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COLOMBIA
Community continues struggle with mine
Susan Abad
7/17/2008
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Afro-Colombians and indigenous continue battling international consortium six years after being kicked off their land.

A small group of Afro-Colombians in a community in northeastern Colombia have decided to take a stand against a transnational coal mining consortium, six years after they were kicked off their land. The Cerrejón mine, the world´s largest open-pit coal mine, is operated by Australia´s BHP Billiton, British Anglo American and Swiss miner Xstrata in the Guajira department.

“It is literally drowning dozens of Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities, violating their rights,” said Alirio Uribe of the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers Collective, which along with independent attorney Armando Pérez is defending the communities  affected by the mine.

Uribe says although the communitys final eviction in 2002 did not produce any violence or fatalities, it was “just as aggressive” as similar acts that were conducted by paramilitary groups in other regions of Colombia.

“It began with the [consortiums] announcement that progress and development had arrived, that there was going to be jobs and wealth for the region,” Uribe recalled. “There were about 280 families in Tabaco. The company started to buy their lands from them, which they had held communally from the time of their ancestors, at ridiculous prices.
He added that they even paid for the land and let the community members use the properties for free.

As the mines production expanded, the rivers became contaminated, the lands were no longer fertile and lung diseases begun to develop, Uribe said. He said that the mines constant explosions to dig for coal destroyed some of the houses and before long, they were under siege.

He cited as an example a highway the company built that failed to pass by Tabaco, while its heavy machinery destroyed the old highway, leaving the community cut off. Afterward, the consortium said that the community did not have enough children to justify a school and it was closed. After the company said that there werent enough users for telecommunications and the village was left without public telephone center.

The consortium closed the health post supported by them, they purchased the church, the cemetery and when there were 90 families left, the Mining Ministry and the consortium, though a fraudulent process involving the police, the army and the courts, and they community was kicked off the land.

Legal battle
José Julio Pérez, a Tabaco community leader, who currently lives in Albania in the same department, says that their eviction occurred in three stages. On Aug. 9, 2001, the consortium began its expropriation campaign, he said. “We took refuge in the school, the health post, in neighbors’ homes.” In January of the next year, “they kicked us off what they called public spaces. Afterward, we went to the fields and they kicked us off of there on April 15, 2002. Thats when the legal battle started, from which, sadly, we still have not seen results.”

“Weve taken innumerable legal actions,” said Pérez, the lawyer.

One of the most important was a case brought before the ethics tribunal of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an international forum of the worlds 30 largest economies, including Australia, Great Britain and Switzerland. The case was brought before the organization in 2007. Pérez added that he and the team filed a case in Colombias Supreme Court, which ordered the consortium to rebuild Tabaco in a May 2002 ruling.

In order to regain the communitys social fabric, the Afro-Colombian Community Council of Tabaco and the Social Committee for the Relocation of Tabaco, which work to preserve Tabacos cultural traditions as well as other Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities in the area, such as Tamaquitos, Roche, Patilla, Chancleta and Remedios, all of which are facing eviction of the expanding mine. Pérez says the bodies run workshops that coordinate civil actions to push for a solution for the some 5,200 families that were kicked off their lands and the 20,000 others that have been indirectly affected by El Cerrejóns expansion.

The company says that under its “New Dawn” program for the Tabaco community, which it has run with some community members since 2005, it has invested US$40,000 in 25 educational projects and $442,000 in production projects. Also, the company said that it plans to fund 29 livestock and service and commercial projects in the area in the second half of this year totaling $520,000.

Neglected families
But community leaders, like Pérez, say that 60 families havent received any aid from the mine.
While the struggle is a difficult one, Uribe notes that results are starting to show.

“Earlier this year, we succeeded in having the company recognize that it has a debt with the communities. There is currently a dialogue between the communities and the company. In the case of Tamaquitos, which is an indigenous population, three years ago, the company used to say that it wasnt operating in their area, that they didnt know them, even that they werent indigenous,” Uribe said. “Today they recognize that they are indigenous, that they are affected, and said that they would help them get land to relocate and productive projects as livelihood. The problem is that everything they say, they havent done. What we have to do is pressure them so they give them some solutions.”

The legal actions continue as a result.

Pérez said that the legal team is evaluating whether to bring a claim before the Inter-American Court on Human Rights to fulfill the Supreme Courts 2002 ruling.

“In Tamaquitos, theyre asking for 500 hectares [1,235 acres) of land,” he said. “The company is offering them 160 hectares [395 acres] in addition to the construction of houses and production projects. He said “this is nothing for a company” that exported $1.5 billion last year and is forecast to export some $2 billion of its product this year.
—Latinamerica Press.


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Tamaquitos, one of the communities affected by the expanding carbon mine. (Photo: Via the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers´ Collective)
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