May 20th, 2019
An Irish civil society coalition has called on the new Irish embassy in Bogota to intervene to protect communities and activists in a coal mining region in the north of Colombia.
In a letter sent to the embassy last week, the Stop Blood Coal Alliance said that it is “extremely worried” about the safety of communities in La Guajira, in particular, their leaders who have received death threats in recent weeks.
La Guajira – one of the poorest regions of Colombia – is home to Cerrejón mine, one of the largest open-pit coal mines in the world. Cerrejón produces and exports over 30 million tonnes of coal a year.
Cerrejon is of particular interest to Ireland as the Coal Marketing Company (CMC), responsible for marketing coal from the mine, is based in Dublin.
The majority of coal imported to Ireland from Colombia is purchased through CMC. Over 60 per cent of coal imports for burning at ESB’s Moneypoint power station comes from Cerrejón.
The letter – co-signed by the Latin America Solidarity Centre, Not Here Not Anywhere and Friends of the Earth Ireland – states that a total of eight leaders of the indigenous and human rights group Fuerza de Mujeres Wayúu received death threats in either late April and early May.
“Members of the Wayúu community have reported the presence of strangers in their shelters and hanging around their homes at night,” the letter seen by The Green News adds.
The Irish coalition is calling on the embassy to “do all in your power” to ensure that authorities increase protection schemes to the Wayúu people, investigate the threats and take action to dismantle illegal armed groups in the region.
“Ireland has painstakingly built up a reputation of supporting human rights and international solidarity over the years, and we feel that it is at times like this that we need to live up to that reputation,” the letter concludes.
In a statement, the Department of Foreign Affairs said that support for human rights defenders is a “long-established priority of Ireland’s foreign policy” and that the embassy is “following the situation closely”.
Officials at the embassy recently met with representatives from the Cerrejón mine, according to the statement, where they discussed the human rights issues that have been raised by indigenous groups in the area.
“Officials intend to visit the mine and to meet with human rights organisations active on this issue in the near future, including Fuerza Mujeres Wayuu,” the Department said.
Impact of mine on locals
One of the threatened leaders Jakeline Romero, who visited Dublin last month, said that the Cerrejon mine has impacted on the health of the Wayúu people, the environment and access to water.
“Our children are dying, they are sick, our women, and our life as a people is in danger. One of the greatest impacts is on our culture, and it’s an issue that isn’t really recognised as one of the most harmful impacts among the systematic human rights violations,” she said.
In February, Fuerza joined other indigenous and afro-descendent communities in La Guajira in a legal challenge against a recent modification of the environmental license for the Cerrejón mine.
The groups argue that the expansion of the mine would exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in La Guajira caused by the mine, including a loss of food security and lack of access to water that has influenced the deaths of 5,000 children and malnutrition of 40,000.
Cerrejón has said that it is committed to conducting its operation in line with national law and international standards to prevent and mitigate impacts of its operations.
In a statement issued last week, Cerrejón said that it is “horrified” by the recent threats against community leaders and that it “completely condemn such reprehensible acts”.
“Cerrejón has repeatedly requested that the authorities take all necessary steps to avoid any act that threatens the life and physical integrity of human rights leaders and environmental defenders in La Guajira,” the company said.