The people of Tabaco, in La Guajira, Colombia, have won a legal victory which may be unprecedented for a rural community in that country. On May 9th, 2002, the Supreme Court of Colombia ruled that the village, demolished last year by mining company Intercor, must be reconstructed on a new site, as the villagers have been demanding.
A meeting between local residents and representatives of the national Defensor del Pueblo (Ombudsman) took place in Riohacha, the provincial capital of La Guajira, on 14th June, to discuss the resourcing of the relocation arrangements.
The community was displaced because of the expansion of the worldís largest coal strip mine at El Cerrejon Norte in the northern province of La Guajira. The mine affects both African Colombian communities like Tabaco and Indigenous Wayuu communities. Mine operator Intercor (100% owned by US multinational ExxonMobil, also known as Esso) demolished most of the houses in the village in August 2001; continued the demolitions in December; and completed the task in January, 2002, when the villageís school, clinic and communications centre were finally destroyed and the cemetery desecrated and bulldozed despite the fact that it still contained the remains of villagersí ancestors. The communityís lawyer, Armando Perez, spent 37 days during December and January under house arrest for denouncing the complicity of a local judge in the companyís actions.
Although Intercor operated the mine at El Cerrejon Norte, it only owned 50% of it. The other 50% was owned by a Consortium consisting of three of the worldís biggest mining companies, Anglo-American, BHP-Billiton and Glencore. Anglo-American is largely financed from South Africa, where its roots go deep into the soil of the apartheid era, but its head office is now in London. BHP-Billiton was formed last year through the merger of Billiton (also financed largely from South Africa but with its head office in London) and Australian mining giant BHP, which has a scandalous history of environmental destruction and disregard for Indigenous Peoplesí rights. Glencore is a private but hugely significant mining investment house based in Switzerland. In February, 2002, this Consortium bought out ExxonMobil so as to achieve 100% ownership and operating control of El Cerrejon Norte.
The final destruction of Tabaco was ExxonMobilís self-interested parting gift to its colleagues. It means that the Consortium can try to deny responsibility for the demolition while ExxonMobil can say that it is no longer involved. This is exactly what happened at the ExxonMobil Annual Shareholdersí Meeting in Dallas, Texas, on 28th May. Earlier, the London AGM of Anglo-American, held on May 10th, was leafleted by members of the Colombia Solidarity Campaign. Anglo-Americanís Public Relations Officer Edward Bickham told the CSC members that the company was ‘looking at the whole issue of relocation.’
The new Consortium had retained as its President Hernan Martinez, who managed operations at El Cerrejon during the demolitions. After an international campaign for his dismissal, he has now been replaced.
Remedios Fajardo, President of the Wayuu Indigenous organisation Yanama, reports that the Constitutional Court has now decreed that no mining projects in Indigenous areas can go ahead without prior consultation with the Indigenous Peoples affected. She and Armando Perez attended the Exxon AGM and meetings with supporters in Seattle, Washington and Salem, Massachusetts where electricity is provided by a power station owned by PG&E and uses coal from El Cerrejon Norte.
It is necessary to maintain pressure on local and national government and on the corporations involved if this legal decision is to be carried out. If you have time, please write to me, care of the Colombia Solidarity Campaign, and we will provide you with model letters to:
- the Mayor of Hatonuevo, the Municipality in which Tabaco is situated
- the President of Colombia and the Public Defender, Dr Luis Eduardo Cifuentes
- Anglo American and BHP Billiton in London.