The new Colombian Government of Gustavo Petro and Francia Marquez, has laid out a hugely ambitious climate and environmental justice agenda — promising to end the destructive model of resource extraction which is driving climate devastation; and build a new relationship with nature. President Petro has vowed to end fossil-fuel dependence — gradually but definitively — starting with a ban on fracking, offshore drilling, and coal mining, as well as prohibiting any new exploration licences for oil projects.
This is very much in line with the historic calls made by social movements and environmental organisations, who have argued that at the root of our civilisational and system crises lies the unbridled expansion of neoliberal capitalism, the intensification of a model of consumption and energy production based on fossil fuels, and the privatisation and financialisation of the elements of nature.
However, the dominant focus and narrative across the world continues to be centred around false solutions that do not address the structural causes and instead reproduce corporate logics, which today, under the guise of "renewable energy", are imposed on territories across Colombia as part of the so-called energy transition. The energy transition is a field of dispute between different understandings of political and material conceptions of energy – Colombia is at a crucial crossroads. On the one hand, there is a global push towards substitution/diversification of the energy matrix; on the other hand, grassroots communities are discussing popular forms of production, management, distribution, and use of energy – asking if we will continue to feed an ever energy-thirsty society at the expense of the well-being of communities and ecosystems, turning them in to sacrifice zones.
The energy transition narrative built around the Colombian Caribbean, and particularly, the department of La Guajira, has created the ideal conditions for the installation of wind and photovoltaic projects. This department is in the northernmost part of our country and, according to data from the Mining and Energy Planning Unit (UPME), it receives 66% more radiation than the global average, with average wind speeds twice the global average. These natural advantages, together with years of consolidation of an extractivist spatiality, led by large-scale coal mining and the exploitation of natural gas in the sea, have constituted La Guajira as a "territory of sacrifice" – a space that has been socially and economically designed for exploitation.
In times of decarbonisation, new coal mines?
Although there is talk of the need to abandon fossil fuels to confront the global climate crisis, the debate on the closure of coal mines in the global South is still in its infancy. The idea of leaving coal in the ground seems to be a privilege of the countries of the North, which since the middle of the 20th century have initiated their mining closure processes, but which, in turn, have been the main buyers of the coal mined in countries such as Colombia. In the face of the climate emergency, the slowdown in the coal market has been evident, along with fluctuating prices. However, during 2021, world demand for Colombian coal grew, which encouraged the opening of new markets - such as Asia - and an increase in prices, and with it, new licences, new contracts and more investment in coal.
It is paradoxical that, while alarm is growing over the climate crisis and global warming, the world economy and the governments of the global South continue to promote the exploitation and burning of coal, increasing its prices and extraction volumes, to the detriment of the environment and the wellbeing of the people. But that could be about to change. The ambition of the Petro-Marquez government to leave fossil fuels in the ground has opened new pathways and dreams of a future beyond coal in La Guajira.
A just mine closure plan?
The coal workers’ sector has spearheaded the call for a just transition plan in the event of mine closure. They have led discussions that go beyond labor rights to include environmental justice. However, Colombia lacks significant experience with mine closure, and regulations in this regard are still weak. Environmental regulations do not recognize essential dimensions such as environmental liabilities and perpetual damage. These dimensions are necessary to determine how a mine closure should be carried out, including the costs of the closure and post-closure process, and the necessary ecological restoration and follow-up actions.
The closure of coal mines will require joint effort from the state, companies, workers, and communities affected by coal mining to come up with medium- and long-term solutions. Cultural damage, perpetual damage, post-closure impacts, gender focus, and generation are some concepts that must be included in the solutions to avoid repeating the history of plundering and dispossession experienced by the indigenous Wayuu and Afro-Guajira communities for more than 35 years.
The Department of Cesar, adjacent to La Guajira, presents a significant opportunity for just mine closure. A court ordered another Glencore subsidiary, Prodeco, to create a mine closure roundtable on November 4, 2022. The roundtable will bring together Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities, workers, and local government to facilitate discussions and accountability mechanisms to ensure Prodeco complies with environmental, labor, and social commitments related to mine closure. The Petro-Marquez government has recently identified the region as a ’corridor for life,’ setting an example of how to carry out a just transition for workers and communities in an economy that has become dependent on mining.
Metals for the energy transition: copper as a new mining horizon
The push for renewable energies, such as solar and wind power, has led to an intensification of mining for so-called "transition metals". The technologies of these energy sources – their infrastructure, transmission lines and electric batteries – requires intensive use of these metals and minerals.
Copper used for wind turbine construction and electrical wiring is considered a key transition mineral, due to its high thermal and conductive potential. But the expectation of increased copper mining in our country up until now has demonstrated that the conversation about the energy transition in Colombia will mean more extractivism and less justice. If the government is serious about changing this, they must tackle the corporate-led vision of the energy transition head on – decentralising, democratising, and de-privatising our energy system.
For over 40 years, mining activity in Cerrejón has supplied coal to meet energy demands of economies in Europe and Asia, yet La Guajira has been one of the departments in Colombia with the worst access to electricity, as well as to social and territorial rights. This illustrates the deep inequity in the global energy model – while some territories suffer the impacts of energy extraction, others benefit from it. The implementation of renewable energies under the same scheme of the previous economic and social model will continue to reproduce the same economic and social model, which will in turn continue to reproduce inequality and dispossession.
Participation – the path towards a justice transition in La Guajira
To make amends for the long-standing failures at hands of previous governments and companies behind mining expansion in the Colombian Caribbean, and to ensure that the transition is not just a process of substituting one energy source for another but a profound socio-ecological transformation, it is necessary to promote mechanisms that guarantee full participation for the affected communities and social organisations. María Susana Muhamad, the new Minister for the Environment, echoes this sentiment – making clear her position on the need to democratise environmental decision-making.
The transition must be built alongside the frontline communities who have defended nature, water, and territory for millennia. As one of her first actions, Muhamad, who accompanied Petro as Environment Secretary during his time as Mayor of Bogotá, invited the country’s environmental and climate justice organisations and movements to the table to discuss their historic demands.
In this sense, the National Environmental Movement (MNA) of Colombia is promoting a bill that seeks to guarantee effective participation in the operation of mining and energy projects in all their phases. This bill proposes principles and mechanisms, such as open environmental councils and environmental public hearings, through which communities can exercise their right to effective participation and in which the future of their territories is decided in terms of integral reparation and human, environmental and social needs. Environmental participation of this kind guarantees that new extractivist activities, such as those associated with the implementation of renewable energies or the implementation of strategic mining areas for the exploitation of copper, for example, will be widely discussed and debated. Any potential impacts will be known, the precautionary principle will be guaranteed, as well as the possibility of veto by the communities over activities that are harmful to their territory and their lives. Ultimately it creates the space to dream of an ecological and social transition that will be built alongside the frontline communities who have defended nature, water, and territory for millennia.
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