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

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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 achomsky@salemstate.edu.

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.

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