The Cost of Power: Coal Mining and Human Rights in Colombia

First of all, I would thank the organizations that allowed me, Orlando Acosta, a representative of the workers in the mining and energy sector in Colombia, to discuss the impact of North American, Swiss, and [South] African multinationals on these countries that are full of wealth, and go there with the objective of taking away resources, with no regard for communities and the people of Colombia.

Orlando Acosta and Professor Aviva Chomsky spoke at Brown University in January 2008. This is the transcript of their presentation and the question and answer session which followed.

First of all, I would thank the organizations that allowed me, Orlando Acosta, a representative of the workers in the mining and energy sector in Colombia, to discuss the impact of North American, Swiss, and [South] African multinationals on these countries that are full of wealth, and go there with the objective of taking away resources, with no regard for communities and the people of Colombia.

I’m going to talk about Drummond, because it is a North American company. It arrived in Colombia in 1987. It obtained a claim to exploit coal in a region of ten thousand hectares in the Caribbean region of Colombia. This mine is in Cesar province. In 1995, when the shaft was opened, the workers, because of the company’s pressures and violations of their rights, became unionized in order to resist. This is open-pit mine. When they took away the top layer of land to get down to where the coal is, the communities living in the areas surrounding the mine were displaced. Moreover, the water sources in those areas were removed, obstructed, so the ecosystem changed as well.

The struggle of workers against these multinationals resulted in the murder of four trade unionists in 2001. As soon as the multinationals arrived, they became acquainted with politicians and the powerful families of the area. These families were also related to the paramilitary groups. The killings took place during our struggle to improve working conditions.

The structure of the Colombian nation did not enable us to make an efficient complaint in order to find out who ordered these killings. Thus, we had to resort to the international community, and to speak directly to the coal miners Drummond has employed here in the United States, in Alabama. A steel union here in the US made it possible for us to denounce the head of the company, Augusto Jimenez, as the intellectual author of these killings.

International lawyers found out through their investigations that there was a direct link between president Augusto Jimenez of Drummond in Colombia and paramilitary groups, and that money passed hands, so these four union leaders would be killed. During the trial, obstacles were placed in the way of key witnesses integrated into the paramilitaries, who were imprisoned and therefore not able to testify. The lawyers specially requested that President Alvaro Uribe allow these key witnesses to testify, but he refused permission. The Colombian government’s obstruction contributed to the court’s favorable ruling in favor of the multinational. This ruling, of course, further worsened conditions for the workers and exacerbated the conflict between the union and the company. This is just one example of how the human rights situation in Colombia worsens day by day.

And the Colombian government, pursuing approval of the free trade agreement with the United States, has claimed that the number of union leaders murdered in Colombia has diminished, when in fact, that is not true. Official investigations tend to point out that union leaders die as a consequence of robberies, and not from political murder. Their other policy is to threaten the lives of family members of union leaders. A message is regularly sent to the families of leaders telling them that if they do not stop their denunciation of the policies of the mining companies, they’re going to lose what they cherish most. Last year, I myself received a leaflet at my house, which had a skull on it — a clear message — claiming that I was a drug dealer.

You students — the future of the world — must bear in mind that the so-called ‘third world’ countries, in their pursuit of development, surrender their natural resources, thinking that that’s the only way to effectively derive wealth from them. It is important that you understand that that is a mistake. What is left behind in these countries is just the displacement of large segments of populations and murders that remain in impunity; that is no way to develop a country. That is why we’ve told the Colombian government that the free trade agreement as it stands right now is not beneficial to the Colombian people.

This must be of interest to North Americans and the international community, because wealth rests in the hands of a few, and redistribution of it is not going to take place. We must all contribute to the denunciation of these violations so we can contribute to make the world of a better place. This is what I want to share with you. Thank you.

Let’s take three questions at a time.

Questioner: What is President Uribe’s response to this? Is the Colombian government willing to step up and help out, or are they part of the problem?

Questioner: Through your struggle to organize, have you developed solidarity links with other communities in the world that are also fighting the extraction of coal or other fossil fuels?

Questioner: To add onto that, have there been any attempts to organize with other unions in Colombia?

Orlando Aosta: OK, first question: President Uribe: Is he willing to help, or is he part of the problem? I would like to say to you, the security policies of President Uribe go against the rights of the Colombian people. The money that the US government gives to the Colombian government to fight subversive groups just makes the war worse. The ones that suffer most are the peasants and common people, because they’re in the crossfire between the army and the guerrilla groups. The methods that President Uribe uses do make evident that he is part of the problem, the problem of human rights violations in Colombia. There is proof of the fact that many congress people the Uribe government relied on to carry out policies are now in prison for their links to paramilitaries.

When he was governor of Antioquia province, Uribe [helped create] the CONVIVIR, vigilante outlaw groups that [helped] cattle ranchers protect their properties. They gained strength and eventually became the paramilitaries that we know today.

Second question: You asked if we have solidarity links with other movements. We do have strong links with fellow union members that work for the Drummond company here in the United States, in Alabama. We have strong ties with unions in Venezuela. At a national level, the mining and energy sector, the teachers union, the peasants and farm unions; we’re all united. Because of our strength, the Colombian government and the large businesses (which are grouped in their own association) have had to ask the unions stop with our protests, because they were affecting the outcome of the free trade agreement between Colombia and the United States. That’s the network we’ve been able to develop in order to oppose those policies.

We’re focusing on our international outreach efforts on US unions because the coal that is being extracted in Colombia ends up here. [The abuses I have described] are what pay for the commodities that you enjoy here. When Drummond moved to Colombia, they closed two mines in Alabama, because it was more beneficial for them, due to the low cost of labor in Colombia.

I think the third question was answered by my answer to the second question. Different unions, we have grouped, and formed this organization called the Mining and Energy Coordinating Committee.

Questioner: Has your union had any sort of interactions — positive, negative or otherwise — with groups like FARC? And on a related note, do you see FARC as a positive or negative force in the conflict?

Questioner: You spoke about a legal proceeding in the United States. Have you developed a legal strategy within Colombia, within the legal system there, and what would your perspective be on a strategy like that? And a related question, do you work with lawyers that help you on a pro-bono basis?

Questioner: As a citizen and trade union member in Colombia, what changes do you feel should be made to the free trade agreement in order to make it beneficial, not only for the US but also Colombia?

Orlando Aosta: First question, regarding our alleged links with the FARC. We are a national organization with a political platform, and we’re totally independent from the influence of the state, the church, and the guerrillas. Whatever influence the FARC might have, positive or negative, derives from the influence of the state. The government is not interested in eliminating the FARC; the Colombian president doesn’t want to get rid of the FARC because the FARC provides an excuse for the US government to keep giving money to Colombia, so it’s in his interest to keep the war going.

Questioner: I wasn’t trying to imply, necessarily, that you were working with the FARC, or that they were influencing you, I was just wondering about any kind of interactions; have they bothered you, or tried to extort protection money from you? Anything. I was just curious.

Orlando Aosta: We haven’t had any sort of contact with them, but of course the context of the war against the guerrillas has affected us. When President Uribe came to power, he made it very clear that those who would not side with his government would be considered enemies of his government. And he has labeled us union leaders who oppose his policies as guerrilla fighters. And he has also called us paramilitaries. We’re really in a crossfire. I mean, in some cases you might be killed by the paramilitaries, and in some cases you might be killed by the guerrilla. And you must really keep in mind that the army and the paramilitaries are just the same thing, ultimately.

The second question: To give you an idea of how the judiciary works in Colombia, the Supreme Court of Justice heard our case but really the lawyer took us there to show us what state the judiciary in Colombia is in, what happens to all the injunctions and lawsuits that are filed. The judiciary has basically collapsed. It is useless because of corruption. Basically these lawsuits don’t make it because they’re intercepted by agents, snitches if you will, that kind of tell the Drummond company that a lawsuit is being filed against them, so the company will pay bribes so the lawsuit will be thrown out of court. That’s why, when these murders happen, we have to resort to the international community, our mining union colleagues here in the US, so we can sue here in the US and those crimes will not remain in impunity.

Third question, about the free trade agreement. [We must take] into consideration the differences between the political structures in Colombia and the United States, and [remember] that the full text of the free trade agreement is not available. Only three articles have been discussed by [the Colombian] congress: intellectual property rights, agricultural affairs, and labor policy.

Intellectual property rights basically means patents on medications. The US owns eighty percent of those patents. Look at Africa. [Also look at] the Amazon; people die because they don’t have the vaccination against malaria. Or take for instance health coverage in this country; there is no public universal health coverage. Regarding agriculture, the US subsidizes its farmers, whereas Colombia doesn’t. There is no agrarian policy. One of the things that’s being permitted are genetically modified seeds, such as the terminator seeds, so that when the farmer buys seeds, they cannot re-harvest seeds from their crops to replant, because they’ve been genetically designed not to reproduce.

So there are huge disparities between the two countries, and the treaty is made in such a way that makes it difficult for the Colombian people to realize how unfair those differences are, and in what measure the treaty fails to overcome them. Union leaders in Colombia have formally proposed that this free trade agreement be taken to a referendum, so the Colombian people can determine what is in their best interest, what is the most fair treaty we could get.

Questioner: You say you’re dealing with mining unions in America. So much of the mining industry right now is not unionized. The mining union is weak. What can they give, what have they given you, what are you looking for?

Orlando Aosta: From what we understand, the constitutional structure of Colombia and the US are very different, in terms of what they allow unions to be. The way they are organized in the US, the unions are very closely linked with politicians. Precisely because of their close ties with politicians in the US, unions have helped [force the] US Congress to withhold the approval of the free trade agreement with Colombia, until improvements in the human rights situation are made and improvements in the trade agreement are made.

Questioner: Building two on your previous answers, it’s clear that you have to go to international courts, but I’m wondering if you have had any kind of support from other institutions in Colombia? And, I’m wondering if there’s been any progress in the campaign to force a referendum on the trade agreement? Is the initiative only from your union? Are you going to gather signatures and move forward in that procedure?

Orlando Aosta: We have demonstrated against the approval of the free trade agreement, and we have gathered signatures on a petition against the agreement as it stands now. We have gone before the attorney general’s office and the anti-corruption ministry, but the way they organize — the bureaucracy and the corruption of the judiciary — turn what should be easy procedures into very lengthy and costly procedures for which we neither have the resources or time. Our situation is very urgent; we have to meet our immediate demands.

In Magdalena, my home province, there are two offices of the labor ministry, and one of them declared itself completely incapable of carrying out an investigation against Drummond. It just preferred not to do it. We have consequently sued this government official, because of her negligence and because she permitted an ill worker to be fired from his post — he has problems with his back, he has to use crutches.

I would like it if in sometime in your career at students you take a look at the effect of coal multinationals in countries like Colombia, and do take interest in what is going on. I really encourage you all to look into these matters if you can, someday.

Audience member: I would like to make a suggestion to everyone. The least we could do would be to contact our legislators, and those who students who aren’t from Rhode Island could contact their legislators, and say they oppose the free trade agreement. That’s the least we could do; call and say we oppose the free trade agreement in its current form. It would hurt people there, and it would hurt people here. It’s that simple.

Questioner: In addition to coal mining, are there other multinationals or other types of corporations that have bad track records as far as human rights? [Audience laughter…] Well of course there are, but in Colombia right now, do you guys have other labor unions you work with?

Orlando Aosta: For instance, in the northern mining region, there are three companies — Glencore, which is a Swiss company; PHP Billiton, which is a British/Australian company; and Anglo-American, which is a British/South African company — that operate another open-pit coalmine in the province next to Cesar, where the Drummond mine is. Avi [Chomsky] has been doing a lot of work with the communities affected by that mine. Glencore was just nominated for an important prize, of one of the ten worst companies of the year in Switzerland as far as violations of human rights are concerned. The impact Glencore has on human rights and the displacement of communities takes place not only in Colombia, but in Bolivia and Ecuador.

Chiquita brand has changed names in 1928; it was formally known as the United Fruit Company, but in 1928 there was a famous massacre, which is featured in One Hundreds Years of Solitude.

First of all, I would like to thank you for [the money that was collected at the event]. Between brothers, there must be solidarity. We have also brought some books, some hand-woven shoulder bags. The real value of these shoulder bags is not economic; it is human. By purchasing them, you help an indigenous community in the northern peninsula known as Tabaco, which was displaced by Glencore. I’d like to give the floor to Avi, who has researched this whole issue, and is working on it, so she can explain what has happened.

Aviva Chomsky: I teach at Salem State College, and Salem is home to one of two main power plants on the east coast of Massachusetts. You guys are very close to the other one, the Breighton Point plant in Somerset. Some of you are probably familiar with that. Those two plants import coal from Colombia — from the Drummond mine and the Cerrejon mine, the Drummond one being where Orlando works. And that’s how we initially, in Salem, got involved — by learning what the source of this coal that comes in on these giant forty-thousand ton ships every three weeks or so into our harbor, the coal that powers our plant and turns on our lights.

We’ve been working in particular with the community of Tabaco, which was violently displaced in 2001 by agents of the Cerrejon mine, and with five other small local communities — Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities — that are currently in what they call a ‘process of displacement.’ The company is basically just trying to make life so impossible for them — through contamination, through cutting off their roads, their access, their healthcare — that people are just going to leave.

Three projects we’ve been involved in that I want to mention to you: One, we take regular delegations down to the region, for people from the United States who receive the coal, and also people from the different countries where the companies are based, to see for themselves how their coal is mined, what the conditions are. When we go on these delegations, we generally meet with mining officials, with government officials, with members of the communities that are affected by these mines, and with the unions, in both of the mines, the Drummond and Cerrejon mines. We’re taking our next delegation in May, the 24th to the 31st, and I hope some of you will consider coming with us and see for yourselves; there are flyers about the delegation up there.

The second project we’ve been involved in is the mochila [shoulder bag] project, trying to be able to provide some material aid for the communities. One of the traditional crafts in the region is the weaving of these shoulder bags. We’ve developed a project with the communities… we all participate in unfair trade all the time, even if we don’t want to. None of us really want to displace these communities in an active way, and yet we’re passively participating in it because we have no choice in where we get our electricity, and we can’t live without electricity. Our lives are structured so that we basically can’t opt out. So we are participating in unfair trade, a trade relationship that is harmful to people on the other end of it.

We talked about if we could develop a fair trade in coal, like there’s fair trade in coffee. We thought that would be really difficult for us to do, but we’ve created this sort of alternative project in fair trade in mochilas. That is, the mochilas are something the people in these communities want to produce; it’s a traditional craft, it’s something they do by hand, it’s part of their culture and its something they’re eager to find markets for. We can’t, as individuals, pay them a fair price for their coal, but we can pay them a fair price for their mochilas that they produce. It’s a relationship that they’ve been very excited about producing. We’re selling the bags up there; the small ones are sixty dollars and the large ones are 75 dollars. All of that money goes directly back to the communities. The way we do it is we pre-pay them half the price of the mochilas and then we carry them back here. We sell them and bring back the other half to the communities the next time we go.

The third thing I wanted to draw your attention to: there are several different books for sale up there that give more information about the various issues we’ve been talking about. One is translated by me and written by the president of the state-sector mining union in Colombia. It’s a general overview of the mining sector in Colombia and how multinationals have controlled what should be public goods in Colombia, to the detriment of the population. It’s called The Profits of Extermination.

The second book I want to draw your attention to is an anthology we just published last summer in Colombia [The People Behind the Coal], which is something the communities have been asking us to do for a very long time. They’ve been saying that they need documentation of the impact of the mine on their communities, and also of the history of their communities; that in their struggle to achieve their rights with the mine, they need some of this documentation. And we were finally able to pull together last year a series of human rights reports, health reports, historical studies, testimonies from the union and the communities about the situation. So there’s a lot of primary voices in there. The book was published in two editions — English and Spanish — and both of them are available there. It was one of the most exciting book projects that I’ve worked on, the only one really where I really felt like, ‘this is an answer to what the communities have asked us to do to help them.’ So I hope you will all take a look at what we have up there on the table.

Questioner: What’s the best possible vision of the future that you’re fighting for, in terms of is it more fair wages and better living conditions from the company? Is it to not have the company exist at all, and to have a better company? Is it to not have to live by extracting coal, and a whole other way of life instead? What’s the vision of another world that you hold in your heart to continue with the struggle?

Orlando Aosta: Our first concern is the wealth that is concentrated in the hands of these companies reaches the families of these workers. In other words, there needs to be a redistribution of wealth. Just by following environmental regulations, and by paying taxes that they’re supposed to, as specified in the leases they signed to obtain these coal claims. The problem is that these companies simply don’t pay taxes. For instance, last year Drummond had to pay back to the Colombian state forty-million dollars. The company is supposed to pay a royalty to the government for every ton of coal it exports. And the royalty payment is supposed to vary based on the price of coal on the international market. The contract says how much they’re supposed to be in royalties.

But they’re allowed to deduct the following: the coal that is taken out by water routes, and this takes four-hundred twenty kilometers; and this might cost, let’s just put a random figure on it, a low figure: forty pesos. So they’re allowed to deduct from the royalties the extra they had to pay for the transport. So a revision was made to the contract, and now the transportation is only two-hundred twenty kilometers, and its by rail, not by water. It’s much cheaper, but they’ve continued to claim the previous cost. That’s how they were underpaying their royalties, and that’s why they’ve had to pay this forty-million dollars.

We have asked the company not to leave the country, but the company definitely has to improve its policies. Local communities must be provided with schools, basic sanitation, housing. They could afford all that with the money they aren’t paying in taxes. We basically want to improve production and the working conditions, so those things the community must receive are given, and not evaded. That’s what we are fighting for.

I would like to thank you all for coming. There must be solidarity between all of us, so abuses stop. We must think of humanity as one. We can achieve the goal of a better world for all. We must really care about our neighbors, so it doesn’t happen like that famous poem, where it says, ‘they took the peasant, but I didn’t care because I am not a peasant. They took a communist, but I didn’t care because I was not a communist. They took a clergyman, but I did not care, because I was not a clergyman. But when they came for me, it did matter to me, and when I went out for help, there was none, because I did not care before.’ We must reach out to those around us, to our neighbors, and help them.

Orlando Acosta is a leader of the Colombian National Mining and Energy Workers’ Union (Sintraminergética) and an employee of Drummond Mining Company (USA). Aviva Chomsky teaches at Salem State College. An eminent historian of Latin America, she is the author of Linked Labor Histories: New England, Colombia, and the Making of a Global Working Class, (forthcoming from Duke University Press) and several other books. She is also a member of the North Shore Colombia Solidarity Committee. For more information, contact: