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Globalization gone horribly wrong

The mine began as a joint venture between the Colombian government and Exxon Corporation 25 years ago intended to supply cheap, high-quality coal to North America and Europe.

NOVA SCOTIA POWER gets the best quality coal it can at the cheapest price on the international market. Always sensitive to the price of electricity and, increasingly, to pollution, Nova Scotians would blame it if it did any less.

But there's an underside to the story. NSP gets that coal from the El Cerrejon Norte coal mine in northern Colombia, a notoriously dirty piece of business in that unfortunate country where it's hard to tell which is worse: the army and its paramilitary killers, the armed narco-traffickers, the rebel insurgents or the foreign corporations backed by the World Bank.

El Cerrejon Norte, one of the world's largest open-pit mines -- occupying an original area 50 kilometres long and eight wide, and expanding constantly -- is a continuing horror story of forced relocations of indigenous people, human rights violations, environmental destruction and other assorted injustices that one human rights group calls "a perfect example of globalization gone horribly wrong."

The subject comes up because Francisco Ramirez, president of the National Coal Miners Union of Colombia, was in Halifax last week trying to make a point. The most remarkable thing about Ramirez, apart from his immense courage, is that he's still alive. A total of 74 unionists were killed in Colombia last year alone and Ramirez says he has dodged seven assassination attempts.

He wants NSP and anyone else with clout to pressure the multinationals and the Colombian government to respect human rights. Despite the reasonableness of this request, he doesn't appear to have received much of a hearing at NSP. What should we think, then, since our demand for coal is part of the problem?

First, here's more of the story. The mine began as a joint venture between the Colombian government and Exxon Corporation 25 years ago intended to supply cheap, high-quality coal to North America and Europe.

It bordered on and partly covered reservation land of the indigenous Wayuu people, whose way of life has been largely shattered.

In 2000, as a result of pressure to privatize from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the Colombian government sold its half to an international consortium. In 2002, Exxon (now Exxon-Mobil) sold its half to the consortium as well -- but not before the community of Tabaco (pop. 700) was bulldozed flat to expand the mine.

It was done so quickly and without notice that residents, pushed out by 500 soldiers and 200 police who accompanied the mine operator, didn't even have time to retrieve their personal effects. When the job was complete, the village's school and clinic were also razed and the cemetery desecrated. There was no compensation. Critics accused Exxon of doing this as part of the deal, before it bowed out.

If such corporate degeneracy, done in our name as First World consumers, shock us, what can we in fact do?

Here's one thing. In 2002, representatives of the Wayuu visited Salem, Mass., where the power plant imports coal from the mine. Salem city council promptly passed a resolution supporting their struggle, and the power plant manager called the El Cerrejon Norte operators telling them the town expected them to negotiate with the Wayuu and find a just settlement.

Since our electrical system in Nova Scotia (80 per cent coal) functions on these people's misery, don't we owe them as much? If we are indeed a moral people, why wouldn't our legislature pass a similar resolution and NSP similarly convey its expectation that justice be done?

The Wayuu representatives, in their US tour, went on to the Exxon-Mobil shareholders' meeting where their story caused some embarrassment. International support has been growing. Meanwhile, the Colombian supreme court has ruled that the residents of Tabaco be compensated -- although collecting has proved elusive.

Nevertheless, a half dozen communities beyond Tabaco that were expected to suffer the same fate by now -- their names are Tamaquitos, Guamachito, Provincial, Roche, Patilla and Chancleta -- haven't yet. Meanwhile, the company's publication, is bragging about supporting a couple of medical clinics in the area. Maybe even they are having twinges of conscience. Can we do any less?

Ralph Surette is a Nova Scotia journalist living in Yarmouth County. This column has appeared in The Chronicle Herald on 4 April 2005.

'Blood coal'

COLUMBIAN Mineworkers Union president Francisco Ramirez calls it "blood coal." It's the coal that is imported from his country into North America -- including Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

"I was getting to my office one morning when two guys on a motor bike opened fire with machine guns. I ducked out of the way. They were holding up too much traffic and sped off," said Ramierz just after he presented a message to NS Power asking them not to buy coal from mines with shady human rights records.

Ramirez thinks the would-be assassins were linked to the owners of El Cerrejon Norte. It provides approximately 17 per cent of NS Power's coal. Of all Columbian coal arriving in Canada last year 48 per cent went to Nova Scotia and 52 per cent to New Brunswick.

In 2002, 184 trade unionists were murdered in Columbia, more than the rest of the world combined, according to the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. Ramirez has escaped no fewer than seven attempts on his life for peaceful and fully legal union activities. He recently spoke to a packed house at St. Mary's University in Halifax urging Canadians to pressure NS Power and other companies into supporting human rights in Columbia.

During the mine's rapid expansion, entire Afro-Columbian communities were displaced (350,000 Columbians were violently ousted in the first nine months of 2002 alone) but "Canadian companies enjoy an excellent reputation in Colombia," says the Export Development Corporation, the government body pushing Canadian corporate interests abroad.

Being "good" corporate citizens, NS Power has only two concerns: quality and cost. The company doesn't deny allegations of human rights abuses; they just don't seem to care, refusing comment on Ramirez's predicament.

"There are coal mining cooperatives in Columbia that have good human rights records," says Ramirez. "They [worker mining cooperatives] sell coal at the world market price, so I don't know why NS Power won't even consider switching, at least until the situation improves at Cerrejun."

To make the whole situation more Canadian than a medium-double-double before pee-wee hockey, NS Power's "blood coal" is transported to our shores by Canada Steam Ship Lines -- Prime Minister Paul Martin's old taxpayer subsidized, Liberian flag waving fleet representing all that's wrong with governance in the era of globalization. It's ironic: Cape Breton coal mines close throwing thousands out of work, devastating entire communities, while we outsource production to far-off lands and buy from mines implicated in human rights abuses.

Ninety per cent of Columbia's human rights violations are perpetrated in mining and petroleum exporting regions; there have been 433 massacres in eight years, according to Amnesty International. In 2001 alone, Canadian corporations invested $869 million in these often violent sectors.

But that's the beauty of living in Canada; we rarely see the violence our way of life creates. However, if our way of life is built on systematic exploitation and in extreme cases outright murder, it can only last for so long.

Through more than a decade of life-and-death organizing, Ramirez remains hopeful for Canadians, for our spirit and sense of solidarity. "The people are different from the governments and the big companies," he said.

Chris Arsenault is a service sector organizer with the Canadian Confederation of Unions

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