By Felipe Morales Sierra, El Espectador, February 5, 2020
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
It’s been more than a month since the decision that called for urgent measures to benefit the indigenous people of La Guajira. Nobody has even been notified.
The Court has sanctioned Cerrejón Coal Limited at least 17 times for the effects its open-pit coal mine has had on the Wayuu indigenous people who live near the mine in La Guajira. The most recent decision that we know of is the Constitutional Court’s order of last December 16, when it ordered the company and the authorities to take “urgent temporary measures to reduce the risk that the company’s operations represent for the indigenous community” of Provincial, in the Municipality of Barrancas. After more than a month since the order, with which the plaintiffs are not entirely in agreement, nothing has changed.
The petition contained in the suit against Cerrejón, the Ministries of Health and Environment, the National Environmental Licensing Authority (ANLA in Spanish), the National Mining Agency, and the Autonomous Regional Corporation of La Guajira (Corporguajira) was simple: close Tajo Patilla, one of the quarries where the company mines coal, which is barely 500 meters from the community. Even though the Court, in its decision, admitted – one more time – that the mining activity directly affects the health of the indigenous people, and the environment, it did not issue the order requested in the civil rights action. Rather, it ended up issuing 12 new orders that were “urgent”, as they made clear in the decision.
The Court made clear that the company ought “to have adequately and thoroughly identified the possible impacts that the nearby sites and dumps could have on the residents of the Provincial reservation” before Tajo Patilla was built. But, instead of ordering them to be closed, it ordered Cerrejón to control the levels of particulate matter which their activities emit and which contaminate the air; to clean up the houses in the community of all the coal dust, a residual that is part of mining; to reduce the levels of noise produced at the site; to prevent the contamination of water sources, and to increase their efforts at fire prevention, along with other measures.
More than a month after the issuance of all those orders, El Espectador consulted the women who had filed the civil rights action, Mary Luz Uriana and Yasmina Uriana, two of the nearly 700 inhabitants of the community, about the effects this court decision has had in their lives. “Nothing has changed,” they said. Every person we asked in the community said the same thing. In spite of the fact that more than seven weeks had passed since the decision was issued, they had not even been notified formally, and neither had the agencies subject to the Court’s “urgent” orders, a fact that prevents them from being able to carry out the measures that were ordered.
The situation in this community in the Municipality of Barrancas, so close to the mine, continues to be the same as it was before they filed the suit. “At midnight, if you touch anything with your hand, there’s a white powder,” and “all the walls move, the floor, the houses shake from the vibration of the earth,” “we don’t ever see potable water,” are some of the things that the traditional authorities in the reservation described to this paper. But, beyond these effects they are living with, they reproach the Court for not having provided the concrete solution they were hoping for, and instead having created more bureaucratic procedures for solving their problems.
Yasmina Uriana, one of the plaintiffs, describes the decision as “favorable to the community” because, she says, “the Court said that there were effects on the reservation environment, on health, and, in general, on the territory,” but immediately thereafter, she is reproachful: “The lawsuit we filed was seeking the closure of the Patilla site, which was the one producing the worst effects on our community and on our air. They decided in our favor, but they did not do what we really had hoped for. They didn’t carry out the community’s principal hope.” Even though they are now aware of the decision through the communications media and through the Court’s web page, they are still waiting to be notified.
Rosa Mateus, the lawyer from the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective (Cajar) has aided the plaintiffs, and she says that the decision left a bad taste. According to Mateus, “The community feels that of course it is a giant step because the company has never admitted that these effects exist, but the Court didn’t order what the plaintiffs hoped for. Even though it’s another decision, this decision did not do justice because there are 17 similar decisions regarding Cerrejón, specifically for Provincial, which is one of the most appalling cases in La Guajira,.” Besides, she points out that they have their hands tied because not having received formal notification of the decision, they can’t, for example, request clarification or reconsideration.