Literary essay

El Cerrejón is Latin America's largest open-cast coal mine. It supplies the coal so that Europe doesn't have to freeze. Our earth has never been a woman - only in the eyes of Europe, which knows nothing but penetration.

Illustration: Author of "Coal"

El Cerrejón is the largest opencast coal mine in Latin America.1 Excavated in the Caribbean region of Colombia, and thirsty enough to dry an ocean, the mine received its name from the once endemic Titanoboa cerrejonensis.2 Its dust can be seen in the sheets women hang to dry, and on the food at their tables. There is no accurate measure for these intrusions.3 As particles of uranium and thorium clutter below the skin, heart, and bone, El Cerrejón provides coal to warm Europe in the winter.4

The mineral, once heated to bake bread, has turned to poison. While the streets of Germany mourn their shortage of fuel, La Guajira perishes. Perhaps time has not advanced and the perpetrators persist. Occident, white as death, has yet to learn the human faculty of empathy.

In Colombia, the history of coal is as interred as the rock. Manuel Zapata Olivella had already written that blood runs underneath the soil. In Bitter Earth, his first and only script for film, el maestro tells the story of a land torn by mining.5 His sights are set on two lovers and the Baudó river in Chocó.6 Their skins bear the contrast of earth and sky. His tale was preceded by a debut novel, Wet Earth. The early fiction opens with tobacco extinguished on the ground. The leaves have been used as a bridge between men and spirits for centuries, when the Earth began to bitter.7

Wet Earth narrates the life of a family in Los Secos, an allegorical territory at the mouth of the Sinú river and the last habitable parcel along the Caribbean coast. After becoming destitute at the hands of a landowner, Jesús Espitia, the family finds refuge in the mud. They paddle across the sea at night clutching to a pilón, fabric, and their dog as they are nearly swallowed by the currents. Once they reach the marshes, Olivella recites how day broke after the catastrophe; the moon would return, circular and full, a freshly crafted pot.8

Upon hearing of fertile land in Los Secos, the landowner sails to claim his bounty. Little does Avarice know that the waters decide when to crash or refuse. This is how the river, tired of providing fruits, changes its course in the novel. It was the fabulation of Wet Earth that opened the way for the Atrato river to become the first waterway in Colombia's history to be declared the subject of rights. The waterway was then a legal person.9 The fresh moon hovered above. Under its light, even today, countless families are displaced in the interests of capital. The tale is as old as the first conquests, now alive in the quest for coal. From El Cerrejón, caravans of Wayuu peoples arrive seeking life in the capital.10

Occident, white as death, has yet to learn the human faculty of empathy.

I return to Bitter Earth. A young woman intones La Mina, a song by La Negra Grande de Colombia. She paddles along the Atrato while a backhoe chews the soil for precious metals. She sings, the master takes every thing. Her voice, cavernous, pearled by white teeth, cries the plight of an enslaved miner against her master. It is rare to imagine a woman bent over in a dark cave, to prove that femininity only serves its pale distortion. Today, it is still dark women who labour for the comfort of others. It is starved countries who feed the Occident. We soar over the river and its mangroves, the palm trees, and the fishermen.

Olivella first heard La Negra from his house in Lorica, in Bajo Sinú. The writer is said to have mistaken her voice for birdsong. El Gran Putas, a pseudonym earned from his epic dedicated to Changó, declared himself a feathered fowl; I began to feel like a bird swimming in the cienega, a white heron, brown heron, garzipolo, currao, barraquete, piscingo, all of them an inseparable part of this humid territory. Olivella joined the singer across the oceans. They saw Spain, China, and Czechoslovakia along the ballet tour of Delia Zapata Olivella, his sister and dancer.11

Delia wore white. Her skirt opened as wide as the dress of Wayuu dancers in La Guajira, guardians of La Yonna. A dance for the passage of womanhood, celebration, and the revelation of dreams. The footsteps are carried by women covered in red fabric, the colour of blood and fire. The men dance backward to signal respect. Both follow the rhythm of animals: the zamuro, alcaraván, ant, goat, and partridge. Even flies, despite their apparent inconsequence. A woman opens her dress with both hands. The man retreats to avoid crashing into her. Finally he does and the couple collapses to be replaced by another. The music is conjured by the kasha, a drum-like instrument made from pine or ceiba, coated with goat leather and tied together by cowhide strips. Their feet awaken the desert. The sand mixes with the salt of Manaure.12

I write of Wet Earth, La Mina, and Delia to exalt the endurance of a people. I write of dances in La Guajira to preserve their lives from extinction. Of a desert that is mother and father; a hermaphroditic land. Our Earth has never been a woman, except in the eyes of Europe who knows only to penetrate. It was their romanticism that drew a breasted Nature to be drilled. Once the flowers are exhausted, the perpetrators rise as guardians. It is their maniacal desires that constitute our murders.


1 El Cerrejón is a primary provider of coal to the European Union. Since its construction in 1984 at the hands of Carbones de Colombia SA (Carbocol), International Colombia Resources Corporation (Intercor), and Morrison-Knudsen, the Wayyu people have been sacrificed at the perimeter. The mine is currently operated by Glencore. In 2023, following fuel sanctions on Russia after the invasion of Ukraine, the mine consumes 24 million litres of water per day in the desert of La Guajira. Coal annihilates the land and resources of an entire region while supplying electricity and heat to Germany, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

2 The Titanoboa cerrejonensis would devour a crocodile in a single bite. The snake glided across La Guajira, living in river currents and swamps as the largest predator of the Paleocene jungle.

3 Ever flawed, law cannot retrieve what evades it, and what is ultimately most precious — life. In 1981, in Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, Amartya Sen argued that hunger exceeds any measurable index. His assessment of freedom and social development introduced incommensurable variables to geopolitics, human rights, and economics.

4 The surrounding area endures the repercussions of mining. The ignition of unprocessed coal releases fly ash, which contains high concentrations of uranium and thorium.

5 The black and white film by Manuel Zapata Olivella, Tierra Amarga, depicts a clandestine romance between a miner in Chocó and a foreign journalist. Bitter Earth shoots elongated portraits of men on the Baudó river. Their figures recall Arnoldo Palacios’s fisherman in Las estrellas son negras, who paddles along the same currents — himself, more than eighty years old, a small head, resplendent baldness of his chocolate-black skull fringed by fuzzy hairs around the ears and nape, a boned face, sunken temples and cheeks; a peaceful gaze emanated from his deep, dark, brown eyes. His rawboned face, covered with wrinkles, was translucent with a deep conformity, a certain disdain for the fleeting and futile. A sense of responsibility for the long life that had tormented him, ever since his first ray of light.

6 In Aimara, Chocó means gold. The region envelops the jungle of Darien, the Panama Isthmus, and the basins of the Atrato, San Juan, and Baudó rivers. Its mosses, which bridge the Pacific and Atlantic ocean, are soaked by the highest rainfall measured by our instruments. Throughout its history, gold mining marked the arrival of modernity and dissolution of pre-Hispanic abundance.

7 Tobacco reveals spirits in its smoke. Tierra mojada, the first novel by Manuel Zapata Olivella, carries two men and a woman on its cover. Their limbs are warped in green water. Already at a young age, Olivella intended to write stories of displacement. Olivella had travelled Colombia by foot. He arrived by wagon at a banana plantation in Costa Rica, slept in the canopies of trees, and lived in exile in Liberia.

8 A novel of the jungle. Traditionally, the genre is pervaded by wetness and narrates a single day. Although Olivella avoids the diurnal score, his voice is rooted in the ordinary. He writes of the torpor of noon, meals, and insects in the muddied mangrove swamps.

9 The country’s Constitutional Court has recognised the Atrato river to be a subject of rights, entitled to protection, conservation, maintenance, and restoration. To this end, its currents are assigned a legal representative and a collegiate body of guardians. The latter is composed of the national environmental minister and fourteen representatives from seven regional communities.

10 The Colombian government reports that 8,375,715 people comprised the Registry of Victims of Forced Displacement, from the period between 1 January 1985 to 31 December 2022. For Colombia, Euro-American modernisation implies the elimination of any economic, ecologic, and cultural surplus in the hands of indigenous populations and peoples of African descent. Euro-American modernisation employs tactics of physical elimination, as well as cultural and ecological destruction of territories for the total suppression of living conditions and the sabotage of ethnic communities. Modernisation and economic development have historically disrupted the life trajectories of Indigenous communities and peoples of African descent in Colombia, not to mention their survival.

11 Calenda, the ballet directed by Delia Zapata Olivella, commemorated the mandatory day of rest for enslaved peoples in the Spanish colony of Cartagena. This concession was made once a year.

12 The salt mines are pink. Their pigments allow bacteria, archaea, and algae to feed on the sunlight and wind. Once pulverised, the roseate crystals turn into white granules — what is known as white gold.


This article is part of the dossier Feminist Voices Connected.