Extractivism and alternative media: Framing coal and energy transitions in northern Colombia

Extractivism and alternative media: Framing coal and energy transitions in northern Colombia

Mediático is delighted to present an inaugural contribution to this website by María Vélez-Serna, Lecturer in Film in the Division of Communications, Media and Culture at the University of Stirling. She studied at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia and the University of Glasgow. She is the author of Ephemeral Cinema Spaces (Amsterdam University Press, 2020; preprint here; video intro. here), on non-theatrical film exhibition, and has also written on film festivals, early film distribution and showmanship, and on Colombian films and audiences. Her current work focuses on the uses of audiovisual media in facilitating and contesting extractivism, and her article for Mediático below treats an aspect of this research.

By María Vélez-Serna

From the heroic black-and-white of the coal-miner’s face, to the gleaming sweep of wind turbines, moving images mediate energy transitions and take part in socio-environmental conflicts. I’ve been researching sponsored film and video in relation to coal mining in Colombia. My focus was archival to begin with, but this is an ongoing story; coal continues to be dug out and exported while windfarms are built around it. Communities continue to be displaced by mining, while the new ‘clean energy’ projects bring along their own patterns of colonial dispossession. In these contexts, what has been, what is, what could be the role of film and video? In January 2023, I convened an online panel of experts to choose and discuss a handful of videos that shed light on the current situation from different perspectives. The guests were film student and organiser Génesis Gutiérrez; filmmaker and curator David Hernández Palmar; ecological economist Andrea Cardoso, and historian Avi Chomsky. This article incorporates some of their thoughts as well as those of other participants, and reflects on that discussion and the films we shared.

Our focus was La Guajira, a peninsula on the Caribbean coast, split between Colombia and Venezuela. Since the 1970s, it has been a key territory for fossil fuel extraction, with the development of large-scale opencast mines, offshore gas and oil fields, and more recently proposals to use fracking on the coal seams. This extractive vocation is not just due to geological accident, but to a view of the land as sparsely inhabited, arid and unproductive. This is particularly the case for the northern part of the province, which is the territory of the Wayuu, the largest indigenous group in Colombia, with over 380000 self-identified members on the 2018 census (DANE 2019). Other parts of the province, and the neighbouring area of Cesar, are home to Afro-descendant and peasant farmer communities. All of these groups have been impacted by the implicit designation of their land as a sacrifice zone, whether through displacement, economic transformations, or health and environmental impacts. Very few of these impacts have brought positive changes to quality of life, and nowadays La Guajira is the most unequal province in Colombia, with the worst rates of child mortality.

The history of extractivism, however, has also been a history of struggle and resistance. Communities have continued to organise to defend their territory, their livelihoods and their human rights. Media play an increasingly important role, helping to weave solidarity across dispersed populations, to foster a sense of shared purpose and identity, and to bring issues to the attention of the rest of the world. Community and activist film and video are now widely circulated online, and connected to worldwide struggles for environmental justice and indigenous rights. From these places, it becomes possible to push back against standard narratives of developmentalism, and against harmful stereotypes.

Dominant framings of these struggles in hegemonic and corporate media, according to Wayuu filmmaker David Hernández Palmar, are racist and anti-Indigenous. For instance, when communities protest in La Guajira, mainstream news outlets report on the road blockages only as a public nuisance rather than a defence of Indigenous territory. These actions, instead, need to be understood politically and avoiding essentialist assumptions. This is not about reifying a special relationship of Indigenous people with nature, since everyone has a responsibility to bear against climate change. The assumption that Indigenous communities are simply against development is also ill-founded. If the dominant idea of development posits a hierarchical separation between nature and humanity, challenging this idea makes environmental conflicts into ontological ones (Escobar 2014). Even within that hegemonic definition, however, it is questionable whether most people in La Guajira have enjoyed any benefits from such ‘development’, as filmmaker Génesis Gutiérrez argued. This is where the contrast between the optimistic narratives of sponsored media and the lived realities on the territory is most evident.

One of the films we discussed was The cost of power (McConnell, 2007), a documentary denouncing the impacts of expansion of the region’s largest opencast coal mine, Cerrejón. In a powerful interview at the centre of the film, Inés Pérez, a community leader in the township of Tabaco, remembers the developmentalist promises made by the company at the time, which have only resulted in desolation and misery. The royalty payments that mining companies talk up sound like a lot of money, but they never account for or compensate the long-term environmental impacts on people and territory, as Andrea Cardoso pointed out. A significant part of the real cost of extractivism is effectively paid by local communities, who never get a cut of the profits. As Avi Chomsky added, this is even the case with nationalised extractive industries in more progressive countries (such as in the Latin American ‘pink wave’ governments), where certain areas are still declared expendable as ‘sacrifice zones’ in order to finance social investment elsewhere (Riofrancos 2020). Local opposition to extractivism, then, is not a rejection of development as such, but rather a questioning of the uneven distribution and hierarchical premise of the development model on offer: What kind of development, for whom?

Indigenous media and, more generally, communication strategies from within all kinds of local communities, can challenge these development narratives and counter defeatist, guilt-centred Anthropocene framings. In La Guajira, a key example is the news blog NotiWayuu and the Wayuu Communications Network, which came out of Fuerza de Mujeres Wayuu, an Indigenous women’s organisation. As Gutiérrez explained, this organisation was initiated in response to the violence wrought by both the armed conflict and large-scale mining, which had been encircling and displacing communities. FMW uses media as part of their efforts to share experiences and educate each other to resist oppression, by visibilising struggles such as the story told in La lucha de Luz Angela. Creating critical documentary from within the community demands reflection on ‘where you put the camera’: Not just what the story is, but how it is told. This short film stays close to the protagonist, Luz Angela, and her everyday life, while the mining machinery looms in the background. This reverses the aestheticization of big machinery and the heroics of infrastructure that tend to dominate in sponsored media.

Another aim for Fuerza de Mujeres Wayuu has been to empower women and their communities to be better prepared to participate in mandated prior consultation processes. This involves critical engagement with corporate communications. Promises of resettlement, amenity provision and environmental restoration are attempts to craft narratives of corporate responsibility that do not necessarily deny environmental impact, but instead present it as a necessary and beneficial trade-off. These are narratives that circulate internally in order to facilitate extractive operations on the ground, but also externally, to protect the political legitimation of their business models. Gutiérrez explained how media such as flyers, billboards, video, and now also podcasts, have been mobilised to persuade communities about the benefits of resettlement or about the remediation of environmental harm.

Cerrejón corporate video in Wayuunaiki about village resettlement

Shortly after our discussion, I attended a mining expo, where a Cerrejón mine representative used an impressive presentation about their reforestation and conservation efforts, with lots of data on biodiversity gains and the geo-engineering required to make the terrain suitable for life again after opencast exploitation. There is no doubt that this is a significant effort with a scientific value, or that some restoration is better than none. However, the restoration narrative reinforces the idea of mining as a temporary activity, with impacts that can be contained and fixed. Corporate responsibility also has other ripple effects on social patterns. As the main institutional presence in many parts of the region, Cerrejón has become the sole provider for many basic social needs, from water to education, creating another layer of dependency which also allows the state to avoid complex responsibilities. Some local people, said the Cerrejón expert, have been employed to maintain tree nurseries and plant saplings. What happens then when the mining company leaves? This is a very live question in other nearby mining areas, such as La Jagua de Ibirico, where Glencore recently abandoned its operations.

Since the government of president Gustavo Petro took office in August 2022, official discourses about extraction have changed significantly. While the previous government talked about energy transition but continued to grant mining concessions and fossil fuel exploration contracts, in his victory speech Petro already gestured towards the end of the extractivist economic model. Nearly a year on, the proposed text of the National Development Plan introduced a ban on new opencast coal projects; this was shot down by the opposition in Congress, and the Plan as approved lacks a serious decarbonisation commitment. A rare concrete intervention on energy transition is an increased levy on energy sales from wind and solar generation, to be invested by local ethnic communities.

This question on the royalties and investments from renewables is particularly timely in La Guajira. The peninsula is a sunny and windy place. As Joanna Barney and Indepaz researchers have shown in their remarkable book El viento del Este llega con revoluciones (2019), there are many projects currently under development, exploration or construction, mostly funded and owned by multinational energy companies. A question on everybody’s minds is whether extractivist patterns are being reproduced in decarbonisation and energy transition projects – and in the visual discourses around them. The allocation of land for such projects continues to see the territory as empty, but also as privatised; companies negotiate with the presumed owners of particular plots of land, creating division and conflict within communities.

Revisiting the institutional narratives of coal from the 1980s is a way to test the rhetorical overlap between these two infrastructural moments. I created a mash-up video essay combining two 1980s videos about Cerrejón, and a series of short YouTube clips created by the previous (Duque) government celebrating the installation of a new windfarm. The juxtaposition throws into relief how the land continues to be visualised as empty and in need of progress through modern technology and capital investment. The celebration of monumental machinery and engineering effort remains central, against a somewhat mystified acknowledgement of Indigenous ways of life. Visual and rhetorical strategies are deployed to present the social and environmental impacts of mega-projects as contained, manageable, and beneficial.

Media Luna (2023) by Maria Velez-Serna on Vimeo.

This green energy boom makes it more urgent to ensure that people are empowered to participate in prior consultation processes in a meaningful way. Over the last few years, Fuerza de Mujeres Wayuu, with support from Oxfam and other organisations, have organised gatherings and heard from other Indigenous communities affected by wind power megaprojects, such as the Zapoteca in Oaxaca, Mexico. While meeting in person, in the shade of the open-sided thatched ‘enramadas’, is at the core of this process, documenting it on videos for social media has become a key part of it. Young people in Indigenous communities have taken to platforms like Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube – offering a counterpoint to the slick PR operations of mining companies and large energy corporations. As Gutiérrez argued, if you only have three minutes to explain a conflict and a position, the communicator’s responsibility is even greater, and yet the immediacy of filming on a phone is an opportunity to challenge the celebratory tone of sponsored media.

NotiWayuu, Mujeres Amigas del Viento

This makes it all the more relevant to consider who is addressed by different forms of media, and in what capacity. Corporate film and video may be informing a remote audience of shareholders and policymakers, training workers on site, or persuading communities, amongst other roles. Documentaries like The cost of power are sometimes addressed at consumers at the other end of the extractive supply chain, but they also facilitate local conversations – here for instance a new link between trade unions and displaced communities. For a geographically dispersed group such as the Wayuu, self-produced media can play a crucial role in distributing important messages, as shown by NotiWayuu’s role during the pandemic.

Alongside this almost real-time visibility, the value of archival media is not to be overlooked. It can provide visual evidence of changes over time, and it can shed light on previous histories of engagement with corporate power. If the promises of development are captured in sponsored film and video, revisiting them years later can trigger critical reflection. It is thus important that audiovisual archives are accessible and known by communities involved in socio-ecological conflicts, which is no simple task given the fragmentation of sources and lack of funding for media repositories. Some scholarly attention may help redirect resources towards this task, allowing media studies to contribute materially to the pressing project of global environmental justice.


Escobar, Arturo. 2015. ‘Degrowth, Postdevelopment, and Transitions: A Preliminary Conversation’. Sustainability Science 10 (3): 451–62. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-015-0297-5.

Riofrancos, Thea N. 2020. Resource Radicals: From Petro-Nationalism to Post-Extractivism in Ecuador. Radical Américas. Durham London: Duke University Press.