What The Fact?

Is the state owned ESB associated, directly or indirectly, with reported human rights violations in the Cerrejón mine in Colombia?

Coal mine El Cerrejón, Guajira, Colombia, (June 5, 2009). Photo: Santiago La Rotta (via Flickr under CC-BY 2.0 licence)

The Claim

Ireland’s Electricity Supply Board (ESB) utility company’s values of being courageous, caring, driven and trusted are deeply rooted in the organisation and encapsulate the integrity and ambition that ESB stands for.

The Cerrejon Mine is one of largest open-pit mines in the world and is located in the south-east of Colombia in the region of La Guajira. Green News reported that Cerrejón mine alone has produced and exported nearly 32 million tonnes of coal in 2017, over one-third of total national exports.

Based on a number of news reports [1] [2] about ‘blood coal’ and linked to procurement of coal in Colombia, is Ireland’s state owned ESB associated, directly or indirectly with reported human rights violations in the Cerrejón Mine in Colombia?

The Verdict

Through its relationship with Cerrejón Coal mining company in Colombia, the ESB is associated, directly or indirectly, with reported human rights abuses violations. The claim is rated true on a number of levels:

  • As documented and reported by Christian Aid, The Guardian and in submissions to the UN committee on elimination all forms of racism and discrimination by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, the ESB does not make the origins of all mineral procurement publicly available on its website
  • The ESB has been criticised for its failures to adequately conduct human rights due diligence research on suppliers or have an exclusion mechanism for those suppliers not complying with internationally recognised human rights standards and responsible business conduct

  • The ESB is not sufficiently transparent about its activities or supply chain with regards to Colombia, despite various fact-based studies and reports on human rights violations and environmental damage.

The Evidence

Cerrejón’s connection to Ireland is through the Coal Marketing Company’s role as ‘The exclusive marketer of thermal steam coal from the Cerrejón mining complex in northern Colombia’ being the supplier of coal to the government owned Electricity Supply Board (ESB). Data released to The Green News under Access to Information on the Environmental (AIE) Regulations reveals that “12.5 million tons of coal have been imported since 2011, almost 90 per cent of which comes from Colombia.” And that “since 2011, over 60 per cent of total coal imports – around 7.8 million tons – for use at ESB’s Moneypoint power station in Co Clare have come from the Cerrejón mine.”

Controversy regarding human rights violations in and around the area surrounding the mine was recently noted due to the proposed expansion of the mine calling for re-routing of the Rancheria River. While the indigenous communities argue that the mine continues to drain them of resources (especially water) and jeopardizes their health, El Cerrejón officials claim that all their practices are in line with UN regulations.

The Coal Marketing Company

Dublin-based Coal Marketing Company (CMC) remains the sole international distributer of coal from the Cerrejon mine in Colombia and their number one customer is the ESB, which is 95% state owned.  While the Irish government itself has not formally approved the direct extraction of coal and has not commented directly on the reported associated human rights violations, is it still indirectly implicated in the situation.  It cannot dis-associate itself from the context in which a state-owned company sources its coal. 

A 2017 study carried out by Cerrejon to measure their risks and impacts on human rights included 50 interviews with representatives of communities in their area of direct influence, 350 interviews with their employees, 44 interviews with different areas of their operation and 1 focus group with the participation of 11 Cerrejon contractors.

A number of ‘verified adverse effects’ of the mining activities according to this study are;

  • Visual changes in the area of direct influence and the reduced tranquillity of these areas.
  • Activities classified as ‘perceived impacts’ include the negative impact on health and the exploitation of water resources. On the issue of exploitation of water resources, Cerrojón reported:

“Until 2010, Cerrejón extracted 44% of the amount licensed. With implementation of the Savings and Efficient Use of Water Plan, this amount was reduced to 14% over the past four years, showing Cerrejón’s efficient use of this resource.”


“In 2017 we withdrew from the river only 13% of the total volume authorized by the Regional Autonomous Corporation of La Guajira. Currently 91.4% of the water Cerrejon uses is not suitable for human use; this water comes from dewatering of coal seams and water obtained from rain that drains into the mine pits and accumulates in ponds.”

The practices of the ESB go directly against government objectives that are presented through the Green Public Procurement (GPP) process. They state that “Citizens (of Ireland) need to be sure that what is purchased on their behalf has minimal harmful effects on the environment and society.” It comes as no surprise that coal is one of the ‘dirtiest’ energy sources and has long been linked to producing “a number of profoundly harmful environmental impacts and pollutants that harm public health.” Looking at the impacts of the Cerrejon mine more specifically, it’s impacts are amplified by the fact that it is located in an extremely arid area which has in return required the company to re-route several river channels making access to water even more difficult.

The ESB’s membership in Bettercoal, an organisation established by major coal buyers to ensure coal is being sourced via responsible supply chains, which the ESB joined in 2014, helps them respond to public challenges about the ethical implications of the coal supply chain in Ireland.

Professor Aviva Chomsky of Salem State University, a research delegate investigating the mine’s activities and long term critic of the situation,  stated that the ESB’s reliance on its membership of the Bettercoal initiative as a sign of its commitment to ethical sourcing is not good enough. Until recently Cerrejón supplied coal to a Salem power plant.

Professor Chomsky makes the point that data collected by Bettercoal as part of their research within the La Guajira community does not reflect the true impact that the mine has had. With ‘little consultation of local stakeholders’, Chomsky notes, the report does not draw on experiences and voices of the indigenous people who are mostly bearing the harmful burden of the mine. The lack of extensive research done on behalf of the Irish public could raise concerns as it means they simply rely on the these assessment reports published by the Cerrejón Foundation itself.

Impact studies and human rights defenders

In an interview with the Irish Times, Wayúu woman human rights defender Jakeline Romero Epiayu stated that “Children are suffering from skin infections, and women in the area have a much higher rate of developing breathing problems or breast cancer. The mining is destroying the natural environment and water sources, but also uses too much dynamite and chemicals in its activities.”

A recent fact finding study commissioned by Christian Aid Ireland, Undermining Human Rights: Ireland, the ESB and Cerrejón coal, is unequivocal in its findings:

“Over the course of its history it has been linked to the expulsion of up to 35 indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities. Cerrejón’s operations also harm local people through their impact on the natural environment. 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. As the only major river in the area, the severe pollution is linked to elevated levels of cancer, reproductive ailments and renal and liver problems.6 It also made structural interventions in 19 rivers and streams, exacerbating the water scarcity in a region that has been hit by repeated droughts in recent years 7 and severely contaminating the quality of air and soil.”

The report further states, with regards to human rights obligations and supply chain management:

“the ESB does not appear to be carrying out any form of human rights due diligence in its relationship with Cerrejón, much less seeking to engage with the company to address the abuses that are taking place. To date, the ESB’s response to concerns raised over the Cerrejón mine have been limited to references to the deeply flawed Bettercoal assessment of the mine.”

Where does coal stand in comparison to other sources of energy?

The issue of clean energy infrastructure and phasing out fossil fuels is a debate that rages on, particularly in terms of jobs for workers who make their living off of fossil fuel extraction sites. Whether any realistic clean energy job transition plans or schemes are on the way or simply rhetoric has an impact on the sourcing a sustainable energy sources mix.

In an interview with Jairo Quiroz, the president of the Sintracarbón union that represents workers in the Cerrejón coal mine his response to energy alternatives is worth considering:

“There is no clean source of energy, what do you propose to use, if we stop mining coal? Petroleum and natural gas are no better for the environment than coal is, and both contribute to global climate change. Nuclear energy also requires mining, and creates waste products even more dangerous than coal’s. Solar energy and wind energy are only viable where those resources are sufficiently available, and they also require production, transmission and storage techniques and equipment that depend on mining (for turbines, batteries, solar panels, etc.) and the use of toxins. So-called biofuels are the worst of all, because they expand the agro-industrial model which has profound environmental effects — from deforestation to desertification to overuse of pesticides and fertilizers — and it also disrupts the whole food chain by channelling agricultural land to the production of fuel instead of food.”

“As long as you want to keep using that much energy,” he said, “we’re going to keep mining coal.”

A National Plan on Business and Human Rights?

Although the Irish Government adopted a National Plan on Business and Human Rights 2017-2020 for the purpose of implementing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, progress has been extremely slow to date, such that two years since the adoption of the national plan no guidance has yet been provided to business enterprises in this context.

A number of shadow reports prepared around the UN committee review of Ireland’s progress on the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in December 2019 made unpleasant reading of the Irish government’s position, which was silent in its national report on Cerrejón. The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission’s 2019 shadow report noted:

“The Commission wishes to note its concern regarding the heavy reliance of the State-owned Electricity Supply Board (ESB) on coal mined from the Cerrejón mining complex in La Guajira, north-eastern Colombia. Recent reports have indicated that up to 90 per cent of the coal burned at the ESB’s Moneypoint power station in County Clare comes from Colombia, with two thirds of it purchased from the Cerrejón mine. The operation of the Cerrejón mine has been linked with serious human rights abuses, including the forceful displacement of thousands of indigenous Wayúu, Afro Colombian and campesino populations, and contamination of farmland and drinking water. The sales branch of the Cerrejón mine has headquarters in Dublin.

The Commission notes the CERD Committee’s clear articulation of applicability of Convention provisions to indigenous peoples. The Commission further notes the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, in particular their reference to States’ role in reducing the risk of gross human rights abuses in regions affected by conflict.

The Irish Government has signaled its commitment to the UN’s Guiding Principles,as well as having played a significant leadership role in the Colombian peace process.The Government has also committed in its Climate Action plan to the “early and complete phase-out of coal- and peat-fired electricity generation” by 2030.”

The CERD committee observed:

The Committee is concerned that, despite the adoption of a national action plan on business and human rights, the operation of the Cerrejón mine complex in La Guajira, Colombia, whose headquarters is domiciled in Dublin and from which the State party has purchased coal for one of its power stations in County Clare, has been linked with serious abuses of human rights, in particular affecting people of African descent and indigenous peoples.

In its conclusions on Colombia as part of the same session in December, the committee also noted a concern from the point of view informed consent of indigenous people, including around extraction projects:

“The Committee is concerned that, although the right to prior consultation is formally recognized in Colombian law, legislative processes, in general, and, in particular, the granting of licences for investment, tourism, industrial fishing and mining projects, which are carried out in the territories of indigenous peoples and of communities of African descent, are reportedly conducted in the absence of prior, free and informed consultations in line with the International Labour Organization (ILO) Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989 (No. 169), and without the appropriate environmental precautions.”

The Christian Aid study summarises the position:

Taken together, the current gaps in Irish legislation and continuing prioritisation of corporate protections in trade agreements over accountability for human rights violations creates an environment in which the ESB’s access to cheap, bountiful coal is given de facto precedence over the lives and wellbeing of vulnerable communities in La Guajira”

Gaps in protections for responsible supply chain management, access to remedy for victims of Irish companies, transparency in supply chain management and procurement do not seem to be a priority concern, despite the introduction of a ‘National Plan’ on Business and Human Rights.


TD Sean Crowe has been active on raising Cerrejón nationally too, stating:

“Ireland is clearly part of the problem by importing coal from this mine. It is someone else’s problem, it is also ours. As the main shareholder in the ESB the Government should stop importing coal from this mine immediately.”

While it cannot be asserted that the ESB and the Irish government are directly responsible for human rights abuses, their significant direct involvement with CMC (as the only retailer of coal from the Cerrejon Mine in Colombia) and the ongoing lack of expected and appropriate transparency on the issue and on associated issues such as access to justice violations implicates them at least by omission.

There is a ‘conspicuous absence’ of appropriate ESB’s responsibility on the issues involved.  The Christian Aid report notes that ESB does not have a human rights policy, does not make the origins of all mineral procurement publicly available on its website, nor does it conduct adequate human rights due diligence on suppliers.  Neither has it an appropriate exclusion strategy for suppliers not complying with human rights standards and responsible business conduct.

Bettercoal have rejected the Christian Aid report and have defended their practice. For more, see here.


Based on the What The Fact? scales guide, the claim is rated as True – the claim is accurate based on the best evidence publicly available at this time.


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