Stop forced displacements by Cerrejon Coal in Colombia!

| 3rd December 2014
Villagers stand in the ruins of their house after the 2001 eviction of Tabaco. Photo: London Mining Network.
Villagers stand in the ruins of their house after the 2001 eviction of Tabaco. Photo: London Mining Network.
Las Casitas is a small community living on the edge of one of the world's largest coal mines, writes Richard Solly - one inhabited by the descendants of escaped slaves, located in the poorest region of Colombia. The village is under imminent threat of forced displacement by the brutal corporation that runs the Cerrejón coal mine.
There is no willingness to negotiate with people. They say, your money is in the bank, you can go and collect it, and if you don't then the machines are coming anyway to destroy your house.

Something nasty is brewing in La Guajira, the most northerly department (province) of Colombia. The community of Las Casitas is facing forced eviction to make way for the expansion of a massive coal strip mine.

This would not be the first forced eviction around the Cerrejon mine, owned by London-listed mining multinationals Anglo American, BHP Billiton and Glencore. There were numerous such evictions before these companies jointly bought a 50% stake in the mine in 2000.

Tabaco - evicted and destroyed

Then the villagers of Tabaco were expelled by hundreds of armed police and security personnel, and their houses demolished, on 9th August 2001. The destruction of Tabaco was completed in early 2002, just before the three multinationals bought the remaining 50% of the mine and assumed operational control.

Tabaco became a cause célèbre. A Colombian Supreme Court decision in 2002 decreed that the community should be reconstructed in a new location and the villagers provided with public services as before.

The combination of community organizing and international solidarity embarrassed Cerrejon Coal and its multinational owners into setting up an Independent Panel of Inquiry in 2007. The recommendations of this Panel led to an apparent change of heart by Cerrejon Coal: an agreement was signed in late 2008 with some of the villagers of Tabaco.

Cerrejon Coal undertook to negotiate in good faith with communities facing removal, leading to collective relocations which would enable local agricultural communities to stay together and carry on farming in a new location.

It seemed that the days of forced evictions were over. Except that they weren't.

In summer of 2013, eight families in another farming community, Roche, were told that they would be evicted by force if they did not swiftly come to an agreement with Cerrejon Coal. They were holding out for a better relocation deal which would enable them to continue herding cattle.

There is no willingness to negotiate with people. They say, your money is in the bank, you can go and collect it, and if you don't then the machines are coming anyway to destroy your house.

Protests were planned in London and Boston. The forced eviction was called off. An agreement was signed in October 2013. It was not ideal, but was better than villagers feared.

And now the villagers of Las Casitas are being threatened in the same way.

Las Casitas - an agricultural community of African descent

Las Casitas is a community of small-scale farmers ('campesinos' in Spanish), mostly of African origin, and like many such communities in Colombia, many claim descent from escaped slaves who fled to deep into the jungle.

They suffer from pollution from the nearby mine and are under great pressure to settle for small amounts of money and move away.

They feel threatened, pressured and deceived by company representatives. They deny the company's assertion that there has been a legitimate consultation process. They are worried about having to move with probable loss of livelihood.

Company officials seem unsympathetic to villagers' desire to continue living as small-scale farmers and the company seems unwilling to offer sufficient land for the community to continue its agricultural way of life.

The company offers grants to relocated families to undertake new 'productive projects' in new communities which are really suburbs rather than rural villages, as I saw for myself when I visited the area in June. But many of these projects have failed.

I attended a community meeting with perhaps two dozen members of the community when I was in La Guajira in June. The villagers spoke poignantly of what they are suffering - I cannot put it better than they put it themselves.

Village voices

"The biggest problem is pollution, environmental effects, but also mining representatives threatening our way of life. We are living in awful conditions, in conflict with Cerrejon. What will I do in another location? I am a farmer, I make my living through agriculture. They say they'll give us these houses and it'll make our lives better, but for me it'll make it worse because it 'll take away my livelihood."

"We are not convinced that life in town is better. What's the point of having a nice house if your wallet is empty and you haven't got any food? The company says we'll have economic opportunities for our families but we've seen productive projects fail. We're supposed to have 'life plans' but we doubt they'll work."

"Cerrejon are trying to threaten and destroy the community. They are offering misery in exchange for our property."

"This monster is destroying our community. We lived independently from cattle raising and mixed farming. The company's presence has damaged us and now the company is taking advantage of our vulnerability. Since the mine moved in, people have been less able to support themselves."

"The company has taken advantage of the innocence of the community. They propose, we reject and they ignore us. They are determined to get what they want ... I know if I go to the new settlement I'll not be well. I live by raising cattle, pigs, chickens. In the new place I won't be able to have my animals."

"This is similar to what happened 500 years ago when the Spaniards gave Indigenous people mirrors and trinkets to take their gold. Now these people we don't know come bringing lawyers and psychologists promising paradise.

"They offer us money, more money than I've seen in my life, and hope we'll be blinded by it and give up. But I won't give up. There is a lot of pressure from Cerrejon - they are offering 5 million pesos [about £1,560] to go. They give them this to move immediately. This is a bribe: go outside and you'll get a snack, stay indoors and you get nothing.

"It's barely an agreement: there is no willingness to negotiate with people. They say, your money is in the bank, you can go and collect it, and if you don't then the machines are coming anyway to destroy your house."

When I visited communities affected by the mine in June, people told me that support from outside Colombia, especially from countries where the mine's multinational owners are based, encourages them: they do not feel alone.

International solidarity is crucial in helping the people of Las Casitas achieve a just relocation arrangement with Cerrejon Coal



Take action: Please participate in an online action targeting the Chief Executives of the mining multinationals that own Cerrejon.

Richard Solly is a member of Colombia Solidarity Campaign, on the Editorial Board of the international Mines and Communities network and Co-ordinator of London Mining Network. He has worked with Indigenous Peoples since 1982 and in support of communities in conflict with extractive industries since 1989. He first visited the area around the Cerrejon mine in October 2000.

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