Email this article to a friend

Working In These Times

Friday, Jan 24, 2014, 9:33 pm

Coal Spill Puts Spotlight on Colombia’s Labor and Environmental Struggles

BY Michelle Chen

A miner sits in front of the Cerrejón coal mine in Guajira, Colombia. Cerrejón is one of the major coal companies in the country who have come under fire for human rights and environmental violations. (Santiago la Rotta / Flickr / Creative Commons)  

The Alabama-based Drummond Company’s recent coal spill in Colombia has combined with its record of labor abuse to place the coal giant at the intersection of the country’s political struggles and environmental crises.

In 2007, Colombia issued a mandate for coal exporters requiring Drummond Company to update its loading facilities at a key port in Cienaga by installing closed conveyor belts, a cleaner system than the traditional barges and cranes used to load coal. But Drummond has continuously failed to retool its operations. After a wrecked barge spilled hundreds of tons of coal into the port waters in 2013, Colombia imposed a $3.6 million fine on the company—and now, in a rare regulatory confrontation from the usually business-oriented regime, the government has suspended its port license to induce Drummond's compliance.

The move seems aimed at demonstrating President Juan Manuel Santos’s commitment to environmental protection—perhaps as part of a broader campaign to strengthen ecological protections for politically tumultuous, resource-rich areas. Colombia has for years courted energy companies to use its mineral resources, and Drummond, a major exporter to Europe, is an established foreign investor.

Though the coal spill reportedly did not result in major long-term environmental damage, it became a sensation when a watchdog photographer, local attorney Alejandro Arias, widely publicized images of a crane hauling up coal and water from the barge and dropping it into the sea. In an interview with Bloomberg, Arias stated, “I want people in Europe to know that they’re heating themselves with coal that has caused pollution [in Colombia] … Royalties paid by mining companies here don’t nearly cover the costs of all this." 

Drummond vehemently defended the environmental soundness of its operations in an official statement, blaming its compliance failure in part on construction delays tied to last year’s mineworker strike. But the unrest that led to that labor action arguably stems from the same situation environmentalists blame for the dumping: the notorious impunity of many multinationals in the Global South, particularly in the energy sectors, which exploit poor countries' resources and workers to feed carbon-burning industries abroad.

Colombia ranks among the world's deadliest places to be a trade unionist, with thousands of union members murdered and brutalized over the past two decades. In 2013, union slayings did decline somewhat while the number of strikes increased—potentially suggesting a less oppressive climate for labor in the future. Whatever this year's body count, however, violence continues to stalk workers who dare to organize. Last week, United Steel Workers and the international labor group IndustriALL issued letters condemning Colombia for its repeated failure to address anti-union assaults, citing the recent murder of Ever Luis Marin Rolong, an electrician and local leader of the SINALTRACEBA union.

And Drummond's union workers have remained defiant despite the risks. Though it was hardly the first labor clash Drummond has had to deal with, the strike that started last summer made waves in global energy markets because it lasted for months and forced a partial suspension of Drummond's export contracts. In a dispute over wages and layoffs, workers struck for more than 50 days. Eventually, the Labor Ministry intervened, and workers voted to end the strike under pressure (though one of the largest unions, Sintramienergetica, remained opposed). 

But Drummond reportedly has a more sinister history when it comes to worker repression. Human rights groups have long accused the company of complicity in vicious anti-union hostilities, citing evidence gathered from union sources and Wikileaks documents. A major civil lawsuit in the U.S. courts was denied last year, but volumes of potentially damning testimony remain part of the public record.

In one testimony issued in October 2011, a witness who worked with Drummond in the 1990s and early 2000s claimed to have aided Drummond in brutalizing unionists:

Drummond officials told me that they viewed the union as a threat to Drummond’s objectives in Colombia, which were to extract 25 million tons of coal yearly. … It is clear that at least Drummond’s special services and security departments were involved in the murder of the unionists.

Francisco Ramirez Cuellar, president of Funtraenergetica, the United Federation of ‪Miners, Energy, Metallurgical, Chemical and Allied Industries, tells In These Times via email that in the mining sector, Drummond is “the worst [company] in the country for its unrelenting disregard for workers’ rights, freedom of association, the right to organise, to strike and to protest,” with a poor record of industrial safety conditions that, by the union's count, has caused illness for about 800 workers and even some deaths. Drummond has not returned In These Times's request for comment.  

Drummond's anti-union politics are ethically analogous to its environmental harms; both hinge on corporate power fueling Colombia's so-called development. The port dumping in 2013 offers a window into the broader overlap of ecological and human rights challenges in the coal industry: Mining operations in Colombia have been linked to the displacement, pollution and impoverishment of local communities, as well as dangerous working conditions.

Like Drummond, Colombia’s other top coal producer, Cerrejón, has been similarly criticized by rights groups for alleged suppression of union organizing and rampant environmental safety failures, resulting in hundreds of workers “suffering from serious health problems as a direct result of the inadequate working conditions at the mine,” according to World Development Movement

Amid all this destruction, mining multinationals often tout themselves as engines of development that can help lift Colombia out of poverty and decades-long civil conflict. But Cuellar and other labor and rights activists see this form of development—fostered by trade liberalization policies that draw U.S. and European multinationals—as the handmaiden, not the antidote, to Colombia’s social ills. 

While the photographs of coal dumping at the port have led to a flash of public outrage, what really needs exposure is the everyday plight of the workers who toil underground and live with the ecological and economic consequences of mining. The labor movement, Cuellar argues, could present an alternative path to corporate development based on “sovereign, rational and environmentally sustainable management of our resources."

While demands for more sustainable industrial development and respect for social rights "are not heard by those who see the plundering of natural resources as a 'strategy' to meet the needs of the 'developed world,'" Cuellar adds, “through the construction of a democratic society, we can … achieve economic justice, and move toward solving the serious social imbalances that make Colombian society one of the most unequal in the world.”

Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times, a contributor to Working In These Times, and an editor at CultureStrike. She is also a co-producer of Asia Pacific Forum on Pacifica's WBAI. Her work has appeared on Alternet, Colorlines.com, Ms., and The Nation, Newsday, and her old zine, cain. Follow her on Twitter at @meeshellchen or reach her at michellechen [at] inthesetimes [dot] com.

View Comments