New commission to assess social and environmental impact of coalmining

Colombian senators have created a special commission to assess the environmental, social and health impact of large-scale coalmining operations in northern Colombia. For years, opposition politicians, human rights groups and communities based in the region have expressed alarm over the damage caused by sites such as the Cerrejón mine, the largest open pit mine in South America, in the region of La Guajira.

On 17 March, Senator Iván Cepeda announced the creation of the Commission. Several other senators from progressive parties have backed the new Commission, including Aida Avella (Patriotic Union), Sandra Ramírez (Comunes, formerly the FARC) and Feliciano Valencia (MAIS party). Studies into the impact of mining will be conducted in tandem with social organisations and academics. The Commission will also examine the government’s approach to climate change and how it has reached executive decisions around environmental issues.

The Cerrejón mine – which is owned by the multinationals BHP, Glencore and Anglo American – has had a devastating impact on Wayuú indigenous communities in La Guajira. According to Colombia’s National Ombudsman, 4,770 Wayuú children died from preventable causes such as disease, malnutrition and thirst between 2008 and 2016. In one of Colombia’s least developed regions, many communities lack any access to healthcare, transport or roads, while rivers have been diverted to supply mining operations. Air contamination caused by dust emissions and the lack of clean water have had major repercussions on people’s health. The expansion of mining has also displaced impoverished communities to increasingly precarious conditions.

In 2020, Wayuú organisations petitioned the United Nations to suspend mining at the Cerrejón, arguing that the global pandemic had exacerbated the already-dire humanitarian situation. Although Colombia’s Constitutional Court has ruled that the Cerrejón has contaminated natural water resources, such as the Ranchería River, representatives of the mine have argued that these were already of insufficient quality for human consumption. The government has also been accused of obstructing investigations into the impact of coalmining.

Following the petition to the UN, last October the UN’s Special Envoy Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, David Boyd, backed the Constitutional Court’s earlier ruling to suspend Cerrejón operations. ‘I call on Colombia to implement the directives of its own Constitutional Court and to do more to protect the very vulnerable Wayuú against pollution from the huge El Cerrejón mine and from COVID-19,’ he said.

Indigenous people face the brunt of environmental destruction in Colombia, as many communities live in zones rich in natural resources which are subject to extractive operations – both legal and illegal. These communities have also been disproportionately impacted by human rights violations, with indigenous leaders and activists violently targeted by paramilitaries and armed groups.