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Tabaco: 20 years since eviction and still no justice

Residents of Tabaco standing in the ruins of their houses, October 2001

By Richard Solly, Co-ordinator, London Mining Network

On 9 August 2001, the residents of the village of Tabaco in La Guajira, Colombia, were violently evicted from their land and their village was destroyed to make way for the expansion of the Cerrejon opencast coal mine. Cerrejon was then part-owned, and since 2002 has been completely owned, by multinational mining companies Anglo American, BHP and Glencore. All three companies are listed on the London Stock Exchange.

Anglo American and BHP are now selling their shares in the Cerrejon mine to Glencore as part of their move out of coal. Many ethical investors and others concerned about climate change may feel tempted to applaud them for this. Glencore says it will responsibly wind down operations at the mine ready for the end of the mining licence in 2034.

The fact that the villagers of Tabaco, a smallscale farming (campesino) community, have still not received the collective relocation that was mandated in a court decision of May 2002 and promised in an agreement with Cerrejon Coal in 2008 is an outrageous injustice which remains to be addressed. Anglo American and BHP cannot be allowed to walk away from Cerrejon without righting this wrong. They must be held to account for the suffering that mine expansion has inflicted on the communities in the area. And Glencore cannot be allowed to wash its hands of the matter by saying that it is a ‘legacy issue’.

The African-descent community of Tabaco has been treated with utter contempt ever since their beautiful village (which I visited before its destruction) was bulldozed in August 2001. The local municipality’s attorney told me in October 2000, “These people are primitive. If they want to work in agriculture they should take waged labour on one of the enormous pineapple plantations we want to put in round here.” The contempt has become more polite since the community’s campaign for justice went international, because it makes the multinational owners look bad. But it is still there. If there were any respect for the people of Tabaco, they would have their new community by now.

Last Monday, the Tabaco Relocation Committee published a comunique for the twentieth anniversary of their brutal eviction. My translation of it is below.

Public statement to commemorate 20 years of forced displacement of the African-Colombian community of Tabaco because of coal mining and so-called “development”

Today we commemorate 20 years since the tragic day on which we were forcibly displaced from our Africa-descendant territory of Tabaco for the benefit of the largest open pit mine in the country. It is operated today by Carbones de Cerrejón, of which the owners are the large multinationals BHP, Glencore and Anglo American. We commemorate the day on which that mine robbed us of our life of dignity.

This 9 August is a day of frustration, because our old people, children and friends live in sadness because they have been uprooted. Today, 20 years after the forced displacement, we have no territory. We do not have a church, we do not have a place where our children can study, we still do not have a home, food or water. We have suffered from the disintegration of the community, from the loss of our culture and our customs.

In our minds the memory persists of how we were beaten, humiliated, mistreated and thrown out of our own houses, without even being allowed to go back in and get our little bits and pieces (as we say in our region), they robbed us of our peace of mind and our identity. We also keep in mind the many ways in which, through deception, they managed to expel many other families, expropriating them or forcing them to sell. They have asked us to forget, to leave the past behind. But forgetting something like what happened to us is inconceivable: it permeates our body, our thoughts, our emotions and our daily lives. Forgetfulness is even more inconceivable when there has been no justice or comprehensive reparation.

We have gone to court and but justice still eludes us. In 2002, a ruling of the Supreme Court of Justice said that Tabaco would have to be relocated within 48 hours. However, 19 years have passed and we are still without territory. In 2008 the company washed its hands with agreements which are still unfulfilled and do not address our needs.

In 2015 we undertook a new legal action and the Court in 2019 said we were in the right, that Tabaco is an African-descent community dispossessed and forcibly displaced by so-called ‘development-induced displacement’. The Court said that measures should be taken so that in 5 months the relocation and restoration of the rights of the Tabaco community should be possible, but this has still not happened.

In addition to the above, BHP and Anglo American have announced that they are going to sell their shares in the mine. If these companies sell, they will come out with clean hands. And while this is happening, who will answer to us? The state? The multinationals? Where are we going to get justice from? Where do we have to go to?

Despite the sadness we have, this date also symbolizes 20 years of struggle to avoid the loss of culture, the struggle for the survival of tradition. Because of that sadness we continue in the struggle, we continue resisting so we can have a decent life.

Because we have the right to assert our rights!

We will continue to demand justice!

We demand adequate and complete solutions now!

Tabaco Relocation Committee (Junta Social Pro Reubicación de Tabaco)

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