In a fight over a Colombian coal mine, Covid-19 raises the stakes.
A group of activists from Wayuu, an Indigenous people of northern Colombia and Venezuela, have called upon the United Nations to intervene in their struggle against the owners of one of the biggest coal mines in the world. The mine, called Cerrejón, is located on the Guajira Peninsula near the Venezuelan border, right in the middle of Wayuu ancestral territory. The region has long been wracked by grinding poverty, drought, and, since the advent of large-scale production at Cerrejón, critics say, noxious pollution.
Now, as the global Covid-19 pandemic bears down on Colombia, the Wayuu are facing a new threat — one made exponentially worse, Uriana and others say, by the pervasive coal dust and drought. They have appealed to numerous U.N. officials, including the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, in a quest to have some of Cerrejón’s mining activities suspended.
The battle pits members of the Wayuu — the largest Indigenous group in Colombia — against the owners of one of the largest coal mines in the world, and at over 270 square miles, the largest open-pit coal mine in all of Latin America. The mine — owned jointly by global giants BHP (Britain-Australia), Anglo American (South Africa), and Glencore (Britain) — employs more than as 5,800 people, according to the facility’s own figures, and it has done much to support education and health services in the region over the years. But conflict with the local community, arising from both the pollution as well as infrastructure decisions that, the Wayuu say, have favored Cerrejón’s water needs over their own, have become more pitched with the arrival of Covid-19.
Luz Ángela Uriana blames the mine for discord among the Wayuu, too. “Cerrejón has all the time created this division between us,” she said. “But we should focus on the big White enemy instead of being enemies among our own people, our own family. Uriana added that while she is not against development, “the money from Cerrejón cannot make my son’s lungs healthy again.”