Since the start of the Ukraine war, Germany has been looking for an alternative to fossil raw materials from Russia. The government is now considering Colombia as a substitute supplier. The country has one of the largest coal mines in the world. But mining comes at a high price.
El Cerrejón resembles a lunar landscape. Over an area of around 690 square kilometers, almost the area of Hamburg, excavators are eating their way through the largest open-pit hard coal mine in Latin America in northern Colombia. The mine of the Swiss company Glencore produced 23.4 million tons of coal last year. The entire amount is exported - in the future maybe even more to Germany.
Because of the war of aggression against Ukraine, the EU has imposed an import ban on coal from Russia, and the federal government is now looking around the world for alternatives. Despite the expansion of wind and solar energy, hard coal still accounts for nine percent of total electricity generation in Germany. After Russia, the USA and Australia, Colombia was the fourth most important country of origin for coal in Germany in 2021, with a 5.7 percent share of all hard coal imports. A good 2.3 million tons of hard coal came from there.
That's why Chancellor Olaf Scholz recently called Colombian President Iván Duque. Colombia is examining the possibility of increasing coal exports to Germany in order to strengthen its energy security, according to a statement by the South American country's presidential office.
Imports from the South American country have already risen sharply since the beginning of the year. In the first three months, imports from Colombia amounted to 1.1 million tons, according to the Coal Importers Association. "Compared to the previous year, this is an increase of 62 percent," said a spokesman.
And overall demand is likely to grow if Russian gas supplies collapse or fail altogether. If that threatens or happens, Federal Minister of Economics Robert Habeck wants to ensure that more coal-fired power plants in Germany start generating electricity again temporarily.
However, an increase in import volumes could present the federal government with a moral dilemma. Indigenous people and activists in the La Guajira department repeatedly complain about violations of human rights and environmental standards around El Cerrejón. "There is no doubt that the German government's decision will have negative consequences for the rights of the indigenous and rural communities of La Guajira," says Jenny Paola Ortiz, coordinator of the human rights program of the non-governmental organization Cinep.
Luís Misael Socarrás of the Wayuu indigenous people was recently threatened by gunmen on motorcycles. They surrounded his house and his mother's and searched for him, he says. "And all because of our fight against Cerrejón." Many indigenous people have already had to leave their home towns because of the expanding mine.
In the semi-desert of Guajira, it uses 24 million liters of water every day - enough to feed 150,000 people. 17 rivers and streams have already disappeared, around 30 have been diverted. The most recent example: in 2016, Cerrejón altered the course of the Bruno stream to allow the mine to be enlarged and production increased. "The Bruno stream is one of the few sources of water that remains for the indigenous people," says Socarrás. "Diverting it means the deaths of hundreds of people." The Bruno stream is also a sacred place for Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities, with dozens of medicinal plants growing only there.
After a lawsuit, the constitutional court ordered the creek to be renatured in 2017. However, nothing has happened to date. Finally, in April, a working group from various institutions, including the Ministry of the Environment, said the verdict had been complied with - and the case was filed. However, the indigenous people criticized that they were not involved.
Human rights activists and MEPs visiting La Guajira rejected the move. "We have a responsibility to these communities, we cannot be indifferent," said Gary Gannon of Ireland's Foreign Affairs Committee. Wayuu leader Laura Brito also sees consumers in Europe as having a responsibility. "The international community should think about where the coal that lights and heats their homes comes from," she says.
In view of the human rights violations around the mine, Cinep coordinator Ortiz speaks of "blood coal". Cerrejón denies the allegations. When asked, the company referred to its measures on water and air management and compliance with human rights, among other things.
With thousands of employees, Cerrejón is the most important employer in the poor region of La Guajira. Many support the mine despite the black dust, polluted water and possible diseases caused by coal mining. The government relies on the export of raw materials to drive more growth, while two-thirds of its own energy comes from hydropower.
Left-wing presidential candidate Gustavo Petro, who is leading ahead of Sunday's first ballot, wants to curb oil production. According to him, Colombia's three most important export products - coal, oil and cocaine - were poisonous.
Those who stand in the way of economic interests live dangerously in Latin America and especially in Colombia. According to the non-governmental organization Global Witness, the violence is mainly carried out by former paramilitaries, dissidents from the guerrilla organizations and the state security forces. 65 conservationists and environmental activists were killed in the country in 2020.
"I'm not afraid for my life, but for that of my family," says Socarrás. However, the indigenous activist does not want to stop fighting Cerrejón. "I am convinced that what I am doing is right - for my community, for nature and for my ancestors."