Mining and Indigenous Peoples in Colombia
Ana Cecilia Betancur and William Villa
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Latin America, América Latina
This desk study documents the adverse impacts on indigenous communities from coal mining in the regions of la Guajira and Cesar, home to 90 percent of Colombia's coal production as well as several indigenous peoples such as the Wayuu, Yukpa and Kogui.
Colombia is home to more than 90 indigenous peoples, comprising some 1,374,000 inhabitants or 3.2% of the national population. Recognised indigenous territories take the form of 713 reserves covering an area of approximately 32 million hectares, equivalent to 28.2 percent of the national territory.
90 percent of Colombia’s production of coal and all of its export production comes from the departments of La Guajira and Cesar. The El Cerrejón mine, one of the largest opencast mines in the world, is based in La Guajira, on the ancestral territory of the indigenous Wayúu people. The Puerto Zuñiga, Calenturitas and Cerrejón Central mines in Cesar department are being operated by C.I. Prodeco S.A., a subsidiary of Glencore.
In all, some 350,000 people have suffered the direct effects of the coal industry in this region, including indigenous, peasant and Afro-descendant populations. These operations cover large areas of land with waste materials, contaminate the ground and surface waters, negatively affect the vegetation and contribute to soil erosion. On a social level, they result in the displacement of communities and changes in their economic, social and cultural dynamics (Controlaría 2012).
The Wayúu indigenous people of La Guajira, who number some 270,414 inhabitants living on a reserve of 1,078,000 hectares, have been the most seriously affected, having experienced more than 30 years of mining activity. They have suffered the expropriation of their traditional territory and now find their mobility severely restricted on their current lands. There have been deaths of both individuals and animals, knocked down by the train that transports the coal, and they are suffering detrimental effects to their health. La Guajira has the highest rate of global malnutrition in Colombia and a mortality rate of 32 per thousand (ENSIN 2010).
The indigenous population is suffering from a serious inability to access water, with average daily consumption of 0.7 litres per person, in contrast with the UN’s recommended 50 litres. Meanwhile, the coal industry consumes 17 million litres of water every single day (Censat, UNDP, Gonzales, 2016).
In 2011, the El Cerrejón company requested authorisation to divert the Ranchería River, which would have serious impacts given that it is the main source of water for the region and ensures the recharge of the groundwater on which, in the arid and semi-arid areas of their territory, the Wayúu people rely.
In the same department, the Afro-descendant community of Tabaco and the communities of Palmarito, Cabezaeperro, La Jamichera, El Espinal and Tamaquito have been displaced from their territories, the former forcibly evicted and the latter obliged to leave because of a serious deterioration in their living conditions.
In Cesar, the communities of Hatillo, Plan Bonito and Boquerón have also been displaced by the expansion of mining onto their territories, and this too has been described as involuntary resettlement in both of the Ministry of the Environment’s resolutions. The diversion of the course of the Calenturitas River has resulted in the loss of hydrobiological resources and thereby the disappearance of the fishing communities’ main source of subsistence. The Yukpa people, comprising 5,872 people with recognised territories of 34,156 hectares, live in areas adjacent to the mining activity but the direct impacts on them are not known.
Spread across both these departments and the neighbouring department of Magdalena, some 50,000 Kogui, Kankuamo, Arhuaco and Wiwa indigenous peoples of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta are suffering the effects of the infrastructure built to transport the coal across their territory.
Indicators of unsatisfied basic needs (UBN) for 2015 were as high as 57.93% in La Guajira and 56.87% in the mining municipalities of Cesar, compared to a national indicator of 27.8%. The rate of poverty stood at 55.8% in La Guajira and 47.2% in Cesar, as opposed to a national average of 30.6% (CINEP 2014:51).
Individual human rights violations
Guerrilla forces have been present right across the whole mining region since the 1970s and, from the 1990s on, they were joined by paramilitary groups. The region suffered a widespread humanitarian crisis between 1998 and 2002.
Rudas (2013) notes that, in Jagua de Ibirico in 2002, there were more than 360 violent deaths and more than 140 people displaced per 100,000 inhabitants. In Becerril, between 2002 and 2003, the indices ranged from 240 to almost 280 violent deaths and between 140 and 180 forced displacements for every 100,000 inhabitants.
Mining is assumed to be one of the factors behind the violence and armed conflict in the country and this assertion has been supported by numerous pronouncements of the Constitutional Court. Despite the mandate of the Law on Victims and the successive demands made of the government by this Court, the records of the Victim Support Unit provide only general data, with no specific disaggregation by indigenous peoples.
There have been more than 18,000 cases of indigenous displacement across the two departments. Other information systems (ONIC and Cecoin) do give figures of individual violations broken down by peoples, with an accumulated total to 2014 of 7,172 victims of forced displacement. There had been a total of some 650 murder victims recorded across all systems as of 2014.
The peace process
The FARC guerrillas have a wide presence in the country’s indigenous territories and, given the negotiations now taking place in Havana to bring the armed conflict to an end, the indigenous organisations have thus been very active in the spaces opened up for reflecting and making proposals on the agenda items. The peoples represented by the national indigenous organisation ONIC have produced a National Peace Agenda that sets out their visions and proposals.
The pre-agreement on the issue of Comprehensive Rural Reform, and more specifically land ownership, focuses on peasant farmers and does not refer to the ethnic communities as such. Nor does it incorporate the historic demands of these communities, such as a ban on land grabs, particularly by foreigners and multinationals, or the suspension of mining/energy activity on their territories until consultations have taken place.
The indigenous organisations have expressed their concern at this as well as their disagreement with some of the specific points of the pre-agreement, such as the Land Fund and the Peasant Reserve Zones. They have also objected to the “concentration zones” for demobilisation, the reintegration of demobilised combatants and the cultivation of crops for illicit gain, making their concerns known with regard to the relevant pre-agreements. The indigenous and Afro-Colombian organisations are currently calling for their direct involvement in the Round Table Talks in order to address these issues.