BUSINESS

Addicted to blood coal

COLIN CAMPBELL March 20 2006
BUSINESS

Addicted to blood coal

COLIN CAMPBELL March 20 2006

Addicted to blood coal

It’s cheap, clean but the human cost is high

BUSINESS

COLIN CAMPBELL

Colombia has always

been a dangerous place for unionists. Since 1991, more than 2,000 labour leaders, caught up in the battle between right-wing paramilitary groups and leftist guerrillas, have been killed, according to the National Union School in Colombia. Nowhere is the violence more pronounced than in the energy sector—and especially coal mining. In March 2001, two union leaders leaving a coal mine owned by the U.S. mining company Drummond Company Inc. were dragged from their bus and executed by paramilitary gunmen. Six months

later, a third, who took over the position of one of the murdered men, was assassinated in the same fashion. Such widespread human rights abuses have prompted some to call the coal that comes from Colombia “blood coal.” In the past five years, it has become a main source of energy for power plants in Eastern Canada.

For decades, coal-burning power plants were fuelled by coal mined in Cape Breton. But as the lights faded on the local mining industry, the plants turned to South American coal. Power utilities say it has a lower sulphur content than local coal, making it more environmentally friendly to burn. The switch to cheaper, imported coal from places like Colombia and Venezuela has also had economic benefits—for instance, it saved Nova Scotia Power $19 million in 2000, according to financial records. But it has had steep, human costs, Colombian activists and union leaders say. “The Canadian people should not continue to allow people in Colombia to be assassinated, massacred, and disappeared in order for new coal mines to be opened, and those already in existence to be operated under con-

ditions that are completely unfavourable for our nation,” said Francisco Ramirez, the head of the mining workers’ union. Ramirez himself has survived seven assassination attempts.

Neither Nova Scotia Power nor New Brunswick Power will disclose any details about their coal contracts, but both now rely on Colombia as a source of low-sulphur coal, something that is unlikely to change in the near future. Nova Scotia Power recently invested $34 million in a coal terminal in the Strait of Canso in Cape Breton, a signal of its commitment to imported coal, the company

says. In 2005, Nova Scotia imported over $78 million worth of coal from Colombia, and New Brunswick $45 million, much of it shipped on freighters belonging to CSL International, the international shipping arm of CSL Group Inc., which is controlled by former prime minister Paul Martin’s three sons. Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, along with Quebec, are the only provinces to import Colombian coal, according to Statistics Canada.

In the case of the Drummond mine killings, the union the men belonged to filed suit against the company in the U.S., and the case is set to go to trial this May in Birmingham, Ala., where Drummond is based. “We will allege that Drummond, through various managers, collaborated with the paramilitaries to murder the three union leaders,” said Dan Kovalik, a Pittsburgh lawyer representing the union. “We want to send a message that you can’t get away with it.” Drummond denies any connection to the killings and paramilitary groups, but activists hope the lawsuit will raise public awareness about conditions in Colombia.

Activists in Colombia, the U.S. and Canada

have also been critical about the environmental and social impact of Colombian mining practices. The Cerrejón mine, for example, the world’s largest, owned by an international conglomerate of companies, has displaced villagers as it expands, scattering communities rather than relocating them. In 2002, the village of Tabaco was bulldozed and many of its 700 residents were forcibly removed. “They are displaced, homeless, and haven’t received a penny for their land,” said Garry Leech, a lecturer at Cape Breton University who has played a key role in raising awareness in Canada about Nova Scotia Power and New Brunswick Power’s use of Colombian coal. “We’re not against them importing coal from Colombia,” said Leech. “We’re just demanding it be done in conditions that don’t involve the violation of human rights.” Leech’s campaign is beginning to pay dividends. Nova Scotia Power recently relented to his requests for a meeting, and local media coverage has raised the profile of his cause. This month, he

has arranged for a villager from Tabaco to visit the Maritimes and speak about the mine.

New Brunswick Power would not discuss the issue, but Nova Scotia Power says it has made efforts to educate itself about Colombia over

Canada ‘should notallow people in Colombia to be massacred in order for new coal mines to be opened’

the past five years, visiting the mines and working to hold its suppliers to the same standards it would a Canadian company. “We don’t have a large international experience yet,” said Margaret Murphy, a spokesperson for Nova Scotia Power. “We’re out there meeting people and learning more.”

But according to Ramirez, the outlook remains bleak. “Relations between Colombia’s unions and the military and paramilitaries continue to be as bad as ever,” he said. “My life, and the lives of hundreds of workers in Colombia, continue to be at risk every day.” M