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Colombia: Indigenous Wayuu community battles COVID-19 at Latin America’s largest coal mine

“In a Fight Over a Colombian Coal Mine, Covid-19 Raises the Stakes” – 22 July 2020

…Now, as the global Covid-19 pandemic bears down on Colombia, the Wayuu are facing a new threat — one made exponentially worse, Uriana and others say, by the pervasive coal dust and drought. They have appealed to numerous U.N. officials, including the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, in a quest to have some of Cerrejón’s mining activities suspended. “The Covid-19 emergency is exacerbating the situation itself,” said Monica Feria-Tinta, a U.K.-based attorney for the law firm Twenty Essex, which is assisting in the Wayuu’s appeal. According to data, she said, air pollution is worsening the situation. The shortage of water for handwashing also makes it difficult to prevent disease spread. “That is the reason that pushed the Wayuu to appeal to the U.N., she added. “It is a matter of survival — of not being wiped out.” The battle pits members of the Wayuu — the largest Indigenous group in Colombia — against the owners of one of the largest coal mines in the world, and at over 270 square miles, the largest open-pit coal mine in all of Latin America. The mine — owned jointly by global giants BHP (Britain-Australia), Anglo American (South Africa), and Glencore (Britain) — employs more than as 5,800 people, according to the facility’s own figures, and it has done much to support education and health services in the region over the years. But conflict with the local community, arising from both the pollution as well as infrastructure decisions that, the Wayuu say, have favored Cerrejón’s water needs over their own, have become more pitched with the arrival of Covid-19. Cerrejón, which vigorously disputes the water-usage and environmental charges, had earlier slowed operations during Colombia’s nationwide quarantine, but resumed normal operations in May.…