“At first we believed what they said, that the mine would bring progress for Colombia,” adds Inés Arregocés, another villager displaced from Tabaco. “But now we see that it’s sadness and destruction for Colombia, because we were displaced from our homes, from our lands. . . . They are dumping huge piles of earth where our houses, our streets, our schools used to be. And now it’s just giant mountains of dirt, contamination, and suffering for us.”

“We’ve gone from being a productive community,” adds Wilman Palmezano of Chancleta, “to a community of paupers.”

MOUNTAIN OF WASTE An unobstructed view from the village of Patilla of the Cerrejón mine’s “overburden,” or rock and soil waste.

Silver and coal
Although the mine’s impact on local communities has been devastating, some people inside Colombia and outside are reaping benefits from the operation. The most obvious beneficiaries are the management-level employees of the mine itself. Many of them live in the town of Mushaisa, inside the gated compound of the mine. There they enjoy a quiet suburban lifestyle that seems light-years removed from the villages outside. Paved, well-lit streets are flanked by green lawns and brightly painted houses. Tennis courts, swimming pools, movie theaters, and shops provide entertainment and supplies. Electricity flows everywhere, and water runs sparkly clean from the taps. Children attend one of the country’s best bilingual schools, where they follow a US curriculum. Outside, the illiteracy rate is 65 percent and most children don’t make it past the fifth grade — if they attend school at all.

Most of the mine’s 5000 direct employees and 5000 subcontracted workers also benefit from the mine’s presence. The majority of the direct employees have a significant level of technical training, and work operating heavy machinery or in the machine repair shops. They don’t live in Mushaisa — that’s reserved for high-level management. But neither do they live in the impoverished villages around the mine. Most of them come from cities like Barranquilla and Valledupar, where they had access to higher education.

A job at Cerrejón is a good job by Colombian standards. Although the pay is far less than a comparable job would pay in the United States, but workers enjoy a strong union, health and education benefits, and pensions. Subcontracted workers are generally not so well-off. They aren’t covered by the union contract, and their jobs are lower-paid and often temporary. Still, a job is a job, and, in a country with a poverty rate of 50 percent and unemployment ranging from 10 to 20 percent in recent years, a job is not to be sneezed at.

The company’s profits flow around the world. Coal is now Colombia’s second largest legal export, following oil, and Cerrejón’s exports represent an important source of foreign exchange for Colombia. The company pays royalties of more than $100 million US dollars a year to the Colombian government, much of which is returned to local municipalities.

The profits also flow into the coffers of the three multinationals that own the mine, benefiting their employees and executives. And Cerrejón pays out more than half a billion dollars to its shareholders every year. In 2005 it reported close to $450 million in retained profits. The communities affected by the mine got a much smaller compensation from the company’s operation: Cerrejón spent just $2 million in its “communities division.”

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