“Companies must be held liable for the harm they cause, contribute to or profit from.”
The indigenous Wayùu people of Colombia have a deep spiritual and cultural connection to their landscape. Wayùu communities in La Guajira depend on their environment, including the Arroyo Bruno River, for the survival of their communities. But their livelihoods and the deep relation they have with their environment was abruptly threatened when the Cerrejón open-pit coal mine started its activities.
The mine, operated by a consortium of international investors including giants BHP, Anglo-American, and Glencore, has had a devastating impact on the local communities and their territory, dumping toxic waste in the surrounding land and water streams, including the Arroyo Bruno. More than 20 communities have been forcibly evicted to make way for the mining activities. Amongst the purchasers of coal from the mine figures the state-owned Irish Electricity Supply Board.
Today, human rights defender and representative of the Wayùu indigenous people, Luis Misael Socarras Ipuana*, wrote to European Commissioners Thierry Breton and Didier Reynders asking that the European Union takes strong action to end the cycle of abuse that his and other people around the world are subjected to in cases such as that of the Cerrejón mine. According to Luis Misael:
“La Guajira…has become a sacrificial zone for the sake of multinational companies supplying harmful fossil fuels to Europe in the midst of the climate crisis. While we suffer, European companies are reaping the benefit of the destruction of our sacred landscape through their value chains.”
The local communities’ struggle for justice has been met with human rights violation and blunt impunity, as multiple court sentences in favour of the Wayùu people have been ignored by the state and the companies. Presently, some of the businesses involved are considering withdrawing their investments in the mine, rising leaving the communities with no recourse.
The European Commission is expected to table during the first half of December the Sustainable Corporate Governance Directive, a legal instrument to prevent human rights and environmental abuse in global value chains. Civil society has been calling for the law to also include strong provisions to hold companies to account and to enable access to justice for those affected. As Luis Misael put it:
“a law without liability provisions to hold companies accountable and enabling legal rights to justice for victims will be an enormous missed opportunity and a further harm to our people.”
Luis Misael’s letter comes after human rights and environmental defenders Bertha Zùniga Càceres, Ester Kiobel, Saeeda Khatoon, and Kalpona Akter wrote to the Commissioners asking for a strong law enabling access to justice for communities.
* Luis Misael Socarras Ipuana is a human rights defender for the Wayuu indigenous people of La Guajira, Colombia. He is a member of the organisation Fuerza Mujeres Wayúu, which defends water and territory against the impacts of the Cerrejón company’s operations in southern La Guajira.