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The dirty story behind local energy

Eastern Massachusetts hums comfortably on Colombian coal. But the mines are devastating land and lives in the Guajira peninsula.
By AVIVA CHOMSKY  |  October 1, 2007


Aviva Chomsky is a professor of history and coordinator of Latin American, Latino, and Caribbean studies at Salem State College, and the co-editor of The People Behind Colombian Coal: Mines, Multinationals, and Human Rights. She has led three delegations to the Colombian coal region, most recently in August 2007. She can be reached at

To learn more about the devastating effects that coal mining has had on the land and lives of Colombia’s La Guajira province – and how you can help – visit the following Web sites:

Witness for Peace: WFP’s mission is to support peace, justice and sustainable economies in the Americas by changing U.S. policies and corporate practices which contribute to poverty and oppression in Latin America and the Caribbean

Mines and Communities: an international network of organizations, based in London, working on mining issues

The Atlantic Regional Solidarity Network: ARSN was formed in 1981 with the objective of improving coordination of Atlantic Canadian work in solidarity with the people of Latin America and the Caribbean. Atlantic Canada also gets a lot of coal from Cerrejon

The North Shore Colombia Solidarity Committee: The Committee was formed by people from various North Shore communities in Massachusetts in response to the news that a portion of the coal for the Salem, Mass. power plant was coming from a mine in Colombia where human rights violations were being committed against the people in the villages surrounding the mine.

Healthlink: A Massachusetts group whose mission is to protect and improve public health by reducing and eliminating pollutants and toxic substances from our environment, through research, education, and community action.

ALBANIA, COLOMBIA — It’s hard to imagine that a town as poor as this one could have a slum. But on the rutted dirt roads leading off the town’s central plaza, many newcomers have constructed makeshift dwellings in the shadows of “overburden” — mountains of waste soil and rock — removed by the coal mine only a few kilometers away. The shacks have dirt floors and, when the wind blows in the wrong direction, the air is thick with dust.

Six years ago, Albania’s newest arrivals led a different sort of life in a town that has since been wiped off the map. They were farmers, largely self-sustaining, who supplemented their living with cash from surplus crops of lemons, plantains, and grapefruit. Their lives were not idyllic, but neither were they wretched. The town they then called home was Tabaco.

Today Tabaco is a memory, obliterated as it was on August 9, 2001, to allow for expansion of the world’s largest open-pit coal mine. On that day, employees of the Cerrejón Zona Norte mine — supported by armed security guards, the national police, and the army, which dragged some residents from their homes by force — leveled the town with bulldozers, evicting Tabaco’s 700 residents and razing its every structure. The coal from that mine now fires power plants in the Bay State. Anytime anyone in Eastern Massachusetts flips on a light switch, there’s a better than 25 percent chance the illumination they enjoy comes as a result of the misery inflicted on the displaced residents of the now non-existent town.

One of the people displaced by the massive, 30-by-five-mile Cerrejón mine was Aura Pérez, then age 70. “[Tabaco] was very beautiful,” she mourned in a videotaped testimonial, as she stood before the ruins of her house on that fateful August day. “There was plenty of food — the people here hardly ever got sick because everything was clean. There was a beautiful pond, unpolluted — this was what life used to be like here. It was very safe; you could go wherever you wanted, at any hour of the day or night. . . . Look how it’s all destroyed. They destroyed everything.”

Some 100 of the people displaced on August 9 took refuge in Tabaco’s school, which had been left standing. When it was razed in January of 2002, they moved to a plot of land they had formerly farmed that had since been purchased by the mine. They slept in hammocks. In April, the mine company evicted them from there, as well. By November, Aura Pérez was dead.

“She died of impotence,” says her brother José Julio Pérez, who also was displaced when Tabaco was destroyed. Aura Pérez was one of 14 people who died in the months after the village was evacuated. “When she became sick,” her brother explained, “there was no way to get the medicine she needed. We lost our homes, we lost our land, we lost our community, we lost our livelihoods — we lost everything.”

Map of Colombia’s La Guajira Province, which borders Venezuela and the Caribbean Sea.

Another one bites the dust
Tabaco was an Afro-Colombian community founded, according to its elders, by enslaved Africans who rebelled aboard a slave ship at the end of the 1700s, overcame their captors, and reached land on the northern Colombian coast as free men and women. They traveled inland and established several free villages near the Ranchería River. In this remote, windswept region, they farmed and traded with local indigenous Wayuu for 200 years — until the coal mine came and everything changed.

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  Topics: News Features , Massachusetts, Politics, Salem State College,  More more >
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The dirty story behind local energy
all this article is pure bullshit! were did you got his info?? i have lived in the community of el Cerrejon and never have displaced people! the company gives the people of la Guajira millions of dollars, it's one of the most important companies in Colombia and also one of the most aware of ecological matters. Please go to Colombia and see the reality, these stories are not real!
By yayaya on 12/15/2007 at 4:31:13
The dirty story behind local energy
As an American expatriate living in Latin America (Oaxaca, Mexico), I’ve experienced many fellow Americans whose understanding of the relationship between the material wealth of the U.S. and the poverty imposed on much of the rest of the world is exactly zero. Aviva Chomsky's article carries the ring of truth, which the anonymous 'yayaya' wants to reject, clearly without having considered additional sources of information offered with the article. He (or she) prefers to live in ignorance, like Jewish Israelis living in 'nice' clean communities built over bulldozed Palestinian villages. george.salzman(at)
By George Salzman on 12/17/2007 at 1:26:16

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