The author is from the UK but is based in Colombia (Published in Issue 12)
It is 1981, a year before I am born. Ten miles from my hometown, Blackhall coalmine, Easington District, has just closed and the colliery village is left decimated. Across the other side of the world another history of decimation is being written. 827 Wayuu people were forced out of their community to clear the land for El Cerrejón, an opencast coalmine in La Guajira peninsula, northeast Colombia that went into production in 1983.1 Concurrently the community of Media Luna learned that 1200 hectares of their lands had been chosen without any consultation as the place for the port which would export Cerrejón coal to Europe and the US. Nearly two hundred people were forced to leave after failing to win their demands to be relocated. Seven families refused to leave their land. The stories of these two communities show a picture of interconnected government policies, of interconnected struggles.
On March 5th 1984, miners at the Cortonwood pit in Yorkshire walked out on strike after an announcement that it was to be closed. The following day, chairman of the UK Coal Board, Mr Ian MacGregor, announced that 20 pits and 21,000 mining jobs were to go. The livelihoods and culture of British mining communities were under threat of extinction and a nationwide strike began in what became the longest and bitterest industrial dispute seen in
the UK in modern times. Meanwhile, indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities were also under attack as El
Cerrejón expanded its appropriation and colonisation of their lands to increase its operations.
The Wayuu indigenous initially believed the stories of Intercor, a subsidiary of Exxon. The indigenous had believed that the mine would bring progress in education, health, water supply and sustainable development, but they quickly realised they had made a mistake. “As time passed the community slowly began to realise the implications...the company violated our social and cultural norms… did not respect our traditions laws… our sacred
places were ripped open…our cemeteries were moved from one place to another as if they contained only meaningless material objects…. the imposition of an economic structure different from our traditional subsistence economy ended up undermining the quality of life that we had worked so many years to achieve.”
Caracoli and Espinal were two Wayuu communities bordering the opencast mine and home to 350 Wayuu living on 1000 hectares. In 1991 the Ministry of Health declared the area uninhabitable due to the impact of the coal dust on human, plant and animal life yet despite this; the community had to fight an arduous battle for relocation. Finally, the residents were taken to two new plots of inadequate land “donated” by Intercor. They lost their lands, local economic system and are still living in subhuman conditions.
Two years later Easington colliery closed with the loss of 1,400 direct jobs. It was the last pit to close on the Durham Coalfield5. The residents have suffered ever since, with declining population, out-migration of younger people due to the lack of local employment and opportunities, and the general lack of local commitment to the area. Between 1981 and 1993 Easington district lost 11,000 mining jobs and 9,000 jobs in associated trades with unemployment ranging between 35 and 40% during this period. People have been forced to leave in search of work and the population fell by 12% between 1991 and 1999. And it was the guaranteed supply of cheap Colombian coal that aided Thatcher’s Government to destroy the British coal mining industry.
As mine after mine closed in the UK, Colombians swarmed to La Guajira. Between 1985 and 1993 161,000 people (46% of current regional population) arrived looking for work. The local indigenous and Afro-Colombians found themselves bottom of the new social structure. The mine won't employ people from local communities as the mines expansion is dependent on the disappearance of these communities. Those already forced to leave their traditional, self-sufficient way of live now live in the slums of the mine towns. Too poor to get the necessary technical training to work in the mine, unemployment, drugs and violence are part of their new degrading everyday life.
"We had vandalism, we had arson, we had car fires and that was something that was
relatively unknown at that time." Robin Todd, Deputy Leader of Easington Council.
"There's no doubt in my mind that the closure of the mining industry, as far as Easington is concerned, was the worst calamity that has ever happened and none of us realised what effect it was going to have.” Cllr Frank Shaw, Easington
The social fabric of the villages of the Durham coalfields and the Wayuu communities was violently torn up as coal production was dragged unwillingly away from one place and forced unwillingly onto another as coal mining companies with the full cooperation of governments chased after the cheapest coal.
The mine has systematically violated these people's basic rights to water, health, land, food,and work. The river is either inaccessible (due to mine's acquisition of the communities' access routes land) or contaminated. The air is filled with unhealthy particles. People can no longer farm, hunt, or fish as Cerrejón has strictly enforced no trespassing on company land. They are restricted from accessing the road in and out of their community during the evening… Some feel that the electricity that Cerrejón so generously provided is now used to remind them of the power Cerrejón holds over them. They view the strategy of Cerrejón as one that attempts to systematically divide the people. They feel Cerrejón is slowly and methodically choking them… Community members report that they have been intimidated,
arbitrarily detained and threatened by soldiers. They assume Cerrejón is behind these acts as the company has an established relationship with the Army Battalion in the region.”
In 2001, Tabaco, an Afro-Colombian farming village, was violently displaced as part of an expansion project by Cerrejón. Police, riot police, army and bulldozers arrived and the town was razed to the ground. The community was left with no homes, schools and no land on which to cultivate to feed their children. As Tabaco was being claimed for the coal-mine, the ‘reclamation’ of Easington’s 27 ha. coal site into a green recreational area was completed.
April 2004 was the year of the Bahía Portete massacre: 12 dead, 30 disappeared and 600 refugees. Jorge 40, the paramilitary commander of the Northern Bloc of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) claimed that mining interests had financed the Bahía Portete disruptions as part of a plan to expand the port's facilities in order to export larger quantities of coal to Europe and Colombia. In 2006 Sintracarbon, the trade union representing Cerrejón workers, participated in a delegation to visit communities affected by their place of work. They found the reality far
worse than they had imagined.
These communities are being systematically besieged by the Cerrejón Company. The company begins by buying up the productive lands in the region, encircling communities and destroying inhabitants source of work…The United Nations has established categories of “poverty” and “extreme poverty” but these communities have been reduced to conditions that we would call the “living dead”. In a bold and inspiring step Sintracarbon committed to the communities struggles. In their 2007 negotiations with Cerrejón Company, then owned by BHP Billiton, Anglo American and Xstrata (all registered on the London stock exchange) the union demanded that the communities' right to collective negotiation, relocation and reparation be recognised. After sustained pressure, an agreement was reached
between Tabaco and Cerrejón in 2008 that might just lead to the reconstruction of a new community for the Tabaco community.
The threat of the mine and relocation continues to shadow over other communities in its path. In the UK the
question of the reopening of coal mines hangs over old colliery communities. The history, needs and wishes of these communities must be understood and honestly engaged with. Some argue that the closure of UK coal mines was positive for carbon emissions and people’s health. Yet the impacts were just moved across the Atlantic, with serious extra damage done in the transition, as this story of entwined communities’ shows.
A just transition to a low carbon economy will be part of a transformative global political process. A just transition will need strong social fabric, organisations and processes capable of creating and making real alternative proposals for our regions, both in North East England and North East Colombia. It will involve building ties between trade unions organising in the workplace and social organisations in communities. It will come from workers and communities who are capable of putting the social need first. It may include mining some coal but definitely not as global capitalism mines it: fast and furious.
A just transition will not happen under capitalism. This savage system will continue to try to literally bulldoze obstacles to its profits out of the way whether they are people, homes, communities or nature itself. The story of Tabaco regrettably is not a one-off.
The author works in Colombia with a Network of Social Organisations who are organising and mobilising together against the violence driven by economic interests and for a socially just peace. In the UK the author has been active in the Camp for Climate Action and Bristol Rising Tide and is interested in how we can build bridges between people organising against climatechange and people exploited by fossil fuel multinationals.