Colombia - Indigenous communities ask IACHR’s intervention to prevent irreparable damage from mining in Guajira Province

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The Paradero and la Gran Parada Wayúu communities, the “La Guajira le Habla al País” (Guajira Talks to the Country) initiative, and CAJAR (the Colectivo de Abogados José Alvear Restrepo, or José Alvear Restrepo Lawyer’s Collective) called on the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR) to order the Colombian government to take precautionary measures so as to guarantee emergency protection of the rights of communities in La Guajira. These communities are threatened with irreversible damage caused by the diversion of the Bruno stream to make way for the expansion of the largest open pit coal mine in Latin America. The mining concession is owned by Anglo American, Glencore, and BHP. The environmental and climate impacts of the diversion have endangered the lives of local Indigenous communities and destroyed the fragile tropical dry forest ecosystem. All of this is taking place in the context of a water and climate crisis.

The facts

The Guajira province in Colombia has a very rich, unique cultural and environmental ecosystem. It is home to the Wayuu people as well as Black and farming communities. There is also a valuable and endangered tropical dry forest ecosystem. Despite this, the area has been the site of the largest open pit coal mine in Latin America for the last forty years. Today, the mine is run by Carbones del Cerrejón, which is owned by multinationals Glencore, BHP and Anglo American.

After several decades of unfettered expansion, the mega mine has dried up, diverted, and polluted several water sources and aquifers. This has impacted the water and hydrogeological systems and worsened the water and climate crises that were already affecting the area. This has resulted in systematic discrimination and human rights violations as well as major damage to the ecosystem, some of which is permanent and irreparable.

Notwithstanding, the owners plan to expand the project even more - and part of its development plan calls for opening new quarries. Corporate interests led to the diversion of the Bruno stream, a tributary of the Ranchería river and one of the most significant water sources in the area. The Colombian government approved the project without analyzing its environmental and social impact. Furthermore, it did not take into account the stream’s spiritual and cultural importance for the Wayuu people.

Faced with this situation, local communities turned to judicial bodies for help in protecting their rights. In 2019, Colombia’s Constitutional Court recognised a threat to the communities’ water, health and food rights. The ruling ordered the government and mining company to carry out another viability study. The study had to account for the mega mine’s combined impact on cultural relations and climate change. It also ordered the rerouting of the Bruno stream to its natural course. But the ruling has not been respected and the Bruno river continues to flow on the altered course, and risks being used for mining activities. In addition, the multinationals filed a request for a reversal of judgement against the Colombian government, in an attempt to apply pressure to get approval for their plan to use the stream.

The diversion of the Bruno river has put the entire community in danger. Members of the community are blunt when they say “every day the stream is diverted it dies a little more”. Community leaders have been threatened. The government has removed all guarantees in the participatory process and has put the area in a dire situation that does not seem to have a domestic solution.

The action

A request for precautionary measures was filed with Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to make sure the Guajira communities’ rights be protected from the threat of irreversible damage as a consequence of the diversion of the Bruno stream and its potential use. It included a request for compliance with all legal guarantees stemming from the court’s judgement. The action aimed to force the inter-American human rights system to deal with the major threat of irreparable damage that comes from the mega mining project; and the challenge that victims face in getting access to justice for the abuses and violations committed by multinational corporations.

What we sought

For the IACHR to order the Colombian government to take precautionary measures to:

1. Protect the Guajira Indigenous communities from the grave and imminent threat of irreparable damage they could potentially suffer from due to the diversion of the Bruno stream and its potential use as part of the planned expansion of the nearby coal mine.

2. Adopt measures to guarantee legally binding guarantees stemming from judgement SU-698 of 2017 within a reasonable timeframe.

3. Apply the precautionary principle and re-divert the Bruno to its natural course.


The appeal was filed on September 23, 2021, but the IACHR refused to take precautionary measures, without elaborating on the reasons for its decision. However, in October 2022, the Special Rapporteur on Economic, Social, Cultural and Environmental Rights (DESCA) Soledad García Muñoz paid a visit to Guajira. With the backing of the organizations that form the platform "La Guajira le habla al país", and in collaboration with several organizations, the ethnic communities of southern La Guajira - which CAJAR supports - were able to meet the Rapporteur in the El Rocío community, where complaints related to mining were presented.

The meeting also received extensive media coverage, which was reflected in the Rapporteur’s statements after the visit. They referred to the struggle of the La Guajira communities against the abuses of multinational companies, giving as examples the issues of the Bruno River and the new Cañaverales mine. According to the Rapporteur, the relationship between the companies and the communities of La Guajira is "extremely asymmetrical", and it is paradoxical to see that while the multinationals are making profits, the Wayuu people are suffering from hunger, thirst and calamities.

Subsequently, the IACHR’s communiqué on the visit reflected the critical situation regarding the guarantee of economic, social, cultural and environmental rights (ESCR) in this territory. In particular, the Rapporteur highlighted the difficulties in enforcing court rulings related to Carbones del Cerrejón’s extraction activities, in favor of the rights of Wayuu communities. In particular, the T-614/19 ruling by the Constitutional Court, which ordered the protection of health and environmental rights, and the SU-698/17 ruling on the detour of the Bruno riverbed. In addition, she noted with particular concern that several ESCR violations are intrinsically linked to the role of companies, including Carbones del Cerrejón Limited, due to their impact on health, water, the environment and the rights to information and participation.

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