By Caitlin Ringwood, Guest Blogger
I just returned from a weeklong trip to La Guajira, a department in Colombia located in the northeastern region of the country on the Caribbean coast. La Guajira is home to El Cerrejón, the world’s largest open-pit coal mine. El Cerrejón was constructed in 1981 as a joint venture between the Colombian state and Exxon. It is currently owned by three international mining firms: BHP Billiton, Anglo-American PLC and Xstrata PLC.
In 2010, El Cerrejón produced 40 million metric tons of coal, and exported 99% of it for consumption in the United States and Europe. In the 32 years that El Cerrejón has been operating in La Guajira, the local population mainly composed of Afro-Colombians, indigenous and campesinos, has been embroiled in a struggle against forcible displacement, human rights violations by paramilitaries and the pollution of natural resources.
The initial construction and expansion of El Cerrejón saw the Colombian government working in conjunction with the corporation to forcibly displace and seize collective land holdings from Afro-Colombian communities who subsisted on lands central to El Cerrejón’s operations. Most infamously was the Afro Colombian village of Tabaco, whose land was expropriated and village demolished on the 9th of August 2001 for the expansion of mining operations. Most of the former residents of Tabaco took refuge in the neighboring village of Albania, or made their way to cities adding to Colombian’s strikingly high percentage of internally displaced persons. An overwhelming percentage of internally displaced people are Afro Colombian.