Building people-to-people solidarity

SALEM, Mass. — It was in April of 2002 that a group of people here first learned that our power plant was importing coal from the Cerrejón mine in Colombia, then owned by Exxon.

Two representatives of local communities affected by the mine were coming to the United States to speak at the Exxon shareholders’ meeting about the mine’s abuses against the people in the region. They were eager to come to Salem to meet with people who were using coal from the mine.

So we scrambled to put together an ad hoc committee to organize their visit. To our surprise, the issue piqued the interest of many.

When she arrived, indigenous Wayuu leader Remedios Fajardo told Salem’s mayor, its city council, and others: “We want to tell the people of Salem that this coal has its origins in violence. Our communities have suffered greatly. Their human rights have been violated, their territory has been usurped, their houses destroyed and demolished, and they have had to shed their blood in order for this coal to arrive in Salem and other parts of the world.

“We beg the city of Salem to express their solidarity with us, because we have a relationship with them because of this situation,” she said.

Since that day, we’ve been trying to do just that.

Our campaign has mushroomed over the past four years. We’ve invited activists from La Guajira to the U.S. and Canada to bring their stories to coal-consuming communities. We linked up with solidarity groups in London, Switzerland and Australia, where the three companies that bought the mine in 2002 have their headquarters. We started attending their shareholders meetings and asking tough questions.

Here in Salem and in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, Canada, our organizations have been pressuring the coal importers to press the mine on human rights issues. A Danish investigative report last spring led to DONG Energy in Denmark cutting off its purchases of coal from the U.S.-owned Drummond mine in Colombia, where three union leaders were killed in 2001. The New Brunswick Power Company recently wrote to the mine asking it to negotiate in good faith with the union and the affected communities, and to respect the communities’ right to collective relocation and reparations.

High levels of violence against unionists in Colombia have helped mobilize unions in the U.S., Canada and Europe to join the campaign.

When the Sintracarbón union at the Cerrejón mine decided to prioritize its relationship with communities affected by the enterprise, workers at the Ekati diamond mine in Canada’s northwest territories noted the similarities: the two mines are partially owned by the same Australian company, BHP Billiton, and both have usurped indigenous land and displaced communities.

The Public Service Alliance of Canada, which organized the Ekati mine in the country’s Northwest Territories two years ago, sent two representatives on our recent delegation to express their solidarity and to have a chance to exchange experiences.

Both the union and the communities have told us repeatedly that only international attention will pressure the mine owners to respect their rights. We hope we can bring the attention they need and deserve.

Aviva Chomsky teaches history at Salem State College in Massachusetts.