MAC: Mines and Communities


Published by MAC on 2006-11-15


The following letter was sent to Leon Teicher, President of Cerrejon Coal, on Thursday 16 November 2006. Earlier in November the writers participated in a delegation from North America to investigate conditions around the Cerrejon mine in La Guajira province, northern Colombia. Cerrejon Coal is owned by multinationals Anglo American, BHP Billiton and Xstrata. The letter was timed to arrive just before the Sintracarbon coal miners' union presented its bargaining position to the company in the Colombian capital, Bogota, on 17 November.

Dear Mr. Teicher,
November 16, 2006

Thank you for meeting with the International Commission in Support of Sintracarbón and the Communities Affected by Cerrejón (ICSSCAC) on Tuesday, October 31, 2006. As we explained at the meeting, we are concerned with the welfare of the communities surrounding the mine as Cerrejón continues its expansion. Your taking the time to discuss this very important matter with us suggests that you also feel it is important that the treatment and relocation of the communities is done in a fair and humane way. We do feel that it is important to understand the facts of the matter, and so this meeting was essential for us to hear from you directly Cerrejón's position and interpretation of the situation. It may be that there is some miscommunication or misinterpretation of actions taken on both sides - actions of Cerrejón and of those of the communities. And in that regard, our primary role in this matter is that of communicator and facilitator. We do feel that it is crucial that there be honest and open dialogue with the communities. As you may remember, our delegation met with you early in our visit, and it was only after our meeting that we had the opportunity to visit and talk with the people in the affected communities. As outside observers, it may be beneficial to explain what we heard from both parties - Cerrejón and the communities, about the treatment and relocation of the communities impacted by the operation of the mine.

You explained to us the role that Cerrejón plays in the region. You told us that you have high standards when it comes to your workers: Cerrejón trains them and pays them well, and the safety record at the mine is commendable. You also stated that you are concerned with the environment. While mining companies by definition disrupt the environment, Cerrejón tries to minimize its impact and has taken steps to rehabilitate some of the area that has been mined. You stated that Cerrejón works with the community by providing them with many benefits such as sponsoring a micro-lending program and providing educational scholarships. Overall, Cerrejón, in your estimation, has had a positive impact on this impoverished region.

When it comes to the situation of the displacement of communities that are near the existing mine, you stated that, while mistakes may have been made with respect to the displacement of Tabaco, in the end, Cerrejón followed the law and the people in the community of Tabaco were fairly compensated. In fact, it was the desires and actions of the land owners themselves that led to, as viewed by some, an unfortunate outcome. You not only feel the negative press and attitudes toward Cerrejón is misdirected, but it pains you to see Cerrejón verbally attacked since the mine has tried to be socially responsible with regard to this matter.

After our meeting on October 31, we spent the rest of the week meeting with the people in the communities of Chancleta, Patilla, Tamaquito, Roche, Los Remedios, Provincial, and the people of the displaced community of Tabaco. Unfortunately, we heard a very different story from the one you described. The mine has systematically violated a wide range of these people's basic rights to water, health, land, food, and work. The river is either inaccessible (due to mine's acquisition of land or the communities' access routes) or contaminated. The air is filled with unhealthy particles that they constantly breathe. The vibrations from the explosions of the mine frighten the children. These people can no longer farm, hunt, or fish because Cerrejón has strictly enforced no trespassing on company land. They are restricted from accessing the road that leads into and out of their community during the evening hours. Communities that relied on the health clinic and school in Tabaco no longer have access to these services. The people are worried. Some feel that the electricity that Cerrejón so generously provided is now used as a ploy to remind them of the power Cerrejón holds over them. They view the strategy of Cerrejón as one that attempts to systematically divide the people in the communities and pit them against each other. They feel Cerrejón is slowing and methodically choking them. The people are concerned that the deplorable acts committed on the community of Tabaco will happen to them. Another very serious concern expressed by many community representatives regards the numerous and ongoing human rights violations committed by armed forces in the region. Community members report that they have been arbitrarily detained, intimidated, and threatened by soldiers. They assume that Cerrejón is behind these acts given that the company has an established relationship with the Army Battalion in the region.

While the facts of the matter that you described to us may be true, the facts of the matter that the people in the community expressed are real to them, and it is these facts that are important to these people. The people in these communities are one of your primary stakeholders. A successful business does not concern itself with just the interests of the shareholders but takes into account the interests of all its primary stakeholders. And the stakeholders' interests are not determined by the firm but by the stakeholders themselves. While this letter is an attempt to give you our interpretation of the concerns of the communities, it is our plea that you seriously listen to the communities directly to understand their interests and concerns.

In our meeting, you made a point of emphasis that Cerrejón is concerned about its social responsibility. The Cerrejón website further emphasizes this point with many stories and statements explaining how Cerrejón's actions have benefited the communities. While providing micro-loans or educational scholarships is a nice gesture on the surface, its impact is lost when the other hand of Cerrejón's is polluting the communities' source of water or taking away the only livelihood the communities have ever known. While Cerrejón's corporate social responsibility record may be better than some mining companies, the people in the communities do not believe that your actions are moral or socially responsible. From what we witnessed, we have to agree with the people in the communities. Certainly, this is not the view that Cerrejón wants communicated to the rest of the world.

During our visit, we saw an amazing amount of solidarity between Sintracarbón and the people in the communities and among the different communities. The sentiment is very strong that what is happening to these communities is unjust. When we left it was clear that the union and the communities have the momentum to stand up for what they rightfully deserve. We hope that you will take their requests seriously. In the end, we believe that this is not only a good business decision, it is the moral and responsible thing to do. Our International Commission is committed to supporting the local effort of the union and the communities with financial resources and with international publicity of Cerrejón's actions related to the communities of La Guajira. We would like to maintain an open dialogue with you to ensure that the international community receives an objective account of the situation.

Again, thank you for your time and attention to this very critical matter.

Sincerely yours,

The International Commission

Avi Chomsky

Rubin McNeely

Sandy Reiter

Helen Berry

Sandra Cuffe

Lois Martin

Grahame Russell

Sydney Frey

Dr. Timothy Bood

Dr. Tom Whitney

Steve Striffler

Claudia Llantén

North Shore Colombia Solidarity Committee:

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