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COLOMBIA: Coal Mine Accidents Underreported to Protect Livelihoods

Helda Martínez

UBATÉ, Colombia, Mar 19 2007 (IPS) - Colombia took in more than 1.3 billion dollars in revenue from coal exports last year. But miners continue to work in inadequate conditions, lacking job stability, safety measures and health coverage.

According to the Ministry of Mines and Energy, 17 coal-mining accidents occurred in 2004, 40 in 2005 and 44 in 2006.

Last February, 40 people were killed in two separate mine explosions – in the northeastern department (province) of Norte de Santander, and in Boyacá, in east-central Colombia.

However, independent sources say the real number of accidents is much higher than the official figures suggest.

“There are an estimated two accidents a day, most of which go unreported for fear that the mine will be shut down, and sources of income will be lost,” especially “in the case of small-scale miners,” Tatiana Roa, director of the non-governmental organisation Censat – Agua Viva, told IPS.

“On the same days as the accidents in Santander and Boyacá, two others occurred that were not covered by the media,” lawyer Francisco Ramírez, secretary-general of the Union of Workers in the Mine, Energy, Metallurgical, Chemical and Similar Industries, commented to IPS

The causes of the two explosions are still under investigation by the public Colombian Institute of Geology and Mining, which has already found that the mine in Boyacá was operating illegally.

So are an undetermined number of other coal mines around the country, Mining and Energy Minister Hernán Martínez admitted to the city council in late February in Ubaté, 112 km northeast of Bogotá, in Cundinamarca.

The lack of reliable statistics makes it impossible to know how many people work in the mining industry in Colombia, and how many boys under 18.

“The tradition of small-scale coal-mining in central Colombia, the rise in international coal prices and poor miners’ need for income fuel the phenomenon of illegal mining, in which minors are sent down into the shafts because they are so narrow that adults can’t fit,” said Roa.

According to tradition, women can’t go down into the mines “because they bring bad luckàso they cook for the miners, do the housework and tend the vegetable gardens,” he explained.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the office of the U.N. children’s fund (UNICEF) in Colombia have held awareness-raising workshops on the risks faced by youngsters working in mines, especially in Boyacá, where small-scale shaft mining is most common.

“Things have been changing in a positive direction,” said Ramírez. “Where there are schools, the boys are now attending every other day, and work in the mines on the other days.”

“I go to school in the morning and to the mine when I don’t have any homeworkàand when they pay me,” 11-year-old Roberto Morales told IPS in the town of Ubaté.

“I help my parents out on the weekends,” his nine-year-old brother Miguel piped up.

Child labour “is related to the idiosyncrasies of any given region. In Boyacá there is a strong tradition of family unity, while in (the northern department of) Antioquia, for example, the need for income prevails,” said Roa.

But “small-scale shaft miners are vulnerable” all around the country, said Ramírez.

A “mining code” was adopted in 2001 with the aim of fomenting investment in the industry, and in 2004 the government of right-wing President Álvaro Uribe closed down the Empresa Nacional Minera (Minercol), the state-run mining company that was also in charge of designing policies for the industry.

These steps led to the “near total suppression of safety measures for workers, and favoured international involvement” in the industry, said Ramírez.

“In Minercol, we used to promote prevention measures. We had a rescue unit and training zones, and would invite Polish experts to train our functionaries in rescue techniques,” said the trade unionist.

Colombia has the largest coal reserves in Latin America, and is the world’s fifth largest exporter of thermal coal, exporting high quality coal that is low in sulphur (less than one percent).

The world’s largest open-pit coal mine operates in the extreme north of Colombia, in the impoverished province of La Guajira. The El Cerrejón mine, which covers 69,000 hectares, has a daily output of 80,000 tons of coal.

Owned by the British-Australian BHP Billiton, the British-South African Anglo American and the Swiss Glencore International corporations, the mine’s revenues were 15 percent higher in 2006 than in 2005.

To the south of La Guajira, the department of Cesar also boasts large coal mines, which are operated by Drummond, a U.S. mining company.

These two departments, where strip mining is the rule, account for 83 percent of Colombia’s coal deposits.

The rest of Colombia’s coal reserves are spread throughout the country, especially the western and eastern mountain chains that cross the country from north to south.

In these areas, the coal is extracted from shafts up to 600 metres deep, where small-scale miners work without adequate safety conditions due to a lack of state oversight and a lack of funds to invest in equipment for measuring the accumulation of the gases that cause explosions.

Coal miners are at high risk of respiratory disease caused by the inhalation of gases and dust, as well as fungus infections and back problems, like a slipped disc.

Miners in Colombia also lack job stability, with most of them hired under temporary contracts. And in the best of cases, miners only have health coverage during the period they are hired for.

“Many workers are hired for periods of three months, and after that they are left again without any health insurance,” said Ramírez.

The pay is sometimes below the minimum wage of 200 dollars a month. But again, due to the lack of statistics, it is impossible to know how many miners are in this situation.

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