A United Nations (UN) human rights expert has called on Colombia to suspend some operations at the El Cerrejón mine due to activities at the mine causing damage to the environment and the health of Colombia’s largest indigenous community, the Wayúu peoples.

“I call on Colombia to implement the directives of its own Constitutional Court and to do more to protect the very vulnerable Wayúu community on the Provincial indigenous reserve against pollution from the huge El Cerrejón mine and from Covid-19,” said UN special rapporteur on human rights and the environment David Boyd. “At least during the pandemic, operations at the Tajo Patilla site close to the Provincial reserve should be suspended until it can be shown to be safe.”

Reuters reported that coal miner Cerrejón, equally owned by BHP, Anglo American, and Glencore, had rejected the allegations. In a statement, Cerrejón said the claims made by UN special rapporteurs were concerning.

“Cerrejón is committed to developing an operation that respects the environment and the rights of workers and the communities neighbouring the operation,” the statement read. “There are ongoing efforts to improve due diligence processes aimed at identifying, preventing and mitigating the impacts created by the operation, and to compensate for them when necessary.”

El Cerrejón is the largest open-pit mine in Latin America and borders the protected communal lands of the Wayúu community in La Guajira Department in northeast Colombia. According to the UN, residents living in proximity to the mine suffer from headaches, nasal and respiratory discomfort, dry coughs, burning eyes, and blurred vision as a result of El Cerrejón’s 24-hour, seven-day operation, which uses heavy machinery and explosives regularly. These explosions can cause houses to shake and propel coal dust into the air, water, and soil.

The UN said that a court order from December last year directed Colombian authorities and the owners of El Cerrejón to improve the air quality and reduce the mine’s harmful effects on local residents, but not enough has been done to protect members of the Wayúu community in the Provincial reserve. The Court found the company had damaged the health of residents in the Provincial reserve by contaminating the air, water and vegetation, and through noise and vibration from mining activities.

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Cerrejón said that it is “respectful of judicial rulings and complies with them” including the aforementioned court order.

“Despite the limitations created by the Covid-19 pandemic and the current suspension of operations due to the strike called by the Sintracarbón union we are committed to complying with the ruling and to date we have made progress in complying with the ruling, including strengthening measures to reduce dust.”

Workers at the mine had been striking through August and September due to proposals to alter the working patterns at the mine, in a move that would bring job losses.

A statement from the Wayúu people in June said that the resumption of operations at El Cerrejón following Covid-19 lockdown measures placed the indigenous community and risk and increased their vulnerability to water scarcity.

Cerrejón maintains that it has worked “tirelessly” to provide support to local communities. The company said it had provided “over 20 million litres of water, over 50,000 food baskets, over 400 medical supplies, including 3 mechanical ventilators, and has provided the first laboratory for carrying out molecular PCR tests for Covid-19 in the region.”