August 24, 2006

NB Power's Problems Inside the World's Largest Coal Mine

NB Power’s problems inside the world’s largest coal mine

Chris Arsenault encounters people and places within Colombia’s alleged “blood coal” industry

Colombia, RioAche - Touring the world's largest coal mine in an air-conditioned mini-bus feels more like a jaunt through the country club than an investigation of a company allegedly profiting from 'blood coal'.

The Cerrejon mine, on Colombia's parched north western La Guarija peninsula, provides 16 per cent of NB Power's coal. Activists in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, New England and Colombia accuse the mine of displacing hundreds of poor farmers as it expanded with the world's insatiable appetite for fossil fuels.

At the mine, my driver whooshes past a swimming pool, tennis courts, palm tree crested walkways, and a social club for the 1,800 employees who live and work at the sprawling site.

The company houses are nicer than any dwellings I've seen in this region; a far cry from the over-priced squalid abodes which Atlantic Canadian coal conglomerates forced upon their workers in the early 20th century, when coal was still king.

"This is the same kind of high-tech, capital intensive mining one would see in South Africa or Canada. We directly employ more than 4,000 people," said Edgar Sarmineto, a senior Cerrejon official who led me on an exclusive two-hour tour of the facility.

But the mine's massive bulldozers and reforestation projects bury some dark secrets.

"We lost everything because of the mine. Not just our cows, yuca (a root vegetable) and bananas, but our whole way of life," said Juan Galvan who lived in the farming town of Caracoline before it was destroyed by the mine in 1994. Currently, Galdvan, his wife Rufina Epinayu and their six children rent a two bedroom hovel in a barrio outside Hato Nuevo, a small town on the La Guarija Peninsula.

Galvan nods with embarrassment when asked if the children ever go hungry.

Some former villagers were compensated by the mine for their property, although they say the mine didn't negotiate fairly, posing take-it-or- leave-it offers in sums far below the land's market value. Others, like the Galdvan family say they received nothing.

For displaced farmers and many others, La Guarija isn't an easy place to find gainful employment.

The Galdvan family eeks out a living selling a thick, sweet corn beverage to passersbys.

Sarmineto, the senior mine official, is a hometown boy, born 45 minutes from Cerrejon. He studied Mechanical Engineering at a University in Bogotá and got solid job at Cerrejon: high wages, benefits and stability in a labor market defined by precarity.

Gentle, with a shiny bald head, Sarmineto worked his way up in the company.

As we walk past welders blowing blue flames repairing three-story-high dump trucks and employees getting off shift, workers stop Sarmineto for a friendly handshake or genuine slap on the back.

" Mistakes have been made in the past. We are working to be better community partners," said Sarmineto, referring to the displaced communities.

"We are under the understanding that negotiations with the farmers are on-going and we certainly encourage the parties to come to a fair and equitable agreement," said Brian Duplessis, an NB power spokesperson.

Cerrejon has won several awards for environmental protection and strong safety practices.

But according to some villagers in Chancleta, Pantilla and Roche, villages near the mine which will eventually be moved, Cerrejon is still treacherous when acquiring territory.

"People from the mine have been threatening me to leave and they're stealing my cattle," said Tomas Ustatie, while milking his cows in Roche.

Two men on horseback, who don't live in the community, watch our conversation closely. Ustatie says they are goons paid by the mine to eavesdrop on community members and create problems.

At Cerrejon, Sarmiento admits the mine hires private citizens, i.e. vigilantes, to watch property and garner information. "This is a very large site and there is a lot going on here with the Guerrillas and other problems. We need to keep informed." Sarmiento says he will look into Mr. Ustatie's allegations that Cerrejon's snoops are stealing his cows.

Riding in a pick-up on a public road near Chancleta, a village threatened with displacement, we stop to take some pictures of mine trucks carrying loads of coal. A Cerrejon employee waves at me to quit it, so I snap a couple more shots and jump back in the Ford.

About 30 minutes later we are driving in Hato Nuevo, a town about 20km from Chancleta, when a military truck stops us. A soldier with a big machine gun, who couldn't have been older than 21, says it's forbidden to take pictures of mining operations. My driver protests, saying we were well within the law shooting photos on public land, but the solider persists and demands the roll of film from my camera.

It's obvious we're not going anywhere until he gets what he wants, so I pass over my digital and he methodically deletes all shots involving the mine. We shake hands, and he returns to the patrol truck.

There is no debate that the military is at Cerrejon's beck and call. Workers from the mine called the army upon seeing us and soldiers were dispatched.

There aren't precise figures for the number of people displaced since the mine was built in 1976. But, it's almost certainly less than the number of people directly employed by the mine.

Some might argue that the destruction of Tabaco and Caracoline, small towns with at most a couple hundred families each, was a tragic necessity; a small loss for the greater good of Colombia's economy.

But there is no need for vulgar calculations to solve this equation.

Cerrejon raked in hundreds of millions of dollars in profit last year.

They can easily afford to move the Galvan family and a few hundred others to farms as good or better than the ones the company destroyed.

All of Cerrejun's coal is exported, so the company will listen to pressure from its purchasers in Canada, the U.S. and Europe.

"People (in New Brunswick) should go on strike from buying coal, or at least raise the issue with their companies," said Juan Galdvan. "They haven't listened to us, I think they will be more likely to listen to you."

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