Barges and cargo ships dot the distant horizon off the white shores of Santa Marta. Seated on the Caribbean Sea between sandy beaches, small fishing villages, and the Sierra Nevada mountain range, Santa Marta was destined to be a centerpiece of Colombia’s growing tourism industry.
But in the 1980s, as the country pushed to open doors for foreign investment and mineral extraction, the region underwent an industrial transformation. In 1982, the first coal port arrived in Santa Marta—a wide, metal pier linking shipments to off-shore barges. Slowly it became a platform for coal exports, threatening local tourism, destroying natural habitats and traditional ways of living, dividing small communities, and pillaging mineral resources.
In a country with the largest number of internally displaced people in the world, the communities in nearby La Jagua, the country’s most productive coal mining region, contain the newest experiences of forced displacement. They are caught between the contamination of once-fertile lands that are no longer apt for food production, local waterways no longer suitable for human use, and carcinogenic air-quality responsible for respiratory diseases and skin rashes.
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By Luke Finn
Before there was Colombia, there was the extractive industry.
The legend of El Dorado stems from a Spaniard, Juan Rodriguez Freyle, watching a High Priest of the Muisca getting covered in gold dust and jumping in Lake Guatavita, near Bogotá, in a religious ceremony that makes the Pope’s big hat and incense burning look fairly underwhelming. Naturally, the Spanish saw this profligacy and wrongheaded veneration of the Sun God Sue, decided that they themselves were far better placed to use all the gold responsibly, and set about destroying the complex societies that had flourished in Colombia prior.
Legends of cities of gold (La Ciudad Blanca, the Seven Cities of Cibola) drove men who nowadays would rightly be considered genocidaires (or go-getting entrepreneurs in the global commodities market) across the Atlantic, far from their families, to an uncertain fate—an alien environment full of strange gods, beautiful birds, jeweled beetles; the sort of landscapes working class Europeans hadn’t seen since they’d left the Rift Valley and laid it to waste.
The Spanish Empire was built on this gold (and other commodities they could “extract,” worked by the stolen people of another ravaged continent.) The Muisca did less well.
Such was the conquest of the New World, and the Spanish didn’t know the half of it.
Colombia is the world’s fourth-largest producer of coal; it has 60 percent of the world’s emeralds and is the world’s second-largest nickel mine; it is a net exporter of oil; it has copper and rare earths and all the other weird stuff you never think about in spades—silica sands, coltan, and so on—that totals more than the worth of Belgium. And gold.
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A century of neglect, drug trafficking, and civil wars had made the “wild-east” Colombian department of Vichada a publicly designated “wasteland”. By the 1990’s, however, reduced hostilities allowed the government to open it up in specially regulated parcels for poor landless peasants. With Colombia as the second most unequal land distribution in the hemisphere, the redistribution scheme seemed to address the reasons that have sparked the civil war. Courageous legislative measures, such as Article 72 of Law 160 in 1994, allowed these groundbreaking changes. Furthermore they specifically prohibit one person or entity from owning multiple agricultural family units in this territory.
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Weaving a concrete thread through red dust and boiling sun, a winding two-lane highway curves through the northern department of Cesar, Colombia, carving out a familiar route. Passing between housing settlements of mud and brick stained the color of the earth, open-pit mines and mineral dumping grounds, it traces deep pockets of coal deposits. An estimated 6.8 billion metric tons of recoverable coal reserveslie throughout the country [pdf file], with the largest concentrations in the northernmost sector.
When the first multinational mining companies arrived here in the 1990s, the region was transformed. Coal production ratesincreased by 80% [pdf file] between 1999 and 2005, and traditional mining practices were all but left behind. Mineral extraction began to signify economic innovation, and the passage of free-trade agreements with the US, Canada, Korea and the European Union opened the country to foreign corporations and investment. With goals to double exports and triple mining production by the year 2021, coal production hit peak rates; a reported 85.8 million tons [pdf file] were produced in 2011 alone.
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