The case of the Cerrejón coal mine in La Guajira, Colombia

Written by: Justin Dupre-Harbord

Colombia is currently experiencing a mining boom, especially in the extraction of coal, becoming the 9th largest exporter of steam coal in the world. However, despite having the support of the government, many of these mining operations have been accompanied by several environmental conflicts, with one of the main issues being (the availability/access to/contamination of) water.
The Cerrejón mine in the North-Eastern region of La Guajira (see Figure 1) is Colombia’s largest coal mine (and one of the largest in the world) and is responsible for 44.4% of Colombia’s coal exports, with an annual production of up to about 33 million tonnes. This high level of production requires the use of vast amounts of water (up to 34 million litres a day) as well as the diversion/modification of water bodies to make way for the mining operation. This has led to conflicts over water resource management in the region.
Despite the mine advocating that its water management is sustainable and efficient, lack of consultation and inclusion of the local, mainly indigenous Wayuu communities surrounding the mine has created a conflict between these two groups as well as with the government. On the one hand, the indigenous people and local activist groups argue that the mining operation has severely affected the water resources of the region by using up common superficial and subterranean water sources, polluting a number of rivers and streams, and causing the drying up of water bodies through diversion projects. Along with the forced displacement of many communities, these factors have greatly hindered the local indigenous people’s access to water (especially those living in rural areas near the mine). On the other hand, Cerrejón and a majority of government bodies claim that the mine’s use of water is legal and sustainable, and has minimal effects on the region’s water resources. They argue that the lack of water is caused by climatic conditions and population growth.

Read the full policy brief here >> Policy Brief-Mining and water in La Guajira-Justin Dupre-Harbord-2017

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