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Michael Kourabas headshot

"Coal Means Death for Us": Big Coal and Forced Evictions in Colombia


Here’s a sad truth: The displacement of indigenous populations as a result of international corporate development projects is a relatively common practice. A mining or agricultural company needs land, so a deal is struck with a corrupt government providing land to the corporation, whether or not it is occupied. Those with the misfortune of living in the way of the project are forced to leave, under the threat of violence or an approaching bulldozer; development begins while insufficient attention is paid to environmental concerns, leading to the pollution of local water sources; people die, either from disease or violent clashes with security forces.

Sound familiar? It should, because in weakly-governed states in Africa, Asia and South America, where governments are more interested in attracting (and siphoning off) foreign investment than in protecting the land or the people, this happens every day.

The story of the Cerrejón mine in the the Guajira region in Colombia is one such story, and it carries a simple lesson: In La Guajira, Colombia, the resource beneath the ground is more valuable than the people who live above it.

The mine

In 1983, an Exxon (U.S.) subsidiary and the state-owned Carbocol company entered a joint venture (dubbed “Cerrejón”) to mine for coal in La Guajira, Colombia, and the world’s largest open-pit coal mine was born. By 2002, Exxon and Carbocol were out, and a consortium of BHP Billiton (Australia/U.K.), Anglo American (U.K.) and Glencore/Xstrata (Swiss/U.K.) subsidiaries were in. Today, the Cerrejón mine produces more than 32 million tons of coal each year -- 60 percent of which ends up powering Europe's coal-fired plants -- while using 61,000 tons of explosives and 57 million cubic meters of water, annually.

The Guajira region’s primary inhabitants are the Wayuu people -- Colombia’s largest indigenous population -- and Colombians of African descent who fled slavery on the coast. The Wayuu have lived in the area since well before Spanish conquest, and their fierce resistance of colonial rule lead to a series of violent uprisings in the 18th century.

To the international mining companies seeking to develop and expand the Cerrejón mine, the indigenous and African Colombian populations in the Guajira region are simply in the way. As it turns out, communities are no greater impediments to mining than are layers of rock. They just have to be removed, and so the Cerrejón companies set about removing them.

Demolitions, forced evictions and strangulation

According to a lawsuit filed in Colombia by La Guajira residents, between August 2001 and January 2002, the owners of the Cerrejón mine -- at that time, Exxon, Billiton, Anglo American and Glencore/Xstrata subsidiaries -- undertook a process of displacing the African Colombian population of Tabaco by destroying the local infrastructure. With the help of the Colombian military, local government and paramilitary groups, Cerrejón bulldozed houses, the local school, a clinic and the village communications center. The demolitions resulted in hundreds of families with no homes and no place to go. Other communities were forcibly evicted or subjected to such uninhabitable conditions that they ultimately had no choice but to vacate the land (what is referred to there as “estrangulacion”).

In all, 17 villages have been displaced by the Cerrejón mine.

As a result of the Tabaco lawsuit, the Colombian Supreme Court in August 2002 ordered the local government to find a new home for the displaced. Yet, according to a 2010 report by the Danish human rights group, DanWatch, that order remained unfulfilled eight years later. (A separate complaint submitted in 2007 to Australia’s OECD National Contact Point resulted in a monetary settlement for the population of Tabaco, but produced no resolution as to the other displaced communities.)

Some of those evicted from the Guajira region were offered nominal compensation for their removal; however, no provisions were made to replace the means by which the villagers -- many of whom were farmers -- had previously earned their livings. As DanWatch pointed out of one such farmer, “his means of subsistence have been taken away from him all at once. Gone are his farm, animals and possessions.”

In addition to losing their homes and livelihoods, the people of La Guajira have been subjected to mining-related pollution to the drinking water, causing significant health problems. Dust from coal mining operations, which became particularly problematic over the summer due to drought, is unsafe at any level of ingestion but is particularly damaging to the lungs and heart following prolonged exposure.

The struggle continues

In August 2011, the Cerrejón companies approved a $1.3 billion project to increase the mine's output by 25 percent, leading to further displacements. Al Jazeera documented some of the Guajira resident’s current hardships in a mini-documentary released last week. “Coal means death for us,” one villager said. “Just like it creates light there, here it generates darkness.” The short film features numerous interviews with Wayuu and African Colombian villagers who tell of sickness, environmental degradation and financial devastation.

Repeated pleas to the mining bosses have been ignored. During one taped meeting with Cerrejón executives, an African Colombian villager who speaks of his family’s violent removal by Cerrejón in 2001 receives little more than a shrug; the company has never been sanctioned and has invested far more in social responsibility than any other company in the country, the man is told. The Cerrejón representative then complains about the villagers’ failure to recognize the company’s humanitarian efforts.

Questions and solutions

In 2010, the Cerrejón companies responded to the DanWatch report. They claimed to be “proud of what [they] have achieved in the areas of health and safety, the environment and community relations,” and touted “The Cerrejón Way” -- their “corporate culture model” developed in 2009. At one point in the response, Cerrejón claims to be “facilitating the resettlement of approximately 920 persons from small rural villages and helping them to substantially improve their quality of life.” Yet, as one to-be-relocated villager observes in the Al Jazeera video, “They don’t consider the fact that in that mud house, people were guaranteed their three meals a day.”

The issues raised by the Cerrejón mine go beyond relocation and compensation schemes and transcend corruption, weak governance or even corporate social responsibility.

Why is forced relocation ever tolerated? Even the guidelines issued by the United Nations' Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) allow for forced evictions in certain cases, so long as they are “unavoidable” and made for the “general welfare.” One can imagine how the OHCHR’s definition of “unavoidable” and “general welfare” might differ from BHP Billiton’s.

When forced evictions do occur -- and are not covered up -- companies defend themselves with payouts and resettlement offers that supposedly improve the displaced persons’ lives. Enforcement of even the strongest international human rights standards against multinational corporations, in other words, just means forcing the corporations to pay. Yet, how many international mining concerns cannot afford a few million dollars here and there if it means continuing to discover and sell a valuable resource?

This calculus is crude and backward. Forced evictions should be per se unlawful, without exception. Without such a clear-cut rule, companies will continue a policy of "exploit now, pay later," and the world's poor will continue to be treated as less valuable than the corporations that drive them from their land, or the resources above which they happen to live.

Image credit: Flickr/tenenhaus

Michael Kourabas headshot

Trained as a lawyer, I now focus on legal business development, corporate social responsibility (CSR), and business & human rights. My past experience includes work on complex commercial litigation, international human rights advocacy, education policy, pro bono legal representation, and analysis of CSR challenges in both the private and public sectors.

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