The El Cerrejón mine covers 69,000 hectares of the La Guajíra peninsula in the northeast of Colombia, making it the largest open-cast coal mine in the world. Work on the mine began in 1980 under the management of the American oil company Exxon. In 2008, 31.3 million tonnes of coal were extracted from El Cerrejón, accounting for around 42% of Colombia’s total coal production. By 2017, annual production is set to increase to 60 million tonnes. The contract between Cerrejón Ltd. and the Colombian government is valid until 2034.
At present, the mine’s ownership is split three ways between Anglo American, BHP Billiton and Glencore plc. In 2013, Cerrejón Ltd.’s turnover was about US$ 2.3 billion. In total, the Swiss commodity company Glencore plc (CEO Ivan Glasenberg) had a turnover of US$ 233 billion (by way of comparison, Nestlé S. A.’s annual turnover was US$ 102 billion).
Over the last three decades, the mine, along with the associated port and railway line (which extends for 150 kilometres to the Caribbean coast at Puerto Bolívar), has lead to the destruction of large swathes of Wayúu territory. The Río Ranchería flows through the mining region and, over the next few years, a 26 kilometre-long stretch of the river is to be re-routed. The Río Ranchería is the most important water source for the La Guajíra peninsula: it supplies 250,000 people with water and plays a central role in the spiritual lives of the Wayúu people.
On average, the coal trains are 100 wagons long and cross the peninsula at 30-minute intervals. Since the beginning of the coal boom, those who live along the route have been confronted by deafening noise, dust and serious accidents. Despite the mining and associated taxes and levies, which the mining companies have paid to the Colombian government for the last 30 years, the Departamento La Guajira is now one of Colombia’s poorest regions.
In the case of Tamaquito, the company has gradually bought up all the forest areas surrounding the village. In the process, the villagers have lost their direct access to the river, and hunting and subsistence farming on land around the village have been banned. Several other villages have already had to make way for the mine. International attention was drawn to the area by a scandalous incident on the 9th of August, 2001, when the residents of Tabaco were violently evicted and their village destroyed. Bulldozers belonging to the mine were used, and the Colombian military and police forces were also involved. According to ask!, a Swiss-Colombian “task force” that promotes human rights and peace-building, Cerrejón now promises to carry out collective rural resettlement in accordance with international standards. Nonetheless, the company’s implementation of this promise remains inadequate.