Credit: Tabaco community

On 9 August 2001, the residents of the village of Tabaco in La Guajira, Colombia, were violently evicted from their land and their village was destroyed to make way for the expansion of the Cerrejon opencast coal mine. Cerrejon was then part-owned, and between 2002 and January 2022 was completely owned, by multinational mining companies Anglo American, BHP and Glencore. All three companies are listed on the London Stock Exchange.

In January 2022, Anglo American and BHP sold their shares in the Cerrejon mine to Glencore as part of their move out of coal. Many ethical investors and others concerned about climate change may feel tempted to applaud them for this. Glencore, now the 100% owner of the mine, says it will responsibly wind down operations ready for the end of the mining licence in 2034.

The call from the community is for solidarity in demanding their rights and for support in their struggle to find justice.

 “Today, 9 August 2001, turns 21: 21 years since the Afro-descendant Community of Tabaco was displaced by the Cerrejon Coal Company and by the Colombian State, so that their collective territory could be used for coal exploitation. This risks the disappearance of the social, cultural, spiritual and other fabric of the community. Despite judicial decisions which have been favourable to the Tabaco community, such as Colombian Constitutional Court Sentence T-329 of 2017, the Cerrejon Coal Company and the Colombian State have still not resettled or compensated the community of Tabaco. This abandonment by the Colombian State and the Cerrejon Coal Company is a violation of our human rights”. 

Statement from the Tabaco community. 

Community members state that they were never consulted. The company has always claimed that the people no longer lived in the town, but in neighbouring towns such as Albania, Hato Nuevo and Maicao. Since then the company had isolated them in many ways, buying the surrounding farms and fencing them off; and closing the public roads, including the main road that connected them with Albania, their most important trading centre, where the company built an artificial lagoon. The community was soon surrounded by private security guards, and fear grew among the people. The guards imposed restrictions that prevented traditional night hunting and entry to their farms. By order of the municipality, the water and electricity were cut off, teachers’ jobs were withdrawn, the health centre was dismantled, the Telecom office was closed, and even the Catholic Church unilaterally destroyed part of the village church which had been built with the community’s own resources (1).

Faced with these pressures, some inhabitants sold their properties for derisory sums stipulated by the company’s purchasing lawyers (ten thousand pesos, equivalent to £1.92 at today’s exchange rate, per hectare). In other cases, the same lawyers presented themselves with expropriation orders and offered whatever they wanted to the landowners. The money was not enough for them to even buy a home elsewhere. During this period of pressure, several community leaders were found assassinated without the causes being known. These crimes are still under investigation.

A year later, in 2002, the Colombian Supreme Court ruled in the community’s favour in a suit brought by the community’s lawyer, ordering the reconstruction of the town and all its infrastructure. It is a “halfway” achievement that has led them to continue the fight for the restoration of their individual and collective rights and for a fair and equitable comprehensive reparation process. Over time, complaints and lawsuits have also been pursued in the countries of origin of the mining companies.

Indigenous Wayuu, African descent and peasant communities have been affected by the operations of Cerrejon, the biggest open cast coal mine in Latin America. The arrival of the mine has caused the displacement of people from their land and with that the disruption of their livelihoods and the breakdown of their traditional culture. The Wayuu people are the largest indigenous nation in Colombia and they keep their language alive, so the mine is threatening an ancient culture. 

The consequences left by the coal extraction are serious. The main consequences are (1) the destruction of the dry tropical forest, as the mine is situated within the Rancheria river basin, the only major river in this dry area, and (2) the destruction of the local economy that was based on agriculture, hunting and gathering before mining began, imposing instead dependency on services linked to the mine.