Three decades of coal mining in northern Colombia have had devastating effects in two states in the country’s Caribbean region, as a new documentary shows.
The short, produced by the prominent El Espectador daily newspaper, portrays some of the ways in which large-scale coal mining has affected the lives of people living in 10 different villages in the northeastern states of Cesar and La Guajira and draws connections to national mining policy and its implications for the future.
As various human rights organizations, including the United Nations, have previously established, communities living in close proximity to so-called mega-mining operations face a litany of chronic social and environmental issues, including intense poverty, disease, displacement, and the contamination of their air, water and soil.
Mining has led to some development in these regions, but the costs outweigh the benefits for local residents. Because of how royalties are allocated, the relatively small revenue the national government receives from mining activity is not distributed to the states that support it.
Initially, mining presented the “dream of a better life […] but [local families] ended up disappointed,” said one resident in Cesar.
Another resident featured on the documentary spoke of being forced from his home, a common situation in the states in question, and one tied both to the environmental impacts of mining and the paramilitary and neo-paramilitary groups active in the region, many of which have proven links to mining companies.
“Mining changed my life quickly providing me with employment […] but it took things away from my life as it has affected my health,” said the ex-miner from Cesar.
In some cases, residents are still waiting for locally based mining companies to comply with government mandates dating back to 2010 ordering the relocation of villagers to areas with permissible air pollution levels.
Even those residents who have been relocated often find it difficult to adapt to their new surroundings and way of life.
“Not only did they take out land but also our territory, our identity,” said Maria Martinez, a community leader in Hatillo, Cesar, one of three villages waiting to be relocated.
Colombia is Latin America’s largest producer of coal and the fourth largest exporter worldwide. Major mining companies active in the country, all of which are foreign-based, provide hundreds of millions of dollars to the government in taxes and royalties each year.
Critics point out, however, that the so-called “stake take” is relatively low, and fails to take into account the social costs conveyed in the documentary and lingering environmental effects of extraction, which can be impossible to quantify.
Cesar Secretary of Mining Pedro Diaz talks on camera at one point about the trade-off of mining policy, saying that “mining like politics is a necessary evil.”