MAC: Mines and Communities

BHP Billiton in the province of La Guajira, Colombia

Published by MAC on 2003-08-15

BHP Billiton in the province of La Guajira, Colombia

August 2003

Report for MPI, written by Richard Solly (Colombia Solidarity Campaign, London) with assistance from Roger Moody (Nostromo Research, London) and Dr Aviva Chomsky (Salem State College, Massachusetts)

Cerrejon Zona Norte

BHP Billiton holds a one-third interest in a Consortium which owns and runs Cerrejon Zona Norte, the biggest coal strip-mine in the world, in the province of La Guajira in northern Colombia. Other partners are Anglo American and Glencore.

In 1977 a Contract of Association was signed establishing a partnership between the Colombian governments Carbocol (Carbones de Colombia) and Intercor (International Colombia Resource Corporation), a fully-owned subsidiary of US multinational Exxon. It consisted of three phases: exploration (197780), construction (198086) and production (19862009). The project included the mine in the southern part of the Guajira peninsula, a 150 km railway from the mine northeastwards to the coast, and a port. The mine covers 38,000 hectares. The railway was designed for three locomotives, each pulling 100 wagons carrying 100 tons of coal each. There is a twelve-metre-wide support road running parallel to the railway at an elevation of four meters. The port, Puerto Bolívar, is on the western shore of the entrance to Bahía Portete (Portete Bay), and is equipped to receive ships of 300 meters by 45 meters. It is the largest port in Colombia. In January 1999, Intercor received a 25-year extension to its contract.

The BHP Billiton/Anglo American/Glencore Consortium bought Carbocols share of the mine in October 2000 for $384 million, which Colombian minersunion SINTRAMINERCOL and other Colombian organisations believe to be well below its true value. The Colombian State decided to invest in coal production in the early 1980s when the price of coal was high. Enormous quantities of public money were pumped into the infrastructure (especially rail construction) which Intercor needed to make Cerrejon Zona Norte profitable. But because of its huge indebtedness, there was no way the Colombian State could recoup its costs during the projected fifty-year lifetime of the Cerrejon mining concessions. The sale of Carbocol was a response to pressure from the IMF to open up the Colombian economy to greater foreign corporate control and cut the States losses. It was a massive bargain for the Consortium. With its ownership of the adjacent Cerrejon Central coal mines, it controlled coal exports which amounted in 2000 to around 5 million tonnes from the Cerrejon Central zone and half the total 15 million tonnes from the Cerrejon Zona Norte out of a Colombian total of 34.41 million tonnes. In February 2002 the Consortium purchased the remaining half of Cerrejon Zona Norte from Exxon.

The European Union imports over 70% of Colombias coal, with Denmark, the Netherlands and Britain being among the biggest recipients. The Cerrejon mines now (2002) have a capacity of 22 million tonnes (just under a quarter of BHP Billitons total annual production) and the Consortium plans to increase this to 40 million tonnes at a measured pace. The additional tonnage would be for the European steam coal market. A recent European Union green paper on coal mining recommended diverting investment away from internal expansion and boosting imports.

Impacts of the Cerrejon Zona Norte mine on adjacent communities

From the beginning of operations at Cerrejon Zona Norte, local communities were forcibly removed. The village of Manantial was simply broken up by violence and dispersed without compensation to make way for mine construction.

In 1992 lawyer Armando Perez, representing the local villages of Caracoli and Espinal, brought suit against the Colombian Ministry of Health, claiming that contamination by coal and other dust, and the constant noise of the machinery, were prejudicial to the health of local residents. He argued that the Ministry had, in February 1991, declared a 1000-metre strip to be uninhabitable,and a 4,500-metre area dangerousbecause of the contamination, but had not taken any action to protect the residents. The Wayúu are the Indigenous inhabitants of most of the area affected by the mine. The Wayúu organisation Yanama (a Wayúu word meaning collective work), established in 1982 to defend Indigenous rights in the face of incursions on their lands, had put together a 16-page study documenting the effects of pollutants, arguing that between 1984 and 1991 the health of the community had deteriorated significantly, and twenty-four deaths (out of a combined population of about 350) had been caused by exposure to toxins from the mine. After several appeals, the court ruled in favour of Yanama and ordered the company to guarantee the protection of the inhabitants of these towns. However, with the collaboration of the head of the Office of Indigenous Affairs in Uribia, the companys solutionwas to remove people from their homes to lands designated as an indigenous resguardo(reserve or reservation). At Espinal, police trucks arrived one day to remove the villagers to this resguardo, which was at the nearby village of Rio de Janeiro. Those who co-operated received some funding for new community facilities. Those who demurred were forcibly removed at night to an agriculturally unproductive, waterless place a few kilometres from the new site.

Residents in other villages close to the mine continued to suffer from the effects of blasting, coal dust pollution and loss of pasture land. Villagers in the African-Colombian community of Tabaco established a Relocation Committee (Junta de Reubicacion) in the 1990s to secure a formal relocation agreement with Intercor. They wanted not simply to be compensated financially but moved to a new site where they could continue living together as a community and farming the land. Intercor offered simple financial compensation at a level insufficient for the purpose. The company attempted to persuade the residents to accept its offer by making life in Tabaco intolerable. The church was ruined: Intercor/Carbocol bought it from the local bishop (even though it was the local people who built it and paid for it with their own money) and wrecked it. The communications centre and the clinic were closed by the local authority at the companys insistence. The hope was that villagers would simply give up and leave.

In August 2001, Intercor workers, accompanied by hundreds of armed police and Colombian troops, moved in to Tabaco and demolished the houses of those residents who had vociferously resisted removal without being offered an adequate relocation package. Injuries occurred as unarmed villagers attempted to stop the operation. The company continued the demolitions in December 2001 and completed the task in January, 2002, when the villages school, clinic and communications centre were finally destroyed and the cemetery desecrated and bulldozed despite the fact that it still contained the remains of villagersancestors. The communitys lawyer, Armando Perez, spent 37 days during December 2001 and January 2002 under house arrest for denouncing the complicity of a local judge in the companys actions.

BHP Billiton and its Consortium partners already owned 50% of Cerrejon Zona Norte when these violations took place, but they have attempted to avoid blame by pointing out that Intercor, not the Consortium, was the mine operator. The final destruction of Tabaco was Intercors self-interested parting gift to its parent Exxon (by this time, ExxonMobil) and its colleagues in the Consortium. It meant that Consortium partners could deny responsibility for the demolition while ExxonMobil could say that it was no longer involved. This is exactly what happened at the ExxonMobil Annual ShareholdersMeeting in Dallas, Texas, on 28th May 2002.

The Consortium retained as its President Hernan Martinez, who managed operations at Cerrejon Zona Norte during the demolitions. However, after an international campaign for his dismissal, he was quickly replaced.

On May 9th, 2002, the Supreme Court of Colombia ruled that Tabaco must be reconstructed on a new site, as the villagers had been demanding. A meeting between local residents and civil authorities took place on 14th June to discuss the resourcing of the relocation arrangements. The community believes that only continuing international pressure will ensure that the Supreme Courts decision is implemented.

Other communities facing displacement as the mine expands include Tamaquito, Roche, Chancleta and Patilla.

Impacts of mining operations at Oreganal and Cerrejon Central

Immediately to the south of the Cerrejon Zona Norte concession are those of Cerrejon Central and Oreganal. From 1995 - 2000, these were controlled by British/Australian mining giant Rio Tinto, with involvement from Anglo American and Glencore, through local subsidiary Carbones del Caribe. In early 2000, Rio Tinto sold its stake to Billiton (now BHP Billiton).

Mining at Oreganal has had similar impacts to the Intercor operations further north. At Viejo Oreganal (Old Oreganal), Rio Tinto, Billiton and Glencore bought up all the pasture land around the community and then started pressuring inhabitants one by one to sell up for prices on a par with those offered at Tabaco. As soon as a villager sold up, the company would construct large earth banks around the property. These banks collected standing water and became breeding grounds for mosquitoes. The church, school and community centre were deliberately destroyed and left as standing shells. Meanwhile, mining operations and test drilling moved ever closer to the community.

Resistance followed. A Relocation Committee was set up to demand land for land. The companies offered a compromise: they would pay for the construction of housing and infrastructure on land provided by the municipality (in this case, Barrancas), but housing would only be available to community members who already owned what the company considered to be a decent house. Since the homes of many residents were made of mud and small timber, they did not qualify. Land would only be provided in the form of small back yards. Many community members accepted, for want of anything else on offer. A new village, Nuevo Oreganal (New Oreganal), was constructed a few kilometres away. But a few families continued to resist. They remained defiantly in Viejo Oreganal, demanding an adequate relocation package. Constantly harassed by company security patrols, their resistance finally collapsed in 2001.

Impacts of the road, railway and port

Most of the communities immediately adjacent to all of these mines are of African or mixed Indigenous and African descent. The road and railway linking Cerrejon Zona Norte to the coast, however, cut through the heartland of Wayúu territory to the north of the mine. When the contract was signed between Intercor and the Colombian government in 1977, the Wayúu, who had occupied the area since well before the European invasion, lacked formal legal title to their land. To assist in the expansion of mining at Cerrejon, the Colombian government declared Wayúu territory to be baldíosor untitled land. In 1981 it granted Carbocol 29,000 hectares in four reservas(areas claimed by the government for economic development purposes) to build the road, railway and port and to quarry construction materials. Around 200 Wayúu families were offered minimal compensation for land confiscation but it was both inadequate and culturally inappropriate as the lands taken were part of a much larger system of migration and kinship, not just the location of particular residences. One of the areas confiscated for construction materials included the sacred Cerro de la Teta mountain.

Aviva Chomsky, Professor of Latin American Studies at Salem State College, Massachusetts, explains: Along the northern coast, Wayúu fishing in the Bahía de Portete was halted as the harbor was dredged and turned over to the shipping of coal. Media Luna, a Wayúu community of approximately 750 on the southern end of the bay, was the first permanent community to be displaced by the mine. After negotiations with Intercor in 1982 (punctuated by angry discussions and physical threats) residents agreed to move their homes, their farms and their cemetery to a nearby location in order to allow for the construction of the port. Despite a constant struggle with the pollution caused by the construction, when the company demanded that they move again a few years later, seven families (42 people) refused. The company walled and locked the area and surrounded it with armed guards. Despite constant harassment, including lack of water, refusal of building permits, and blacklisting of community members from employment, residents have remained there, living in conditions described by Yanamas President, Remedios Fajardo Gomez, as like a Nazi concentration camp.

Chomsky continues: Yanama was successful in preventing Carbocol from leveling the Cerro de la Teta, though the sacred mountain remains inside the companys reserva. Some Wayúu also triedmostly unsuccessfullyto appeal to government agencies charged with the defense of indigenous rights. The major strategy, was invasiónor the establishment of residences directly along the railroad strip designed to establish a presence and prevent construction. In the summer of 1983, over 1000 ranchos had been built, effectively halting railroad construction. Yanama also worked to have Wayúu territory declared a resguardo(granting title to the indigenous community as a whole). In 1996, a Wayúu representative described the impact of the mine on his people at a meeting in Wisconsin: The construction of the mine had a devastating effect on the lives of approximately 90 Wayúu apushis (matrilineal kinship groupings) who saw their houses, corrals, cleared ground and cemeteries flattened for the construction of a road from El Cerrejon to the new port of Puerto Bolivar, with no respect for indigenous rights. The excavation of the open pit has also caused the adjoining rivers and streams to dry up, along with people's drinking wells.A 2001 report documented the depressingly predictable long-term effect of the mine on the indigenous Wayúu communities: the proliferation of alcoholism and prostitution, the loss of sacred spaces, a rise in death rates due to poisoning and contamination from the mine and its wastes, loss of cultural integrity and identity, and increasing poverty. The mines encroachment on indigenous lands has continued unabated over the last 20 years.

During a visit to Salem, Massachusetts, in May 2002, Yanamas President, Remedios Fajardo Gomez, declared in May 2002: The acts that have been committed by El Cerrejón could be considered as war crimes, and they should be condemned by the world.

Sources: Field visits to Cerrejon Zona Norte and Oreganal mining concessions in October 2001 by Richard Solly and Roger Moody; field visit to Tabaco by Richard Solly in October 2002; Dr Aviva Chomsky, Coal Mines and Communities in Colombia: The Salem Connection, prepared for presentation at Salem State College Graduate Research Day, April 27 2002; Deborah Pacini Hernandez, Resource Development and Indigenous People: The El Cerrejon Project in Guajira, Colombia, Cultural Survival Occasional Paper 15, December 1984; Remedios Fajardo Gomez, Violacion sistematica de los derechos humanos de indigenas, negros y campesinas por parte de la multinacional minera Intercor, filial de Exxon, en el departamento de La Guajira, Colombia, August 9th, 2001; Nostromo Research, London Calling/The China Syndrome, August 7th 2002; corporate sources.

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