Appalachia and Colombia: The People Behind the Coal

An interview with Aviva Chomsky, professor of history and Latin American Studies at Salem State College in Massachusetts.

Chomsky is a founder of the North Shore Colombia Solidarity Committee, which has been working since 2002 with Colombian labor and popular movements, especially those affected by the foreign-owned mining sector. She just returned from a Witness for Peace delegation (May 28 – June 6) that traveled to two regions devastated by coal mining: the state of Kentucky and to northern Colombia.

Aviva Chomsky with delegate Sandra Díaz from Appalachian Voices

Aviva Chomsky is professor of history and Latin American Studies at Salem State College in Massachusetts. The most recent books she has written are Linked Labor Histories: New England, Colombia, and the Making of a Global Working Class. (Duke University Press, 2008) and They Take Our Jobs! And Twenty Other Myths about Immigration. (Beacon Press, 2007). She has also recently co-edited The People Behind Colombian Coal: Mining, Multinationals and Human Rights/Bajo el manto del carbón: Pueblos y multinacionales en las minas del Cerrejón, Colombia (Casa Editorial Pisando Callos, 2007) and The Cuba Reader: History, Culture, Politics (Duke University Press, 2003).

Chomsky is also a founder of the North Shore Colombia Solidarity Committee, which has been working since 2002 with Colombian labor and popular movements, especially those affected by the foreign-owned mining sector. She just returned from the Witness for Peace delegation (May 28 – June 6) that traveled to two regions devastated by coal mining: the state of Kentucky and to northern Colombia. The Kentucky segment was sponsored by Kentuckians For The Commonwealth (KFTC), where participants witnessed the impact of Mountain Top Removal mining and Valley Fills on local communities. In Colombia the delegation met with human rights activists, trade unionists, members of Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities, and others affected by coal production in Colombia.

Hans Bennett: Having just returned from the Witness for Peace delegation’s trip to Kentucky and Colombia, can you please tell us about your visit to Kentucky, and about the group ‘Kentuckians For The Commonwealth’ (KFTC)?

Aviva Chomsky: KFTC is a community organization working on social justice issues, one of them being local resistance to mountaintop removal coal mining that is destroying lands and communities in Appalachia. I’ve been working with them since last summer, when 4 people from that organization came with us on our delegation to the Colombian coal region. The connections they made between the two regions were amazing. In both, big companies run roughshod over some of the poorest and most marginalized people. People are losing their land, their water, their right to clean air, and their homes to the coal mines. The Kentuckians felt a real link with the Colombian communities, that they were part of the same struggle. Last fall, we worked with KFTC to organize a tour for two Colombian coal union leaders. They spent a week in Kentucky, seeing for themselves the results of mountaintop removal, and speaking to different audiences there. The Colombians were also incredibly moved by the destruction of land and lives in Kentucky. They couldn’t believe that this was happening in the First World. We decided we’d really like to organize a delegation that would visit both regions—and that’s what we did this summer. We spent 3 days in the Kentucky coal region, and then went to Colombia. We also had 5 people from Appalachia, all involved in different aspects of the movement against mountaintop removal, with us on the Colombian part of the delegation.

HB: What did members of the group share with the delegation?

AC: One thing that really struck me was the ways that people in both the Colombian and the Kentuckian coal regions talked about the land. I’m from the city, and have lived a pretty cosmopolitan life. For people in eastern Kentucky, like those in northern Colombia, the land is tied to the essence of their identity. People have generations-long ties to the land, they farm the land, they feel personally connected to the mountains, to the rivers, to the farms. Also, in both regions, people are aware that they are seen as expendable, not only by the coal companies, but by the centers of power. Both regions suffer from a lack of state services, and have been really politically marginalized. But also in both regions, there is a really powerful sense of collective identity that I think has contributed to the strength of the social struggles there.

In one interview a few years ago, a Colombian indigenous leader explained to us that for his people, the earth was “la madre tierra,” mother earth. “It hurts us to see the earth damaged,” he said, pointing to the gaping hole of the mine. People in eastern Kentucky talked the same way about their mountains.

HB: What has been the impact of the coal mining industry, Mountain Top Removal mining and Valley Fills on the local communities?

AC: The impact has been devastating. I’ve never been anywhere else in the United States where you can’t drink the water! But the tap water smells so sulfurous that I was even wondering if it was safe to shower in. People in the region complain of the same kinds of illnesses and reactions that we’ve seen in Colombia—respiratory ailments, rashes and skin diseases, eye diseases—reactions to coal particles in the air and in the water. Rivers that used to run crystal clear have turned into toxic sludge. People’s homes are being surrounded by the various impacts. A mountainous region is being flattened. A way of life and a people are being forced into extinction.

After visiting Kentucky, the Colombian union leaders told us they were shocked by how “irrational” the mining was there. I didn’t really understand what they meant until I saw it myself. In Colombia, there are huge 7-foot seams of coal. The mines there are giant operations that have opened up many-mile long areas. In Kentucky, whole mountains are being felled for little seams that are only a few inches wide! And believe it or not, there seem to be more serious reclamation efforts going on in Colombia than in Kentucky.

HB: After visiting Kentucky, the delegation flew to Colombia, which your flyer explains is “the largest recipient of U.S. military aid in the hemisphere, and also the country with the highest levels of official and paramilitary violence, including forced displacement, killings of journalists, trade unionists, and human rights activists.” The flyer asserts that “foreign corporations are some of the major beneficiaries of this situation.” How do the corporations benefit from this? How does US financial and diplomatic support for the Colombian government influence the situation?

AC: Colombia is the poster child for neoliberalism in Latin America. Since the 1970s the United States—and the international financial institutions that it plays a leading role in, like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund—have been pushing a development model on Latin America that calls, essentially, for governments to act in the interests of multinational capital. Governments are supposed to invite in foreign investment, and provide it with low taxes, low wages, and low regulation. They are supposed to cut back on social spending, and offer state enterprises up to the private sector. And, they’re supposed to quash any popular protest against these policies, using force if necessary. These policies have gone by names such as structural adjustment, the Washington Consensus, the Chicago Boys prescriptions (referring to the role of Milton Friedman and other economists from the University of Chicago), or neoliberalism. The United States has played a key role in the implementation of these policies—from working for the overthrow of elected socialist president Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973, and their implementation there, to Plan Colombia today, by which the United States provides military and economic aid that goes directly to implementing this economic model and crushing protest.

Union leaders have been some of the most visible victims. In the U.S.-owned Drummond mine in northern Colombia, three union leaders were assassinated in 2001. The company is currently facing a lawsuit in the United States for allegedly paying a paramilitary force to carry out the murders. Another U.S. company, Chiquita Brands, admitted to making payments for years to the paramilitaries. They claimed that they made the payments to protect their workers, but banana workers—and especially union activists—were the main victims among the hundreds murdered by paramilitaries during the 1990s and early 2000s.

HB: Before we talk about the delegation’s visit to Colombia this month, I’d like to first refer back to our 2007 interview in Z Magazine titled Colombia Solidarity Work, and ask you to please give an update about what has been going on since then, during this two year period since then.

AC: When we visited the Cerrejón mine in the summer and late fall of 2006, the company had taken the stance that it would not recognize or negotiate with the displaced Afro-Colombian community of Tabaco. It also insisted that community issues and union issues be kept completely separate. The union had included a demand about the rights of the communities in its 2006 bargaining proposal, and the company absolutely refused to include this in the contract—although they did agree to a side letter inviting the union to participate in the company’s social programs.

In the summer of 2007, Cerrejón announced that it was forming a Social Review Panel to evaluate its relations with the communities and provide recommendations. The Panel concluded that the displacement of Tabaco was a festering wound, and that the company simply had to rectify this if it wanted to develop any kind of working relationship with the local communities. The company agreed, finally, to engage in collective negotiations with former Tabaco residents, aimed at a resettlement of the community. This was a struggle that had been going on for ten years! In December of 2008, the company signed an agreement with the community defining the terms of the relocation and for compensation for the people who had been displaced. This was a huge victory.

Still, in some ways we were struck with how much has not changed. Although the agreement was signed with Tabaco, the relocation process has not yet begun—so people are still displaced. In the other communities we work with, the company has been engaging in collective negotiations for relocation—but they are still desperately poor, landless, and living in the shadows of the world’s largest open-pit coal mine.

In the Cesar Department, where the U.S.-owned Drummond mine operates, things are even worse. Union leaders there live in daily fear for their safety and lives. We had hoped to return to one community that we visited last summer, Mechoacán—but it had been wiped off the map. We met with the communities of Boquerón, El Hatillo, and Plan Bonito, that are slowly being strangled by the mine. Drummond, unlike Cerrejón, still refuses to recognize any right to collective relocation for these communities, and is simply trying to starve people out in hopes that they will leave.

HB: Okay, now let’s talk about your recent visit to Colombia. Who did you meet with and what did they talk about? What were the key issues addressed?

AC: The main issues we’ve been working on, with our partners in Colombia, are labor rights and community rights, in the areas where the multinational coal mines operate. The coal region in Colombia is in the north, close to the Caribbean coast, in the Cesar and La Guajira Departments. The people who have lived there for decades, in some cases centuries, are mostly Afro-Colombian and indigenous peasants who have survived by farming, hunting, fishing, and day labor on ranches owned by large landholders in the area.

Multinational mining came to La Guajira in the 1980s, to Cesar in the 1990s. These mines are almost unbelievably gigantic operations—Cerrejón claims to be the largest open-pit coal mine in the world, and Drummond is currently undergoing expansion that it says will make it overtake even Cerrejón’s size. Each one employs thousands of workers, some directly, and some through subcontractors.

The main people we spent time with there were the unions at the two mines—including the Injured Workers Association at the Drummond mine—and the communities that have been displaced, or are in the process of displacement. Everyone we met with there seemed to share the belief that getting their stories out to the U.S. public was essential to protecting their lives and their livelihoods. Drummond is a U.S. company, and much of the coal produced by both mines is imported by U.S. power plants. People in Colombia are also acutely aware at the huge influence that the United States has on their country’s policies. Mostly, they want us to tell their stories here in the United States, so that people here will pressure Drummond, the companies that buy the coal, and the U.S. government, to make sure that workers and communities in the coal region have the same rights that we here enjoy—the right to personal safety, the right to clean water, to education, to safe working conditions, to form unions, to be able to provide for their children, to not live in fear of their government or of the companies that operate in their midst.

HB: How does the union organizing in Colombia compare to the organizing in Kentucky, and the US in general?

AC: We were shocked to learn that there are no unionized mines left in eastern Kentucky. Not even in Harlan County. Yet despite a high level of disillusionment with the United Mineworkers among many of the people we met with in Kentucky—because of its weak or non-existent critique of surface mining, and because of the capitulations it has made to industry that people believe are responsible for its demise in the region—people there have an incredibly high level of union consciousness. Nearly everybody we met talked to us about how their fathers, their uncles, their grandfathers, had fought and in some cases shed blood, to bring in the union.

Unions in Colombia—especially those in the coal mines—are extremely militant, and have a strong current of leftist analysis and environmental consciousness that are pretty uncommon among unions in the U.S. today. The union leaders we met with talk about foreign mining companies raping the land and the people, looting their country’s natural resources, lining the pockets of shareholders with coal produced with the blood and the land of Colombians.

In both the U.S. and Colombia, union density has been falling. In Colombia, the main cause has been violence against unions; in the U.S., deindustrialization has played a big role. The AFL-CIO has a checkered history in Colombia, as it does in the rest of Latin America. Historically, the federation has been closely linked to U.S. foreign policy goals through the American Institute for Free Labor Development or AIFLD. I think the AFL-CIO is trying to overcome this past, and the suspicion it has generated in Latin America. Yet it is also struggling with internal conflicts, and now the accelerating economic crisis, and I think it has not made as much progress as it could in the area of trying to develop real international solidarity.

HB: How does the coal mining trade fit into the current global energy crisis and fossil fuels’ effects on the environment, including global warming?

AC: We had an interesting conversation about this during one of our meetings in Colombia. One of our delegates works with the Move America Beyond Coal campaign, and she asked Jairo Quiroz, the president of the Sintracarbón union that represents workers in the Cerrejón coal mine, more or less the same question: don’t we just have to stop mining and burning coal altogether, given its environmental impact? Jairo’s response really challenged all of us, I think. “There is no clean source of energy,” he said. “You in the United States are the ones who use most of the world’s energy resources. What do you propose to use, if we stop mining coal? Petroleum and natural gas are no better for the environment than coal is, and both contribute to global climate change. Nuclear energy also requires mining, and creates waste products even more dangerous than coal’s. Solar energy and wind energy are only viable where those resources are sufficiently available, and they also require production, transmission and storage techniques and equipment that depend on mining (for turbines, batteries, solar panels, etc.) and the use of toxins. So-called biofuels are the worst of all, because they expand the agro-industrial model which has profound environmental effects—from deforestation to desertification to overuse of pesticides and fertilizers—and it also disrupts the whole food chain by channeling agricultural land to the production of fuel instead of food.” Basically, his point was that rather than pointing the finger at coal, we needed to think about the underlying causes of environmental destruction—like our overuse of energy. “As long as you want to keep using that much energy,” he said, “we’re going to keep mining coal.”

There’s always a challenge, in a campaign for social and political change, to choose a target that’s narrow enough that you can effectively organize around it, but making sure that you don’t get distracted from the larger goals by the narrow target. In Salem, we have a coal-fired power plant. Some people argue, from an environmental perspective, that we should shut down the plant. But what are the larger implications of that argument? Unless we are planning to stop using electricity altogether, it just means that we’ll be getting it from another plant somewhere else. It can turn into a kind of NIMBY-ism [i.e., “not in my back yard”]—we don’t want to have to see the impact of our standard of living, we want to displace it onto somebody else. That’s how our system works—and that’s how we’re encouraged to think. We need to think more profoundly about the causes of global warming and environmental destruction if we really want to address them.

This may seem only peripherally related, but one of the communities we visited, in the Cesar Department, was located right next to the trash dump for the city of La Loma. Trash is blowing around, and it smells awful. Also, many of the communities we work with have no running water—thus no real latrines. These issues made me think about the multiplications of our privileges in the First World. We don’t have to see where our energy comes from, and we don’t have to see where our waste goes—we just live in this bubble of plenty and our waste is invisibly whisked away—all of which encourage us to continue abusing and wasting the earth’s resources!

HB: How has the recent election of several leftist and ‘left of center’ Presidents throughout Latin America (most recently in El Salvador) changed US power and influence? How do you think the US is reacting to this? What role with Colombia play in US strategy given that it is one of the last remaining right-wing governments?

AC: The United States is clearly counting on Colombia to play a major role in maintaining and promoting what they call “U.S. interests”—which generally means the interests of U.S. corporations—in Latin America. Ecuador’s new government recently announced that it is not renewing the U.S. lease on its military base in Manta, Ecuador. So among other things, it looks like Colombia will be the site of the new base that will replace Manta.

There are really two things that a leftist government in Latin American needs to accomplish—neither one of them simple. One is to redistribute their countries’ resources internally, to address the region’s devastating social and economic inequalities. The other is to reformulate Latin America’s relationship with the rest of the world, to break out of the pattern established after 1492, in which Latin America provides cheap labor, and cheap resources, for the benefit of Europe and later the United States. These are monumental problems, and the United States government has shown itself pretty committed to keeping the status quo, even if doing so requires violence, murder, invasions, or coups.

Many of the people I spoke with on this trip seemed to feel a lot of hope that we’re entering a new era, in which the United States will choose—or be forced—to accept major structural changes in Latin America. Despite Obama’s diplomatic language, he’s already shown that he’s quite ready to use military methods to further what the U.S. defines as its interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But other factors—the swing to the left in Latin America, the work towards alternative regional economic integration, the economic crisis, and the growing global awareness of the environmental crisis and the planet’s limited resources—could contribute to some real changes.

HB: How can readers best help support the current work of the North Shore Colombia Solidarity Committee, Witness for Peace, and those in Colombia who you recently visited?

AC: We’re hoping to bring one or two community leaders from the Colombian coal region to the U.S. on speaking tours this fall. We are also planning another delegation for next summer. And, we do occasional “urgent action” requests in support of the work our Colombian partners are doing. You can join the Witness for Peace or NSCSC e-lists to get updated information about all of these activities, or write to us directly at if you want to get more involved in the planning.

Hans Bennett is an independent multimedia journalist, whose website is