Reflections on Mining in Colombia: When “Development” Creates Deprivation

By · August 13, 2007 · Save & Share

When the Make Poverty History campaign swept the globe two years ago, its message of debt relief, charity and development for the global South came with an impressive lineup of celebrity endorsements, but the credibility for this package of messages came from renowned economist Jeffrey Sachs. His publication The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time trendily re-packaged the issues in a way that made the international community take notice. But while many in the activist community seized the opportunity to breathe new life into campaigns for development and aid, Indian physicist and philosopher Vandana Shiva warned against the dangers of buying into Sachs’ analysis.

Citing Sachs’ view that those who suffer from poverty are simply those who have been left out of the wealth created by the industrial revolution, Shiva’s rebuttal constructs a simple yet radically different view of wealth and poverty that shakes the foundations of economic development orthodoxy. “Sachs doesn’t understand where poverty comes from,” she claims. “The poor are not those who have been ‘left behind’; they are the ones who have been robbed … it was this violent takeover of Third World resources and markets that created wealth in the North and poverty in the South.”

In the Guajira, a remote northern region of Colombia, Shiva’s lessons on the origin and perpetuation of poverty come to life with disturbing clarity. The Cerrejón Mine, the world’s largest open-pit coal mine, has throughout the course of its operations come into conflict with Afro-Colombian and Indigenous Wayuu communities whose existence and cultures have long depended on the lands and rivers. These livelihoods are now threatened because of the expansion of the mine’s coal-extracting operations.

As might be expected in such a situation, the multinational companies operating the Cerrejón have enjoyed a comfortable position of advantage over the local communities, orchestrating the destruction of the small Afro-Colombian town of Tabaco without any sincere attempt to facilitate a collective relocation for the dispossessed residents. For the remaining communities in the area, the fear of meeting the same fate is only part of the hardship of dealing with the encroaching open-pit mine. The suffocating dust from the operations, the pollution of the river that was once the life-blood of the villages, the lowering of the water table, the degradation of farmland and the harassment from mine-employed security forces serve as daily reminders that politicians and business leaders place profit from environmentally degrading activities such as mining above the well-being of people.

As far as politicians and economic development technocrats are concerned, the justification for projects like the Cerrejón Mine is that the “progress” brought to the Guajira by the the mine is measurable through indicators such as increased GDP and foreign investment, the creation of mining jobs, and the public relations-boosting social spending by the Cerrejón Foundation. In reality, the jobs have gone to outsiders and the investment in healthcare and education programming by the Cerrejón Foundation has occurred only in the Guajira’s main municipal seats Riohacha and Barrancas, well out of reach of the remote communities in the rural zones near the mine. Decent medical treatment for the array of skin and respiratory diseases incurred as a result of their close proximity to the mine is therefore out of the question for most villagers.

To add a final insult to injury, the Cerrejón Foundation makes their investment in different cultural projects very visible to the international community. The company has hired Wayuu indigenous representatives and claims to be engaging in activities that enrich Wayuu culture, such as assisting with the printing of a dictionary in the Wayuunaiki language. However, when it comes to the areas of culture that come into conflict with its mining interests, the company goes so far as to ignore and deny the very existence of local cultures and their significance.

In the company’s Environmental Impact Statement, the company did everything it could through the tools of language to degrade and downplay the Wayuu and Afro-Colombian cultures by claiming, “The human settlements in the study area are not well developed. … The only population along the railroad line is Uribia, which is a small indigenous community with a primitive infrastructure.” Thus, by dismissing these communities as small, isolated, and insignificant, the company could justify their inevitable destruction as an acceptable casualty of its mining operations.

The company’s portrayals of the peoples and communities as insignificant and expendable have dominated discourse on the situation in the Guajira throughout the development of the mine over the past three decades. Lacking the Cerrejón’s public relations and communications budget, local communities have had to work much harder to get their side of the story heard beyond their remote region, both to mainstream Colombian society and to the broader international community. Nevertheless, villagers from the Wayuu community of Tamaquitos, along with the Afro-Colombian communities of Chancleta, Roche, Patilla and the already-destroyed Tabaco, have been struggling to organize in resistance to the advances of the mine.

Emilio Pérez, a former resident of Tabaco, spoke of life there before the people were forcibly removed and the land swallowed by the mine. “Life was rich, we shared, and no one suffered because we shared what we had,” he explained. “There was a river near the town. We had land. We walked freely all over the territory. But the last nine years we have had no land to work. We are displaced, and we have no lodging.”

The president of the Chancleta neighborhood council, Wilman Palmezano, echoes Pérez’s sentiments when discussing his own community, which is being threatened with a similar fate as that of Tabaco. “I would like to give you an idea of our history. We lived here in peace as very productive communities before the damages began from mining,” he said. “In the 1980s, the company started buying up land and today we have nowhere left to sow crops, nowhere to put our animals. We’ve gone from being a productive community to a community of paupers.”

Their stories, when heard, are a powerful testament and antidote to the Cerrejón’s propaganda tagline “Coal for the world, progress for Colombia.” Eder Arregoces, president of Chancleta’s community action council, commented, “There’s been talk of coal for the world and progress for Colombia. If that is so, we ask, to what country do our towns of Chancleta, Roche and Tabaco belong? It may be one of the largest coal mines in Latin America but most families here can eat only one meal a day.”

Unfortunately, the situation in the Guajira is not simply an isolated case of a corporation acting unethically, either in Colombia or in the rest of the global South. Indeed, it epitomizes the very model of so-called development that the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, along with numerous other international institutions, think tanks, and influential national governments, hoist upon countries of the global South, often using those governments’ massive debts as leverage.

Their “solutions” have led to an exacerbation of poverty, which is not entirely surprising since their prescriptions are aimed at increasing economic indicators that more closely follow the profit levels of corporations than the actual well-being of people. Herein lies the fatal flaw of this model: increasing the profits of foreign investments depends on weakening the governmental regulations that protect people from the predatory actions that disrupt well-established communities and cultures of self-sustainability.

If we in the countries of the global North are sincere about honoring the good intentions behind the Making Poverty History campaign, we first must do a much more honest assessment of our own role in the systems that create poverty in the first place. As the plight of the communities in the Guajira illustrates, it is unacceptable to pursue the outright destruction of sustainable cultures in favor of benefiting an ecologically moribund industry that creates jobs in the short term. At its most fundamental level, economic development policy should first do no harm. And, as Shiva points out in reference to the North’s “charitable” efforts to alleviate poverty in the South, “It’s not about how much more we can give, so much as how much less we can take.”

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