MAC: Mines and Communities

BACKGROUND: Stripping Guajira Bare

Published by MAC on 2001-01-15

BACKGROUND: Stripping Guajira Bare

The village of Tabaco in central Guajira could be a picturesque place. It is surrounded on three sides by woods and fields. A small river runs by it, and its well-kept houses are surrounded by coconut palms and mango trees.

But on the fourth side lies the biggest coal strip-mine in Latin America - Cerrejon Norte. It is operated by Intercor, a wholly-owned subsidiary of US multinational Exxon. It is owned by a 50/50 Joint Venture between Intercor and Carbocol, until late last year the Colombian government's own coal-mining agency. In November 2000, Carbocol was bought by a consortium comprising Anglo-American, Billiton and Glencore. Anglo-American is the second biggest mining company in the world (after British-Australian Rio Tinto), backed by South African capital, closely linked to the De Beers family empire, and now headquartered in London. Billiton began life as the mining arm of oil multinational Anglo-Dutch Shell but was bought out by Gencor of South Africa. In the late 1990s its headquarters were moved to London, partly to raise capital for re-investment in South Africa. It has expanded enormously in recent years - into Asia and Latin America, but not Africa. It is now the world's third biggest miner. Glencore is a Swiss-based commodities trader, probably the most rapacious buyer of relatively cheap mines around the world.

Villagers in Tabaco complain that their houses are cracking up because of blasting from the mine and that their main water source is polluted with coal dust. Pasture land is being lost as mining operations come closer. Many villagers have already left, accepting the company's financial 'compensation offer', which is based on prices determined by the company itself and is insufficient to enable villagers to buy enough land to practice agriculture elsewhere. But remaining villagers are insisting on a proper relocation programme based on the principle of 'land for land', which the government has supposedly accepted.

Meanwhile, Intercor/Carbocol is attempting to persuade the residents to accept its derisory compensation offer by making life in Tabaco less attractive. The church has been 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 company's insistence. The hope is that villagers will simply give up and leave.

Other communities have fared worse. Nearby Manantial and Carracoli were simply broken up by violence and dispersed without compensation. At Espinal, police trucks arrived one day to remove the villagers to a new site at Rio de Janeiro. Those who co-operated received some funding for new community facilities. Those who demurred were forcibly removed at night to an unproductive, waterless site a few kilometres from Rio de Janeiro. A hundred kilometres to the northeast, on the coast, the Wayuu fishing community at Media Luna was broken up by armed force in 1982 so that Intercor could construct a port for the export of coal from Cerrejon Norte. The port (Puerto Bolivar) is heavily guarded. The railway from the mine cuts across Wayuu ancestral territory and was constructed in 1982 without Wayuu consent a year after the Colombian government decreed the area an Indigenous Resguardo.

Immediately to the south of the Cerrejon Norte concession are the concessions of Cerrejon Central and Oreganal. From 1995 - 2000, these were mainly controlled by Rio Tinto. In early 2000, Rio Tinto sold its stake to Billiton, which now controls the area in consortium with Anglo-American and Glencore. The mine at Oreganal has had similar impacts to the Intercor operations further north. At Viejo 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 similarly derisory prices to 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 move 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, and land would only be available in the form of small back yards. Many community members accepted, for want of anything else on offer. A new village, Nuevo Oreganal, was constructed a few kilometres away. Others continue to resist by remaining in Viejo Oreganal, demanding an adequate relocation package. They are constantly harassed by company security patrols.

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 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 last year was a response to pressure from the IMF to open up the Colombian economy to greater foreign corporate control and cut the State's losses. But Carbocol was sold at a fraction of its real value. The buyers now control coal exports which were expected to amount in 2000 to 5 million tonnes from the Oreganal/Cerrejon Central zone and half the total 15 million tonnes from the Cerrejon Norte zone - out of a Colombian total of 34.41 million tonnes.

The Thatcher government had a direct interest in the mining of Colombian coal. British government teams visited Colombia to look for coal before the Thatcher regime began its assault on British mining communities in the early 1980s. The destruction of these communities depended on the destruction of agricultural and fishing communities in Guajira. The British government wanted cheap coal and British miners' pay was too high. Coal from Guajira would be cheaper: costs could absorbed by villagers removed with inadequate compensation, workers who could be paid much less than British miners, and the Colombian government with its investment in infrastructure. The European Union imports over 70% of Colombia's coal, with Denmark, the Netherlands and Britain being among the biggest recipients. The privatisation of the British economy was assisted by Colombian coal. British workers, Colombian farmers and taxpayers and Wayuu communities paid the price.

Richard Solly, with assistance from Roger Moody, January 2001

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