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Moving away from a Categorical Approach to Power and Closer to a Relational Understanding of Power in the Colombian Coal Mine of El Cerrejón
Power is central to the definition, use and management of resources –and so is resistant to its exercise.
Abstract Power is a central component to the definition of Resource Management. If the power struggle that exists between stakeholders in relation to a resource was non-existent, the meaning of the resource would be lost. This relational view of power clashes with the categorical understanding of power as a linear process of domination within a hierarchy of stakeholders. This paper analyses the power connections in the coal mine of El Cerrejón, in the department of La Guajira, Colombia in order to compare the categorical and relational perspectives of power. It is argued that a categorical approach to power creates a vicious circle because by thinking about power as a linear and structural element, domination and disempowerment are legitimised, preventing RM to evolve into a more effective practice. Therefore relational thinking should replace the categorical understanding of power to generate more efficient processes of RM. By using three power situations in El Cerrejón, this paper aims to replace the categorical assumptions of power as a binary between domination and defeat, as a finite resource and as a zero-sum game, with the relational understanding of power as a multiple, infinite and continuous process in which if all stakeholders gain and lose. This paper aims to be an inspiration to think outside the box and suggest new ways of RM intervention in El Cerrejón and other coal mining projects.
Power is a central component to the definition of Resource Management (RM). Its centrality lies on the fact that power relations make the physical existence of the resource meaningful. At the same time, the mere existence of the resource makes power relations possible. This means that there is a mutual need between natural resources and power, and this makes RM an important process. If the power struggle that exists between stakeholders in relation to a resource was non-existent, the meaning of the resource would be lost. Understanding that RM has to deal with a multiplicity of functions of relations between social constructions and nature, means that resources are much more than just physical substances; resources are built through fluid processes of domination and resistance between different stakeholders (Howitt, 2001: 3-23). This relational view of power clashes with the categorical understanding of power as a linear process of domination within a hierarchy of stakeholders. This paper analyses the power connections in the coal mine of El Cerrejón, in the department of La Guajira, Colombia to compare the categorical and relational perspectives of power. It argues that a categorical approach to power in RM creates a vicious circle because by thinking about power as a linear and structural element, domination and disempowerment are legitimised, preventing RM to evolve into a more effective practice. Therefore relational thinking should replace the categorical understanding of power to generate more efficient processes of RM.
Categorical thinking is based on three assumptions; A. that power is a binary between domination and defeat, B. That power is a finite resource and C. That power is a zero-sum game, which means that if a stakeholder wins, its opponent has no option but to lose.
Relational thinking challenges these assumptions by understanding power as: A. A multiple and continuous process, B. An infinite and fluid resource and C. An ex-centric process in which all stakeholders gain and lose simultaneously. After providing a general description of the case study, this paper will present three power situations in El Cerrejón, each aimed to tear down one of the three categorical power assumptions described above and replace it with a relational understanding of power.
Case Study: El Cerrejón as a Relational Space
El Cerrejón is one of the largest coal mines in the world. It is located in La Guajira, a department with a population of 900,000 people and a region geographically isolated from the rest of Colombia by the Santa Marta snowy mountain range (Cerrejón Mining Group, 2012). The region is the only dessert region in Colombia, which has put it in economical and social isolation from the rest of the country. La Guajira is mostly occupied by the Wayuu, an indigenous group historically resistant to be included in national politics (Dawn-Zapach, 1997). This poses a challenge for a categorical understanding of power, because in La Guajira, local indigenous groups have enjoyed their own political system within the centralized Colombian system, meaning that power cannot be understood linearly in this case study. A multiplicity of power hierarchies has to be acknowledged.
In the decade of 1980, the Colombian government decided to exploit the coal deposits of La Guajira by creating the El Cerrejón Mining Project. The lease of El Cerrejón to a multinational consortium for coal extraction was presented as the solution to the
underdevelopment of the department (Puerta, 2010: 173). Initially, El Cerrejón operated as a local branch of Exxon, an American oil company, so although it was a coal-extraction company, it operated with the design of Exxon’s oil extraction sites (Salas, 2004: 4). These costly operations made the company not able to keep up with the plummeting price of coal, which led to budget cuts and a reduction of social projects in the region. Although it was not until recently that the mine has truly engaged with the community, after more than 20 years of mining, La Guajira has maintained itself above the national GDP growth average. Today El Cerrejón has 5% of the total exports of the country (Salas, 2004: 7). Also the index of Unmet Basic Needs (NBI) of Barrancas, the closest town to the mine has dropped from 90% in 1973 to 44% in 1993 (Salas, 2004: 7).
In the past 10 years El Cerrejón Mining Company has gone through major changes of management and structure. Internal and external pressures to improve its image have contributed to a closest engagement of the mine with local processes. In 2010, the company invested $10 million dollars in initiatives for education, health, culture, recreation, sports and job creation through the Corporate-Community Relations Plan (Cerrejón Mining Group, 2012). This is an unprecedented investment in the native community, which shows a change in the attitude of the company towards the local people to improve its image internationally. This new corporate image has made the mining company replace the Colombian government in the role Sarmiento (2008) calls the Giant Supplier. This means that local residents are now associating El Cerrejón to all the benefits and all the problems of their communities, like poverty, disease, violence and lack of infrastructure, which has made the mining company the supplanter of the state in a region in which he Colombian government has little impact. This poses another challenge to categorical thinking because it shows that
power changes over time and creates unforseen effects. Power is subject to the economy and to the context it is situated in. The next sections of this paper go deeper in analysing the relational power implications of this case study.
1. Challenging the Assumption that Power is a Binary between Domination and Defeat
From a categorical point of view, the Wayuu people of La Guajira are set in a position of disempowerment because of their lack of expression in national politics. Accordingly, the only true hierarchy of power is the linear structure Government-Mine-Community; therefore local communities are always in the bottom of the hierarchy. As a result, thinking about power as a binary between dominant and dominated leaves no chance to think about the Wayuu as an entity that interacts, uses and contests the power imposed over them to empower themselves. On the other hand, thinking about the connection between the Wayuu, the mine and the government in a relational way, provides us with the tools to understand that power is challenged in many ways, making it nonlinear. Through this mental process it is possible to empower the Wayuu community.
The Wayuu do not have a single authority structure, contrarily they are organised in a castbased system or a conglomeration of towns, with individual leaders that interact with each other (Dawn-Zapach, 1997: 33). On the other hand Article 173 of the Colombian Constitution 1991 awards two seats in the senate for indigenous representatives and provides representation of indigenous groups in local processes through the appointment of one legal representative. The legislation therefore is completely disconnected with the
reality of the political system of the Wayuu people and forces a society with multiple nodes of power to elect a single representative that will act as the voice of the Wayuu in legal decisions in relation to the El Cerrejón mine. This movement by the government is a demonstration of categorical thinking, in which government is though as the centre of power, therefore rendering all other forms of power as silent (Suchet, 2002: 149). But the self-centred position of the government ignores that by imposing its own system, it does not prevent the Wayuu from creating mechanisms to challenge this imposition of power.
Dawn-Zapach (1997) explains that in practice the Wayuu communities give a lot more power to their traditional authorities than the legal representatives they have had to appoint to the government. This means that the established hierarchy that the Constitution is based on is not real; instead the Wayuu caste system acts as a system within a system. The elder Wayuu do not speak Spanish, and the communities have prevented Spanish entering their communities as a form of resistance to the dominant Colombian culture (Dawn-Zapach, 1997). This way, the group has been able to keep their own system of castes. In relation to the mine, the Wayuu have preferred to deal with the company as separate entities, only referring to the mine representatives when a particular clan needs to (Puerta, 2010).
Two conclusions arise from this power situation. One is that power can have multiple structures; therefore it is not binary but a continual process of contestation between stakeholders. Also, the categorical understanding of legal processes by the Colombian government has created an ineffective way to engage with the Wayuu group. The legislation was created by applying a centralized knowledge, and expecting everyone to adapt to the
system. Colmenares (2006) argues the State is not the only producer of Law in a society made up of multicultural entities, therefore a change in law would mean a change in the existing conflicts. There is a need for governments to recuperate connection with their indigenous communities.
2. Challenging the Assumption that Power is Finite and Structural
From a categorical point of view, power is situated in space and time, and therefore it is finite. From this angle, El Cerrejón Mining Company is an entity that applies its power within a legal structure, in which the only form of power above the mining company is the Colombian government. On the other hand, from a relational understanding of power, the mining company is subject and part of a fluid, infinite flow of power between stakeholders situated in global and local contexts. “All forms of power have an inherently spatiality depending on their relation to proximity, and therefore experienced differently in specific places (Ogborn, 2004: 125).” This means that power relations can extend all the way to global connections in infinite ways, because decisions in other jurisdictions affect the way power is understood in a certain context.
According to Perez-Rincon (2006: 527) “85% of Colombia’s coal exports are directed to satisfying energy requirements of high income countries, especially the USA and the EU, a flow of energy that leaves Colombia with a deficit in potential productivity.” The power that other countries and international entities such as The World Bank and the United Nations have over Colombia, affect how El Cerrejón operates. The mine depends on the demand of
coal from the USA and the EU, and also the environmental, economic and social regulations that the World Bank and the UN impose on Colombia. The competitiveness of the mine is also dependent on coal prices which continuously decline, making the mine reliant on higher extraction volumes (Smith, 1994: 446). This is an example of the power that the economy has over RM in the local scale. The mine can be seen as a Giant Supplier by the local communities, but the mine is a small part in a global setting of infinite relations. According to Wilkin (1996: 231), the concept of the invisible hand of capitalism disciplines governments into giving priority to inaction and strengthening private power. This means that the power of the economic system not only acts over the coal-extraction operation, but also over the way the Colombian government sees the mine. The fact that the mine is seen by the government as the only path for the development of La Guajira is a reflection of global processes. There are so many actors in the global sphere of power that the list of power relations from local to global is as extensive as one can think, making power infinite and fluid.
3. Challenging the Assumption of Power as a Zero-sum game
Finally, form a categorical point of view, the benefit of the powerful always means the disadvantage of the powerless, without allowing multiple stages of gain and loss. Conversely, from a relational approach, power is understood as a process in which all parties try to gain benefits, including the ones that are though as the disempowered ones in categorical terms. People are urged to engage in development as a matter of care for their own future, which means that even the local communities create mechanisms to adapt to the power that is imposed over them (Rose, 1999: 183).
The Mining Company has been gradually expanding its operational land to keep up with the volume targets that are needed for the company to be profitable. This means that the company has been continuously buying land adjacent to the mine, and therefore clearing adjacent towns. Salas (2004: 10) explains that this process has been particularly powerful in the creation of expectations from local residents that speculate in the local property market to benefit themselves from the inevitable expropriation of their lands. People have enhanced their properties to increase the value of their land, so that the company has to pay higher prices to them. This contestation to the power of the mine has led to legal action against land owners. For example, the population of Tabaco, a nearby town to the mine had their land expropriated with a compensation that did not reflect the real value of their land, which created local discontent and protests in the mine, certainly a point against the company (Salas, 2004). This shows that power is a process of gains and losses, in which stakeholders contest each other. It can be observed that the need of the mine to buy adjacent lands is used by residents to increase their power over the mine. This contestation is followed by legal action, involving a third stakeholder, the national government. This is followed by local display of discontent, a point against the mine in the eyes of the media and the public opinion. Power relations in the local level need to be regarded as ex-centric because all power situations will lead to a chain of actions and reactions that involve all kinds of parties, from the government to the media. Therefore, power is multifaceted, not a zero-sum game.
Through the analysis of power relations in El Cerrejón, the categorical understanding of power has been challenged and replaced by a relational perspective. It is evident that coal cannot be perceived as a mere physical element. The importance of coal as a resource lays on the power relations attached to it. Throughout this paper power has been regarded as a fluid process, made up of multiple stakeholders and infinite possibilities of contestation and adaptation. The vision of power as an inflexible structure made up of a finite number of powerful and powerless actors is worthless when it is recognized that RM involves a complex array of actors and processes.
Pascal (2010:442) states that “a system will endure only if it is able to transform itself, adapt itself, both in response to external interventions and through its own dynamics.” This paper has shown that the complexity of power relations in El Cerrejón makes it very difficult for the company to generate positive changes to the community on its own, although it should be acknowledged that the new image of the company is an important step to a more effective RM system. The fact that power is part of a fluid process, with unpredictable consequences and multiple stakeholders acting at global and local scales, makes it necessary to have changes at all levels for RM to be more effective locally. A relational understanding of power is the first step to a more effective intervention. Further discussion on how to implement a relational understating of power in El Cerrejón is needed. This paper aims to be an inspiration to think outside the box and propose new forms of RM in El Cerrejón and other coal mining projects.
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