Mining activities have caused serious environmental problems in the area. Emissions from the mine have exposed nearby communities to different contaminants, which have led to respiratory diseases. The Wayuú indigenous people have denounced, above all, the disappearance and contamination of their water sources. Furthermore, nearby indigenous populations have been evicted and their ancestral lands have been destroyed. Problems caused by coal mining activities are a threat to the physical and cultural survival of local communities.
For nearly 40 years, conflicts have persisted between the companies involved in the mining operations of the Cerrejón mine and the Wayuú indigenous people. The Wayuú communities have promoted resistance to mining activities, appealing to national and international public opinion.
The Cerrejón mine is located in the northwest of Colombia’s Atlantic region, in the Guajira department. The Guajira department hosts the country’s largest indigenous group, the Wayuú people, which comprises 20% of the nation’s total indigenous population. In the mid-1970s, a 33-year association contract was signed between Carbones de Colombia S.A. (Carbocol) and Intercol, an affiliate of the US company Exxon Mobil. The contract consisted of three phases: extraction (1977-1980), construction (1981-1986) and production (1986-2009).
In 1999, an agreement was signed to extend the last phase for another 25 years, to the year 2034. Then, in 2000, under the government’s privatization policy, Colombia sold the Carbocol Company to the Billiton Plc UK mining group, South African Anglo American Plc and Swiss Glencore International AG; these companies comprise the Cerrejón North Zone consortium. After the contract was signed, necessary preparations, such as the conduction of studies and the completion of construction, were carried out to allow for the mining to begin. Among the works constructed during this time were a 150-km railway through the entire Wayuu territory, and Puerto Bolívar, Latin America’s foremost coal harbour. Today, the Cerrejón Company is one of Colombia’s largest companies and a major driver of the nation’s economy.
According to the Hemera Foundation (2008), one of the most serious environmental problems caused by coal mining is the release of particulate matter into the atmosphere. These emissions expose the public to different contaminants, which can lead to respiratory diseases. The same study also reports and highlights water pollution produced by mining activities. According to Urrea and Calvo (2014), the worst water-related effects include the disappearance of aquifers and the contamination of the aquifers that remain. If this were to occur, there would be an alarming shortage of water supply for local communities. The same study also notes that rivers have been deviated to use water in the mine. These are actions which will seriously jeopardize communities’ survival in the future. Currently, the Cerrejón Company has a project pending to deviate the Ranchería River, the region’s main river.
Further mining activities have affected the socio-cultural fabric of the communities through the eviction and resettlement of nearby populations and the destruction of numerous cemeteries, which have significant cultural and spiritual value for the Wayuú people. Throughout this all, there has been no free, well-informed prior consultation with communities about the company’s actions (Urrea and Calvo, 2014). International standards require communities’ consent for eviction and relocation, as well as for projects that threaten the physical and cultural survival of communities.
The Cerrejón Company is one of the companies that are assisting in the development of the United Nation's guiding principles about companies and human rights (Cerrejón, 2014); however, these guiding principles have been deficiently enforced in the Guajira region to date. By contrast, the Wayuú communities have promoted resistance to mining activities, appealing to national and international public opinion.
Legal actions of the Wayuú Women's Strength Organization
The Wayuú Women’s Strength organization, for example, carried out studies on the socio-environmental impacts of mining activities in their territory. The group has also presented a series of appeals to the Standing Tribunal of the Peoples in Colombia and the National Consensus-building Group, demanding indemnity, compensation and reparations for the damages caused (Hemera Foundation, 2008).
The Wayuú people's claims
The Wayuú people are demanding that the Company publicly acknowledge the adverse environmental impacts of mining, and also that it commit to reaching agreements with negatively affected communities in order to compensate them for detriments caused by mining activities and to establish actions to mitigate potential future impacts. They also demand that the Company implements a protocol for dialogue, consultation and participation by communities when making decisions that affect them. This protocol must be coherent with the international standards established in ILO Agreement No. 169, the United Nations Declaration about the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the recommendations by special United Nations mechanisms for the indigenous peoples (Berraondo, 2014).