Blood coal: Ireland's dirty secret
Climate Consensus - the 97% Climate change Blood coal: Irelandâs dirty secret
Burning coal is the single largest contributor to global climate breakdown. Human rights violations at the sites of fossil fuel extraction are often hidden.
The connections between County Clare, Ireland and La Guajira, Colombia may not be entirely obvious at first glance. Yet the regions are linked through a shared commodity: coal. Extracted in one region and burned in the other.
Coal extraction in La Guajira has a dirty secret, which Iâve witnessed first-hand: it is connected to a system of production entrenched in violence, bloodshed and environmental destruction.
Since 2001, almost 90% of coal burned at Moneypoint power station in County Clare in the west of Ireland has come from Colombia. Two-thirds of it was purchased from CerrejÃ³n mine in Colombiaâs northern department of La Guajira.
Spanning 69,000 hectares â" around three quarters the size of county Dublin â" CerrejÃ³n is one of the worldâs largest open-pit coalmines. It is also linked to well-documented environmental and human rights abuses for over two decades.
Moral and ethical duty
Irelandâs largest electricity-generation station, Moneypoint, is owned and run by the Electricity Supply B oard (ESB) utility company. Because the ESB is majority (95%) state-owned, the Irish government has a duty and responsibility to challenge and try to prevent adverse human rights impacts connected to the companyâs fuel purchases.
As the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights put it,
Businesses have a responsibility for human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations, products or services by their business relaÂtionships, even if they have not contributed to those impacts.
Extraction âsacrifice zonesâ
Iâve seen the impacts. On two separate Witness For Peace delegations to La Guajira, human rights campaigners and academic researchers, myself included, documented human rights violations and the socio-environmental devastation inflicted on communities in CerrejÃ³nâs mining zone. Our newly published study reveals that inhabitants of La Guajira have become victi ms of coal mining, instead of beneficiaries. It also reports parallel injustices among communities affected by fracking in Pennsylvania.
CerrejÃ³n mine has displaced thousands of historically marginalised indigenous WayÃºu, Afro-Colombian and campesino communities by physical force, intimidation, coercion, and through the contamination of drinking water and farmland. CerrejÃ³n mine uses over 17 million litres of water a day, but the average person has access to just 0.7 litres.
Official displacement follows a Colombian legal procedure called âexpropriation,â where the state approves or participates in the removal of populations in zones designated for natural-resource extraction or megaprojects. But the involvement of the Colombian government does not necessarily make the displacements just or nonviolent.
In 2001, for example, the Afro-Colombian town of Tabaco was bulldozed and its residents forcibly removed by state security forces to allow the Cer rejÃ³n mine to expand. A Colombian Supreme Court order called for the community to be resettled. Following an independent inquiry in 2008, CerrejÃ³n mine signed an agreement for the reconstruction of Tabaco. Ten years later, Tabaco residents have yet to be resettled.
Assassinations of social leaders
In the neighbouring department of El Cesar, three Drummond mine union leaders were murdered in 2001. More recently in La Guajira, activists who resist CerrejÃ³nâs expansion plans have received renewed death threats.
Despite the 2016 Colombian Peace Agreement, there has been a spike in assassinations of social leaders nationwide. At least 123 were murdered in the first six months of 2018.
The chronic lack of transparency in energy supply chains shields coal-importing countries, shareholders and consumers from the horrors of outsourced fossil-fuel extraction impacts. Last week, transna tional human-rights group London Mining Network brought threatened community leaders to testify at the AGM of CerrejÃ³nâs co-owners, BHP. Impacted communities seek corporate accountability, and they want the international communityâs help.
Holding CerrejÃ³n coal mine accountable
Calling for the ESB to stop buying coal from CerrejÃ³n mine may initially wash the Irish governmentâs hands of its blood coal. But this would neutralise the governmentâs current purchasing power and influence to advocate for peaceful and just negotiations that guarantee basic human rights for displaced communities.
Instead, the Irish government should first bring the concerns of Colombian and international human rights organisations to the Colombian government, CerrejÃ³n mine, and its owners BHP, Glencore Xstrata, and Anglo American. It should call for CerrejÃ³n to acknowledge its responsibility for the destruction of Tabaco, and to carry out a just resettlem ent per the independent inquiry that the mine itself called for.
That Ireland is still burning coal â" the same week climate scientists warned that the world has just 12 years to get control of climate change â" is nothing short of reckless. But then, this is a government whose annual budget on 09 October failed to introduce even a modest carbon tax as a step to reducing Irelandâs greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
The governmentâs plan of replacing Moneypoint power station with a liquefied natural gas (LNG) facility, supplied via fracked gas from the US, would replicate Irelandâs complicity in human rights violations. Methane and other GHGs leaked by natural gas pipelines and facilities warm the climate as much as coal in the short term. New fossil fuel infrastructure with 30-40 year lifespans is not the answer to Irelandâs coal problem.
A just transition
Even if the Irish government stops buying CerrejÃ³n coal, it still has a responsibility for what has happened in the past. It must repair the damages done to those harmed by climate change, by coal, and by the impacts of the transition, such as the loss of jobs for fossil fuel industry workers. Only the government can make a just transition a reality.
The International Energy Association says that âIrelandâs location at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean ensures one of the best wind and ocean resources in Europe.â A clean-energy economy can happen. An Irish energy revolution can happen. But not without government help.
Annual â¬200mâ"â¬600m fines for not meeting EU green-energy targets may change the governmentâs tune. If they donât, maybe the Climate Case Ireland legal action will.
Noel Healy (@DrNoelHealy) is an Associate Professor of Geography at Salem State University. He received his PhD from the National University of Ireland Galway. He is a native of County Clare, Ireland.Topics
- Climate change
- Climate Consensus - the 97%
- Fossil fuels
- Ethical and green living
- Human rights
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