Coal: An Empire Without God Or Law

(Translated by Janelle Nodhturft and Rolf Schoeneborn, CSN volunteer translators)

By: Ismael Paredes

Capital hates the absence of profits…if the profit is suitable, capital is game… 20% profit gets it excited; 50% profit causes a demented recklessness; 100% results in the trampling of every human law; and at 300% profit there is no crime they wouldn’t dare commit…” J.F. Dunning

The passage of time and the mining of coal have changed, for better or for worse, the history of Tintoba Chiquito, a rural community of 15 families, some 60 people.  Several of the houses made from wood and mud – with roof tiles made also of mud – are the mark of the last generation guarding and preserving its traditions.  Elderly men and women hold fast to their word and firm convictions, and to their woolen ponchos and hats, and have fought a hard and perhaps final battle against the passage of time; resisting trends, the revolution of ideas, and technological advancement.

There are few elderly living there today.  A woman, besieged by brutal asthma, remembers how it was when she was a young girl, the coal would seem to come floating in abundance all over the land. Since then she knew that the coal would change the history of her farm.  Her parents were still living; Gorgonio Paredes and Teodolinda Barrera, ‘Miss Tioda,’ were the owners of “La Hornilla,” a farm where coal has now been mined for the past four years.

The history of this elderly woman, whose illness “is worsened, according to her children, by the coal dust,” represents that of many of the families that have lived by cultivating wheat, corn, potatoes and other vegetables that will grow, albeit poorly, on these dry lands, and from raising goats and chickens.  With the sale of these products they can shop at the market for salt, sugar, oil, lemons and coffee: the indispensables.  In those days, the women would spin sheep’s wool to make ponchos, typical for this particular region.

The history of the community began to change radically six years ago when geologists and engineers, guided by town officials, initiated technical surveys, i.e. in an exploratory stage.  The actual mining of coal in two mines,“La Hornilla” and “Los Arrayanes,” began four years ago.

Now, with the new generation and the emerging mining industry there are new cinder block buildings with zinc roofs, televisions, DVDs , sound systems and the newest cell phones have  arrived. Alcohol is also sold to miners who “invest” their money in consumption.  Little by little praying with rosaries and reading the bible is being replaced by street dancing and music, alcohol, partying and watching soap operas.

The people of Tintoba Chiquito have been and continue to be witnesses to a technological and industrial boom; the area has been invaded by colossal machinery (retroexcavators, dump trucks, power drills, electric pumps, and power plants) that broke the immemorial silence of a region “forgotten by the State and the local government,” according to several people.  “You take away a part of someone’s life when you destroy their land with so many mines and roads,” says a niece of Mr. Gorgonio, the elderly man who died without enjoying the enormous riches of his farm.

The Queen of the Mountains and the Town

The eagle extended its wing, followed its prey, caressed its young and circled the immense skies of the Oriental Cordillera Mountain Range.  The tops of these mountains offered him nourishment and freedom of flight.  He was lord over the tremendous heights of the mountains of Jericho, a sleepy town deeply rooted in its conservative tradition and caught up in old political disputes. Here he made his nest, raised his young chicks and stayed in order to protect “the people of the mountain tops.” This legend gave life to the town of Jericho, located in the Oriental Cordillera Mountain Range, at 3,140 meters above sea level, to the north of Boyaca.

But this majestic bird, a symbol of freedom to the people of Jericho, didn’t protect the indigenous agrarian people, the first settlers on this land.  They were wiped out by the Spanish under the command of Hernán Pérez de Quesada, who arrived in 1560 with his conquistadores searching for the sanctuary of Casa del Sol – a place where the indigenous worshipped their gods and kept large quantities of gold.

Today Jericho is a Catholic town, “but without gold,” affirm several people.  “The Spanish took almost all of it with them.”  The only gold left is in the church called la Custodia where the Host is kept and becomes the body of Christ when the faithful come to take communion.  Since its founding as a town on the 21st of October, 1821 Jericho has identified itself as the “nest of eagles and the birthplace of kind people and dream-like landscapes.”

Coal mining, trade, the cultivation of potatoes, cereals, vegetables, legumes and recently alfalfa, small scale livestock operations, the breeding of sheep and goats, are the principal activities that keep the economy in motion and determine the way of life and thus the customs of Jericho.

Tintoba Chiquito: The “Cinderella” of Jericho

Until 22 years ago, Tintoba Chiquita had survived five landslides that wiped out nearly all of the fertile land and half a dozen homes.  The second to last landslide in 1980 caused a lake (la laguna) to form. Along with the lake several legends of treasures and spells emerged.  The best known include the legends of the chicken with eleven yellow chicks and of the huge snake made of gold.
There were long, dry summers, sometimes four in a row, that left the soil parched and arid and the people plunged into deep poverty. One of these dry summers was attributed to a curse by Luis Francisco Pinto, a priest expulsed from Jericho by the last aristocratic caudillos.

The “reverend,” according to several testimonies, did not have any problems following the recommendation of the Christian gospel: “Where you are not well received take off your shoes, shake the dust off your feet and place curses on the town…” So therefore in Tintoba Chiquito there were no basic services, no schools; what exists today was constructed at the end of the 80s. The rest of the towns and farmlands in the area obtained their services some twenty years earlier.

In 2005 when coal mining began there were already roads and electricity in Tintoba Chiquito. The road was built thanks to the dedication and pressure from several peasants who, with hard work and determination, helped with the machinery and the bulldozing during the difficult steps of construction. They opposed the suspension of work that was being considered when the road was only halfway finished. “We made them the road and now they – the concession owners and their friends- are the ‘we’ and we have to pay homage to them” a 60- year old man said with irony.

With the popular election for mayoralty in 1998, some things changed. “There’s more attention and Tintoba Chiquito at least is now being mentioned,” affirm some Tintoba Chiquito residents. The mayor and his staff see people without an appointment – 30 years ago they dealt with peasants by screaming at them, pounding the desk and having police escort them to the outskirts of town. Today the vast majority of staff pays attention with respect and interest, especially to women, who preserve an air of joy and tenderness that characterizes the beautiful women of this town.

Who Benefits from the Coal

Today there is extensive coal mining in the Tintoba Chiquito area that once had very rich farm land but is now populated by impoverished people that have hardly begun to realize how much black gold is taken from their lands, leaving them with enormous environmental problems, fewer water resources, infertile land, community divisions and quarrels, and huge profits that go not to them, but to those who exploit the land.

People in the region insist that the concession owners have been able to acquire fancy vehicles, extensive farms and luxurious homes in several cities as a result of their mining profits. “Their earnings are increasing disproportionately, while they are destroying soil and water.” In 2007 and almost all of 2008 the total of coal mined reached a price of $350,000, with  a daily coal production amounting to 40 to 60 tons. The owner paid the miners $1,500 pesos per ton and recently $3,500 per ton.

Eduardo García-Suárez – who was granted a mining permission by Ingeominas  under the contract of concession FD6-093 – of the mine “La Hornilla”, affirms that the mining industry presents itself as an alternative for overcoming poverty, “but this is actually very costly and the profits earned are not very much.”

The benefits “are for the concession owners. The community does not receive even 0.5% of the profits that mining brings in,” affirms Juan de Jesús Hernández, who with Pedro Paredes and a few other people has demanded a fairer deal that abides by environmental norms and better remuneration for the land owners. Both are peasants, who like other young people left the region in search of  a better life.  Upon their return, they warned people what they saw happening as a result of mining.  “Nobody paid any attention, ” they remember.

In January of 2007 Paredes and Hernández with the help of some others carried out a blockade of the road, demanding improvements. They made demands under the authority bestowed upon their mothers, Luisa María Paredes and Rosana Paredes, who had directly inherited the land. In order to represent the women, they made claims and conducted negotiations in defense of their rights and interests. However, the police evicted them. Since then, according to the men, they have received threats and been the victims of aggression on the part of the concession owners and the mayor’s office. “The mayor told me that I was brute and ignorant,” said Pedro.

Eduardo García (twice mayor of the town: 1988-1990, 1995-1997) filed  a  restraining order with city hall against Juan de Jesús and Pedro for interference with the mining process and the administration ruled in his favor. The leaders of the community in Tintoba accused the mayor of exceeding his authority and political favoritism with respect to this  ruling: “those who own the  coal mines finance his election campaign; they arrange everything among themselves and the community is left to shoulder the consequences,” affirms Juan de Jesús.

Arguello maintains that he has not attacked or threatened the community. “I didn’t do anyone a political favor; as mayor I have to comply with Law 685 of 2001, the mining code. The ruling was made in favor of those who had the proper papers in order for the mining of coal. García for his part affirms that “I was not assaulted nor did I assault anybody…. the State gave me the concession on behalf of ‘Tintoba Chico;’ I tried to make it so that all the people would benefit. What happens though is that sometimes incomprehension reigns…”

Who The Mining Industry Benefits

Pedro Paredes affirms that the mining activity violates the right to privacy of the people that live in the group house in “La Hornilla,” in the proximity of the mining camp. “It’s only 10 meters from the house and it’s no secret to anybody that here there are no sanitation services.”

Freddy Suarez Vargas, representing the city of Jericho, says he has not received any complaints regarding violations of human rights, but maintains that the mining legislation does not favor the property owners. “They have to cede the lots of land where there is coal to be mined according the conditions that the owner of the mining concession sees fit.”

Hernández and Paredes say that so far just the government has been supportive. Even the Attorney General’s Office issued protective measures. “But the authorities still protect the concession owners, while threatening us and labeling us criminals.” They report that they asked Ingeominas Boyacá for permission to begin mining and then refused to pay for it.

In effect the Mining Code, in article 250, has provisions for the association of peasants to acquire mining licenses; “the community associations benefit from the special prerogatives laid out in the present Code.” However, according to the government official Suarez “the people can organize themselves and create associations but it’s very difficult to get the government to grant them concessions. I even dare to say that there are many special interests playing a role that influence the ways in which the government allocates mining zones.” He says this based on testimonies from those who have solicited concessions for different areas.

Juan de Jesús thinks that the mining code isn’t made to favor the community, nor the actual owners of the land, but rather to satisfy the political and economic interests in the mix. “Furthermore,” he says “ the people here because of their meekness and a lack of knowledge are afraid to insist on their rights. Those who have the mining licenses intimidate the land owners, saying that if they do not allow for mining on their land, it will be taken by force.

Other people in Tontoba Chiquito say mining causes air pollution, water pollution and even pollutes peoples’ consciousness.  “To me it hurts to see that they are taking away the riches of my grandparents and ruin the farm that they left to us,” says Dona Tioda’s granddaughter. Eduardo García explains that it is not a question of appropriating resources. “The coal belongs to the State and they negotiated a contract with the people in regard to making mining possible on their land. They pay the people for the right to mine there, and they also pay those who are actually working in the mines.

Pedro Paredes say that the coal is indeed property of the State, “but those who mine it enjoy the benefits  and the community suffers the consequences: contamination, environmental depredations, health problems and human rights violations. The companies pay a laughable fixed percentage without taking the community into account. The benefits are practically nothing, only one percent of the workers are from here and the rest are from other areas.”

For the local government, the mining industry “has generated work, economic growth and income for the owners of the land,” assures Mayor Arguello, but he admits that the owners of the mining concessions are indeed doing very well for themselves economically but fail to make social investments in the town.

“If  there are really so many benefits how is it possible that the town that generates the most royalties for the municipality lacks an aqueduct, some seven households do not have electricity and there is not even one teacher for the school?” asks Don Gorgonio’s granddaughter.

Arguello insists that there will be an aqueduct and power for the town. “The administration is moving forward with a project to bring water to the people of Tintoba Chiquito- in 2009- for an aqueduct,  human consumption and  for electricity for the four or five families still without it.”

“Wisdom Has Built Its Own House”

The complaints of a Tintobian woman, mother of three girls, in reference to their education, contrasts with the slogan of the school, which is “Tintoba Chiquito: Wisdom Has Built Its Own House.” In 2008 some fifteen students lost their school year because the teacher assigned to the school got sick in October and there was no replacement. The community presented various memos to the municipality. There was no response.

The mayor affirms that in 2009 there will not be a problem like this and says that he contacted the Department of Education to solicit a teacher. “We were not able to finish the academic year because there were no resources, and the teacher was unable to work 8 to 10 days and given this situation there was no replacement possible.”

Today the dwelling place of wisdom is a temple without a teacher and in a state of  utter neglect; the walls broken down, the garden withered and the kitchen a terrifying mess. …The community doesn’t explain if it is due to a lack of interest and commitment on the part of the Department of Education, the local administration, or if the marvelous woman – wisdom – has neglected to do her work.
Water and Customs Disappearing

The few water wells- clean and usable- that were left are muddy and contaminated today. “Some have already dried up,” Pedro Paredes corroborates. Another women predicts that “in 10 years there won’t be any water.” Humberto Paredes, town councilor maintains that Tintoba Chiquita is one of the  towns that is  richest in minerals such as coal “but we are alarmed by the extreme poverty of its residents, total neglect of the area, the ruin of its soil and water wells, and contamination….We have hope to meet this challenge and improve this situation.”

The town councilor asks that the appropriate organizations, such as Minambiente, the Departments of Health and Education, Ingeominas and Corpoboyaca “take charge of the situation and turn their attention to these people that truly need assistance.”
The mining industry also appears to have been affected the customs of the region. ‘Dona Tioda,’ a woman of courage and fortitude, who died seven years ago was one of the last wool spinners. “After her death there was no longer anyone who spun, the mining industry has damaged everything….” says a woman in the community.

The Miners

Underground mining is done here which requires a mine shaft – a type of tunnel- and in order to advance downward  timber supports, i.e. pieces of round wood,  are placed vertically on the sides of the shaft. They support the cross beams which support the weight of the rock. The worker takes out the coal with a wheelbarrow up to the top of the shaft, and there puts it in a little car hooked up to a  hoisting machine and a motorized pulley that is driven by an operator up to a fixed point. Here the workers bring it to a bin where the carbon is stored.

Two or three people work in the same shaft. They have to separate the layers of coal from the    rock. “This is called intercalation,” explains a miner. “Each layer or seam is between 20 and 40 centimeters.” To deal with the darkness they carry mercury lamps with rechargeable batteries. After twelve hours of hard work the miner has taken out from one to three tons of coal, for each ton he receives a payment of 17,000 pesos. He has to pay for his own food.

The local government warns the miners of the health problems and general risks associated with work in the mining industry. “There are cases,” says Arguello, “in which huge rocks fell and a few workers were left disabled or lost their lives.” In November of 2008 in “La Hornilla” a 27 year old worker suffered an accident and hurt his spinal column. Today he sits in a wheelchair.

This “is a real problem,” affirms the government representative  Suarez. “There have been official hearings several times to investigate complaints by the community and encourage the miners to take legal action to try to ensure the payment of their social benefits. The worker should be insured so that in case of an accident  he receives  disability payments or a pension to which he is entitled.”

Being inside a mine with suffocating heat, nauseating odors and irritating coal dust doesn’t seem to bother the miner that much, nor does being worn out by the discomfort and darkness.  The fatigue caused by a week’s worth of work in the mines is quickly forgotten when the worker gets to the bar offering frww drinks for everyone.

Few miners save money or think about the future; some say that they have to take advantage of every little bit of time and the mining job should be seen as a temporary activity. “If one works for a long time in the mines  health and life is gone. One gets dust and coal in the eyes and lungs which leaves the miner with red, worn faces and which affects their bronchial tubes. The water inside of the mining shafts causes allergies and a light red rash,” explains a young miner.

The Clamor of a Community

In the course of their efforts to preserve their land, life, culture and their scarce water sources the inhabitants of Tintoba Chiquito are launching now  definitive steps  and say that the response they receive will determine either their destruction or their survival as a community. Pedro and Juan de Jesús, opposition leaders describe the area as vulnerable to environmental deterioration and as difficult to reclaim. To them, the voice of protest of the granddaughter of ‘Dona Tioda’ sums it all up. “If today this land isn’t producing any crops, what will happen here in 30 years when they’ve extracted  all  the coal .”

Environmental Management Plan, EMP

Tintoba Chiquito “is a burned, dry and arid area,” affirms Mayor Arguello. “There is no water to use for reforestation, but the miners are under the obligation and the commitment of reforesting the affected zone.” García explains that they have not been working on reforestation during the summer because the community was not in agreement. He assures that “in 2009 we will have to comply with the established timeline for environmental management and with the agreements made with the community for reforestation.

The Independent Regional Corporation of Boyacá says that if the community feels affected it should ask for a verification visit. “This organization will provide support and suitable  accompaniment during the process.” The Environmental License- EL- 42/07- granted Eduardo Garcia by Corpoboyacá  makes the reforestation program the main priority. Its principal objective should be to “identify, define and evaluate the potential impact and effects of mining on the natural resources and the physical, biological and social environment in terms of each project alternative.”

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