By Diana Salazar, Emma Banks, Richard Solly and Seb Ordonez

With immense sadness we learnt of the premature death, on Saturday 27 April 2024, of our beloved friend and colleague Samuel Arregoces, from the community of Tabaco in La Guajira, Colombia. Samuel was buried on Sunday 28 April. We thank our Colombian colleagues from human rights organisation CINEP and others for assisting Samuel in his final days and making the effort to take him back to his beloved La Guajira before he died. Although he passed away before they reached it, he was buried in his home territory, in accordance with his wishes. We send our deepest sympathy to his family and all his colleagues and friends.

We honoured him in song at a public meeting in London on Monday 29 April. We displayed photographs of him at a protest outside the Anglo American plc Annual General Meeting (AGM) on Tuesday 30 April and, inside the AGM, requested a minute’s silence in his honour. Anglo American is one of the companies from which Samuel had sought justice for so long, but the Chairman of the company said it would be churlish not to accept our request.

LMN Co-ordinator Richard Solly displays a photo of Samuel at the Anglo American AGM while calling for a minute’s silence in Samuel’s honour.

Tabaco is an African-descent community which was violently displaced to make way for the expansion of the Cerrejón coal mine in August 2001. At the time, Cerrejón was operated by INTERCOR, a subsidiary of US company Exxon, but part-owned by London-linked companies Anglo American, BHP and Glencore, which all subsequently took over INTERCOR’s share of the mine as a joint venture. Since 2022, Glencore, headquartered in Switzerland but listed on the London Stock Exchange, has been the sole owner of the mine.

Samuel’s experience as a displaced person inspired his fight not only for his community but also for all communities impacted by Cerrejón. “In La Guajira, it has been difficult to remain in the territory because of the multinational Cerrejón, … that came to the Afro-descendant and Indigenous communities and forced us out, displacing us from our territories. That is how my community was displaced in 2001,  by the police and by the company. Today we fight not just in search of our territory, but trying to prevent the displacement of other communities so they don’t lose their territories. We must fight and lead the struggles to defend our territory, the water, and a healthy environment.” 

Samuel was a great organiser and a marvellous ambassador for the communities in La Guajira affected by the Cerrejón mine. His crucial role in organising attracted death threats, and for a while he was included in the Colombian Government’s protection scheme. Samuel was always willing to take on this work despite these threats: “It is dangerous in La Guajira to speak of territory and to defend it. Leaders like myself In La Guajira who are part of this process are threatened with death. It is dangerous to speak of territory and to defend it. All of the leaders in this process receive death threats. It is not just defending our presence in the territory, but also life.” 

Samuel had a remarkable capacity to disarm, to make one feel immediately listened to and valued. His deep yet gentle voice would welcome us into his world—a world of unyielding struggle to protect water and life itself. He was endlessly accessible, always opening his arms to those whose own search for justice and a vision for a better future led them to La Guajira. Despite this dynamic, which he often described as extractive and exhausting, he never stopped.

Samuel always believed in the dignity of rural communities in La Guajira and that inspired him to fight even though it was dangerous. “For me, the territory is life, it is my body, and without a territory, I cannot live. For us, the ethnic communities, territory means everything, it is life, it is our body, and the water is our blood. To me, territory means freedom, cultural expression, and nourishment. That is what motivates me to fight each day because without territory you cannot live in La Guajira. Losing my territory meant losing a part of my life.” 

Samuel embodied the true spirit of an Earth defender. He approached his defence through popular grassroots education and the sharing of relational knowledge. His teachings were acts of preparation, nurturing a community traumatised by corporate harm, hoping to foster resilience so that La Guajira could once again flourish.

Samuel was a man of great physical stature and was nicknamed ‘El Oso’, The Bear. He had a great heart, a heart of great kindness, friendliness and gentleness but also of complete dedication to the cause of justice for the communities so scandalously treated by mining companies listed on the London Stock Exchange. He was colossal not just in stature but in the nurturing strength he possessed, reminiscent of his ancestors, the Barbaros Hoscos, Africans who had fought for and won their freedom. His power was in his ability to communicate the complexities of social and environmental conflict with compassion, dignity, and care, never compromising his profound commitment to justice and to ‘vivir sabroso’ – to savouring life fully.

Following displacement, he often reflected on the drastic changes to his community’s traditional diets, on being forced to subsist on processed foods in urban settings, disconnected from the land. He recognised this as a key factor in his community’s deteriorating health – both physical and mental. The correlation between his declining health and the broader environmental degradation and social displacement suffered by his community is undeniable.

The crisis in La Guajira extends beyond Samuel’s story. It is perhaps most visible in the dire situation for Wayuu children in Alta Guajira, suffering from severe malnutrition and thirst amidst rampant impoverishment and racist discrimination – the intersections of social and ecological crisis. La Guajira is often presented as a testing ground for Colombia’s energy transition—tales of moving beyond coal, Glencore’s ‘responsible’ shutdown of Cerrejón, and ambitious renewable energy projects fill the airwaves. But underneath these transition visions, the true dreams and needs of the local communities and their leaders are overshadowed. For Samuel and the people of Tabaco, genuine repair and regeneration of their community was the only transition worth fighting for – one that could guarantee the dignity of the people of La Guajira, all its beings, and their ancestral memory. Behind every glossy strategy of ‘transition,’ there is a universe of dreams and unresolved injustices.

So many members of the community of Tabaco have, like Samuel, died waiting for justice from companies which have continued to make enormous profits from land unjustly taken from these small-scale farmers. Investors have benefitted from the suffering of the people of La Guajira. How much longer will it be before justice is done?

Samuel’s early death from cancer is a tragedy for the struggle for justice as well as for his family and friends, but his sacrifice for La Guajira will not be in vain. His legacy inspires every leader in La Guajira and beyond —from climate activists, to Wayuu ‘Outsou’ dreamers, to the frontline defenders navigating times of uncertainty in the region. His life and his struggles are woven into the fabric of our collective struggle, urging us to act, to remember, and to transform.

Samuel has always been an incredible collaborator for LMN when delegations went to Colombia.This included all the delegations organised by US-based Witness for Peace (in some of which LMN has participated) and the International Mission in Colombia for the ISDS (Investor State Dispute Settlement) case in 2023, which generated a flow of work on this topic for LMN. He was part of a speaker tour organised by LMN in 2015 around the time of the BHP Annual General Meeting that October. He returned to Europe for a speaker tour around the Glencore AGM in May 2022. He assisted in the production of the publication The Magic of Responsibility. In multiple other ways throughout these years, Samuel has been of enormous support for the work of LMN. 

Samuel outside the BHP AGM in London in 2015

May the memory of our beloved friend Samuel, ‘El Oso’, inspire us all to continue the struggle until victory is won.  In his words: “If we do not create a conscience in the Guajira territory, what awaits us in 20 or 30 years is a black spot in the Colombia sea, but that is also what motivates us every day to say ‘No more Cerrejón’. I am one of the ones who believed that the people of La Guajira can evict this monster from our territory. I imagine a Guajira where Cerrejón no longer exists.”   

Samuel with Avi Chomsky from North Shore Colombia Solidarity, Massachusetts, USA, and Richard Solly of London Mining Network, during a meeting at the Cerrejón mine in 2018

A tribute from Seb Ordonez from LMN member group War on Want

Descansa ya, descansa tranquilo, oso Samu. Vuela alto, sabiendo que tu memoria y tus enseñanzas permanecen entrelazadas y acuerpadas en cada uno de nosotros.

Gracias por tu lucha, que sigue viva: la lucha de los Bárbaros Hoscos, los ancestros Afro-Guajiros libres. Tu ternura y tu voz suave nos abrazan y son tierra fértil para todo lo que está por venir—sueños de reparación y restauración para Tabaco; de libertad y abundancia para La Guajira.

Para la familia y la comunidad: profundo amor para ustedes. Gracias por ese valiente y hermoso esfuerzo de regresar al territorio. A esa “dama reclinada, bañada por las aguas inmensas del Caribe”, a ese territorio lleno de vida, nuestra hermosa Guajira. Lo lograron, ya están ahí. Les abrazamos con fuerza y cariño.

Rest now, rest easy, Oso Samu. Fly high, knowing that your memory and teachings remain intertwined in each one of us.

Thank you for your struggle, which is still alive: the struggle of the Barbaros Hoscos – Surly Barbarians, Afro-Guajiro ancestors who fought and won for freedom. Your tenderness and your soft voice embrace us and are fertile ground for all that is to come – dreams of reparation and restoration for Tabaco; of freedom and abundance for La Guajira.

To the family and community: deep love for you all. Thank you for that brave and beautiful effort to return Samuel to the territory. To that ‘lady laying down, bathed by the immense waters of the Caribbean,’ to that territory full of life, our beautiful Guajira. You have made it, you are there. We send you hugs of warmth, hugs of gratitude.

Samuel Arregoces 1

El Oso