Perhaps you have wondered what it is like to be a field volunteer in Colombia. In fact, every day is different, but in order to get a good idea, here is an example. Last weekend PBI was in La Guajira in the northeast of Colombia, accompanying Dora Lucy Arias from the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers Collective (Ccajar). Ccajar had organised an observation commission to understand the impacts of coal mining on the indigenous communities living around the largest open coal mine in Latin America, Cerrejón, operated by Anglo-America, BHP Billiton and Glencore.
Hannah Matthews puts on her PBI jacket and together with men and women from different countries who participate in the commission gets onto the bus leaving for the Wayúu indigenous reserve named Provincial. Entering the reserve the bare gray mountains from the coal mine line the perimeter. An hour later the bus stops in the middle of nowhere.
Hannah phones the PBI house in Bogota to report back and confirm that everything is in order. Women in long colourful dresses bring coffee with ginger. It is delicious, it warms you and wakes you up.
Then the commission leaves on a walk around the reserve to get to know the community. It has rained recently and the air feels humid and heavy. The sun is coming out and begins to heat up as Hannah develops a headache. Throughout the walk Dora Lucy and Wayúu community leaders explain their situation. Today they are surrounded by the coal mine, the pollution is so strong that they can´t cultivate crops. The Ranchería river that used to supply them with fish and was a meeting point for the community to swim and drink pure, clean water is now contaminated. The leaders explain how the company has impeded their access to this resource.
The commission rests in the shade of a tree. Hannah´s headache continues as others complain of similar symptoms. We have to stick it out, Hannah decides, but she wonders how people manage to live in these conditions on a daily basis. “We live constantly with this pain and when it rains it´s worse”, says the indigenous woman sitting beside her. They chat and the woman shows her the herbs that grow in the region and explains that due to the pollution, many of the medicinal plants the community traditionally uses have disappeared from the territory.
Finally they stop for breakfast. Hannah eats the most delicious arepa she has ever had in her life, with masses of cheese inside. Some of the women are making traditional bags and Hannah asks how they do it. They explain what the material means to the community and tell Hannah she must stay in the reserve for a month to learn properly. If it wasn´t for her headache, Hannah would have seriously considered the proposal, what a privilege to be able to learn from a culture in such an immersive way. These opportunities don´t arise in normal life, Hannah considers.
A little while later some of the women begin to explain the impacts of the contamination on their health, emphasising the impacts on the children. One of the women, Luz Ángela, tells how she realised that her son Moises was ill when he was only two months old. Luz Ángela initially thought he had a simple cold, but the doctors eventually confirmed that he had breathing problems. Moises´ illness changed the family´s life; whilst they knocked on doors for help, little Moises became thinner every day and his skin turned a yellowish colour. With the help of the lawyers from Ccajar they were able to achieve a sentence from the Colombian justice system in favour of Moises. The sentence has helped Moises to be attended by specialist doctors; now, with the medicine her receives, he can have a relatively normal life, although he can never move around too much. The best thing for the family would be to move somewhere else, a place that isn´t polluted. But where could they go, asks Luz Ángela. The poverty levels in La Guajira are the highest in the country, according to statistics, 64% of the population lives in poverty, compared to the national average of 37%.
The sound of a truck interrupts the meeting. The women get up and run to the road where they meet with the vehicle. Others have made an improvised road block to prevent the truck from continuing. It is bringing water to a different place, water that they don´t have, but urgently need, water that they have been asking the mayor´s office for for weeks. The water from the Ranchería river is so polluted that drinking it puts their health at risk. The women scream at the driver, then they ask him to leave the water for the community. He doesn´t, and eventually the truck retreats and goes back to where it came from and the women return to the meeting.
Many children who live around the coal mine Cerrejón suffer from breathing illnesses; in fact there are numerous international studies that confirm that the children who grow up near coal mines are especially exposed to health risks. However, despite the fact that mining activity has existed in the territory for nearly 40 years, there are no independent studies that determine the degree of health impacts in the communities directly impacted by the extraction of coal, Dora Lucy indicates.
Dora Lucy explains that, according to a study by the Sinú University, the air that the communities live in surrounding the coal mine is contaminated by highly enriched elements such as sulfur, chrome, copper and zinc. And because of this the cells of the people who live in the mining corridor are damaged which can result in breathing illnesses, heart disease, skin infections, stomach problems and cancer.
Hannah walks with Luz Ángela and some of her children to their house. There she sees the conditions in which the family lives. The house has cracks in it because of the daily explosions that the miners in Cerrejón undertake in order to extract the coal. The blasts shake the house and many bricks have fallen down. The house looks like a sieve, Hannah thinks. One of the women explains that the explosions feel like earthquakes, the whole ground moves and vibrates. Somehow the community has learnt to live with these impacts.
It is time for lunch, the women prepare goat, a typical dish from La Guajira. The sky clouds over and thanks to the rest and the delicious food, Hannah´s headache disappears. The commission moves onto another neighbouring community in order to learn about their situation. The children receive the visitors with a typical dance. Dressed in beautiful dresses they move to the rhythm of “Kasha” (drum in the Wayuunaiki language).
Throughout the afternoon the community expresses their situation, they speak in wayunaiki, then what they say is translated into Spanish. It is a way to show the importance of their culture, their roots and traditions, their language and their mother earth.
The light begins to fade and it starts to drizzle, but Dora Lucy proposes an idea for a campaign that the Lawyers Collective will soon start with the intention of shedding light on the reality of the indigenous communities. She takes out her red lipstick and writes “Health! Not Mining!” on a piece of white paper. Then they pose with a protective face mask and the poster in front of the camera.
We walk back to the bus. It is beginning to get dark and it is time to say goodbye to the people and the community. It has been a long day, but full of learning.
Hannah Matthews and Bianca Bauer