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How Colombia’s Dirty Coal Fuels Germany’s Energy Transition

At El Cerrejon, Latin America’s largest open-pit coal mine, reports of human rights abuses and environmental destruction are piling up. Is that compatible with Germany’s values-driven foreign policy and Supply Chain Act?

“The monster” pushed Greylis Pinto out, and she says life hasn’t really improved since. “The monster” is the name local residents give to El Cerrejon, Latin America’s largest open-pit coal mine in northern Colombia. Sprawling across an area of 69,000 hectares (about 170,500 acres), or 100,000 football pitches, almost 20 million tons of coal are mined here every year to satisfy the world’s hunger for energy, and Germany’s as well.

The Colombian government made sure that people like Pinto would not get in the way of the lucrative business of Swiss company Glencore, which acquired the mining rights in 1995 and by 2022 was recording an annual turnover of $256 billion (€233 billion).

Pinto and her Afro-Colombian community of Chancleta were forcibly relocated by Colombian authorities 11 years ago. “Our current situation is appalling,” Pinto told DW. “We now live far away from our native land, where we had everything, most importantly food security. Now we have nothing: no water, no health care and no jobs.”

Pinto is currently on tour in Europe with activists Carolina Matiz and Tatiana Cuenca to draw attention to the precarious situation of the communities that were effectively swallowed up by the “monster” and then spat out somewhere else. 

The fatal consequences of forced resettlement

For “Nueva Chancleta,” this has meant living on new land that is unsuitable for farming, with unreliable water and gas services and not enough work to earn a living. Colombia’s Constitutional Court confirmed in 2015 that the forced resettlement violated the community’s rights to a healthy environment, clean drinking water and life.

“Coal has been mined in Cerrejon for 40 years, and the contract allows for another 10 years,” Tatiana Cuenca, coordinator of the water and mining conflicts program at the Colombian environmental protection organization Censat Agua Vida, told DW. “And this is in La Guajira, the poorest region of Colombia, where more than 5,000 children died of malnutrition in the last ten years. So when we talk about an energy transition that is supposed to be fair, we have to look at what the consequences of mining have been over the last four decades, which Germany has also benefited from.”

These consequences are laid out point by point in the recent study “Does Cerrejon Always Win?” which was co-published by the human rights organization Oxfam: Destruction and pollution of forests, groundwater, and rivers; increases in respiratory diseases and cancer, probably caused by coal dust; frequent attacks targeting activists and no adequate compensation after forced evictions, such as in Chancleta.

Glencore’s response to the new report on El Cerrejon

Glencore, the world’s largest commodities trading and mining group, has denied these accusations, citing the millions the company has paid in taxes, as well as payments made to the region for social and environmental initiatives and the wide distribution of drinking water.

In a statement, Glencore said: “Glencore is committed to respecting human rights in line with the United Nations (UN) Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights … We uphold the dignity, fundamental freedoms and human rights of our people, communities and others potentially affected by our activities.”

“What is happening in La Guajira in terms of human rights is well documented,” Carolina Matiz from the human rights organization CINEP told DW. “But this is not the only thing in Europe we want to draw attention to. We also want to highlight the connections between coal mining, human rights violations and the European financial sector. Glencore operates in Colombia, but it is backed by European banks and insurance companies.”

Since the start of the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Germany has been importing more coal from the United States, Australia and Colombia. Almost 3 million tons have come from the South American country so far in 2023 via deals with German energy companies such as EnBW, Uniper, RWE, and STEAG. German banks and insurance companies have also been involved in the lucrative coal business by providing Glencore with bonds, shares, loans, and guarantees.

A litmus test for the Supply Chain Act

Tilman Massa of the Association of Ethical Shareholders Germany told DW that energy companies are obliged to comply with the new Supply Chain Act, which has been in effect in Germany since the start of 2023.

The law requires companies to monitor human rights across their global supply chains, though the financial sector has not yet been included in the law.

“In the case of Glencore and Colombia, this is a litmus test of how effective the law is,” said Massa. “The German government must ensure that companies comply with social and environmental standards. And not just minimally on paper, but also in reality.”

In response to the issue, the German Economy Ministry (BMWK) told DW in a statement: “The BMWK is aware of allegations against the Glencore company from the press and from discussions with Colombian NGOs.” It goes on to say: “It can be assumed that German coal imports from Colombia will decline in the medium term because Germany will ideally phase out coal-fired power generation by 2030, or by 2038 at the latest.”

In addition, the BMWK said it was supporting Colombia’s efforts “to phase out coal and achieve a socially responsible energy transition, by providing funding and advisory services as part of the International Climate Initiative and through both countries’ membership in the international Powering Past Coal Alliance (PPCA).”

A ‘values-driven foreign policy’

Some would argue that sounds as if Germany is stalling for time in light of the planned phase-out of coal. Glencore is also only expected to mine coal at “El Cerrejon” until 2034 when its permit expires. However, the delegation of activists visiting Europe is concerned not only about the effects of open-pit mining over the next decade but also about the years that follow. They fear  Glencore might disappear overnight without fulfilling its obligations to the environment and locals’ health.

Claudia Kemfert, head of the Energy, Transportation, Environment Department at the German Institute for Economic Research, said she believes Germany should no longer be importing coal from Colombia — not just because of the Supply Chain Act but also because of Germany’s new approach to international policy.

“Such dealings are most certainly not part of a foreign policy driven by values,” she told DW. “Of course, we can do without coal from Colombia — there are numerous other coal suppliers in the world. Preferably somewhere with fewer human rights violations and higher environmental standards.”

According to Kemfert, Germany is itself partly to blame for the controversy surrounding dirty coal from Colombia. She said the coal phase-out could have come long ago if the energy transition had not been delayed for so long. The energy expert told DW that she is calling for more transparency in deals such as the one with Colombia, “But this will also apply to other areas in the future, such as green hydrogen, where similar issues of sustainability and compliance with environmental and social standards will have to be addressed.”

Source : DW

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