Posted October 4th 2010 at 3:55 pm by
in Coal Industry: Kentucky to Colombia, Colombia

“The coal industry sold us the illusion that the mines were going to bring development.”

KTFC Cari_Small Cari documenting someone’s story from Tabacco. Photo by Kentuckians for the Commonwealth (KFTC).

Listening to residents from so called “coal fields” speak, the same sentiments arise repeatedly:

“They have bought out our officials!”

“Companies can respect the rights of workers, but they just aren’t…”

“These companies do not fulfill their responsibility to people’s rights.”

“What [the company] is doing, is against the law.”

“[The industry] sold us the illusion, the mines were going to bring development.”

“We’re basically giving them the wealth of our land.”

“They do not respect our environment or our history.”

As a resident of Appalachia, a region that is being exploited and sacrificed for coal, these quotes sound very familiar, but they did not come from my state, my region, nor even my country. They were all expressed by citizens of affected communities in Colombia, where the battle against coal is far younger, but no less intense nor destructive.

Despite the coal industry’s dirty history, it touts itself as a sort of savior in both Appalachia and Colombia, promising prosperity, jobs, and progress to impoverished areas where economic options are sometimes limited.

Traveling through Colombia, our delegation sometimes passed long rows of simple housing structures, in varied degrees of collapse. Many people were living in poverty, and we were told that their economic options were limited. More than one resident expressed their dismay that Colombians had been promised economic and social growth by the coal industry, yet the companies had failed to deliver any such thing.

Again and again we were told, “…they promised us prosperity.” One resident said of the unfulfilled promise years ago…[the industry] sold us the illusion, the mines were going to bring development. We haven’t seen social, economic, or cultural development. Diseases, prostitution, crime, delinquency, corruption in government have all been increased by the mine, so yes, we’ve seen some development.” Another local told us, “They take our capital for their benefit,  our resources, heritage, patrimony, what is ours, they are taking it from us! We’re basically giving them the wealth of our land.” Still another expressed the belief that they should be “…the richest town in all of Colombia, we live in utter misery. About twenty communities live in a way that is inhumane.”

Mining companies such as Cerrejon and Drummond, have been displacing members of Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, sometimes violently and forcibly. The Indigenous Wayuu people of Tomaquito, who once had access to 5,000 hectares of land, are now limited to a mere ten, due to nearby mining operations. Driven out by encroaching pollution, and the loss of resources and land, the residents are awaiting relocation by the company, Cerrejon. During their negotiations, the people asked for only 500 hectares of land, which is ten times less than what they once laid claim to, and yet the company denied this request. The community’s second request was for 300 hectares, which was originally declined, as well.

The people of Tomaquito do not use electricity, no one in the community works for the company, they have a deep connection to the land on which they are living- it is home to them – and will now be moved to a strange land that will be somewhere between sixteen and seventeen times smaller than their original communities.  So, where is the profit for them? Like the Wayuu, many other communities are full of residents who feel they had been dealing with the sacrifices, but reaping few if any benefits.

Colombian miners are not fairing much better financially. According to workers, they are only paid minimum wage, which is barely enough to support their families, and the very lives that they put on the line every day they work in the mines.

Not only has coal failed to be the economic salvation of the region, but the destructive mining activities are threatening other local industries and economic possibilities. Traditional agricultural and fishing industries have suffered as a result of pollution, and workers’ limited and severed access to the land. Coal-related water pollution has caused the fish population to dwindle, and mining officials sometimes block access to once utilized waterways, due to companies’ questionable claims of land ownership. One gentleman told us that they were “not allowed to go to our own rivers, where we got to gather fish. The army doesn’t allow us to enter.”

KTFC Cari 2_Small Cerrejon mine engineer talking to KFTC on a reclaimed mine site. Photo by KFTC.

To the industry’s credit, I must concede that it has resulted in profits for some such as the head of the industry and politicians.  In Appalachia, it’s a well-known fact that many of our local politicians are financially supported by the coal industry, and some are even coal industry employees. According to many residents, a similar situation exists in Colombia. Several people complained that the companies were using their profits to manipulate the government and break workers’ unions by buying off union leaders, members, and local legislators.  Some of these leaders abandoned their positions, or used their authority to benefit the industry, but others declined the bribes, finding a higher purpose in their appointed position.

The president of one community told us that someone from the mines had offered him money, but he did not trust their intentions, and declined. “The job of being president of a community is a non-profit job,” he explained. He said he had to “negotiate the rights and welfare of the community against the company. It made no sense that I’d receive a salary from the company,” though he added, “Other elected officials were not opposed to it.” In fact, he said the mining company had bought out most of the officials in his community.

The industry has failed as an economic savior in both Appalachia and Colombia, but their claims aren’t limited to mere finances. They also claim the ability to trump God and Mother Nature, by “allegedly” improving upon the natural environment. In Appalachia, the industry claims to “create” habitat for fish and wildlife in what is already an extremely bio-diverse region, by bombing the land into greater fertility. I like to call it the coal company’s big bang theory.

In Colombia, I was reminded of this when a scientist working on a reclamation site for Cerrejon, assured me that the loss of ephemeral streams was trivial, and other changes in the environment  such as alteration in topography, and extreme change in the soil’s absorbency were beneficial. One reclaimed site thirstily drank seventy percent of the rainfall, but had previously absorbed only thirty percent.

I know that I’m not as well educated in the area of science as the reclamation worker who specialized in it, but I’ve been under the impression that one of the most basic rules of science is that all life is suited to its environment, as a result of natural selection and the process of evolution. One of the common claims of religion, is that all life is suited to its environment due to God’s divine plan. Either way, the bottom line is the same: All life is suited to its natural environment. The reclamation worker isn’t to blame for the state of the land, because he did not destroy it.  He merely tried to repair the land,  but clearly, it is not the original and natural state of that ecosystem, and therefore it is inferior. I am personally of the opinion that people cannot improve upon the work of God, nor countless years of natural selection, and many community members in Colombia seemed to feel the same way, but the coal company apparently disagrees.

During a meeting I attended with the mining company Cerrejon, one industry official who apparently did not grasp having a sense of place or dignity, claimed the houses being built for displaced residents of La Roche, were better than what they had to begin with. There’s that word again: better. These companies promise residents they will make everything better: better economies, better communities, better environment, better quality of life. Yet, I am confused as to how a person can offer someone something better than what they have, if they do not even understand the value systems of the people to whom they are speaking.

Many residents expressed pain at having to leave the land they felt such a deep connection with, and the residents of Tomaquito, having a belief in spirits, are worried that the spirits in the new land will not be as accepting of them, as the spirits that are familiar with their presence. These concepts are probably completely foreign to the people who sit at the head of these companies. You cannot promise a person better, until you know what that means to them. In 1540, when Francisco Vasquez de Coronado invaded indigenous villages in New Mexico searching for the seven cities of gold, he wrote of the inhabitants, “As far as I can tell, these Indians worship water, because it makes the corn grow and sustains their life.” His priority was the mineral, gold, but to them, it was simply, water. Today, the coveted resource threatening Appalachia and many Colombian communities is coal, but the companies seeking it don’t seem to understand, that the communities they are robbing have values of their own, and some of us are of the belief that coal is not our greatest resource.

We might not think of the coal industry as a god, but we sometimes treat it as if it were. While they promise us economic salvation and a better life, we sacrifice more and more, even the health and lives of other people, hoping to see the fruition of that promise. Yet, it seems we have already glimpsed their promised land. It can be seen in patches of Appalachia and Colombia- a lifeless, unwelcoming, place, where the waters and the people are being poisoned, a place of sometimes shocking violence, devoid of morality and humanity.

Cari Moore was born and raised in Garner of Knott County, Kentucky.  She is a student at Hazard Community College seeking a degree in English and Psychology.  “I got involved with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth because I agree with the issues the group stands for, but specifically because KFTC works on Mountain Top Removal issues.  I’m concerned about the environment; my family has been in these hills for generations.  The hills are our heritage and I can’t stand by and see the destruction of my land.”

One response to ““The coal industry sold us the illusion that the mines were going to bring development.””

  1. Alexa Mills says:

    Dear Cari,

    Thank you for this thoughtful post. You really gave me a feel for what it was like for a Kentuckian to visit this region of Colombia. I wonder if there is any region in the world where a community is able to have a productive relationship with its coal mine. Is there any model practice, anywhere?

    I am wondering if you know whether this region has a movement the way that you do in Appalachia? Does organizing help, or are they in a different political environment?

    Alexa Mills