Is a post-extractivist future possible? The effects of coal mining and corporate practices in “the transition” of La Guajira, Colombia.

Susana Carmona, Maastricht University

In the La Guajira region in Northern Colombia, an open-pit coal mine has operated since the 1970s, extracting coal for energy production overseas. It is a typical example of extractivism (Chagnon et al. 2022): the local economy heavily relies on the mine, while the Wayuu Indigenous people, historical inhabitants of the peninsula, face extreme poverty levels and suffer from the adverse environmental and social effects of coal mining. With the coal mining concession ending in 2034 and amid increasing protests against the mine, multiple social actors, including the company itself, are now discussing “the transition” from coal and what the future awaits. There are certainly winds of change, but the question remains: is a post-extractivist future for La Guajira possible?

I want to answer the question positively, and for sure, in La Guajira, a social movement centered around Indigenous communities has raised concerns over the consequences and legacies of coal mining and the need to think of radical alternatives. Activists invoke the more relational cosmology of the Wayuu to think of the territory, vindicate Indigenous knowledge as valid and valuable means to identify social and environmental impacts of coal mining, and propose alternative modes of living that do not rely on the intensive and extensive extraction of natural resources for the global market.

However, the argument I want to make in this short piece is that current (neoliberal) forms of extraction come with a way of representing nature, communities, the territory, the State, forms of property, and much more, that have long-term effects on social relations and, therefore, are limiting the possibility of enacting truly post-extractivist futures. Understanding the challenges and complex dynamics surrounding efforts to imagine and realize post-extractivist futures is a crucial first task for a “just transition”. Thus, it is fundamental to look closely at how current corporate practices aiming to help “the transition” enact a logic of extractivism that entails the risk that the same social structures remain even without the coal mine. This logic entails the systematic discrimination of Indigenous and Afro-descendant people and their representation as “lacking” and “in need” to adapt, the concentration of power and resources in few hands, and the unsustainable exploitation of nature.

A frame of one of the seven operating mining pits. The whole pit does not fit in only one camera shot. Picture taken by the author. 2016

My point is that programs aiming to end problems such as poverty or environmental degradation end up legitimizing and enabling the kind of (extractive) dynamics that have caused those social problems in the first place. I have observed this phenomenon in the current social and environmental management strategies around coal mining, which are a keystone of how corporations state their participation and contribution to the transition. In their statements, mining companies represent their role in the global energy transition as responsibly implementing closure plans, ensuring that “a good legacy can remain in the region” (Guerrero, 2018). Key elements of their exit strategies include land rehabilitation, establishing reserve areas for biodiversity protection, and developing social programs to support alternative production systems in La Guajira (Cerrejón, 2023). These social and environmental programs are usually framed as part of an overall discourse of “Responsible Mining” and Corporate Social Responsibility (see Rajak 2011 and Li 2015).

As I have argued in my previous work, Corporate Social Responsibility and the discourse of “Responsible Mining” imply a form of corporate governmentality enabled by the extensive presence of corporate agents in and within local communities through their various social and environmental programs (Carmona 2019). These programs rely on expert knowledge (Carmona and Jaramillo 2020) and varied practices and narratives to restrict imaginable futures, producing a sort of “temporal enclosure” (Jaramillo and Carmona 2022).

In the context of CSR programs, the most concrete example of how the reproduction of an “extractivist logic occurs” is through the “capacity building” or “educational” component that most, if not all, projects have. In the capacity-building workshops (“capacitaciones“), the extractivist logic is transmitted in two significant ways. The first way has to do with the reproduction of a conception of nature inherent to open-pit mining. This conception of nature aligns with the modern notion of nature as separate from humans and something that can be objectively/scientifically known and technically controlled.

Significantly, in the context of open pit mining, this modern notion of nature is taken to an extreme regarding how much humans have dominion over their environment. One key example is organized visits to the mine, when before and after showing people one of the seven operating mining pits (a hole at least 10 km long and 300 mt deep), the guide takes the visitors to rehabilitated areas. The comparison transmits the idea that the environmental impact of open pit mining is reversible and that the company’s experts know how to reproduce nature without major consequences. From this perspective, the environmental impacts of open-pit mining can always be prevented, mitigated, repaired, or compensated for. However, this perspective relies on a fragmented understanding of the ecosystem and hydrological dynamics and comes with a discourse that privileges techno-scientific knowledge as the only valid knowledge for decision-making, dismissing Indigenous cosmologies and alternative ways of relating to nature.

A second and crucial way in which the company perpetuates the logic of extractivism involves what I have termed the construction of neoliberal citizens. These citizens adopt a self-management approach to development, promote entrepreneurship and private enterprise, align themselves with private corporations and the State rather than demanding from them, and rely on techno-managerial practices as the primary means of problem-solving. A notable example of how neoliberal citizens are formed can be found in the “Self-management capacities” program (“programa de desarrollo de capacidades de autogestion”) designed for Indigenous and other rural communities within the mining company’s area of influence.

In this program, participants are taught to develop “problem trees” to identify the causes and solutions to their community’s perceived pressing issues and then to write proposals and secure funding for their implementation. As a result, individuals may indeed acquire essential skills for navigating institutional and bureaucratic dynamics. However, this focus seems to come at the expense of developing a critical understanding of how these very institutional dynamics have historically hindered the participation of Indigenous communities and their ability to benefit from them.

Example of a problem tree in its initial stage. I have erased the name of the community for privacy. Picture taken by the author 2016.

Upon closer examination of the underlying logic behind these workshops, it becomes evident that participants are encouraged to frame problems in highly technical terms, often placing blame on the community while depoliticizing the issues. For instance, the lack of water supply is explained as a result of faulty infrastructure and the community’s failure to address it or seek assistance from state authorities, never attributing it to the negative impact of an open pit coal mine or other economic activities on the water system. When it comes to finding solutions, private companies, particularly the coal mining company, are portrayed as allies offering opportunities. Nevertheless, they are never held accountable for resolving the issues they have contributed to causing. As stated by a corporate official, the business case and a central objective of the program is to foster a “shift in mentality” that allows the corporation to extract coal with fewer conflicts and demands from local communities. Under this logic, educational programs are reproducing a logic in which extractivism is naturalized as “the way things are” (Silva Santisteban 2018), and (Indigenous) people have to adapt or risk disappearing.

All of the above is significant because numerous new actors are entering the scene to develop the region’s wind and solar power potential and touristic projects in the context of a transition from a coal economy in La Guajira. If the same logic guides the way these new projects’ representatives relate to the Indigenous communities in the territory, it is likely that we end up witnessing the same (colonial) dynamics that have systematically affected the Wayuu Indigenous people’s material conditions of existence and well-being. There might then be indeed a transition from coal, but if this opens the way to green grabbing (Fairhead et al. 2012) dynamics and climate colonialism, we will find ourselves senselessly back where we started.

References:

Baquero, Hernán “Análisis: ¿El Cierre Del Cerrejón?” Pais Minero, 24-08-2019. https://www.paisminero.com/mineria/carbon-colombiano/20093-analisis-el-cierre-del-cerrejon.

Carmona, Susana. ““Un Hueco Que Camina”: Gubernamentalidad Y Legitimación De Una Corporación Minera : El Caso De El Cerrejón En La Guajira, Colombia (Manuscript).” Doctor in anthropology Doctorate in anthropology, Universidad de los Andes, 2019. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=cat07441a&AN=cpu.831449&site=eds-live.

Carmona, Susana, and Pablo Jaramillo. “Anticipating Futures through Enactments of Expertise: A Case Study of an Environmental Controversy in a Coal Mining Region of Colombia.” The Extractive Industries and Society 7, no. 3 (2020/07/01/ 2020): 1086-95. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.exis.2020.06.009.

Chagnon, Christopher W., Francesco Durante, Barry K. Gills, Sophia E. Hagolani-Albov, Saana Hokkanen, Sohvi M. J. Kangasluoma, Heidi Konttinen, et al. “From Extractivism to Global Extractivism: The Evolution of an Organizing Concept.” The Journal of Peasant Studies 49, no. 4 (2022/06/07 2022): 760-92. https://doi.org/10.1080/03066150.2022.2069015.

Cerrejón. “Estrategia De Cierre Y Entrega De Operaciones.” 2022, https://www.cerrejon.com/nuestra-operacion/proyectos-estrategicos/cierre-de-operaciones.

Fairhead, James, Melissa Leach, and Ian Scoones. “Green Grabbing: A New Appropriation of Nature?” Journal of peasant studies 39, no. 2 (2012): 237-61.

Li, Fabiana. Unearthing Conflict: Corporate Mining, Activism, and Expertise in Peru. Duke University Press, 2015, 2015.

Rajak, Dinah. In Good Company: An Anatomy of Corporate Social Responsibility. Standford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011, 2011.

Silva Santisteban, Rocío. Mujeres Y Conflictos Ecoterritoriales. 2 ed. Lima: Entre pueblos, AIETI, Demus Estudios para la defensa de los derechos de la mujer, CMP Flora Tristán y Coordinadora Nacional de Derechos Humanos, 2018.

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