Where Glencore Works Wonders

Swiss commodity giant Glencore is facing bitter accusations that its mining operations in South America are a human and environmental scandal. But a visit to the infamous El Cerrejón coal mine shows that the multi-national behemoth, bane of “right on” Leftists, is a vital lifeline for the local population and a gift to the surrounding natural habitat. Die Weltwoche looks closer. 

Riohacha, the capital of La Guajira, a barren outpost in the northwest region of Colombia, is one of the poorest and least accessible parts of the country despite facing the azure Caribbean sea. The airport’s small gravel runway is situated uncomfortably close to the local residents’ modest, single story, brick homes. Half-naked children greet arriving jets as a local event. Your reporter has traveled to this far flung corner of South America to investigate, first hand, allegations that Glencore, one of the largest commodity companies in the world headquartered in Baar, Switzerland, is poisoning its South American hosts. 

Founded in 1974 by the American billionaire commodities trader Marc Rich (1934-2013), the metals and minerals company has been described as having a “history [that] reads like a spy novel.” The 2001 pardon of the aptly named “Rich” by outgoing (in all senses of the word) US President Bill Clinton on his last day in office added to Rich and Glencore’s legend. With a staggering revenue of $215 billion USD in 2019, Glencore is renowned for its unparalleled success in the commodity sector in Switzerland. But it is also reviled by self-appointed guardians of the common man for its allegedly rapacious environmental practices. The aim of Die Weltwoche’s South American investigation: dig into these ugly allegations. Part of the mission will be to secure water samples directly from the river in question for testing by an independent lab.

At stake: The health of an indigenous community; and a billion-dollar investment. Swiss voters hold each of these futures in their hands. In a referendum tentatively scheduled for this fall or early 2021, Swiss citizens will decide if international companies like Glencore with offices within our Alpine borders can be sued in Swiss courts by virtually any concerned complainant for business activities thousands of miles away. Slickly organized social justice crusaders and glass encased, penthouse corporate suites from Bogota to Zurich will all be watching.

Stephan Suhner, cofounder of the “Switzerland-Colombia Working Group” (known as “ask!”), began his career as a front-line, Latin America, left wing warrior long before “Dora the Explorer” taught US millennials their first Spanglish. Back in 2017, the Swiss activist told Rebelion.org that his fellow anti-war activists from the eighties needed to “re-conceptualize our task and adapt it to both the new Colombian reality and the current Swiss associative dynamic.”

Suhner has re-conceptualized his task as antagonizing multinational corporations, generally, and Glencore, specifically. His Swiss-Colombian non profit touts itself as a fighter for “Colombian grassroots organizations, small farmers, indigenous people and workers.” The organization is loosely tied to left-wing Colombians who fled the upheavals and violence of the 1980s and 90s for Swiss neutrality. 

Suhner saw his opportunity. Working with the Colombian expats, he has set his sights on the alleged abuse of Glencore’s Colombian mining operations. Wherever a vortex occurs in a river in northern Colombia, Suhner seizes the opportunity to lay blame at the corporate steps of Glencore. With the impending Swiss referendum, Suhner hopes to clear the path to sue Glencore, a publicly traded company, in Swiss courts for what he claims are their ongoing environmental and humanitarian crimes. According to Suhner, the “El Cerrejón” mine, specifically — the largest open-cast coal mine in the world — is poisoning the local residents and devastating the surrounding environment. Glencore owns a 33% stake in its operations. Therefore, naturally, Glencore must pay. Swiss media and international NGOs uncritically parrot Suhner’s accusations underpinning the referendum. One fundraising letter urging Swiss voters to support the sweeping “corporate liability initiative” declares: “Glencore poisons rivers in Colombia.” The claim is based on speculative reports like this one from Suhner’s “ask!” organization: “When we were there, the Cerrejón [mine] had used the rainy season to drain a lot of water” into the river which is “probably contaminated with heavy metals, sulfur etc.” With help from Suhner and his South American comrades, promoters of the referendum have produced a film targeting Glencore and its “ask!” alleged environmental crimes. Suhner even traveled to Colombia to lasso reputed “eye witnesses.” But do these accusations hold up to closer scrutiny? Conversations with people familiar with the local scene fuel doubts.

“El Cerrejón is an exemplary company,” says Rubén Darío Lizarralde, a former Colombian Minister of Agriculture and social entrepreneur in the farming sector. Andrés Etter Röthlisberger, professor of environmental science at the renowned Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, informs me that, “Environmental regulations for the mining industry are extremely strict. The authorities monitor compliance of the big international companies meticulously.”

At first sight, the El Cerrejón mining operation is massive. The mining pits tear huge craters into the landscape. But not as visible is the dedicated work of the mine operators to mitigate such impacts. Surprisingly, the damage done to the landscape is only temporarily. "After our operation ends, we are obliged to completely renaturate the entire site," explains Juan Pablo Lozano Silva, a leading environmental engineer with El Cerrejón. Of the 14,000 hectares worked so far (0.7 percent of the surface of the state of La Guajira), 4208 are already back reviving flora and fauna.

Environmental reserve in the mine

This applies currently to the Arroyo Bruno, a partially diverted water feeder of Río Ranchería, the only major river in La Guajira. El Cerrejón has been renaturing the creek for almost two years near its original bed. Specialists at the company are replanting the banks of Arroyo Bruno with the autochthone vegetation —a pioneering project recognized by scientists all over the world. From the perspective of environmental scientist Etter, the renaturation efforts might even go too far. He says, “In relation to the benefit for nature, it is rather too much of an effort.”

At the borders of the mine, scientists from the Environmental Institute Alexander von Humboldt in Bogotá have fenced a few hectares of dry tropical forest, an ecologically valuable ecosystem. With the meticulousness of accountants, they are studying the flora and gaining insights for the upcoming reforestation. Areas untouched by mining activity within the property of El Cerrejón even stand out for their increased biodiversity compared to the surrounding area, as was proved by the environmental scientist María Claudia Franco Rozo in her doctoral thesis at the Universidad de los Andes. Further supporting her startling findings, in the areas untouched by the mining operation, eight jaguars were discovered, a species previously thought to be regionally extinct.

But the biggest and dirtiest question remains: Is Glencore "poisoning" the river? Two of ask!’s local allies, Cinep and Indepaz, insist the El Cerrejón mines are spewing toxic chemicals into the river. Both organizations are recipients of Swiss development aid. El Cerrejón vehemently denies their charges and adamantly maintains that any suggestion that the mine is dumping waste water from the pits into the river is "categorically wrong.” Firstly, the water jammed in the mine’s pits, “doesn’t show any problematic concentration of heavy metals.” Secondly, the water from the pits does not enter the natural cycle.

According to engineer Lozano, at most, parts of the rain water dropping over the waste dumps (hills of earth and rock material removed from the pits) flow into the natural waters, which does not cause any harm. Also, this only occurs at times of very heavy rainfall. To prove their case, mine operators are required by the Colombian environmental authorities to keep a precise record of the amount and composition of the draining water. The total of these drains towards the Río Ranchería corresponds to about 0.004 percent of the total flow of this river during the rainy months at any time, keeping in compliance with the strict limits of the Colombian Waste Water Ordinance.

Your reporter put the question to the test, taking two water samples from the Ranchería River: one before it reaches the mine concession; and one immediately after it leaves the mining area. The laboratory for environmental studies of the Universidad Nacional in Bogotá measured the heavy metal concentration. The result? The measurements for both samples were exactly the same: less than 0.01 milligrams (mg) of cadmium; less than 0.003 mg of arsenic and mercury; as well as less than 0.1 mg nickel and chromium.

In both samples, the limits of the Colombian Drinking Water Ordinance were likely partially exceeded, but that applied to the river water before it ever reached the mine. The likely cause of the increased heavy-metal load of La Ranchería river is the residue from fertilizers pouring into the river further upstream. As the mine officials report, representatives of the Colombian Attorney General tested the same places and were apparently satisfied that El Cerrejón was not a culprit or suspect. Professor Etter says he cannot "imagine that coal mining contributes significantly to the heavy metal concentration in the Río Ranchería."

The closer one looks, the less credible seem the allegations by ask! and its allies promoting the Swiss corporate liability referendum. Nevertheless, in conversations with residents of the mining area, the water accusation arose time and again. One had the impression that the locals were well coached to tell sympathetic visitors from Switzerland Suhner's story about evil Glencore. But there were others who give a different interpretation of what is happening.

La Guajira is one of the poorest departments of Colombia; and the El Cerrejón mine is the only functional large company in the region. "It has become a business model to raise allegations against international mine operators - whether justified or not,” Etter explains. Whoever succeeds attaining victim status of the coal mine gets attention and possibly philanthropic aid.

The main testimonies of ask! against El Cerrejón are by residents of Provincial, a small reserve of Wayú Indians close to the mine. Its members are advised by the Lawyer Collective José Alvear Restrepo, a highly politicized and infamous association of left-wing lawyers from Bogotá. In 2019, the collective was shaken by a major scandal when it was revealed that it sent a Colombian Army general to prison on the basis of fabricated and bought testimony. Residents represented by the collective bring El Cerrejón before Colombian courts on a regular basis. They also reliably deliver statements against Glencore and El Cerrejón when called upon by NGOs. At the entrance of the village, there is a small, white house on whose walls are emblazoned the revolutionary battle cries, "Hasta la victoria siempre!" and “Venceremos!”

Swiss NGO’s interest in El Cerrejón only emerged after Glencore and the two co-owners BHP Billiton and Anglo American bought the Colombian state’s stake in the coal mine just twenty years ago. Before that, the mine operated for a decade and a half without Swiss activist opposition. Indeed, when the mine was first planned in the mid-seventies, the project was considered an economic development model. A railway line was built for the transportation of coal from the mine to a dedicated port about 150 kilometers away. The port was designed from the outset for closed direct loading, with the raw material being loaded on covered conveyor belts directly in the ship's belly. In contrast to conventional, open loading by truck, only a tiny amount of coal dust escapes into the air. Hence, the World Bank provided El Cerrejón even with a loan. The international organization claimed the project to be an “important contribution to long-term energy development and improvement of Colombia’s trade balance”; and it was judged to constitute “no significant environmental risks.”

Ever shriller criticism

Since the entry of the new owners (including Glencore), the environmental impact of El Cerrejón has only improved. Despite these measurable and laudable results, criticism from NGOs has been increasing and becoming shriller by the day. The goal of ask! and other organizations is to close the mine even before its concession expires in fourteen short years. It would be a propaganda victory for its opponents, but a brutal blow for the people of Guajira. El Cerrejón accounts for roughly half of the gross domestic product of the otherwise largely distressed region. In the past twenty years, the company has contributed well over 2 billion USD in taxes and royalties to Colombia’s public budget. El Cerrejón employs 12,000 people making it the largest private employer in the region. Corporate responsibility in action. “A major part of our income in La Guajira depends on the mine”, says the taxi driver on the way back to the airport of Riohacha.


This is a slightly extended translation of an article that was published by Die Weltwoche in its print edition in German.
Editing: Amy Holmes.


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