Dáil debates

Thursday, 12 July 2018

5:00 pm

Photo of Seán CroweSeán Crowe (Dublin South West, Sinn Fein)
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I am disappointed that the Minister responsible is not able to attend. I have made numerous attempts to table questions, and they have been refused. I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle again for accepting this Topical Issue matter. I have submitted this matter because I was disturbed when I found out that large volumes of coal supplying the largest power plant in the State, Moneypoint power station, are coming from the Cerrejón mine in Colombia. This mine is infamous for the destruction of the environment, forcible displacement of indigenous people and Afro-Colombians living in the area and workers' rights abuses. During the past 32 years, more than 20,000 Afro-Colombian and indigenous people have been forced from their traditional homes to make way for this ever-growing mine. Land grabs and evictions have been carried out by Cerrejón's agents using intimidation, forcing the communities to hand over their land for laughable prices using their dominant position and relying on the complicity of the state authorities.

Figures from the ESB show that Moneypoint has used 12,568,717 tonnes of imported coal since 2011. Some 11,264,239 tonnes of this coal, just under 90%, has come from Colombia, and the vast majority of that has come from this mine in the north east of Colombia. The mine is operated by multinational companies such as Glencore, which is currently under investigation in the US for massive corruption and money laundering in its mining operations throughout the world, and Coal Marketing Company, CMC, which has offices here in Dublin. I have seen documents which show that this is the company from which we are buying coal.

This mine is located in one of the poorest regions in Colombia. Indigenous communities that have lived on this land since long before the mine was opened in 1985 have seen this area's precious ecosystem destroyed and their health damaged by this coal mining operation. Air pollution from the mine has caused serious and fatal respiratory problems for these communities. Noise pollution from machinery is also damaging the health and quality of life. In 2016, a legal ruling obliged the mine owners to implement an environment action plan and to attend to the health needs of these indigenous communities, but nothing has been done. In fact, just eight months after this ruling, it expanded its operation. Work began to extract minerals from the bed of a river tributary near the plant, which has run dry following three years of intense drought, decades of overuse and a lifetime of public corruption in the region. Another river tributary which is an important source of water for these indigenous communities has also been diverted to serve the mine and its relentless expansion.

The mine is slowly exterminating the indigenous people in this land. The communities do not want this mine. They want access to water and other natural resources in the area so that they can produce agricultural products and live their lives in harmony, free from the environmental degradation this mine brings.

The community and human rights defenders standing up for their rights are being harassed and threatened, and the police and army have attacked these protests on the mine's operation. The mine and the community cannot survive side by side. One of them has to go and it should be the mine. We are part of the problem by importing the coal. It is not for someone else to worry about. As the main shareholder in the ESB will the Government direct it to stop importing coal from this mine immediately and end the use of coal, which is the dirtiest of all fossil fuels in Ireland?

5:10 pm

Photo of Catherine ByrneCatherine Byrne (Dublin South Central, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy. Unfortunately, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade cannot be present and I was asked, just in the past 15 minutes, to take this matter and I ask the Deputy to bear with me.

The question of where the Moneypoint plant sources its coal is a matter for the ESB and the Deputy may wish to pursue this matter further with the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment. We understand that there have been complaints from non-governmental organisations, NGOs, regarding private sector activities in the Cerrejón mine and we are aware of the negative publicity that has surrounded the mine for some time.

We would certainly be concerned at reports of mining activities having a negative impact on local populations or on the environment, as well as reported abuse of workers. Ireland does not yet have an embassy in Colombia although we will open one there shortly, but the EU delegation in Bogotá has been active on behalf of member states in this area. The EU delegation has been monitoring the situation closely and the EU head of delegation has visited the Cerrejón mine to hear stakeholders' views on the allegations and to assess the situation on the ground. Several follow-up meetings took place with representatives of trade unions and other civil society organisations.

In addition to the continuous monitoring of Colombia's mining sector, the EU has been carrying out a number of activities in the framework of the implementation of the trade agreement between the EU and Colombia. The EU has been actively promoting a dialogue between Colombia's civil society organisations in the environmental and labour sectors and the Government. Several meetings were organised in which the EU delegation to Colombia facilitated contacts between civil society organisations and the Colombian Government.

More specifically on mining and the allegations around the Cerrejón mine, the EU has been maintaining contacts with the sectoral trade union and is in contact with environmental organisations. As the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade has explained previously in response to parliamentary questions on the matter, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has an ongoing commitment to support peace and human rights in Colombia and the transition to a post-conflict society.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade engages with the Colombian authorities at governmental level and with human rights defenders and civil society leaders in Colombia, including those working in communities most impacted by the recent conflict. The Department provides funding directly to the Office of the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights in Colombia to support its work in promoting and protecting human rights, including in some of Colombia’s most isolated and challenging regions, as well as to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which provides protection measures to community leaders and activists operating in Colombia and elsewhere in South America.

While Ireland does not yet have an embassy in Colombia, officials from the embassy of Ireland in Mexico, which is accredited to Colombia, frequently visit the country and maintain regular contact with partners there, including to receive updates on the issues affecting communities. Pending the opening of an Irish embassy in Colombia, we will continue to monitor developments in the country as closely as possible.

Photo of Seán CroweSeán Crowe (Dublin South West, Sinn Fein)
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I understand the commitment Ireland has to human rights in Colombia and that we have assisted the peace process efforts there, but since the ceasefire violence against land defenders has increased in Colombia, and according to the figures, it is increasing every month. By buying coal from the mine, the ESB is undermining the work of Irish Aid and our commitment to sustainable development goals. The mine does not bring any benefits to the local communities and the Government facilitates the huge tax avoidance in which these mining companies partake. Colombian taxpayers are, therefore, actively subsidising the mines which are destroying their environment, health and livelihoods, while the perpetrators avoid tax. This is clearly an issue.

The people of Ireland do not know where this coal comes from and what price is paid for it. I have outlined that to the Minister of State and I will not let this issue go. What happens to the coal before we burn it is not someone else's problem; it is our problem. We are paying for it and it is our problem. The Government is the main shareholder, sitting on the board of the ESB. We are buying coal from this company. It is well past time that the mine owners respected the rights of communities and were held to account for their actions. We need to send a clear message that we will not support human rights abuses or the destruction of the environment by buying this coal. We have responsibilities as legislators to stop this and the Government has a moral and ethical responsibility with regard to how the ESB operates.

Today we passed the Fossil Fuel Divestment Bill. Here is a prime example of what we should not be doing but are doing. We need to divest ourselves from buying coal from this notorious mine. What we are doing does not make sense. On the one hand, we are trying to bring peace to the region, but, on the other, we are propping up those who are undermining the peace process in the region.

Photo of Catherine ByrneCatherine Byrne (Dublin South Central, Fine Gael)
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I do not have some of the specific answers to the questions the Deputy asked but I will bring his questions back to the Minister. I know that is probably not what he wants to hear but I will say it anyway.

In October 2017 the Tánaiste announced Ireland's intention to open an embassy in Bogotá and the ambassador designate, Alison Milton, will arrive in Bogotá in early 2019 to establish the embassy. This significant step demonstrates the Government's commitment to developing Ireland's relationship with Colombia, particularly our commitment to support Colombia's transition to a peaceful post-conflict society, including the vindication and protection of human and social rights. Colombia has also announced it will open an embassy here in Ireland later this year. These developments will elevate our relationship with the Colombia to a new level.

While the embassy's focus will be on developing political and economic relationships and continuing to support Colombia's transition to a post-conflict society, having a permanent presence in Bogotá means we will be in a much better position to monitor issues such as the impact of the Cerrejón mine on the local community and the environment. Historical strides have been made in Colombia in recent years in the transition to a post-conflict society, and addressing social and environmental issues is part of this process. Significant challenges remain, including in the area of rural development, but Ireland also remains committed to supporting the full implementation of the peace arrangement, which will ensure a peaceful, stable and prosperous future for all Colombians, including the indigenous communities.

With a new president being inaugurated next month, it is hoped and expected that the progress being made will continue for the betterment of the people of Colombia. Nobody wants to see people who have lived in a country all their lives undergoing any kind of disturbance to their work, or see them being used and not properly paid for the work they do. I have noted a number of the issues raised by the Deputy and I will certainly bring them back to the Minister.