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Coal Industry Expands in Developing World Linked to Abuses

Report claims despite its decline in the West, coal industry is growing in the developing world widely associated with poverty and displacement. 

Por: November 23, 2015

Groundbreaking report claims that despite its decline in the West, the coal industry is growing in the developing world and is widely associated with poverty, deaths and uncompensated displacement. 

The coal industry has been growing while forcibly displacing indigenous and minority communities and contributing to extreme poverty in developing countries, say experts at Colombia-based NGO Dejusticia and Business & Human Rights Resource Centre in a report to be released today. In some cases those seeking to protect their rights while they face coal development have been threatened, attacked and even killed. 

The report, focusing on Colombia, India, South Africa, and Egypt, finds a common pattern of poverty, socio-economic conflict, and severe harms to health associated with coal operations. 

In Colombia, the community of Tabaco, composed of traditionally marginalized Afro-descendants, was violently evicted by armed guards and employees of Cerrejón company, jointly owned by Glencore, BHP Billiton and Anglo American, in 2001. Until today, the community has yet to be resettled. 

There have also been allegations of Drummond company hiring paramilitary groups to kill three trade union leaders. A subcontractor of Drummond has been convicted for the killings, while the company denies the allegations.

The two provinces in Colombia where coal mining is concentrated—La Guajira and Cesár—rank third and seventh in terms of extreme poverty in the country. In India, its coal mining states of Jharkhand and Chattisgarh also have the worst poverty indicators in the country. In Arbor, a black community in South Africa located beside a coal mine and power plant, residents do not enjoy the electricity that is being produced next door. 

Coal, an extremely water-hungry industry, is being mined and processed in some of the most water-scarce places in the world, such as South Africa, which is experiencing one of its worst droughts in history. In Arbor, residents sometimes have to go for three weeks without water supply. In Colombia, Cerrejón uses 17 million liters of water each day, a stark comparison to the 0.7 liter used by an average local in this arid region. 

In India, coal mines employ illegal migrants from neighboring Nepal and Bangladesh under harsh working conditions. In April last year, India’s National Green Tribunal ordered the closure of “rat hole” mines in Meghalaya state that employed 70,000 children on 12-hour shifts in hand-dug tunnels.

Egypt, which has negligible coal reserves, has now legalized the use of coal for its industries. Egyptians Against Coal, a local group which has been struggling in the midst of generalized civil society repression by government, has documented coal “mountains” being kept in open air next to residential areas in various ports, exposing locals to coal dust that cause various respiratory illnesses.

“There’s a thinking that coal is cheap. But this is plainly wrong. We just have not fully accounted for its costs,” says Krizna Gomez, Senior Researcher at Dejusticia and one of the lead authors of the report.  

Despite the slowdown of coal production in the United States and Europe, developing countries are growing their coal use. India is planning to double its coal output by 2020. South Africa, which is the fifth largest coal producer globally, is building two mega coal-fired power plants that will be among the largest in the world. Kenya, Nigeria and seven other African countries are now about to use coal for the first time in their histories. 

The report also claims that coal activities in these developing countries are being driven by Western countries through their companies or finance institutions, despite their moves to curb coal use at home. In August of this year, Murray Energy, the largest underground coal mining company in the United States, bought Goldman Sachs’ mining operation in Colombia. The company said that it is expanding internationally for the first time because the coal industry is “under attack” in the United States. France, the host of this year’s COP, and Germany, hailed for its leadership in transitioning to renewables through its Energiewende (energy transition) program, lead European countries in giving export credits to coal plant projects abroad.

The report says that that the human rights violations in the coal industry have been largely unnoticed despite the significant campaigning against coal especially leading up to the Paris climate change negotiations. “Coal is not only a climate change issue. It is also a grave human rights one,” says Gregory Regaignon, co-author of the report and Research Director at the Resource Centre.

Some coal companies have made significant commitments to human rights, and some energy companies have taken initial steps to require respect for rights by coal firms in their supply chain. But the companies have not yet translated these commitments into large-scale, meaningful differences for workers and affected communities – nor are many of those harmed by mining and burning coal able to obtain effective remedies. Much stronger steps by companies, government regulators and others, building on examples of good practice, are needed to turn these promises into realities.

The report and a documentary containing firsthand accounts can be accessed at

The Center for Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia) is a Colombia-based think-and-do tank working on strengthening the rule of law and promoting human rights in Colombia and across the Global South. It produces rigorous research that can contribute to action for social change, and carries out direct advocacy through campaigns, litigation, education and capacity building.

The Business and Human Rights Resource Centre is a non-profit organization with offices in London and New York and 14 regional researchers based in Brazil, Colombia, Hong Kong, India, Kenya, Japan, Jordon, Myanmar, Mexico, Senegal, South Africa, UK, Ukraine and USA. It draws global attention to the human rights impacts (positive and negative) of companies in their region, seeks responses from companies when civil society raises concerns, and establishes close contacts with grassroots NGOs, local businesspeople and others.

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