cerrejón has been subjected to neither by the Colombian press or government. President Juan Manuel Santos promotes deregulated mining and foreign investment to make extractive resources the “economic engine” for the country.

To the 150 participants on a five day excursion for the defense of the Rancheria River, comprised of Guajiran community members, and national and international NGO representatives, the economic myth was manifest. La Guajira is Colombia’s poorest province, 34 years after Cerrejón’s arrival. In visiting three of the dozens of communities displaced by Cerrejón, the mine’s claim to social responsibility was questionable at best.

In Patilla, multiple families remain in the dust-polluted town in the shadow of a massive mountain made of mining waste. Cerrejón claims that Patilla is its most successful relocation case, boasting a video on its website of an inaugural party at “New” Patilla, the urban resettlement where Patilla residents were relocated. Not featured in the video are the dozens of families that Cerrejón did not relocate on grounds that they were Patilla natives, but not residents. As a result of the job precariousness that the mine imposed on the once agricultural economy, many Patilla natives moved part-time into town to find work or facilitate easier commutes to their kids’ schools. Cerrejón refuses to compensate them for their homes or include them in rights to relocation. To pressure the “resisters” to sell, Cerrejón has cut off their electricity for weeks at a time and been late in sending potable water supply to the community (the Rancheria River, once suitable for human consumption, cannot be used even for cattle due to mining pollutant content).

Further down the road, eight families remain in Roche, once the area’s densely populated social capital. In its rush to relocate residents to New Roche, Cerrejón fueled disputes in the community, offering financial rewards for the families who were willing to leave Roche the quickest and delegitimizing the community leaders who advocated for resistance or slower-paced negotiations. In April 2012, Cerrejón filed for the Colombian State to expropriate the remaining Roche families, a process that may occur in early October without Cerrejón having made a good-faith effort to work through tenuous points in the negotiation.

Three Inhabitants of Roche are unable to span the circumference of a Caracoli tree found along the Rancheria’s river banks. Cerrejon’s expansion threatens the over two-hundred- year presence of local Afro Colombian communities as well as ancient flora and fauna.

As a Wayuu Indigenous community, Provincial strongly opposes the rerouting of the Rancheria River. They have begun an internal reflection process to preclude the prior consultation process that Cerrejón, required by ILO 169 and Colombian law, would have to carry out before exploring the project. Cerrejón president Roberto Junguito told local press that an expansion project indicating the detouring of the Rancheria hasn’t been officially presented, making the communities’ call for debate and consultation on the topic an unnecessary controversy.

Children in the Provincial Reservation perform a traditional Wayuu dance representing an edible cactus flower found in their territory.

However, according to independent news outlet La Silla Vacia, the Ministry of the Interior- the entity responsible for oversight of prior consultation- confirmed that Cerrejón solicited the formal initiation of the prior consultation process on November 29, 2010 and December 7, 2010. Prior consultation is not to be confused with prior consent; Cerrejón has been widely criticized by communities and NGOs alike for misrepresenting information regarding damages in the consultation process and, as with the case of the Rancheria River, not consulting with communities before advancing legal exploration processes with the Colombian government.

The collective experience of just these few communities is enough to give legitimate claim to their campaign’s simple slogan, “Cerrejón lies.”

Bathing in the Rancheria, running my hands along the riverbed and turning up baseball-size pieces of coal, I had to agree. Walking through the woods and finding half- hidden pipes that spew black coal processing water into the river, I had to agree. Cerrejon’s ridiculous claim that rerouting the river would not cause further harm to communities is a shameless lie, or, at best, a deranged dismissal of the dizzying damage this mine has already caused to suffering communities over the course of three decades.

150 delegates representing local, national, and international communities traversed the Rancheria River over five days to document the environmental characteristics of Guajira’s most important water source.

This is a case of nimbyism where there is no possible benefit to the locals. 100% of Cerrejón coal is exported, including to the U.S market. What Guajirans stand to lose from the rerouting of the Rancheria River is not just a view, but the last vital life source sustaining them in the face of forced displacement.

Join the Witness for Peace Colombia team in their current investigative project to find out where Cerrejón coal is being imported to in the U.S. Write to get involved.


bottom of page