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Colombian Coal Mines: The Pits of Exploitation

by C. Towers

“C. Towers” is a pseudonym of a writer whose identity must be concealed to protect his sources. This article appeared in the Christian Century September 1-8, 1982, p. 894. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


In the past few years some huge cracks have developed in the façade of democracy and respect for human rights which the Colombian government has sought to create. Although Colombia is nominally under a civilian regime, the military forces are really in command -- not only lurking behind the civilian president and congress, but recently emerging into the open with the “militarization” of vast regions of the country. Aerial bombings of areas suspected of supporting the guerrilla movements have become common.

For many years Colombia has been under a state of siege, and in 1978 an additional “security statute” augmented the powers of police and troops. Amnesty International has added its voice to the growing demand within Colombia for an end to mass arrests, torture of political prisoners, repression of labor organizations and other violations of human rights. But even during the Carter administration, the U.S. paid little heed to such criticisms, lauding Colombia as a showcase of democracy. The Reagan administration sends more military aid to Colombia than to most other Latin American countries (El Salvador and Honduras are also among the top three).

There is little danger of military interference in Colombian elections, however, since the Liberal and Conservative parties control the entire process, and neither represents any significant change of the system. In the recent presidential election the Conservative Party was the victor. (Outgoing President Julio Turbay announced the lifting of both the state of siege and the security statute, but it remains to be seen whether this action will result in any real reduction of repression.)

Some left-of-center parties are working hard to gain more popular support and to build unity among themselves. The “M- 19” organization is well known for its urban guerrilla actions, and several other guerrilla forces operate in various regions of the country. Like most Latin American nations, Colombia is plagued by the socioeconomic and political conditions which make revolutionary change a real possibility: vast unemployment, runaway inflation, a high degree of infant mortality, large-scale malnutrition.

Such poverty and repression do not deter investment by multinational corporations. Exxon has reported to its shareholders that “what may become the world’s largest coal mine is being developed in Colombia and a new oil discovery is the biggest there in 18 years.” Exxon claims that Colombia is “fortunate” in that the oil giant is a participant in both projects. Many Colombians, however, have denounced the easy terms of the coal contract between the Turbay government and Exxon, complaining that the multinational corporation will seize the lion’s share of the profits.

In its magazine the Lamp, Exxon reports that “at least 15 million tons a year will be produced for 23 years” at the El Cerrejon coal mine, “after which the mine and all its facilities will revert to the Colombian government.” Colombian critics charge that during these years of intense production the country will reap meager benefits and that after 23 years of digging the coal may be completely depleted.

A multinational’s view of “development” is evident in the Exxon publication, which features a picture of the luxurious lobby of a new Hilton Hotel facing a picture of a fruit vendor carrying a large basket of bananas and grapes on her head. For Exxon, this contrast symbolizes “a nation in which ties with the past are preserved even as modern development proceeds apace.” Others paint the contrast in images of modern luxury and wealth vs. modern misery and exploitation, emphasizing the causal connection between the two. Colombia’s small upper class may enjoy the new Hilton, but the majority of its people eke out a bare subsistence through hard labor, while the nation loses resources and profits to foreign interests. And official repression ensures, at least temporarily, that coveted “safe climate for investment.”

Colombians who are employed in any way consider themselves lucky to have a job, and many look on the miners as the better-paid members of the working class. While it is true that a miner’s income is slightly higher than that of a poor peasant, the work is extremely dehumanizing and takes its toll physically and psychologically.

The conditions in the mines are horrible. I spent an hour in a medium-sized mine located about 20 miles from Medellin. To enter the mine, I had to squeeze into a tiny wagon which was lowered on a rail held by a cable attached to an engine, on an incline of about 60 degrees. Perched outside the wagon, I held on for dear life, clutching my camera and ducking down when we disappeared into the dark hole.

At the bottom of the shaft I waded through some coal-black puddles, hitting my head occasionally on the low ceiling, breathing in coal dust and hot air, and sweating profusely. It was the worst physical experience I had had since spending some time in Chicago’s Cook County Jail for antiwar activity!

The mine was hellish. Men and boys work in such conditions eight to ten hours a day, six days a week, for about $5.00 a day, with no prospect of future deliverance. Some mines are so small that the workers hack away at the coal while lying down. Youths pack the coal into sacks and carry it out of the mine on their backs, or to a small cable car for the trip upward. In most mines, pay is based on the quantity of coal extracted.

On July 14, 1977, 86 of the coal miners were killed in an explosion. A few days before the disaster, a group of miners had gone to the engineer to report dangerous conditions -- especially an unusually high level of noxious gas in the air. He threw them out of his office (a response which, according to the workers, was in keeping with his personality and past performance). When this engineer arrived at the scene of the explosion, his first question was about his machinery, not about the men killed, one of the widows said. A month later he was assassinated in Medellin, apparently by members of the Army of National Liberation.

Accidents are frequent and disease rampant in the mining regions. The hard physical labor and the unhealthy conditions lead many miners to spend their paychecks on liquor and drugs for escape. Houses around the mines cave in as the steady digging causes the ground to settle. The homeowner receives no compensation from the company.

The local church in the nearby town has been very critical of the mining companies and of the government’s failure to look out for the safety and health of the workers and residents. A young priest showed me the façade of a church that had been destroyed by the mining. He suggested that it was symbolic of the present relationship between rapacious Colombian and foreign corporations, and the body of Christ which is the people. The undermining of the church building reveals more about reality than does the official “concordat” between the Colombian government and the Vatican.

A thick veneer of religion, like the façade of “democracy,” covers most aspects of Colombian life. Images of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (to which the Colombian government solemnly dedicates the nation every year) are abundant, and a large statue of Mary stands just outside the pay office of the mining company. One priest in the area, preaching about the explosion, declared that it was the “will of God” and a punishment for the loose morality (alcoholism, gambling, prostitution) of the people.

My priest friend attacked him publicly for preaching such religious “opium” and stated that the catastrophe was not an accident at all, much less the will of God, but rather the result of an exploitative system that puts profits ahead of human lives and well-being. Many priests and parishioners in the region joined my friend in publishing a statement denouncing the company and the government for the explosion.

The weekend of my visit the town politiqueros (bosses of the political machine) threw a “miners’ fiesta,” which included much oratory, drinking and a beauty contest. The young priest condemned the event as an insult to the dead miners and a cheap distraction from the injustices of the mines.

This is only one sad vignette of the human exploitation, degradation and death which are rampant in Colombia and throughout Latin America. But the forces of change are gathering steadily, and they seek the help of friends in the U.S. in their struggle against governmental and corporate policies that prop up the present structures of oppression.          

C. Towers.


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