The Cerrejón mine

Guest blog provided by CAFOD (Catholic Agency for Overseas Development)

Today, La Guajira (Colombia) is in a truly serious situation regarding the damage that open-cast mining has caused. This has brought about cultural and spiritual damage to our people. Our way of thinking means that when we talk about territory, it’s very different to what land means for others. Our territory is an extension of our life, an addition to what we have.”

Misael Socarras Ipuana and his community – the Wayúu of La Gran Parada, Colombia – have suffered for years the impacts of the Cerrejón coal mine, the largest in Latin America. It’s thought that this mine has caused more than 20 communities to be forcibly displaced and more than 17 streams redirected or polluted.

As well as the dust and noise pollution from the mine and its infrastructure, the Arroyo Bruno (Bruno Stream), one of the communities’ most important – and sacred – water sources, has been diverted from its natural course so that the company can mine the coal that lies underneath.

While communities suffer, the multinational owners of the mine – BHP Group, Anglo American and Glencore (all based in the UK or listed on the London Stock Exchange) have profited from the export of million tonnes of coal to Europe, in the midst of the climate crisis. BHP and Anglo American recently transferred their ownership to Glencore, leaving communities fearing that that they will evade accountability for previous violations.

The National Contact Points (NCPs) of Switzerland, Australia and the UK recently decided that complaints submitted against the companies for violating the OECD Guidelines on Multinational Enterprises merited further investigation. This is a positive step – but the NCPs don’t have the power to hold these companies accountable, or to ensure that they provide remedy to communities.

UK companies are not only linked to harmful mining activities, but also the destruction of forests for industrial agriculture, wage-theft and exploitative working conditions in garment factories, and much more. Recently, a UK Government watchdog found a UK company had failed to identify and address the actual and potential impacts of its supply chain on the destruction of Palestinian homes. Such demolitions are in violation of international law.

UK companies, global impacts

At present, big companies can reap the benefits of exploitation in the countries from which these resources are sourced while hiding behind lengthy and complex global supply chains, dodging responsibility for the social and environmental costs of their subsidiaries and suppliers.

These are not abstract or isolated tragedies but symptoms of a broken economic system; a “new form of colonialism”, as Pope Francis, the spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Catholics refers to it. Multinational companies “operate in less developed countries in ways they could never do at home”, prioritising profit over all else, reflecting a “misunderstanding of the very concept of the economy”.

The predominant approach to tackling abuse in supply chains over the last few decades has been to encourage a) voluntary action by businesses to act responsibility, and b) action by consumers to avoid products tainted with human rights or environmental abuse (supposedly, putting pressure on companies).

This approach doesn’t work. So-called “corporate social responsibility” is often a veneer which obscures the actual impacts companies have on the ground. A voluntary approach means there’s nothing to stop responsible companies being undercut by others. And it’s near impossible for us as consumers to avoid human rights and environmental violations linked to the products or services we buy. Governments must put safeguards on business, to make sure their activities benefit us all.

Why current laws aren’t enough

The UK Government has been reluctant to impose greater regulation on UK companies, believing its current approach to be sufficient: that it has an existing ‘Business and Human Rights National Action Plan’ based on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs); that UK companies are voluntarily implementing these Principles; and that the UK’s Modern Slavery Act ‘transparency in supply chains’ provision tackles abuse in supply chains.

This “soft” approach has failed to prevent corporate abuse. The UK’s Modern Slavery Act, for instance, relies on the idea that if a company produces an annual report on what it’s doing to combat modern slavery in its supply chains, that this will translate to action on the ground. Unfortunately that’s often not the case. The Act is also limited to “modern slavery” – it doesn’t include UK company complicity in cases such as the Cerrejón mine.

The UK has recently taken steps to tackle deforestation in supply chains through the Environment Act. But among its flaws, this legislation only applies to certain specific commodities (like palm oil and cocoa), and it doesn’t explicitly protect the communities defending forests worldwide.

Supply chain abuses are multifaceted, pointing to our interdependence with the environment and other eco-systems. This is why any approach to regulating corporate activity requires what the Catholic Church calls an “integral ecology” vision.

Calls for a new law

The Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD), along with a coalition of NGOs and trade unions, are calling for a “Business, Human Rights and Environment Act”. Under this law, companies would need to prevent abuse happening in the first place through conducting ‘human rights and environmental due diligence’ – and could be held accountable if they failed to do so.

This law would go beyond the “piecemeal” approach taken by the UK so far – it would cover all sectors, commodities and violations.

This law has been found legally feasible and recommended by Parliamentarians on the Joint Committee on Human Rights. Leading UK businesses are also calling for stronger rules – to bring up standards for all companies.

There is momentum for such laws, with the EU due to table similar legislation later this month – but to make a difference, it must include liability for companies and access to remedy for victims of corporate abuse (as Misael, in behalf of communities impacted by the Cerrejón mine, raised in writing to EU officials just a few months ago).

UK companies must be compelled to root out and answer for abuses, wherever they operate. But we are still a long way from seeing the new law we are calling for become reality. Help us by asking your MP to pledge their support: