Last December, Caroline Bruyninckx and Bertrand van der Straten (two Belgians) travelled to La Guajira, Colombia on a journey to discover the effect of the world’s largest open-pit coal mine: El Cerrejón. Due to the mine’s activities and expansion, the people living around the mine, the harbour, and the 150km rail tracks joining them live in deplorable conditions.
Q: How do mines and land grabbing affect people’s everyday lives?
Bertrand: The topic of land grabbing deals with the sense of community, the sense of belonging to a certain territory and to a certain culture. It is definitely complex. Regarding effects on everyday lives, this is where all these different aspects gather and the omnipresence of the mine becomes obvious.
Let’s say, you wake up in the morning because of the heavy machinery or the train passing by. The river where you get your water from is polluted; your livestock will drink from it. If you’re lucky enough, you live in one of the villages that the mine is supplying with water, but this means that you owe them. Your fields aren’t producing much because of the coal being blown away by the explosions; at least the part of it you haven’t sold yet. Anyhow, it allows you to come back home earlier to find a document in front of your door. It threatens you to sell your land quickly, before you get expropriated. It is the second time this week. Meanwhile, your children are playing in the ruins of the house of your former neighbour who has already been displaced.
Q: When did you first become aware of this issue?
Caroline: It’s difficult to tell. I first went to Colombia in 2007 and observed illegal mines in a small town in the region of Antioquia while doing social work. Since then, the issue of the mines in Colombia has always been on my mind.
B: Land grabbing is a subject that remains very much banned from publications. I heard about it during many trips and it has always interested me but I never took the time to dig deeper. I had no idea about El Cerrejón before Caroline told me about it.
Q: How many people were involved in the project?
C: There were only two of us. Originally I was supposed to go on my own and was planning to do both the writing and the photographs. When I was preparing the reportage, I realised that doing the interviews, taking notes, and taking photographs would be a tough job, particularly when taking into account the complexity of the issue. So, I asked my old friend Bertrand (who studied and works in the field of international development) to join me on this incredible journey. He did a remarkable job as a reporter.
B: The project immediately got me enthusiastic, not to mention working with Caroline, whose photographs I’ve kept an eye one for years. I liked the idea of analysing a specific issue in a deeper way. Throughout the entire process I tried to remain objective and readable, finding the right tone so that the photographs and text would match.
Q: How did you gain access?
C: Before going to La Guajira, we tried to get in touch with as many people as possible. The very first ones we wanted to talk to were the people in charge of the mine. We thought it would be the easiest since they had a very well developed website and seemed to be well organised and transparent.
Even though we hoped naively to get an answer from them, we never managed to talk to anyone. The call always dropped as soon as we mentioned the purpose of our visit.
As for the people affected by the activities of the mine, we got in touch with them through different groups on Facebook. Many got back to us very quickly. We met them as soon as we arrived to La Guajira and from there they helped us get in touch with indigenous communities, people who lived in remote areas of the region, etc. They were incredibly helpful.
Q: Are there any organisations or government bodies who provide assistance to those affected?
B: Most of the work is done by grassroots organisations. Their work is hard and often unsuccessful but their determination is considerable and will hopefully enable them to achieve what they are fighting for.
At the same time, El Cerrejón is trying to create a good public image for itself and has created a complete foundations system. They are four foundations in total: Foundation for progress, for water, for institutional strengthening, and for indigenous development. However, from what we have seen, they only help a few individuals. Their projects are irrelevant, not sustainable in the long run and utopian. The communities that are supposed to benefit from it are not integrated in the process at all.
At the government level, things get a little bit more complicated. The government and the mine are very much linked. They share common interests. Not only this but the law has changed over the years giving less rights to the indigenous populations and more rights to the mining organisations. The new mining code makes it easier for multinationals to grab land.
Q: Did you observe the community as a whole or did you come to know individuals?
B: Many different communities exist in the region: Afro-Colombians, Wayuus, fishermen, farmers, shepherds, traders, you name it! So it was important to meet as many of them as possible to get the complete picture. We spent a few days in each of the different communities and inevitably we got to know some individuals better. While staying in the communities, it was important to find the right balance between being invited and positioning ourselves as observers.
Q: Can you tell us the personal story of one of the people you met?
C: The first person that comes to my mind is Vicenta. She is the person that had the most impact on us. Two years ago, the Cerrejón had decided to deviate the River Rancheria. La Guajira is a semi-desertic region, so you can imagine its people’s reaction when they heard the news. Vincenta, one of them, decided to tell the president what she had on her mind.
Vicenta is a writer, an excellent one, and the letter she wrote was incredibly moving. It has since been translated into four languages and was spread all over the world, gaining international attention. She never thought that her letter would be such a success. In the end, it was decided to postpone the rerouting of the river. The president never officially answered the letter but that episode was a big victory for the Wayuus, the first one in 30 years.
Q: What was the main goal of this photo-project?
C: The current situation in La Guajira is completely ignored in the media. We therefore want to bring it to a large audience. Shooting the story was also an incredible experience for us and our will to reveal our findings is greater than ever.
B: It was a terrific personal experience. Having the opportunity to spend a month over there, meeting all these people, get to know them and having the time to try and understand what they are facing and how they are facing it was really interesting. This brings it back to the publishing part; the story is worth sharing!
Q: What is the next step?
C: We are currently working on the layout of the book that we will self publish. We also hope to get published in magazines.We’re also planning several European shows. We’re already in touch with galleries in different European cities. In order to make it happen, we need help with printing the photographs so we just started a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo for this purpose.
To find out more about the Mushaisa project and to see more work from Caroline Bruyninckx and Bertrand van der Straten visitwww.mushaisa.info.
Photography © Caroline Bruyninckx. Interview conducted by Francesca Bassenger.