Heart of Coal

A Profile

by | Jan 4, 2014

Floresmiro Olaya, dressed in a typical Colombian woolen poncho, poses with his family in his prefab home. Photo by Lorenzo Morales.


A laminated picture of the Sacred Heart hangs from a naked light bulb in Floresmiro Olaya’s prefab home. It seems that the Christ, with its heart on fire like a burning coal, stares at him out of the corner of his eye while Olaya finishes breakfast: a potato broth and a cup of hot chocolate. The sun has not yet come up the horizon as Floresmiro prepares to return to his labors in the depths of the earth. Only six weeks have passed since an explosion in the Colombian coal mine where he worked killed his brother and four friends. Floresmiro was the only survivor.

Still sipping from his cup, Floresmiro doesn’t take his eyes off the bunch of covers over his bed, separated from the dining room by a doorless passage. Under the covers lies his seventh child, a baby who came into this world at the same time his brother died. The day of the explosion his wife suffered a shock, which caused the premature birth. The baby has not been named yet.

“If five people died in the accident, why not six?” says Floresmiro, a 34-year-old sporting a small mustache and sun-colored cheeks. “Sometimes I think it would have been better to have left with them,” he says, tired of carrying the weight of having to relate the tragedies. Earlier, in 2006, he survived another explosion that killed another brother in a mine nearby.

The day before he was to return to work, Floresmiro—wearing a virgin wool poncho and rubber boots—took me to La Escondida, the mine where the accident occurred. It was a cold and foggy morning; the sun was beginning to color the mountains over the small community of Peñas del Boquerón in the Sutatausa municipality. Olaya remembered new details of that infamous day, so far the worst mine tragedy reported in his town.

On February 1 he entered the mine at five in the morning. He was supposed to repair one of the wooden arches that sustain the tunnel. One hour later, his brother and some other miners passed by, on their way down to the bottom of the mine, almost a 1,000 feet underground.

Like hundreds of informal mines of coal that flourish in that part of the Andes mountains, La Escondida is a precarious construction: a molehill-like shaft sustained by makeshift sticks that takes you to the depths of the earth. Outside, a rusted cart, tied to a steel cable that rolls and unrolls on the wasted rim of an old stationary tractor, plays the part of an elevator. Each mine is a black pockmark on the intense green vegetation of these mountains.

An accumulation of methane gas, a by-product of organic material decomposing over millions of years, caused the explosion. Floresmiro didn’t know if the mine was legal. “The patron was organizing the paperwork,” he told me. But he recognized the mine lacked proper ventilation, internal shelters in case of collapse and other safety precautions. He said the only time he saw a government inspector was the day after the accident, when mining authorities came to shut down the mine.

The explosion hurled Floresmiro almost to the mouth of the mine, enveloped in a cloud of dust and debris. He still doesn’t remember anything. He was told that following the explosion, someone at the bottom of the mine started to pull the string that rings a small bell in the surface to tell the cochero (the person in charge of activating the tractor) to start pulling the loaded cart. Floresmiro believes that person was his brother calling for help—imagining him surrounded by his friends, suffocating slowly in the darkness.

The rescue crew took two hours to arrive that day. “The people say that they came to pick up the dead and not save the injured,” said Floresmiro, claiming that the rescue workers came ill-equipped and asking to borrow tools. “They could have saved lives in the time that it took them to arrive,” he said.

More than half of the mortal accidents in Colombia occur in the coal mines of Cundinamarca and Boyacá—only a few hours’ drive from the capital city of Bogotá. Between February and July 2011, the year that the accident occurred, the mining authorities inspected 524 mines in those municipalities. According to the report, 73 percent of these mines operated under unsafe conditions.

In 2010, 173 miners died in 80 mining accidents, three times the number of victims in 2009, according to official statistics. In 2012, reported mining accidents rose to 122 cases with 138 miners dead, some of whom were women, according to a government report. The worst single tragedy in recent history occurred in June 2012 in the coal mine of San Fernando, located in Amagá, Antioquia. That explosion left 163 miners trapped underground, 73 of whom perished. “The ways these mining labors are performed affect the human rights of the miners who work under extreme high risk conditions,” said Colombia’s Public Defender in 2011, following five mining deaths in La Preciosa mine in Sardinata, located in northwestern Colombia.

Colombia is the largest producer of coal in Latin America and the fifth major exporter in the world. In 2012, the country extracted more than 90 million tons of coal, more than double the amount extracted ten years ago, according to government figures. Colombia has estimated coal reserves of more than six billion tons and the mineral represents a quarter of the country’s exports.

Although most coal is extracted in the north of the country from open-pit mines operated by multi-national companies (Cerrejón, Glencore and Drummond), an important portion of the national production depends on miners like Floresmiro, who excavate the coal underground daily in thousands of small mines, many of them illegal. Here there are no engineers and the main technology is intuition.

Colombian miners are digging deeper and faster than ever before to take this inexpensive energy source to the world’s hungry market, mainly the United States and China, where consumption soared between 2005 and 2011. The appetite for Colombia´s coal is so great that an international funding agency recently received a proposal from China to finance a railway that would take out the highly efficient and coveted coal from the center of the country to the main harbor on the Pacific coast.

President Juan Manuel Santos has put mining at the heart of his economic development strategy, but Colombia is lacking clear guidelines and institutions prepared to regulate an industry that is growing uncontrolled and chaotic, generating an unprecedented risk to miners, the people in the surrounding areas and the environment.

At the moment of the accident in La Escondida, only 16 government inspectors and 50 contractors were responsible for the supervision of more than 6,000 mines all over Colombia. This number only reflects the number of legal mines reported. The government calculates that there are more than 3,000 illegal mines scattered in 18 of the 32 states of the country, a figure that is conservative.

Ingeominas, the agency at the time of the explosion in charge of supervising the security of the mine and regulating mining exploration rights, proved to have little useful impact. Carlos Rodado, then Minister of Mines and Energy, was alerted to corruption within the agency, prompting the transformation of Ingeominas into the National Mining Agency in May 2012, a change that many environmentalists contend was in name only.

Floresmiro takes his last sip of the chocolate and gets ready to return to the tunnels. A friend helped him line up a new job at La Fortaleza, a mine 650 feet from where the accident occurred. While he puts on a beige overall, he tells Michael, one of his sons, to hurry so he will not be late for class at school. Then he sits down to put on yellow rubber boots. Instead of socks, he covers each bare foot with newspaper rolled into a cone, a trick for the cold and humid mine. A miner may have to stay underground for up to eight hours without sun and with temperatures that vary from very cold to intense heat. Before he leaves for work he says goodbye to his wife Estela and kisses a wooden rosary that hangs from a dressing table near his bed.

“Every morning one thinks of death and thinks of God,” Floresmiro tells me on the way to the mine. “One knows that one will enter, but you don’t know if you will get out,” he says.

Working in these mines has been his routine for the last 26 years. Despite the risks, Floresmiro has not considered any other job. For him, as for the thousands of campesinos in this zone, coal mining is the main source of work and the best paid. Floresmiro makes 100,000 pesos a day (US$60), about five times more than the minimum legal wage in Colombia, which is what he would be paid if he worked in flower harvesting, another source of jobs in the area. That’s why no one sees anything wrong when a new hole appears in the ground and a boss shows up ready to pay in cash. No one asks for permissions or licenses.

“What’s wrong ‘Flores,’ are you scared?” mine supervisor Jexcenia Corredor asks Floresmiro as he pauses for an instant before beginning the descent into the tunnels of La Fortaleza. Corredor was hired after the accident in February. She now wears a gas detector that hangs on her neck like a doctor’s stethoscope. These devices are used in very few mines throughout the region.

“No, not fear,” responds Floresmiro…, “but it is not easy to come back.” He feels guilty. He feels his companions reproach him for surviving the explosion that killed his friends. Before going in, he crosses himself before a small virgin wedged between a rock and covered with coal dust.

To follow Floresmiro and Jexcenia down to the bottom of the mine, I have to sign a hand-written document in a school notebook that I accept to enter the mine under my responsibility. Floresmino and Jexcenia are going to revise some arches that he has to replace as his first assignment. They give me a helmet with a lantern and test my cotton clothes: nylon generates static that produces tiny sparks. They also ask me not to use my camera flash; another spark that could trigger a tragedy.

The tunnel descends at an almost 45-degree angle and is held up by arches built at every meter, made from eucalyptus poles, forming a kind of trachea that extends deep into the mountain. The ground is muddy because of the subterranean waters that seep in. As we descend, the light filtering through the mouth of the mine slowly begins to diminish until it disappears completely. The tunnel is tighter and lower as we go down. We can only advance by crawling; every now and then the helmets with the tenuous lamps scratch the irregular roof of the mine.

“These poles need to be replaced,” Floresmiro tells Jexcenia as he hits a rotten pole with his closed fist; in other places, the arches are not even there.

We take a break and sit on some rocks. Oxygen is scarce. Each word comes out with effort. We are 300 meters underground. One hundred meters further down you can hear the miners who continue to grind the rock with their picks.

“This is a pretty mine,” says Floresmiro as he gently passes his hand over the dark walls of the mountain as if he was caressing the neck of an animal.

Above us, on the surface, the scenery has changed dramatically. Floresmiro remembers that when he was a child, where now mountains of coal accumulate, there used to be corn, potato and wheat crops. “Nowadays we have to buy in shops what we used to grow in our land,” he says, short of breath. He says that the mines have taken over his land and that new and bigger companies have bought out the smaller ones.

Floresmiro assumes his work as an inheritance. He doesn’t ask many questions, even though after the accident he thinks that his children should find another path. He started working the mines when he was eight years old. He helped his father, Guillermo, a campesino who is now in his eighties and still talks forcefully. “I have worked in these mines since I got teeth and until I lost them,” Guillermo likes to say and assures us that he laid the groundwork for more than a hundred mines.

Most likely, Floresmiro will follow in the footsteps of his father (he has already lost his first tooth) and even if he does not want his children to follow his career path, they most likely will. Every afternoon, after school, the kids in the area turn the abandoned and closed mines into playgrounds. They act as miners pushing imaginary carts or sit on top of discarded eucalyptus poles, pretending to be driving the trucks that every afternoon come to haul what the grownups have taken out of the mountain. Before returning home, at sunset the kids pick up the little chunks of coal left on the ground, put them in sacks, hoist the sacks on their shoulders and take them home to light their stoves.

“How much oxygen do we have?” Floresmiro asks suddenly. Jexcenia looks at the meter: “20-8,” she replies. Floresmiro signals that it is time to walk up to the surface. Shortly, a new bunch of miners will come down for the afternoon shift. We climb back to the mine opening. Our eyes have become accustomed to the penetrating darkness of the tunnel and suffer as an unperceivable turn of the tunnel reveals, atop, a small ray of sunlight, like a major star illuminating this unique night in plain daylight.


Winter 2015Volume XIII, Number 2

Lorenzo Morales is a Colombian journalist. He was editor of Semana.com, Colombia’s main current affairs weekly, and a Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting fellow to report on the mining boom in his country. He teaches journalism at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá and holds an M.S. from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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