MAC/20: Mines and Communities

COLOMBIA

Published by MAC on 2007-07-03

COLOMBIA

Miner accused of evicting townsfolk

Jeremy Roberts and Andrew Trounson, http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au

3rd July 2007

BHP Billiton faces an investigation into its possible role in the forced eviction of the population of a Colombian town that was then bulldozed to make way for a coalmine. The investigation, by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation & Development, is also expected to examine BHP involvement, if any, in allegations that the mine is choking off access around five other towns in a bid to secure more land for coal mining in a policy that locals have branded "estrangulacion".

But BHP yesterday said the forced eviction of the Tabaco township predated its involvement in the current Cerrejon mine, and it rejected claims that Cerrejon was now trying to strangle other townships.

Ralph Bleechmore, an Australian lawyer acting for three Colombian parties representing several thousand rural Colombians, served a formal notice on BHP yesterday outlining the allegations. He also also lodged an affidavit with the OECD representative in Canberra.

The OECD only has the power to rule on whether its ethical guidelines have been breached.

The Australian understands that OECD representatives from Australia, Switzerland and Britain discussed the allegations at an OECD meeting in Europe last month. The other equal partners in Cerrjon are Swiss-based Xstrata and British-based Anglo-American.

Mr Bleechmore claims that residents of Tabaco were forced out during three "raids" between August 2001 and April 2002 by government police, army and private security personnel.

He said the action was at the direction of Cerrejon, which then acquired the land and destroyed the town, including the cemetery and church.

Mr Bleechmore said that in February 2002, one month before the end of the forced clearing out of Tabaco, BHP Billiton and its two partners acquired ExxonMobil's 50 per cent of Cerrejon Coal, becoming the sole owners. BHP's head of community relations, Ian Wood, acknowledged there were "legacy issues" over Tabaco, but said BHP and its partners were already working with former residents to address concerns.

Mr Wood said BHP had twice audited community standards at Cerrejon and was confident it met both BHP and World Bank standards. He said the outstanding issues related to the six Tabaco landowners, out of 213, who didn't agree to Tabaco's removal, as well as a number of former Tabaco families now in hardship. But Mr Bleechmore wants BHP Billiton to acknowledge its responsibility for the displaced population of Tabaco, and fund their relocation to nearby property, at a cost of about $1 million.

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