Local Colombians call it "The Monster." El Cerrejon is the biggest open-cast coal mine in Latin America, and one of the biggest in the world. It is owned by the Swiss company Glencore. It sprawls across more than 69,000 hectares, an area the size of 100 soccer fields, and gulps down 30 million liters of water every day in the barren semi-desert of Colombia's second-poorest department, La Guajira. In return, it assuages the global hunger for coal by producing 30 million tonnes of it per year.
Dulcy Cotes, one of the almost 700,000 indigenous Wayuu people, who live in Venezuela and north-eastern Colombia and a prominent member of the organization Fuerza de Mujeres Wayuu [Force of Wayuu Women], explains, "The transnational companies are suffocating us with their greed for profit."
The mine employs thousands of people, in a region where there are almost no other jobs and every second person lives in poverty.
Dulcy Cotes describes the back-breaking work they are made to do in the mine. "The people who are employed there work 12 hours at a stretch: the early shift from 6am till 6pm, or the night shift from 6pm to 6am They get sick from this, and from all the coal dust. It's maximum exploitation. If they fall ill and demand compensation, they have to sue for it; the company never pays of its own accord."
Human rights lawyer Rosa Maria Mateus Parra describes El Cerrejón's unpleasant story. Its grim chapters bear titles like: exploitation, expropriation, forced resettlement, expulsion, destruction, irreparable environmental damage. Furthermore, in recent years the childhood mortality rate has risen sharply.
Around 5,000 Wayuu children have died of starvation and thirst in the region around the mine. This horrifying figure even prompted the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to get involved.
"It's caused by the shortage of water, because rivers and streams are contaminated, or have dried up," Mateus Parra explains. "And the lack of food, because coal is now mined where indigenous communities grew their vegetables. Those children who survive have skin rashes and respiratory diseases because of the fine particle pollution. We've proved all of this in court."
"The provincial government of La Guajira is among the most corrupt in the country. And what we see coming out of Bogota is a political line that, in relation to economic and business interests, is one thing above all: subservient! No one examines it too closely when a company like Cerrejon Coal boasts that it is protecting fauna and flora and implementing reforestation, even though the reality is completely different." Mateus Parra says.
Stefan Ofteringer works in Colombia for Misereor, the aid organization of the Catholic Church, says, "On the one hand, there is this massive destruction. Then there is the huge quantity of fine particle pollution, both from mining and from the transportation of coal. And the earth tremors, and the noise from the daily blasting. Germany's Garzweiler mine [an open-cast lignite mine, one of the biggest in the country] is child's play in comparison."