Suspend mining operations to protect indigenous communities: UN Rapporteur

The Cerrejón coal mine in northern Colombia’s La Guajira region should have its operations suspended due to the devastating environmental and health impact on nearby indigenous communities, according to the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, David Boyd.

The Cerrejón is Latin America’s largest open-pit mine and has caused immense damage to La Guajira’s Wayuu indigenous population by diverting scarse water resources and polluting land and rivers.

In a statement, Mr Boyd said ‘I call on Colombia to implement the directives of its own Constitutional Court and to do more to protect the very vulnerable Wayuu against pollution from the huge El Cerrejón mine and from COVID-19.’ Operations needed to be halted close to the Tajo Patilla indigenous reservation, he added. The statement follows a previous ruling from Colombia’s Constitutional Court for the mine’s co-owners – the international corporations BHP Group, Anglo American and Glencore – to address the environmental and social impact of its operations.

While the mine has long had an adverse impact on Wayuu communities, the situation had become even more urgent due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as contaminated air and water increased the risk of infection in a region where chronic infrastructural underdevelopment leaves many communities unable to access healthcare.

The shocking extent of the humanitarian crisis facing La Guajira’s Wayuu population is revealed in figures compiled by the National Ombudsman which show that 4,770 Wayuu children died of malnutrition and preventable diseases between 2008 and 2016. Coal mining has diverted rivers to power its operations and forced communities to relocate to increasingly barren areas. Only four per cent of people in rural areas have access to clean water, while more than three-quarters of households lack food security, which has major implications for health and work. Over 90 per cent of workers are in the informal sector which has collapsed due to the pandemic.

‘It is absolutely vital that Colombia protects the rights of indigenous people to life, health, water, sanitation and a secure, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, [while] stopping mining close to the Provincial reservation until it can be done in a secure way,’ said the UN Special Rapporteur.