MAC: Mines and Communities

Profiting from loss

Published by MAC on 2007-02-18

Profiting from loss

Home truths: bringing the Cerrejon struggle to Britain

by Richard Solly, Colombia Solidarity Campaign, London, England, 18 February 2007.

Visit to Britain by representatives of Colombian communities displaced by British-owned coal mines

Jose Julio Perez, President of the Social Committee for the Relocation of Tabaco, and Armando Perez, the community's legal representative, were in Britain from 26 January to 6 February 2007 as guests of the British-based Colombia Solidarity Campaign. They had spent the previous ten days in Switzerland as guests of ASK, Arbeitsgruppe Schweiz-Kolumbien (Switzerland-Colombia Working Group).

They were joined for part of their British visit by Alirio Uribe, President of CAJAR (the Jose Alvear Restrepo Lawyers' Collective in Bogota), who is helping them in their struggle for justice.

They were seeking political and practical support for the communities displaced, or facing displacement, by the Cerrejon mine in the northern Colombian Department of La Guajira, a mine owned by three British-based multinational mining companies.

Meetings were held with members of the Colombian community and the Colombia Solidarity Campaign committee, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Amnesty International, Transparency International, trade union organization Justice for Colombia and a number of lawyers' organizations. The visitors also met with Labour Party Member of Parliament Jeremy Corbyn, Lord Beaumont (Green Party) and Lord Avebury (Liberal Democrats), obtaining commitments to write to the British Government and to the companies and to raise the issue in the British Parliament. As a result of meetings with staff at the offices of Green Party Members of the European Parliament, Jean Lambert and Caroline Lucas, interventions will also be made in the institutions of the European Union.

A public meeting, co-sponsored by the ABColombia Group of development agencies, was held in the auditorium of Amnesty International's UK offices in London.

Other public meetings were held in Bristol, Canterbury, Hull and Oxford. Bristol Colombia Solidarity Campaign is committed to continuing support for the communities and has made strong links with local climate change campaigners. Canterbury and Hull were new venues for Colombia Solidarity and meetings were organized with the help of the World Development Movement, Green Party and peace groups. Oxford Solidarity for Colombia organized the meeting at Ruskin College, Oxford, with the help of the Oxford Trades Council and other solidarity groups. The auditorium was packed with students, trade unionists and activists.

On the final day of the visit, Jose Julio and Armando met with Marc Gonsalves and Claire Divver of Xstrata plc, one of the three London-listed multinationals which own the Cerrejon mine. The meeting was both cordial and frank and gave the visitors some hope that there might be a positive change of approach on the part of Cerrejon Coal, the subsidiary which operates the mine. But even Marc Gonsalves said that he did not expect them to trust his words until they could see them put into practice. The communities and their supporters must wait and see.

During the visit, Sintracarbon, the union representing workers at the Cerrejon mine, settled its dispute with the company. In the end it was unable to force the company to include community demands in the agreement, to the bitter disappointment of both union and displaced communities. But its effort to do so is unprecedented and there is no doubt about its commitment to continue supporting the communities in their struggle for justice.

The visitors emphasized the importance of campaigning for the fulfilment of the 2002 Colombian Supreme Court decision ordering the reconstruction of the destroyed village of Tabaco. They also seek physical accompaniment as a way of ensuring their safety against attack; political solidarity to strengthen the communities' organization in the face of the enormous power of the companies; financial help to equip a community office, to mitigate hunger among the children and if necessary to buy land; medical assistance because so many are ill because of contamination from the mine; academic assistance in researching and proving the social, medical and environmental impacts of the mine; support from British trade unions for Sintracarbon's work of solidarity with the communities; and practical help and professional solidarity for Armando Perez in his struggle against the judicial persecution unleashed against him because of his work for the people of Tabaco.


Coal mining and forced displacement in Colombia: the British connection

The huge Cerrejon opencast coal mine in the province of La Guajira in northern Colombia was opened in the late 1970s. It was 50% owned by the Colombian government and 50% owned by Intercor, a subsidiary of the US multinational Exxon. Intercor operated the mine. It is said that the guaranteed supply of cheap coal from Colombia supported the Thatcher Government in the destruction of the British coal mining industry. The tracks for the railway which takes the coal from the mine to the port of Puerto Bolivar were provided by British Steel.

In early 2001, the Colombian government's 50% share of the Cerrejon mine was bought up by a consortium of three companies: Anglo American (British), BHPBilliton (Australian, but listed on the London Stock Exchange and with important offices in London) and Glencore (a private Swiss company). In August 2001 most of the village of Tabaco was demolished without warning and its inhabitants evicted with the help of armed security personnel to make way for mine expansion. The rest of the village was demolished in January 2002. In February 2002 the consortium bought out Intercor and took over operation of the mine through a company called Carbones del Cerrejon or Cerrejon Coal Company, in which each of the multinationals has a one-third share. It looks as though Tabaco was demolished to make life easy for the consortium when it took over.

In May 2002 the Colombian Supreme Court ordered the local authority (the municipality of Hatonuevo) to reconstruct a viable settlement for the now displaced community, in a new location acceptable to the people of Tabaco, beginning immediately. This has still not been done. The Alcalde (Mayor) of Hatonuevo claims that it is impossible for the municipality to comply with the court's decision for lack of money. He is adamant that the mining company should finance the reconstruction. The national Procurator's Office insists that the municipality comply with the Supreme Court decision using its own resources; but it does not enforce the decision. Meanwhile, the community has found a suitable location for reconstruction of an agricultural settlement at La Cruz, a rural property of 450 hectares whose owner is very happy to sell - but the community cannot afford to buy.

The multinationals are eager to put the matter of Tabaco behind them because it damages their international image. Both Anglo American and BHPBilliton have repeatedly stated that they were not responsible for the 2001 demolitions, even though their consortium owned 50% of the mine at that time. Cerrejon Coal has increased its offer of individual financial compensation to community members still holding out for a community relocation agreement - though not to a level adequate to compensate them for the destruction of their agricultural livelihood and the disruption to community life. The company has also invested in smallscale economic projects in the area.

The company has insisted that 95% of Tabaco's original community members opted for individual financial compensation rather than community relocation. It has not, of course, described the intense pressure to which community members were subjected, including being told by representatives of the mine operator that they had better settle quickly or they would get nothing, and this at a time when some of them were already finding it impossible to make a living because of the amount of agricultural land that had been swallowed up by the mine.

Tabaco is not the only community to have been displaced by force so that the mine can expand: a number of Afrocolombian communities around the mine were dispersed without compensation when the mine was first being developed; so were Indigenous Wayuu communities around Puerto Bolivar, on the coast of the Guajira peninsula, from which the coal is exported. More communities face displacement because of continued expansion of the mine.

Community members tell us that householders are still being picked off one by one, pressured to sell up for inadequate sums, told that they must agree to individual settlements or get nothing, intimidated if they hold out for collective negotiation; that self-respecting, independent agricultural communities are being impoverished, broken up and scattered in the face of an economic model being imposed from on high because it represents 'progress'. Many see the company-sponsored economic projects as an example of charity being offered instead of justice. Despite taxes and royalties paid by the mine, La Guajira suffers extremely high levels of unemployment and malnutrition and there is no safe public supply of water.

The trade union representing workers at the mine, Sintracarbon, included the communities' demands in its own negotiations with the company, which were concluded at the end of January. The union was unable to persuade the company to accept the communities' demands, but the union's recent support has been unprecedented and was warmly welcomed by the communities. The union and the communities continue to insist on collective negotiation leading to community relocation and realistic levels of compensation, so that people can continue their agricultural lives as communities on other suitable land in the area.

In March 2006, Glencore's share of the mine was bought out by another Swiss-based company, Xstrata. This company is listed on the London Stock Exchange and has important offices here. So now all three companies involved have bases in London. Many pension funds invest in these companies. Many ordinary working people in Britain, without knowing it, are benefiting from the destruction of farming communities in La Guajira by the world's richest mining multinationals.

How you can help

Urge the British Foreign Secretary (Margaret Beckett), the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Alastair Darling) and the Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn) to insist that the British-based companies involved at El Cerrejon (Anglo American plc, BHPBilliton plc and Xstrata plc), and the Colombian Government, accept the following demands of communities that have been or will be displaced by the mining:

collective negotiation between representatives of the communities of Tabaco, Roche, Chancleta, Patilla, Tamaquitos, Los Remedios and Provincial, and the Cerrejon Coal Company, in the presence of the Sintracarbon trade union and international observers community relocation for the people of Tabaco, Roche, Chancleta, Patilla and Tamaquitos adequate levels of financial compensation for all community members.

You can write to these Ministers at the House of Commons, London SW1A 0AA, England.

Write to the British-based mining companies directly with the same urgent request.

Sir Mark Moody Stuart, Chair, Anglo American plc,
20 Carlton House Terrace, London SW1Y 5AN.

Don Argus, Chair, BHPBilliton plc,
Neathouse Place, London SW1V 1BH.

Willy Strothotte, Chair, Xstrata plc,
4th Floor, Panton House, 25 Haymarket, London SW1Y 4EN.

Please forward replies received to:

Mining Campaign, Colombia Solidarity Campaign, PO Box 8446, London N17 6NZ. For further information, contact Colombia Solidarity Campaign,, and see other articles on the Mines and Communities Network website.

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