MAC: Mines and Communities

Victory at Tabaco, Colombia

Published by MAC on 2002-06-18

Victory at Tabaco - 18th June 2002

The people of Tabaco, in La Guajira, Colombia, have won a legal victory which may be unprecedented for a rural community in that country. On May 9th, 2002, the Supreme Court of Colombia ruled that the village, demolished last year by mining company Intercor, must be reconstructed on a new site, as the villagers have been demanding.

A meeting between local residents and representatives of the national Defensor del Pueblo (Ombudsman) took place in Riohacha, the provincial capital of La Guajira, on 14th June, to discuss the resourcing of the relocation arrangements.

The community was displaced because of the expansion of the world’s largest coal strip mine at El Cerrejon Norte in the northern province of La Guajira. The mine affects both African Colombian communities like Tabaco and Indigenous Wayuu communities. Mine operator Intercor (100% owned by US multinational ExxonMobil, also known as Esso) demolished most of the houses in the village in August 2001; continued the demolitions in December; and completed the task in January, 2002, when the village’s school, clinic and communications centre were finally destroyed and the cemetery desecrated and bulldozed despite the fact that it still contained the remains of villagers’ ancestors. The community’s lawyer, Armando Perez, spent 37 days during December and January under house arrest for denouncing the complicity of a local judge in the company’s actions.

Although Intercor operated the mine at El Cerrejon Norte, it only owned 50% of it. The other 50% was owned by a Consortium consisting of three of the world’s biggest mining companies, Anglo-American, BHP-Billiton and Glencore. Anglo-American is largely financed from South Africa, where its roots go deep into the soil of the apartheid era, but its head office is now in London. BHP-Billiton was formed last year through the merger of Billiton (also financed largely from South Africa but with its head office in London) and Australian mining giant BHP, which has a scandalous history of environmental destruction and disregard for Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Glencore is a private but hugely significant mining investment house based in Switzerland. In February, 2002, this Consortium bought out ExxonMobil so as to achieve 100% ownership and operating control of El Cerrejon Norte.

The final destruction of Tabaco was ExxonMobil’s self-interested parting gift to its colleagues. It means that the Consortium can try to deny responsibility for the demolition while ExxonMobil can say that it is no longer involved. This is exactly what happened at the ExxonMobil Annual Shareholders’ Meeting in Dallas, Texas, on 28th May. Earlier, the London AGM of Anglo-American, held on May 10th, was leafleted by members of the Colombia Solidarity Campaign. Anglo-American’s Public Relations Officer Edward Bickham told the CSC members that the company was “looking at the whole issue of relocation.”

The new Consortium had retained as its President Hernan Martinez, who managed operations at El Cerrejon during the demolitions. After an international campaign for his dismissal, he has now been replaced.

Remedios Fajardo, President of the Wayuu Indigenous organisation Yanama, reports that the Constitutional Court has now decreed that no mining projects in Indigenous areas can go ahead without prior consultation with the Indigenous Peoples affected.

Take Action

It is necessary to maintain pressure on local and national government and on the corporations involved if this legal decision is to be carried out. If you have time, please take the following actions:

1. Send the following letter to the Mayor of Hatonuevo, the Municipality in which Tabaco is situated (English translation follows, but it would be better to write to him in Spanish); or write your own letter to him in Spanish.

Sr Enaimen Rodríguez Ojeda, Alcalde de Hatonuevo,
La Guajira,

Distinguido Senor Alcalde,

Me he enterado que en mayo la Corte Suprema de Colombia ordeno la reubicacion de la comunidad de Tabaco en la provincia de La Guajira, es decir, reconstruirla totalmente en la forma que han planteado sus habitantes, en un nuevo lugar, con la ayuda de las autoridades civiles y de las empresas mineras que son duenas y operadoras de la mina del Cerrejon Zona Norte.

Entiendo que la comunidad de Tabaco fue destruida injustamente por la empresa minera Intercor entre agosto de 2001 y enero de 2002 para que la mina pudiera expandirse, y que a los habitantes les fue ofrecida una indemnizacion completamente inadecuada.

Tambien le estoy escribiendo a las empresas multinacionales que ahora son duenas y operadoras de la mina para insistir que ellas cumplen con la decision de la Corte Suprema de Colombia. Le pido a Usted para que asegure que las ordenes de la Corte Suprema sean cumplidas sin demora.

Atentamente, (your name).


“Dear Mr Mayor,

“I have learnt that in May the Supreme Court of Colombia ordered the relocation of the community of Tabaco in the province of La Guajira, that is to say, it ordered that it be completely rebuilt in the way in which its inhabitants had planned, in a different place, with the help of the civil authorities and the mining companies which own and operate the mine at Ell Cerrejon Zona Norte.

“I understand that the community of Tabaco was unjustly destroyed by the mining company Intercor between August 2001 and January 2002 so that the mine could expand, and that the villagers were offered compensation which was wholly inadequate.

“I am also writing to the multinational companies which own and operate the mine to insist that they comply with the decision of the Supreme Court of Colombia. I urge you to ensure that the orders of the Supreme Court are fulfilled without delay.”

2. Send the same letter, in Spanish, to the President of Colombia, Andres Pastrana (begin the letter ‘Distinguido Senor Presidente’ instead of ‘Distinguido Senor Alcalde’) and the Public Defender, Dr Luis Eduardo Cifuentes (begin the letter ‘Distinguido Doctor Cifuentes’).

Presidencia de la República
Carrera 8 No. 7-26 Palacio de Nariño,
Santa Fe de Bogotá
Teléfono. +57.1.5629300 Ext. 3550 (571) 284 33 00
Fax +(57)1 - 286 74 34 - 286, 68 42 -284 21 86

Dr Luis Eduardo Cifuentes
Defensor del Pueblo, Calle 55 No. 10-32, Santa Fe de Bogotá
Fax: (+57 1) 346 12 25

3. Send the following, or similar, letter, to Anglo American and BHP Billiton in London:

Edward Bickham, Public Relations Manager, Anglo American plc, 20 Carlton House Terrace, London SW1Y 5AN. Tel: 020 7698 8888 E-mail:

Matthew Taylor, Manager Sustainable Development (Europe), BHP-Billiton plc, 1-3 Strand, London WC2N 5HA. Tel: 020 7747 3804 E-mail:

I understand that in May 2002, the Supreme Court of Colombia ruled that the community of Tabaco in the province of La Guajira must be rebuilt, having been destroyed between August 2001 and January 2002 by mining company Intercor, the wholly owned subsidiary of Exxon-Mobil which at that time operated the mine. The community of Tabaco was razed so that the Cerrejon Norte coal mine could expand.

Tabaco had been a thriving community, with a church, school, clinic, communications centre, playground, homes built by the villagers themselves, gardens and pasture land. Compensation offered to villagers was wholly inadequate and villagers simply requested that they be relocated by the appropriate authorities with the financial assistance of Intercor so that they could continue to live together as a community, farming the land.

Now that Intercor’s interest in Cerrejon Norte has been sold to the consortium of Anglo-American, BHP-Billiton and Glencore, these companies share the responsibility of ensuring that the villagers of Tabaco receive a just relocation settlement.

The Supreme Court’s ruling must be upheld to reaffirm and reinforce the most basic of human rights in rural Colombia: the right to life, the right to subsistence through one’s own labour, and the right to human dignity. I urge you to ensure that your company fulfils its legal and moral responsibilities to the people of Tabaco and that it pressures the Colombian national government and the Municipality of Hatonuevo to ensure that they carry out the Supreme Court’s decision without delay.

Yours sincerely, (your name).

Please send copies of any replies you receive to Richard Solly at or c/o Colombia Solidarity Campaign, PO Box 8446, London N17 6NZ.

Campaign Leaders from La Guajira Tour the United States

Pressure on ExxonMobil continues because of its involvement in the destruction at Tabaco. US campaigning group Pressurepoint (, based in Seattle, is campaigning against the company because of its denial of the reality of climate change, its environmental destruction and its involvement in human rights abuses around the world. Intercor’s activities in La Guajira have been part of its campaign. Pressurepoint invited Remedios Fajardo and Armando Perez to attend the Annual Shareholders’ Meeting of the ExxonMobil Corporation in Dallas, Texas, on May 28th, to let shareholders know what the company had done in Colombia. Remedios and Armando also attended meetings during May with supporters in Seattle, Washington and Salem, Massachusetts.

The visit to Salem was at the invitation of Healthlink and North Shore Colombia Support Group. Salem’s electricity is provided by a power station owned by PG&E and uses coal from El Cerrejon Norte. Healthlink has campaigned for several years to clean up the power station’s emissions; the Colombia Support Group exists to offer solidarity to people in Colombia struggling for social justice.

Armando and Remedios were interviewed by local radio and the local newspaper, Salem Evening News. A Spanish-language video showing the destruction of Tabaco last August was broadcast on several local cable television stations, with English subtitles.

Armando and Remedios also had fruitful meetings with Colombian-born city councillor Claudia Chuber and with the Mayor, Stanley Usovicz, who promised to write to the Mayor of Hatonuevo (the municipality in which Tabaco is situated) to urge that the Colombian Supreme Court decision be implemented. He also promised practical support for the reconstruction of Tabaco in the form of school furnishings, should the community want them.

PG&E management refused to meet with the Colombian delegates but, under pressure from the Colombia Support Group, issued the following statement concerning Tabaco and El Cerrejon: “As a customer we urge our vendor to enter into negotiations to find a just settlement to this issue.” The support group plan to try to build stronger links with unionised workers in the power station. Trade union support has been lacking because of a fear among workers that local campaign groups want to close the power station.

Before leaving Salem, Remedios released the following statement. Her words were included in a letter which appeared soon after in the local newspaper:

"The coal that is mined in El Cerrejón, located on indigenous Wayúu and Afro-Colombian lands in Colombia, comes to Salem to provide electricity, benefitting this city.

"We want to tell the people of Salem that this coal has its origins in violence. Our communities have suffered greatly. Their human rights have been violated, their territory has been usurped, their houses destroyed and demolished, and they have had to shed their blood in order for this coal to arrive in Salem and other parts of the world.

"The acts that have been committed by El Cerrejón could be considered as war crimes, and they should be condemned by the world. PG&E has an indirect responsibility, for it is using a mineral that comes from the sacrifice of communities like Tabaco (destroyed last summer) and other communities that are threatened with destruction, like Tamaquito, Roche, Chancleta and Patilla.

"We beg the city of Salem to express their solidarity with us, because we have a relationship with them because of this situation. Salem can influence PG&E. We would like PG&E, as a customer of the Cerrejón mine, to demand justice for the people who live in the mining zone, who were born and raised in the zone, and who have lived their lives there." (Remedios Fajardo Gómez)

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