El Cerrejón: Is it more important money or the environment?

Mining is one of the most important economic activities in Colombia, but the environmental damage resulting from its activity has aroused a series of criticisms

El Cerrejón: Is it more important money or the environment?

The multinationals have acquired an important role in the development of nations, after the expansion of capitalism in the 20th century. The new international actors that emerged as a result of the change of the international system have adopted a relevant position within the States, given that the interrelation between these has influenced the means used by States to achieve economic growth. That is, multinational companies have emerged as one of the mechanisms of expansion of the world economic system, which can help nations achieve their interests. This is as long as they comply with international neoliberal guidelines such as: the free market, the free movement of goods and capital, integration and the relationship between the State, society and the market.

Leer en español: El Cerrejón: ¿Pesa más la plata o el medio ambiente?

In La Guajira, located in northern Colombia, there is a great example of the previous argument. Since 1970, the multinationals have established themselves in the Colombian state to take advantage of the mineral wealth, since it owns approximately 56.5% of the national proven reserves, which led to the opening of one of the largest coal mines in the world: El Cerrejón.

The Cerrejón mine has become a bulwark for the Colombian economy. According to the Ministry of Mines and Energy (MinMinas), Cerrejón contributes 0.34% of the national GDP, which makes it the second foreign industry that leaves more dividends in Colombia. Regionally, Cerrejón represents 61% of the GDP of the Guajira and coal is the second natural resource, after oil, that more exports Colombia.

However, there are many criticisms of the mine for the socio-environmental conflicts that this has caused in the environment of Cerrejón.


Criticisms for effects on the ecosystem

Civil society, academics and the media have been writing about the impact of the Cerrejón mine on society and on the ecosystem of La Guajira. So far, the criticisms have focused on three aspects: land, water and air quality.

First, mining activities have affected the floor of the department. According to the Autonomous Regional Corporation of La Guajira (Corpoguajira, by its acronym in Spanish) there are places altered by the mine, where the vegetation cover has been manipulated by 90%. The manipulation of plant areas and the exploitation of the soil remove minerals from it, turning these lands into inert zones. Also, the construction of roads and railroads used to transport coal increase the problems of soil erosion.

In addition, the intervention in these areas stimulates the disappearance of biodiversity in the area, increasing the mortality of species that are part of the circle that generates stability in the environment.


With regard to the water indicator, soil degradation, the indiscriminate felling of scarce forests, the contamination of the slopes and the excessive use of this liquid for some mining procedures have compromised the aquifers, the water resource and the access to the water by the population.

In addition to the above, Cerrejón has influenced the course of several important streams such as the Bruno, Tabaco and La Puente streams, among others. This has hampered access to water by nearby populations, since the intervention has contaminated and dried up some flows.

On the other hand, air quality is another of the problems that afflicts the Colombian state. The CO2 emissions generated by mining activity pollute the air, affecting the health of people living in the mine's influence zone.

According to Corpoguajira, mining is one of the activities that has driven the contamination of the state's atmosphere thanks to the mineral exploitation model. This exploitation model consists of using nitrate explosives to remove the necessary layers of earth, generating a cloud of dust that affects the quality of the air, which generates a series of diseases.

During the last years, the Colombian State has received several complaints from people who accuse the mine for their illnesses. According to the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo, on November 10, 2015, the Colombian State ruled in favor of an indigenous family that argued that coal exploitation was affecting the health of their son.

Therefore, the exploitation of coal is one of the most controversial issues and is the research base of academics who study the environmental effects of economic activities that are relevant to the GDP of nations.

The truth is that the economic reason seems that it takes precedence over the care of the environment, which cries out for timely intervention by the government and all the actors of civil society.

Latin American Post | Bryan Andres Murcia

Translated from "El Cerrejón: ¿Pesa más la plata o el medio ambiente?"

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