Disturbing health abnormalities afflicting various towns in northern Colombia stem from the communities’ close proximity to the Cerro Matoso open-cast mine, according to environmental and health activists in the region.
A recent segment from newscast Noticias Uno affirms longtime fears that the mine, the fourth largest producer of nickel on the planet, poses grave health risks to local communities.
A video on the independent news station’s website showed residents of the nearby town of Flechas, whose bodies, in what is a troubling pattern among indigenous Senu peoples in the area surrounding Cerro Matoso, are riddled with various degenerative maladies that lead to, among other things, hair and nail loss.
Camilo Eusebeio Gomez, a doctor and lawyer specializing in labor issues, explained that recent studies have found hugely elevated levels of nickel and silice in the roofs of the community’s houses. The town’s fields, which grow the straw the locals use to make the iconic vueltiao hats they ship across Colombia, were also found to be contaminated with dangerous amounts of chemicals.
Genetics expert Milton Quintana called individuals with cellular levels of nickel as high as those observed in residents of Flechas and other neighboring communities “totally invaded by toxic chemicals.”
“All of these populations,” he said, “are prone to contract every type of illness, including, I repeat, cancer. Each new generation deriving from this area is susceptible, and will grow up with altered genetic material.”
By “altered genetic material,” Quintana is referring to his latest research findings, published Monday by the Science of the Total Environment journal. In the study, which claims to be the first to test the longitudinal effects of mining labor in Colombia, workers in the El Cerrejon open-pit coal mine in northern Guajira were found to possess significantly elevated levels of genotoxins — compounds that lead to breakdowns and mutations in genetic makeup — high enough to produce any number of debilitating health problems.
Cerro Matoso specializes in nickel production, not coal, but the Fourth Annual Report on Carcinogens, whose findings Quintana’s research builds on, asserts that prolonged exposure to nickel can be equally dangerous as prolonged exposure to carbon derivatives. Measurements of nickel taken from around Cerro Matoso have returned figures grossly exceeding what is considered safe by experts.
Reports of damaging chemical exposure from the Cerro Matoso mine are nothing new. Among those who have worked the mine since its inception in the 1980’s, a shocking majority have developed crippling and often fatal medical conditions, including lung cancer and deafness.
Last year, a local teacher told Semana magazine that “the majority of [her] 120 students come [to school] everyday with interminable colds and rashes.” Residents, who pride themselves on stoically bearing hardship, have complained to local activists for years that dust and scum from the mine is carried by the wind and rain and works its way into their hair, skin, eyes, clothing, homes, fields and drinking water.
The company that owns Cerro Matoso, Australian mining giant BHP Billiton, recently had its contract with the government expanded through 2029 in what was a controversially secret process at the time. The company, however, saw its most request to expand mining operations denied last month on environmental grounds, a ruling it has said it plans to contest hotly.
In a statement sent to Noticias Uno, spokesmen for the world’s largest mining firm had this to say about Monday’s feature: “The company rejects categorically any accusations regarding health impacts on the neighboring communities. To the contrary, public health reports (…) describe the illnesses present in these communities as being consistent with [those facing] other communities on the Atlantic Coast.”
BHP has been a subject of much debate in Colombia, as it has made over $21 billion since its arrival in the country but payed only $1.5 billion in royalties to the Colombian government. The company, which registers annual profits of $800 million from the Cerro Matoso mine alone, invests just $1.5 million in local development each year.
Location of the Cerro Matoso mine
- Expertos aseguran que la población aledaña a Cerro Matoso sufre de graves problemas de salud (Noticias Uno)
- Cerro Matoso insistira en su pretension de expandir explotacion (El Espectador)
- Cerro Matoso, la mina de discordia (Semana)
- Cerro Matoso: mina rica, pueblo pobre (Semana)
- Assessment of DNA damage in coal open-cast mining workers using the cytokinesis-blocked micronucleus test and the comet assay (BioPortfolio)