Last Sunday a new president took office in Colombia. In contrast to most neighbouring countries, Colombia did not have a ‘pink tide’ moment in the 2000s, and Gustavo Petro is the first left-leaning president to be elected for many decades. Expectations on the left are tempered by the painful history of progressive politics in the country, but there was an overwhelming optimism in the crowds that filled the squares of towns and cities. Petro’s campaign adopted vice-president Francia Márquez’s slogan of ‘vivir sabroso’, a take on ‘buen vivir’ that makes room for joy. While the new government’s statements have remained attached to liberal, growth-based economics, there are signs of change. One of this is the questioning of the extractivist model.
Cabinet appointments have sent strong signals, combining coalition-building with establishment sectors but also with Afro-descendant and indigenous groups and more radical left representation. There are plenty of academics, mostly women from the public universities (which is in itself significant). The Minister for Mines and Energy is an environmental geographer who has written critically about ‘the private accumulation of capital through the foreign exploitation of mining resources’ (Velez-Torres 2014). In his victory speech, Gustavo Petro proposed a transition ‘from the old extractivist economy’ towards a ‘productive’ economy centring agriculture and knowledge, as well as a dialogue with carbon emitting countries (which can be read as a demand for carbon payments). This stated intention to move away from extractivism marks a difference from other left-wing governments of this century in Latin America (cf Riofrancos 2020). Petro addressed ‘Latin American progressives’ directly, asking them to stop relying on high commodity prices to fund their social justice promises.
Changing the extractivist model is no easy task. Agribusiness such as coffee, flowers, sugar cane and palm oil prop up the Colombian economy, as do minerals and fossil fuels. While the largest export by value is oil, last year Colombia also exported over 60 million tons of coal, which is expected to rise this year and places it as the fourth coal exporting country in the world. However, coal’s place in the Colombian economy is a relatively recent history. As new possible horizons and challenges open up in that direction, it is valuable to understand how current modes of extraction came to be.
Central to this story is El Cerrejón coalfield, located in the north of Colombia, in the Guajira region shared with Venezuela. In particular, Cerrejón North Block (Zona Norte) marked a significant shift in large-scale coal extraction and generated intense controversy at the time. As Corral-Montoya, Telias, and Malz argue (2022), narratives and discourses are an acting force in the entrenchment of such policies. Film, video and television thus had a role in introducing, legitimising, facilitating, and resisting the Cerrejón project.
El Cerrejón was a three-thousand-million-dollar joint venture between Carbocol, which was the publicly owned coal mining body established by the Colombian government, and Exxon’s filial, Intercor. It was the largest investment project Colombia had undertaken at the time, and the country had to acquire a large amount of debt to fund it. Exxon had started to diversify into other fuels including coal during the oil crisis of 1973, and signed an exploration agreement with the López Michelsen administration, followed by the exploitation contract in 1980 during the Turbay administration (Kline 2012). The terms of that contract became hotly debated by politicians, most notably Luis Carlos Galán, who was a senator for the Liberal party. In his senate interventions, columns, and his book on the topic, Galán argued that the terms of the contract were disadvantageous for Colombia. The alleged irregularities in the valuation and negotiation of terms, plus the problematic position of Exxon as sole operator, were also raised by Carbocol economists in another book.
These debates were amplified by a three-part television reportage aired in 1982. The report, presented by Germán Castro Caycedo, one of the country’s most respected journalists, focused on the asymmetry in the negotiations between Carbocol (a tiny public entity with 15 employees at the time of signing) and Intercor (part of the world’s largest corporation). It also made visible the deal with Morrison-Knudsen, a less well-known but key actor in this project, as the infrastructure contractor. The Idaho-based company received 1.7 billion dollars to build the mine, railway and port. Castro Caycedo questions whether their procurement and hiring practices delivered the promised in-country investment.
Meanwhile, Exxon’s public relations machinery was in motion. Its most visible arm, Lámpara magazine, published lavishly illustrated articles about Cerrejón and the Guajira region in almost every issue between 1980 and 1986. These were not always narrowly focused on the mining operation, but also included historical and ecological accounts, as well as ethnographic articles about the majority indigenous population in the region, the Wayúu.
This apparent interest in the lifestyles and beliefs of the inhabitants of La Guajira is more present in Exxon’s materials than in the state’s efforts to explain and defend the project. Educational television on public service channels was central to Carbocol’s public relations in the early years of Cerrejón. Programmes intended to support adult distance learning for the basic school curriculum explained the process of open-cast mining and justified the benefits that it would bring to the country and to the local population. Many of them reused and remixed sponsored footage, changing the emphasis slightly depending on whether the item was about geography, natural sciences, social studies or maths. The absence of indigenous voices from these educational materials emphasises the concentration of power in the main cities by white or mestizo elites. In this centralist model of the nation, macroeconomic arguments about foreign currency and infrastructure modernisation are placed above the life worlds of people in the extractive zone.
As the first chapter of the Truth Commission’s ‘Findings and Recommendations’ report states, this core-periphery dynamic within national borders, coupled with global commodity markets, has been an engine of the decades-long internal conflict.
“Conceiving a part of Colombia as a country that only matters as a source of natural resources has led to the expansion of a development model based on extractivism, and to policy being imposed through coercion or at gunpoint” (p. 71-72)
The 1991 Constitution was a step towards democratising power through representation and rights, but the inertia of extractivism continues to destroy ecosystems and displace communities. In the last few years, the assassination of environmental defenders and community organisers has been particularly relentless. And yet, resistance continues to surge, on the streets as well as in independent media. A major shift in representation has taken place since the 1990s, with the proliferation of very successful indigenous media initiatives. It is fair to say that nowadays there is greater access to media self-representation, reporting, and advocacy by indigenous and Afro communities in extractive zones (examples in La Guajira include the work of David Hernández Palmar and the La Guajira le habla al País project).
This early history of public relations debates around El Cerrejón mine captures some of the arguments around resource nationalism that other countries transformed into policy in the decades that followed. The need to extract fossil fuels is never questioned, only the terms of the deal with multinationals. By this point, Exxon knew that fossil fuels were causing climate change, but their approach to environmental issues is to claim that pollution is localised and controlled. The sacrificial zone for this environmental destruction is indigenous territory, figured as a barren wasteland. To the limited extent that sponsored media or even critics of the project acknowledged the Wayúu, it was either by seeing them as an unchanging feature of the geography, or by debating the economic compensation or assistance families may get from the mine. Centralist and colonial understandings of the land (as first and foremost an economic resource) underpinned the government’s discourse as much as that of its critics, with no recognition of indigenous relationships to the territory. As we see perhaps the beginning of a move away from the unquestioned centrality of fossil fuel extraction, it is useful to remember the role of images and narratives in entrenching the model, and the potential opened up by indigenous media to find other ways of looking at the earth.
You can browse a summary of my ongoing archive research here: https://mediarxiv.org/u6qvh/