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Appalachia and Colombia: The People Behind the Coal

By       Message Hans Bennett     Permalink
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In the summer of 2007, Cerrejón announced that it was forming a Social Review Panel to evaluate its relations with the communities and provide recommendations.  The Panel concluded that the displacement of Tabaco was a festering wound, and that the company simply had to rectify this if it wanted to develop any kind of working relationship with the local communities.  The company agreed, finally, to engage in collective negotiations with former Tabaco residents, aimed at a resettlement of the community.  This was a struggle that had been going on for ten years!  In December of 2008, the company signed an agreement with the community defining the terms of the relocation and for compensation for the people who had been displaced.  This was a huge victory.

Still, in some ways we were struck with how much has not changed.  Although the agreement was signed with Tabaco, the relocation process has not yet begun--so people are still displaced.  In the other communities we work with, the company has been engaging in collective negotiations for relocation--but they are still desperately poor, landless, and living in the shadows of the world's largest open-pit coal mine.

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In the Cesar Department, where the U.S.-owned Drummond mine operates, things are even worse.  Union leaders there live in daily fear for their safety and lives.  We had hoped to return to one community that we visited last summer, Mechoacán--but it had been wiped off the map.  We met with the communities of Boquerón, El Hatillo, and Plan Bonito, that are slowly being strangled by the mine.  Drummond, unlike Cerrejón, still refuses to recognize any right to collective relocation for these communities, and is simply trying to starve people out in hopes that they will leave.

HB:     Okay, now let's talk about your recent visit to Colombia. Who did you meet with and what did they talk about? What were the key issues addressed?

AC:     The main issues we've been working on, with our partners in Colombia, are labor rights and community rights, in the areas where the multinational coal mines operate.  The coal region in Colombia is in the north, close to the Caribbean coast, in the Cesar and La Guajira Departments.  The people who have lived there for decades, in some cases centuries, are mostly Afro-Colombian and indigenous peasants who have survived by farming, hunting, fishing, and day labor on ranches owned by large landholders in the area.

Multinational mining came to La Guajira in the 1980s, to Cesar in the 1990s.  These mines are almost unbelievably gigantic operations--Cerrejón claims to be the largest open-pit coal mine in the world, and Drummond is currently undergoing expansion that it says will make it overtake even Cerrejón's size.  Each one employs thousands of workers, some directly, and some through subcontractors.

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The main people we spent time with there were the unions at the two mines--including the Injured Workers Association at the Drummond  mine--and the communities that have been displaced, or are in the process of displacement.  Everyone we met with there seemed to share the belief that getting their stories out to the U.S. public was essential to protecting their lives and their livelihoods.  Drummond is a U.S. company, and much of the coal produced by both mines is imported by U.S. power plants.  People in Colombia are also acutely aware at the huge influence that the United States has on their country's policies.  Mostly, they want us to tell their stories here in the United States, so that people here will pressure Drummond, the companies that buy the coal, and the U.S. government, to make sure that workers and communities in the coal region have the same rights that we here enjoy--the right to personal safety, the right to clean water, to education, to safe working conditions, to form unions, to be able to provide for their children, to not live in fear of their government or of the companies that operate in their midst.

HB:     How does the union organizing in Colombia compare to the organizing in Kentucky, and the US in general?

AC:     We were shocked to learn that there are no unionized mines left in eastern Kentucky.  Not even in Harlan County.  Yet despite a high level of disillusionment with the United Mineworkers among many of the people we met with in Kentucky--because of its weak or non-existent critique of surface mining, and because of the capitulations it has made to industry that people believe are responsible for its demise in the region--people there have an incredibly high level of union consciousness.  Nearly everybody we met talked to us about how their fathers, their uncles, their grandfathers, had fought and in some cases shed blood, to bring in the union.

Unions in Colombia--especially those in the coal mines--are extremely militant, and have a strong current of leftist analysis and environmental consciousness that are pretty uncommon among unions in the U.S. today.  The union leaders we met with talk about foreign mining companies raping the land and the people, looting their country's natural resources, lining the pockets of shareholders with coal produced with the blood and the land of Colombians.

In both the U.S. and Colombia, union density has been falling.  In Colombia, the main cause has been violence against unions; in the U.S., deindustrialization has played a big role.  The AFL-CIO has a checkered history in Colombia, as it does in the rest of Latin America.  Historically, the federation has been closely linked to U.S. foreign policy goals through the American Institute for Free Labor Development or AIFLD.  I think the AFL-CIO is trying to overcome this past, and the suspicion it has generated in Latin America.  Yet it is also struggling with internal conflicts, and now the accelerating economic crisis, and I think it has not made as much progress as it could in the area of trying to develop real international solidarity.

HB:     How does the coal mining trade fit into the current global energy crisis and fossil fuels' effects on the environment, including global warming?

AC:     We had an interesting conversation about this during one of our meetings in Colombia.  One of our delegates works with the Move America Beyond Coal campaign, and she asked Jairo Quiroz, the president of the Sintracarbón union that represents workers in the Cerrejón coal mine, more or less the same question:  don't we just have to stop mining and burning coal altogether, given its environmental impact?  Jairo's response really challenged all of us, I think.  "There is no clean source of energy,"- he said.  "You in the United States are the ones who use most of the world's energy resources.  What do you propose to use, if we stop mining coal?  Petroleum and natural gas are no better for the environment than coal is, and both contribute to global climate change.  Nuclear energy also requires mining, and creates waste products even more dangerous than coal's.  Solar energy and wind energy are only viable where those resources are sufficiently available, and they also require production, transmission and storage techniques and equipment that depend on mining (for turbines, batteries, solar panels, etc.) and the use of toxins.  So-called biofuels are the worst of all, because they expand the agro-industrial model which has profound environmental effects--from deforestation to desertification to overuse of pesticides and fertilizers--and it also disrupts the whole food chain by channeling agricultural land to the production of fuel instead of food."-  Basically, his point was that rather than pointing the finger at coal, we needed to think about the underlying causes of environmental destruction--like our overuse of energy.  "As long as you want to keep using that much energy,"- he said, "we're going to keep mining coal."-

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There's always a challenge, in a campaign for social and political change, to choose a target that's narrow enough that you can effectively organize around it, but making sure that you don't get distracted from the larger goals by the narrow target.  In Salem, we have a coal-fired power plant.  Some people argue, from an environmental perspective, that we should shut down the plant.  But what are the larger implications of that argument?  Unless we are planning to stop using electricity altogether, it just means that we'll be getting it from another plant somewhere else.  It can turn into a kind of NIMBY-ism [i.e., "not in my back yard"-]--we don't want to have to see the impact of our standard of living, we want to displace it onto somebody else.  That's how our system works--and that's how we're encouraged to think.  We need to think more profoundly about the causes of global warming and environmental destruction if we really want to address them.

This may seem only peripherally related, but one of the communities we visited, in the Cesar Department, was located right next to the trash dump for the city of La Loma.  Trash is blowing around, and it smells awful.  Also, many of the communities we work with have no running water--thus no real latrines.  These issues made me think about the multiplications of our privileges in the First World.  We don't have to see where our energy comes from, and we don't have to see where our waste goes--we just live in this bubble of plenty and our waste is invisibly whisked away--all of which encourage us to continue abusing and wasting the earth's resources!

HB:     How has the recent election of several leftist and "-left of center' Presidents throughout Latin America (most recently in El Salvador) changed US power and influence? How do you think the US is reacting to this? What role will Colombia play in US strategy given that it is one of the last remaining right-wing governments?

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Hans Bennett is a multi-media journalist mostly focusing on the movement to free Mumia Abu-Jamal and all political prisoners. An archive of his work is available at and he is also co-founder of "Journalists for Mumia," (more...)

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