Complaint lodged against ESB over Colombian coal imports

19 January 2021 

A formal complaint against the ESB has been lodged today in regards to imported coal from the Cerrejón mine in Colombia. 

Filed by the Global Legal Action Network (GLAN) through Ireland’s National Contact Point to the OECD, the complaint alleges that the ESB has breached its human rights responsibilities by importing coal from the mine.

The action was supported by Christian Aid Ireland as well as a coalition of Colombian and international human rights and environmental NGOs. 

Parallel complaints have also been filed through National Contact Points in Australia, the UK and Switzerland against the three international mining companies that own Cerrejón.

The mine spans over 700 kilometres and operates in La Guajira, an impoverished state home to a large indigenous population. 

The complaint claims the ESB failed to take the necessary actions to identify, mitigate and prevent human rights abuses linked to the mine despite the existence of well-documented evidence of indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, activist intimidation, and environmental pollution. 

Additionally, the filing alleges that the semi-state body’s use of the Bettercoal initiative, which aims to improve the sourcing of coal for impacted communities, is flawed, industry-funded and lacking in transparency. 

If GLAN are successful, the ESB would be required to take steps to comply with the OECD’s Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, which would include permanently ending its relationship with the mine and issuing a formal apology to affected communities for its part in causing harm. 

Colombian human rights lawyer Rosa María Mateus Parra said importing Cerrejón coal was, “a striking example of the role played by large multinational companies in fuelling injustice”. 

“The people of La Guajira have borne the huge social and environmental costs of the mine, while harmful fossil fuel coal is exported around the world in the midst of the climate crisis and a small number of companies record huge profits,” she added. 

According to data released to The Green News under Access to Information on the Environment (AIE) Regulations, 12.5 million tonnes of coal were imported into Ireland between 2011 and 2018, almost 90 per cent of which came from Colombia. 

In turn, two-thirds of this supply (7.5 million tonnes) came from Cerrejón. 

Members of the Sintracarbon workers union held a months-long strike last year against the Cerrejón Coal Company and claimed the mine was attempting to reduce the workforce, impose potentially dangerous new shift patterns, and reduce, or end, several employee benefits. 

Cerrejón coal workers on strike in 2020 photo: Sintracarbon

ESB response 

While acknowledging that it purchased coal from the Cerrejón mine in the past, the ESB has said it did not purchase coal from the site in 2019 and 2020. 

In a statement regarding today’s development, the semi-state body confirmed that between 2015 and 2018, it purchased just over two per cent of the coal mine’s output. 

The ESB also cited the fact that it is a member of Bettercoal, who conducted an assessment of Cerrejón. 

Bettercoal found that the mine fully met 15 out of 31 elements of criteria in relation to human rights, workers’ rights, ethics, community engagement, and the environment. 

A further 12 elements of criteria were found to be substantially met, according to the assessment. 

“We are committed to remaining vigilant on all of these issues and we will continue to engage with Bettercoal to exert influence and drive improvements. As a matter of course we bring such issues to Bettercoal for their assessment,” the ESB said. 

The semi-state also noted that coal electricity generation has declined “significantly” over recent years and has committed to stopping practice no later than 2025. 

In a statement addressing the complaint filings, Cerrejón said it is in regular contact with communities close to the mine and added that it goes “beyond the requirements set out in Colombian law and are a commitment by the mine to listen and respond to community concerns.”

Cerrejón has also previously told media that there is “no relationship at all between Cerrejón’s activities and the death of any activist” and that the mine implements, “leading international social and human rights standards”. 

About the Author

Kayle Crosson