COVID-19 raises the stakes for environmental activists in Colombia
The Indigenous Wayuu people have long battled the Cerrejón coal mine. Now a shortage of water and spike in disease are pushing the community to seek international help.
Lise Josefsen Hermann is a Danish journalist based in Ecuador. Her work has appeared with the BBC, The New York Times, Al Jazeera, and Vice, among other outlets.
Nicoló Filippo Rosso is an Italian photographer living in Colombia. His work has been published and exhibited internationally and earned a World Press Photo Award in 2020.
This story originally featured on Undark.
Luz Ángela Uriana’s voice trembled as she described the COVID-19 situation in her region. “We are really scared,” she said in a phone call. “There are many cases in our neighboring town.” Worried in particular about her son, who has lung issues, she added that she and others “want Cerrejón to stop activities while this illness is around. And the people working in the mine come from elsewhere, that is a risk too. Cerrejón is not protecting us.”
Uriana is an activist and member of the Wayuu, an Indigenous people of northern Colombia and Venezuela. A group of them have called upon the United Nations to intervene in their struggle against the owners of one of the biggest coal mines in the world, called Cerrejón, which is located on the Guajira Peninsula near the Venezuelan border—and smack 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 COVID-19 emergency is exacerbating the situation itself,” says Monica Feria-Tinta, a U.K.-based attorney for the law firm Twenty Essex, which is assisting in the Wayuu’s appeal. According to data, she says, air pollution is worsening the situation. The shortage of water for hand washing also makes it difficult to prevent disease spread.
“That is the reason that pushed the Wayuu to appeal to the U.N., she adds. “It is a matter of survival—of not being wiped out.”
The battle pits members of the Wayuu—the largest Indigenous group in Colombia—against the owners of the 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 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.
Cerrejón, which vigorously disputes the water-usage and environmental charges, had earlier slowed operations during Colombia’s nationwide quarantine, but resumed normal operations in May. The appeal on behalf of the Wayuu to human rights officials at the U.N. was filed last month.
Whether the U.N. will have any standing to intervene in the case remains unclear. But with large percentages of the Wayuu already struggling with poor health and malnutrition, activists for the community—including Uriana—say the persistent risk of COVID-19 infections amid so many other environmental insults is one threat too many.
“We breathe polluted air 24 hours a day,” Uriana says. With coal dust all around, she says, “we eat it, we sleep with it.”
The La Guajira region now has 1,578 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and rates are rising quickly. Eighty-one people with Covid-19 have died in La Guajira. Speaking to the Colombian media earlier this month, Nemesio Roys Garzón, the governor of the region, appealed to federal officials in Bogotá. “Everything has been carried out with the government’s own resources and those of the various mayors,” he said. “For this reason, we cannot continue waiting, because we are putting the lives of Los Guajiros at risk.”
The connection between air pollution and greater risk of death due to COVID-19 has received some empirical analysis. Several studies, including one from Harvard University researchers released as a pre-print in April, ahead of peer review, suggested that people living in US regions with high exposure levels to air pollution from cars, refineries, and power plants—particularly microscopic airborne particles known as PM2.5—may have a higher risk of death from COVID-19 infections than people living in areas with comparatively cleaner air. It is also widely understood that people with pre-existing health conditions, including lung and heart ailments, face a greater risk from the pandemic.
The Wayuu, meanwhile, are already famously impoverished, with high rates of malnutrition and disease. Out of one million people in La Guajira, some 53 percent live in poverty, with the rate rising to more than 80 percent in rural areas. Nearly 30 percent of people over 15 are illiterate—the highest rate in the country. In a December judgment, the Constitutional Court of Colombia cited clinical records showing many Wayuu suffer from a host of illnesses, including bronchial asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), bacterial pneumonia, lower respiratory infections, and acute obstructive laryngitis.
Just how much of this can be attributed to mining activity is a matter of fierce debate. A comprehensive environmental study by the Institute for Development and Peace Studies (Indepaz), a non-governmental organization based in Bogotá, for example, found high levels of heavy metal contamination in local soil and water samples, as well as high levels of airborne particulate matter around the area of Cerrejón. While the study determined that the mine was a contributor to local pollution and should be better regulated, however, it could not conclusively link the high contamination levels to mining activities, and acknowledged that industrial, agricultural, and urban activities in the region were also contributing to pollution. In a response to the report, included as an annex, Cerrejón officials called into question, among other things, the group’s testing methodologies and equipment.
Still, the mine has been censured repeatedly, including in December, when the Constitutional Court concluded that mining activity was directly affecting the health of the Indigenous people and the surrounding environment. The court also cited research, spearheaded by Colombia’s Sinú University and the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil, that found the air around Cerrejón to be measurably contaminated with coal dust and blood tests of the local population to have high concentrations of several heavy metals.
As reported by El Espectador, Colombia’s oldest newspaper, the court ordered Cerrejón “to control the levels of particulate matter which their activities emit and which contaminate the air; to clean up the houses in the community of all the coal dust, a residual that is part of mining; to reduce the levels of noise produced at the site; to prevent the contamination of water sources, and to increase their efforts at fire prevention, along with other measures.” The court was responding to a suit filed by Indigenous representatives against Cerrejón, the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development, the Ministry of Health and Social Protection, the National Environmental Licensing Authority, the National Mining Agency, and the Autonomous Regional Corporation of La Guajira.
The mine has been sanctioned at least 17 times for its impact on the Wayuu, according to El Espectator.
Government officials did not respond to repeated requests to discuss the case with Undark, nor to comment on the recent complaint filed with the U.N. Representatives of Cerrejón also declined to comment directly, but in a prepared statement, issued in June 18, the company said it was “ready and willing to offer information to the different United Nations agencies to whom the report was directed to provide details about the company’s social and environmental performance.”
The statement also pointed to the company’s efforts to support neighboring ethnic communities—both before and during the COVID-19 crisis. While characterizing the complaint to the U.N. as based on “inaccurate and biased information about Cerrejón’s social and environmental performance, including completely false data on the company´s water use and air quality,” the company said it “shares concerns about the wellbeing of the Wayuu Indigenous communities,” and that it has spent millions of dollars in recent years supporting educational initiatives, job training, infrastructure projects, and bottled water distribution initiatives in the region.
Amid the COVID-19 crisis, Cerrejón “has redirected its voluntary social investment of nearly $2.4 million to the health system in La Guajira,” the company said in its statement. “We have donated more than 100,000 medical supplies to local hospitals, including three ventilators and a laboratory to process [polymerase chain reaction] molecular tests … [and] we have been able to significantly scale up our water distribution program resulting in the delivery of more than 12 million liters of potable water to communities.”
“We refute strongly the allegations and the insinuation that we have acted inappropriately,” the statement added, “both in general and during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
As it stands, much of the coal from Cerrejón is destined for markets in the Mediterranean, Europe, and the Americas. But the Wayuu are divided over the impact of mine’s operations. It is, after all, an enormous economic driver for La Guajira—accounting for as much as 44 percent of regional GDP, according to the company’s own figures—and many Wayuu rely on the mine for employment.
“The statements and complaints mentioned by the foreign lawyers only represent the position of two families and not of the entire community or its duly elected authorities representing the members of the community,” reads an official letter signed by, among others, the Indigenous leader Oscar Guariyu Uriana. (Luz Ángela said he is a distant relative of hers, and Uriana is a common surname among the Wayuu.) The statement adds: “The Provincial Community authorities have preferred to maintain direct dialogue with the company to resolve existing concerns about the effects of the mine’s proximity.”
But Luz Ángela Uriana blames the mine for discord among the Wayuu, too. “Cerrejón has all the time created this division between us,” she says. “But we should focus on the big White enemy instead of being enemies among our own people, our own family.
Uriana adds that while she is not against development, “the money from Cerrejón cannot make my son’s lungs healthy again.”
Feria-Tinta, the attorney representing the Wayuu at the U.N., says that whatever the economic value of the Cerrejón mine, it hasn’t amounted to aggregate positive change for Indigenous communities in Colombia. As part of the U.N. complaint, Feria-Tinta and the Wayuu community members she represents say the Cerrejón mine uses as much as 24 million liters, or more than 6.3 million gallons, of water each day. Amid shortages of bottled drinking water due to the pandemic, the company has also contaminated local drinking water supplies, which are already under stress, the advocates say—charges that Cerrejón representatives and government officials have repeatedly said are baseless.
Whatever the reality, Feria-Tinta says the presence of the mine over the past few decades has done little to improve the lot of those most living closest to it. “The mine has not benefitted the Wayuu people. They are dying and affected by disease,” she notes. “Guajira is second poorest region in the country, and Cerrejón hasn’t changed that.”
Rosa Maria Mateus, a member of the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers Collective of Colombia (CAJAR), which is assisting in the U.N. case, agrees. “The company has sold itself as a benefactor that supports the region. But reality shows something else.”
La Guajira, she adds, is “a region of sacrifice.”
The arrival of COVID-19, advocates for the Wayuu say, is now making that doubly true. “We presented the petition to the U.N. in this COVID-19 context because we feel a deep and serious fear,” Mateus says. “Scientific reports point out how there are populations more vulnerable and prone to a higher mortality, for the virus to kill them.
“If it spreads widely in Guajira,” she adds, “we are very scared, because a large percentage of the population already have existing diseases, especially lung diseases.”
The U.N. complaint is asking for the closure of the two pits nearest to the Wayuu village of Provincial. David R. Boyd, a U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Environment, confirmed that the U.N. had received the complaint, but said he could not comment further. Attorneys for the Wayuu say they expect a response from the U.N. sometime this month.
Uriana, meanwhile, has little positive to say about the most important multinational company operating in her region. “I am not against mining or that the country progresses. But they should respect the rights of the Indigenous communities.
“We are like ants against the big and powerful Cerrejón,” she adds. “But we have dignity.”