With New Brunswick planning to close its Belledune coal plant in 2030 as part of Canada’s transition off coal, advocates for a just energy transition point to the need to include workers and communities in future economic planning. They say that includes people in the northern New Brunswick region as well as in Colombia where NB Power has been sourcing coal from the Cerrejón coal mine since 1993 when the plant opened.
Alvaro Ipuana is an Indigenous Wayuu leader from Nuevo Espinal, one of several communities forcibly displaced for the Cerrejón coal mine in Colombia’s La Guajira region. Ipuana traveled to London, UK, in 2019 to denounce how one of the multinational owners of the coal mine, BHP, treats his community at the mining company’s annual shareholders’ meeting.
Latin America’s largest coal mine, in operation since 1985, the Cerrejón mine is owned by a consortium of three of the largest mining multinational giants in the world: BHP, Glencore and Anglo American. The mine has forcibly displaced Indigenous Wayuu and Afro-Colombian communities from their land.
“We want to make it known that the minerals that leave our territory are stained with our blood,” Ipuana told audiences in London.
Fourteen years ago, José Julio Perez, an Afro-Colombian man whose ancestors came to La Guajira as slaves from Africa, told a Fredericton audience that in 2001, approximately 500 soldiers and 200 police officers forcibly evicted him and the residents of his community of Tabaco for a mine that supplies NB Power with coal.
In 2018, Colombia had 7.7 million people internally displaced persons, the highest in the world. While the civil war in Colombia is blamed for forced displacement and migration, mining is another cause.
Since the opening of the Cerrejón coal mine, 19 rivers have disappeared in the semi-desert region of La Guajira, driving a significant humanitarian crisis where child death rates have soared.
Javier Rojas, leader of the Indigenous organisation Wayúu Shipia, told The Bogota Post in 2016: “We estimate that in less than ten years, more than 14,000 members of our communities – children, adolescents, expectant mothers and the elderly – have died due to malnutrition.”
Rojas, whose activism has led to death threats, blames Cerrejón’s operations for drastically reducing the availability of potable water in the region.
COVID-19 has only intensified the drinking water crisis in La Guajira.
Earlier this year, anthropologist Emma Banks described the conditions in La Guajira: “Communities living near the Cerrejón open pit coal mine have precarious access to water. Mining companies have displaced communities and seized water sources for over thirty years. Thousands of families have to buy potable water, which is already becoming harder to find as people stockpile to prepare for COVID-19.”
In 2016, the Supreme Court of Colombia ordered the country to take all appropriate and necessary measures to ensure that children and adolescents of the Wayuu Indigenous community have access to clean drinking water, food, health care, and housing. The order came after a 2015 decision of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights that called on the Colombian state to take action to prevent further deaths of Wayuu children.
Arundhati Roy, anti-globalization critic and celebrated author, in her popular essay, “The Pandemic is a Portal,” writes that the world has a choice: “We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”
Catalina Caro Galvis with CENSAT Agua Viva (Friends of the Earth Colombia) is one activist based in Colombia’s capital of Bogota that is “imagining a world anew” in Roy’s words.
Caro, like activists around the world, works with trade unions, Indigenous communities and international solidarity networks in support of a just transition to a post-carbon, post-extractivist society.
Caro’s organization wants the debate on climate change to not just focus on greenhouse gas emissions. According to Caro, the entire fossil-based energy model needs addressing.
The 2019 UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report, “Climate Change and Land,” agrees and states that it is not just the energy model that needs an overhaul to stop climate change from severely altering the earth’s systems but also the way we produce food.
New Brunswick solidarity activists with Colombia have educated NB Power and the public about Colombian coal since José Julio Perez visited the Maritimes in 2006. They say that it is important to support the demands of the affected communities and workers at the mine.
Francisco Ramirez Cuellar was the latest speaker from Colombia to visit the Maritimes and speak to audiences about the workers.
In 2015, the Colombian union leader, lawyer and survivor of eight known assassination attempts publicly spoke in Fredericton about the murders, violence and poverty linked to the multinational mining companies in his country. Ramirez explained that New Brunswickers must acknowledge and act on the “blood coal” leaving Colombia that is sold to NB Power.
Colombian coal is called “blood coal” not only because of the violence exerted on displaced communities but also because of the miners and union activists who have lost their lives due to their harsh and unsafe working conditions and activism.
In a recent interview with the NB Media Co-op, Ramirez said he wants Canadians to remember that Canada played a role in rewriting Colombia’s mining code which he says resulted in Cerrejón paying a paltry amount in taxes back to Colombia. According to Ramirez, “workers receive an income seven times lower than the world average for coal miners.”
Ramirez recalled how the Canadian International Development Agency (an agency that has since been rolled into Global Affairs Canada) supported amendments to Colombia’s legislation that opened Colombia to extractive multinational companies. “These companies have allied with mercenaries, the military and paramilitaries,” said Ramirez.
For Ramirez, a just energy transition involves the multinational owners of the mine covering the costs of the damage they have done to Indigenous and peasant communities, and workers.
Ramirez noted that 4,000 trade unionists have been murdered in Colombia since 1986. On March 22, 2008, Adolfo González Montes, a worker at Cerrejón and union leader, was tortured and killed at his home.
Despite the international attention on Colombia’s murder rate of activists, the killings continue to break records. According to Global Witness, Colombia was the most dangerous country to be a land defender in 2019: 64 of the 212 land defenders murdered last year in the world were Colombian.
As NB Power makes plans to transition off coal, solidarity activists hope that other kinds of costs are considered when sourcing transition fuels, including the human costs.
NB Power has said that they made the switch to lower-sulfur Colombian coal because it is cleaner than the higher-sulfur coal found in the Maritimes but solidarity activists argue that environmental reasons are not the only motivating factor behind NB Power’s decision to source coal from Colombia. New Brunswick boasts the fourth lowest prices for electricity in Canada.
According to Brent Patterson with the Canadian chapter of Peace Brigades International, “New Brunswickers may want to consider the impact of coal mining on the rights of Indigenous peoples in Colombia, notably their access to water, and then further consider what they might be able to do to address this situation. It’s about seeing something wrong and doing what one can to help others address an injustice.”
“Solidarity involves seeing a just energy transition as an effort that crosses borders, that upholds Indigenous rights, that protects the right to drinking water, and that is intersectional in outlook. Solidarity emphasizes climate justice, racial justice and so much more,” said Patterson.
Renelle LeBlanc lives in the Chaleur region, near the Belledune coal plant. LeBlanc has been part of efforts to educate people about the impacts of heavy industry in the region. In February, her media organization, Production Aulnes, organized the Maritime Spaces talk show that discussed heavy industry on the north shore of New Brunswick.
On this talk show, the NB Media Co-op’s Tracy Glynn talked about the need for more media attention on Colombian blood coal.
LeBlanc said she was shocked when she first found out about the human costs of coal extraction in Colombia: “First, I was lost for words. After, it came to my mind how little we know about what we consume and the fact that hardly any information is shared to that effect, unless you’re involved in some way.”
For David Coon, Green Party Leader of New Brunswick and Member of the Legislative Assembly for Fredericton South, “Political choices matter when it comes to a just transition, and old parties are committed to old ways.”
Coon believes that there is zero political will by the other political parties to propel a just energy transition in the province.
Coon argues that the Electricity Act needs to change if the province is to treat a just energy transition seriously: “One of the overriding public goals of today and for the foreseeable future is to make that just transition but it’s not written into the Electricity Act and the mandate of NB Power.”
In 2019, Coon introduced a bill to amend the Electricity Act: “I sent out a bill to try and amend the Electricity Act to at least enable municipalities to secure their electricity from renewable sources in the province, and it was defeated.”
LeBlanc believes education is essential to initiate a just transition: “To envision a just transition, we need to start by understanding what that means. I believe education is the key here and as we keep the conversation going while raising awareness, more people will be ready to move towards that goal.”
As the coal mining companies recognize that the end of coal is near, just energy transition activists at CENSAT in Colombia are dreaming of Roy’s portal to a new world: “We will fight to build a new world with regenerative practices that let us recover our reason and heart: to understand ourselves as equal to the other beings that inhabit the Earth.”
Cortney MacDonnell is an environmental action reporter with RAVEN (Rural Action and Voices for the Environment), a research project based at the University of New Brunswick.
With files from Tracy Glynn.