Credit: Mapa Conflictos Mineros 

The African community of the destroyed village of Tabaco in Hatonuevo, La Guajira, demand the right to rebuild their territory. Meanwhile, the forced displacement orchestrated by coal multinationals continues with impunity (1).

In June 2021, the multinational companies BHP and Anglo American announced the sale of their shares to Glencore, leaving the latter as sole owner of the mine in Colombia. The purchase was made for a total of 588 million dollars, which the London-listed Swiss company says it hopes to recuperate in the next two years. These companies make sales amid complete impunity for the grave violations, dispossessions and damage caused by the coal exploitation they have been benefiting from for decades – coal ripped from the entrails of the territory that was Tabaco.

Tabaco was a town populated by people of African descent, in the south of La Guajira. It is believed that the community was founded around 1780. The territory came to have close to 500 inhabitants, a rural school, a health centre, a cemetery, a playpark, a church, a water pump cabin, a football field, two water storage tanks, an electric energy supply, a square, streets and roads.

Edgar Arregocés is a farmer of African descent who still feels the pain of having to leave his land: “I left Tabaco, but Tabaco hasn’t left me. When the multinational arrived there were many problems, our cultural identity was lost, the most important thing for a human being. We lost our economic capacity, we’ve been dispossessed of many things that we brought from our home but that we have had to leave behind in order to be able to give our children medicine and an education”.

Several methods were used to dispossess the community of their land: buying up land surrounding the mine at ridiculously low prices, expropriating properties, the last families forcibly evicted by riot police and the company’s private security firm, beaten, manhandled and thrown out of their homes without being allowed to take their goods and possessions with them. Some processes of dispossession were carried out by Carbocol-Intercor and others by Carbones de Cerrejón, the company which acquired the rights to mining exploitation which it has benefited from for the past few decades (2).

In 2002, a ruling by the Supreme Court of Justice ordered that the municipality of Hatonuevo would have 48 hours to begin proceedings to “materialise effective solutions” to build homes and serve the educational needs of children. 19 years later these homes still hadn’t appeared.

In 2008, following international condemnation, they decided to sign agreements which promised the long awaited reconstruction of the town. But these agreements did not take into account the collective nature and ancestral legacy of the town and community of Tabaco. Their rights to prior, free and informed consultation and consent were denied. Of the promises made on reconstructing the town, the only thing delivered has been a piece of land, with no homes built or services provided.

In 2014, a group of families submitted a new application to the court. After almost five years, towards the end of 2019, the Constitutional Court pronounced Ruling T-329 in favour of the Tabaco community. In its decision, the Court recognises that what happened to this community is what is known as displacement caused by development, for which there are obligations for comprehensive reparations. It also condemned the fact “that there is currently no significant, real, opportune and effective protection to overcome the state of disintegration that this community of African descent finds itself in. As is mentioned in the application, the state of abandonment they find themselves in, the breakup and impossible resettlement of the community has become a present and constant risk to their fundamental rights. Despite the actions taken by the company, the current state that the Tabaco community finds itself in and the continued absence of real measures of compensation that are appropriate and that include all inhabitants cannot be justified by the company or by the Hatonuevo jurisdiction”.

The Court then ordered the company and the Hatonuevo jurisdiction to be ready with plans to relocate and restore the rights of the Tabaco community within five months of the release of the ruling, but this has not yet happened.

In May 2020, given the critically precarious and vulnerable situation exacerbated by the pandemic, a group of families organised a protest on the company railway line. They received the response that they would have to process their claims in follow-up meetings for the judicial sentence (3).

Almost two years after the Court’s decision was announced, creating a character profile to understand the current context of the community is all that has been promised. However, there is no deadline or timeline, nor is there a plan of action to put this measure into practice. Their only response is that ways of resolving the issues would be looked at once the results of the profile have been obtained.

“We had a good life in Tabaco, a wonderful life. We lived well, we had food, we had freedom. That all changed when Cerrejón arrived. They forced us to make rental agreements with them and forced us to sell, threatening to expropriate our properties”, Mariano Deluquez recalls with nostalgia of the day the coal multinationals evicted him and his family from their territory.

For Rogelio Ustate, another victim of the development, “mining has left nothing but pain and misery, it destroyed our dreams of a better life, it brought the loss of our social and cultural dynamic. The ancestral territory is the foundation for the physical and spiritual coexistence of Black, Afro-Colombian, Raizales and Palenqueras communities. Our history and our dreams are woven into the territory. It’s our legitimacy, our strength through time. Losing our territory to mining means we can no longer decide our future”.

Samuel Arregocés, one of the community leaders, condemns the impunity which runs through this case: “we have demanded our rights as an ethnic community, but the state and the multinational continue to ignore the judicial rulings and nothing has materialised in the Tabaco community. We are still dispersed and isolated. We are a nomad community connected only in our hearts. Tabaco exists in us and on the paper that defines Hatonuevo as a municipality. We are demanding that the multinationals comply and give us our long-awaited reparations”.

All the statements included in this article are taken from the virtual forum: Tabaco, La Guajira: Un desplazamiento en nombre del desarrollo. Watch the recording here. This is an edited version of an original article in Seminario Voz, translated by Holly Jones.