GENEVA, September 28, 2020 – Colombia should suspend some operations at one of the world’s largest coal mines because it has seriously damaged the environment and health of the country’s largest indigenous community, and is making them more vulnerable to COVID-19, a UN human rights expert said today.
“I call on Colombia to implement the directives of its own Constitutional Court and to do more to protect the very vulnerable Wayúu community on the Provincial indigenous reserve against pollution from the huge El Cerrejón mine and from COVID-19,” said David Boyd, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment. “At least during the pandemic, operations at the Tajo Patilla site close to the Provincial reserve should be suspended until it can be shown to be safe.”
Breathing polluted air and not having enough clean water puts people at greater risk of becoming sick, Boyd said, adding that during the coronavirus pandemic, this can be a deadly threat. “The science is clear; people living in areas that have experienced higher levels of air pollution – such as that around the El Cerrejón mine – face increased risk of premature death from COVID-19,” he said.
Despite a court order last December that directed Colombian authorities and the owners of El Cerrejón mine to improve air quality and reduce the mine’s harm to the residents, not enough has been done to protect members of the Wayúu community in the Provincial reserve. The Court found the company had damaged the health of residents in the Provincial reserve by contaminating the air, water and vegetation, and through noise and vibration from mining.
El Cerrejón, the largest open-pit mine in Latin America, borders protected communal lands of the Wayúu community, in La Guajira Department in the northeast of the country. The mining company, Cerrejón, is independently operated and belongs in equal parts to subsidiaries of the international mining companies BHP, Anglo American and Glencore.
Residents living near the mine, particularly in Provincial, suffer from headaches, nasal and respiratory discomfort, dry cough, burning eyes and blurred vision as a result of open-pit mining carried out 24 hours a day, seven days a week, using heavy machinery and explosives. Explosions cause houses to shake and propel coal dust into the air, water and soil.
Mining and transportation along railroads also owned by the company emit fine particles called PM 2.5, invisible to the human eye. This pollutant can cause asthma, respiratory illnesses, heart disease, hypertension and cancer, skin and eye damage, miscarriages and premature births, but only began to be measured in 2018, after the mine had already been operating for 35 years.
The Cerrejón mine is also the largest water polluter in the region. The company not only diverts and uses a huge number of streams and tributaries, but also pours back water contaminated with heavy metals and chemicals. In response to this the company has helped to truck water to residents, but Boyd said that the water pollution had denied the communities of access to clean water in the first place. “This has made the Wayúu community more dependent on the alternative source of water and leaves them more exposed to the risk of COVID-19,” he said
“It is absolutely vital that Colombia protect the indigenous peoples’ rights to life, health, water, sanitation, and a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment by halting mining close to the Provincial reserve until it can be made safe.” “I further call on the mining company to increase its effort to prevent further harm to people and also to ensure that those who have been negatively impacted have access to effective remedy.”
His call was endorsed by Mr. Michael Fakhri, Special Rapporteur on the right to food; Ms. Tlaleng Mofokeng, Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health; and Ms. Anita Ramasastry (Chair), Mr. Dante Pesce (Vice-Chair), Mr. Surya Deva, Ms. Elżbieta Karska, and Mr. Githu Muigai, Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises. Mr Leo Heller, Special Rapporteur on the rights to water and sanitation, Olivier De Schutter, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Marcos A. Orellana, Special Rapporteur on hazardous substances and wastes, and Francisco Cali Tzay, Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples.
David R. Boyd was appointed as the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment for a three-year term commencing August 1, 2018. He is an associate professor of law, policy, and sustainability at the University of British Columbia. He has advised many governments on environmental, constitutional, and human rights policy and co-chaired Vancouver’s effort to become the world’s greenest city by 2020. He is a member of the World Commission on Environmental Law, an expert advisor for the UN’s Harmony with Nature Initiative, and a member of ELAW, the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide.
The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.
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