Activist visits Ireland to highlight abuse at Colombian coal mine and Irish links to it

Jakeline Romero remembers how, as a small child, she sensed the excitement of people in her community that a mining company was coming to the area.

Activist visits Ireland to highlight abuse at Colombian coal mine and Irish links to it

Jakeline Romero remembers how, as a small child, she sensed the excitement of people in her community that a mining company was coming to the area.

For the small farmers of La Guajira in remote northern Colombia, just getting by was hard work. The land was good but the infrastructure was poor, public services scarce, incomes low and luxuries non-existent. It was hoped the company would create new jobs and opportunities that would help lift living standards generally.

But the Cerrejon coal mine didn't supplement their income - it supplanted their whole way of life.

Jakeline's uncle, Venancio, was one of the first to see what was happening. "He took work in the mine when it was setting up," says Jakeline.

I was just a child of six or seven but I remember him saying, and excuse my language, but he had a job cleaning the bathrooms and he said - 'this land belongs to us so why am I cleaning the gringo's shit?'

It was a cruel awakening for him - the realisation that the fertile land that fed the people was being swapped for coal and toilet blocks.

Venancio began to speak out and question whether any more land should be signed over to the mine. And then he disappeared.

His family do not accuse the company of involvement in his disappearance - any one of a number of groups or individuals may have decided he was a troublemaker who needed to be silenced.

But his niece is in Ireland to talk about how 34 years of the Cerrejon mine has utterly changed the lives of the people of La Guajira and in particular her own people, the Wayuu, the largest indigenous group in the region, and to appeal for help in closing it.

Invited by the Latin America Solidarity Centre as part of the group’s annual Latin America Week, her story has relevance for any country that is slow to wean itself off fossil fuels - but there is a particular link to Ireland.

The coal from the Cerrejon mine, one of the largest in the world at 690 square kilometres, is distributed solely through a company based in Dublin, CMC Coal Marketing, which had revenues of €2.4 billion in 2017.

One of its customers for many years has been the ESB which has bought millions of tonnes of coal for burning in the Moneypoint Power Plant.

That’s despite the pleas of human rights and environmental campaigners who have long highlighted concerns about human rights abuses, environmental degradation and the health effects of the mine.

Cerrejon denies their claims and can produce copious reports to show that it is in compliance with all laws and standards. The ESB says it is also satisfied with standards there.

In response to recent queries by this newspaper, Cerrejon stated that La Guajira was “arid semi-desert" and that “limitations in access to public services, education, health care and difficulties in governance are reflected in the high poverty rates”. It said agriculture made up just 5% of the economy.

The implication is that Cerrejon is the only source of productivity and prosperity in the region. Jakeline smiles and grimaces simultaneously at the company’s assessment of her homeland. “La Guajira was 60% agriculture before the mine - the mine reduced it to 5%," she says through an interpreter.

"And if the region is getting riches and tax revenues from the mine, why is it still the second poorest region in Colombia in terms of access to public services?”

She says life in La Guajira 30 years ago was completely different:

Being able to be on our own land, being able to produce our own food, having access to our own water - this is how it was.

The people blame the mine for the disappearance of almost 30 water sources, all tributaries of the Rancheria River, and for the pollution of others.

“Under the expansion plans, the mine also wants to dam the Palomino River. They are not doing that to provide better water access for the people.”

Lack of water is one of the reasons she says landowners were persuaded to sell their land. Some also lacked negotiation skills and entered deals they did not fully understand. Others, she says, were intimidated into it.

Those were just the individuals - entire communities have been moved to make way for the expansion of the mine and while Cerrejon says “resettlement is always a measure of last resort”, Jakeline says it normal practice for the mine. Once the land is given to the mine, there is no going back.

"There are new rules and laws on land use in La Guajira. The land is officially designated by the government as a mining region so the local policies and laws prohibit owners from selling land for agriculture and the government can’t invest in agriculture in the region."

Those who object can expect intimidation. Mining areas are heavily militarised and paramilitaries are also allowed operate with little restriction:

We don’t know who took my uncle, if it was military or paramilitary. It was terrible because, for the Wayuu, the rituals around death are very important but we never found him.

Venancio is just one of many community leaders to be killed or disappeared in Colombia. In the last three years alone, 400 activists have been murdered.

Jakeline is acutely aware of the dangers. As spokeswoman for Fuerza de Mujeres Mayuu, the Wayuu Women’s Force, she has received numerous threats and she wishes it was only she who received them: “When women speak out, the threats are different. They will not come and shoot me in the head like they might do to a man. They make threats through your children.”

Jakeline has been told that her two daughters, now aged 20 and 16, are at risk from her activities. “They even told me they will disappear my mother,” she says.

She chose to gather women in particular to the cause because she says their maternal instinct is to protect: “Mother earth is like the one who gave birth to all of us."

She feels strongly the need to protect mother earth from the "violence" of environmental degradation.

She also feels that women have struggled to have their voices heard in male-dominated governments, local authorities and security forces and that their struggle mirrors that of mother earth.

Jakeline's family and friends are understandably nervous for her. “People tell me I should not go out of the house,” she says.

"But also my family inspires me and keeps me going. They tell me that I am not alone and now that we're in this struggle we must continue. The way I see it, if I'm silent, they've done the damage to me, they have won."

Jakeline is giving a public talk in University College Cork tomorrow (Tues, April 9) from 6.30-8pm in the O'Rahilly Building, Room G27. Full details of Latin America Week are on

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