First gas from Qatar, now coal from Colombia: The search for alternatives to Russian energy sources again presents the federal government with a dilemma. In the sign of coal, environmental damage and human rights violations occur there.
If you look at El Cerrejón, you might think you are not on earth. A veritable lunar landscape stretches over around 690 square kilometers – roughly the area of Hamburg – in northern Colombia. Hard coal is mined here, but in opencast mining, unlike in the Ruhr area. It is the largest coal mine in Latin America. The mine of the Swiss company Glencore produced 23.4 million tons of coal last year. The entire amount is exported. Also to Germany. Because of the Ukraine war, the crowd is likely to increase in the foreseeable future – and that is anything but unproblematic.
Since the EU has imposed an import ban on coal from Russia, the federal government is looking around the world for alternatives. Despite the expansion of wind and solar energy, hard coal still accounts for nine percent of total electricity generation in Germany. After Russia, the USA and Australia, Colombia was the fourth most important country of origin for coal in Germany in 2021, accounting for 5.7 percent of all hard coal imports. A good 2.3 million tons came from there in total.
Scholz is trying to get more coal from Colombia
That is why Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) recently called Colombian President Iván Duque. According to a statement by the Presidential Office of the South American country, Colombia is examining the possibility of increasing coal exports to Germany in order to strengthen its energy security.
Since the beginning of the year, imports from the South American country, where the first round of the presidential election is due on Sunday, have already risen sharply. In the first three months, the import volume from Colombia was 1.1 million tons, according to the Coal Importers Association. “Compared to the previous year, this is an increase of 62 percent,” said a spokesman.
And demand is likely to grow if Russian gas supplies collapse or fail altogether. If that threatens or happens, Federal Minister of Economics Robert Habeck (Greens) wants to ensure that more coal-fired power plants in Germany start generating electricity again temporarily – an emergency measure because of the war, which of course runs counter to all climate goals.
Negative consequences for indigenous people and farmers
However, an increase in import volumes could present the federal government with a moral dilemma. Indigenous people and activists in the La Guajira department repeatedly complain about violations of human rights and environmental standards around El Cerrejón. “There is no doubt that the German government’s decision will have negative consequences for the rights of the indigenous and rural communities of La Guajira,” says Jenny Paola Ortiz, coordinator of the human rights program of the non-governmental organization Cinep.
Luís Misael Socarrás of the Wayuu indigenous people was recently threatened by gunmen on motorcycles. They surrounded his house and his mother’s and searched for him, he says. “And all because of our fight against Cerrejón.”
El Cerrejón digs the water from the people
Many indigenous people have already had to leave their home towns because of the expanding mine. In the Guajira semi-desert, it uses 24 million liters of water a day – enough to feed 150,000 people. 17 rivers and streams have already disappeared, around 30 have been diverted. The most recent example: in 2016, Cerrejón altered the course of the Bruno stream to allow the mine to be enlarged and production increased.
“The Bruno stream is one of the few water sources that remains for the indigenous people,” says Socarrás. “Diverting it means the deaths of hundreds of people.” The Bruno stream is also a sacred place for Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities, with dozens of medicinal plants growing only there.
After a lawsuit, the constitutional court ordered the creek to be renatured in 2017. However, nothing has happened to date. Finally, in April, a working group from various institutions, including the Ministry of the Environment, said the verdict had been complied with – and the case was filed.
European consumers also have a responsibility
However, the indigenous people criticized that they were not involved. Human rights activists and MEPs visiting La Guajira rejected the move. “We have a responsibility to these communities, we cannot be indifferent,” said Gary Gannon of Ireland’s Foreign Affairs Committee.
Wayuu leader Laura Brito also sees the responsibility of consumers in Europe. “The international community should think about where the coal that lights and heats their homes comes from,” she says. In view of the human rights violations around the mine, Cinep coordinator Ortiz speaks of “blood coal”. Cerrejón denies the allegations. When asked, the company referred to its measures on water and air management and compliance with human rights, among other things.
“Bloody Coal”: 65 killed conservationists in one year
With thousands of employees, Cerrejón is the most important employer in the poor region of La Guajira. Many support the mine despite the black dust, polluted water and possible diseases caused by coal mining. The government relies on the export of raw materials to drive more growth, while two-thirds of its own energy comes from hydropower. The left-wing presidential candidate Gustavo Petro, who is leading in polls, would like to slow down oil production with a view to the energy transition and replace the income with tourism and higher corporate taxes. He described coal and oil, like cocaine, as poisons.
Those who stand in the way of economic interests live dangerously in Latin America and especially in Colombia. According to the non-governmental organization Global Witness, the violence is mainly carried out by former paramilitaries, dissidents from the guerrilla organizations and the state security forces.
65 conservationists and environmental activists were killed in the country in 2020. “I’m not afraid for my life, but for that of my family,” says Socarrás. However, the indigenous activist does not want to stop fighting Cerrejón. “I am convinced that what I am doing is right – for my community, for nature and for my ancestors.”