Leading environmental laws in Colombia still far from implementation
“This World Water Day is about accelerating change to solve the water and sanitation crisis”.
In 2023 the United Nations is raising awareness of the importance of water as a vital source of life for people, but also highlighting its connection with they called “the three pillars of sustainable development” which includes social, cultural, economic, and political values for the communities. Links that are an essential in indigenous and ancestral peoples’ lives in their territories.
This year the UN Water Conference, which takes place between the 22 and 24 of March, is prioritising water-related goals and targets connected to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including, among others, the role of indigenous people in governing shared waters.
In Colombia, Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities in La Guajira region are one of the most affected by their limited the access to water. Cerrejón, the biggest open coal mine in Latin America, is located in La Guajira and according to a report by Christian Aid, ‘the mine uses 16 million litres of water each day – equivalent to the consumption of 67,000 people – which is then dumped back, full of heavy metals, into the Ranchería River.’ In September 2020, UN experts called for halting mining operations at Cerrejón, considering it “the largest water pollute[r] in the region”. There are various rulings from both the Constitutional Court and other Courts in relation to Cerrejon’s mining activities that refer to the violation of the fundamental rights of the Wayuu and Afro-Colombian peoples by Cerrejón, including the right to water, as well as related rights to health, food, a healthy environment, prior consultation and decent living conditions.
On 20 January 2023, the Indigenous Wayuu Shipping Association (Asociación Shipia Wayúu, ASW) reported that two, two-year-old Indigenous girls died due to hunger and thirst.
The Wayúu Indigenous Peoples and the Afro-Colombian communities impacted by the mine have been engaged in decades of struggle to protect their communities, their sacred spaces and the biodiversity of their territory.
Arroyo Bruno (Stream Bruno)
Indigenous Communities and Afro-Colombians in La Guajira have joined efforts with civil society organisations and international organisations like ABColombia to oppose the impact of mining in the local water sources, specifically the Arroyo Bruno (Bruno Stream).
The Arroyo Bruno is an important source of water for the Wayúu and Afro-descendant communities that live in La Guajira with strong spiritual and cultural value and is vital for the ecosystems of the tropical dry forest, typical of the place.
“Save Arroyo Bruno” has become an emblematic campaign since Glencore, sole owner of Cerrejón mine from January 2022, deviated the stream as part of its plans to expand their operation. Over the years the Courts have recognised the violation of human and environmental rights and issued a list of orders which Cerrejón has largely not complied, or only partially.
In May 2021 Cerrejón’s owners Glencore and Anglo American filled a lawsuit against the Colombian state at Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) for alleged violations to the bilateral investment treaty signed between Colombia and Switzerland in 2006. Anglo American withdrew its legal demand in 2022, but Glencore’s claim for international arbitration against the Colombian State is still in force.
Although the amount of compensation demanded by the company has not yet been established, these disputes are usually for hundreds and even billions of dollars. This is why lawsuits, or only threats of lawsuits, tend to set back governments in their decisions.
In 6 March 2023, the Colombian Constitutional Court ordered a judicial inspection to the Arroyo Bruno due to information discrepancies presented by all the parts involved in the case, and not enough evidence showing the compliance of the Court’s sentence SU698/2017
The inspection taking place between the 27 and the 28 of March will start with a round table followed by a physical inspection to the site in dispute, including where the Arroyo Bruno has been diverted.
On this year World’s Water day ABColombia reiterates the need of more cohesive action by the Colombian State in implementing water-related programmes and protection for communities.
As the UN special rapporteur on human rights and environment, David Boyd, highlighted in 2020: There is still a gap between the leading environmental laws and policies present in the Colombian constitution and their implementation.