by Richard Solly, Colombia Solidarity Campaign (January 1st, 2009)
The signing of an agreement between Cerrejon Coal and the Tabaco Relocation Committee is historic and truly welcome. According to Armando Perez, the Committee's legal adviser, the agreement contains most of what the community has been demanding since the brutal eviction of the inhabitants of Tabaco and the demolition of their village in late 2001 and early 2002. This agreement has been achieved through the dogged determination of the people of Tabaco and the organisational capacity of the Tabaco Relocation Committee. But it has been assisted by alliances with others within and outside Colombia.
The involvement of Mines and Communities member group Yanama was key. It was Yanama's President, Remedios Fajardo, who first brought to international attention the devastation being caused by the Cerrejon mine. Remedios Fajardo and Armando Perez helped to create a network of organisations in the countries where the mine's multinational corporate owners have their headquarters - the USA (where original mine operator Exxon Mobil is based), Australia (BHP Billiton), Switzerland (Xstrata) and the United Kingdom (Anglo American).
Among the elements of the campaign of support for the people of Tabaco have been the following:
- A series of legal cases brought in the Colombian courts, culminating in a legal victory for the people of Tabaco in the Colombian Supreme Court in May 2002 - but this decision has remained scandalously unfulfilled by the Colombian authorities.
- Regular attendance at the London AGMs (annual shareholders' meetings) of Anglo American and BHP Billiton by supporters or representatives of the community and, on two occasions, by Colombian trade union representatives, to insist that Cerrejon coal accept the community's demands for relocation and compensation.
- Campaigns in the USA and Canada to ensure that electricity generating companies buying coal from Cerrejon put pressure on Cerrejon Coal to come to just agreements with communities affected by the mine's operations.
- Support for the community's demands by SINTRACARBON, the mine workers' union at El Cerrejon, and inclusion of community demands in union negotiations with the company
- Numerous speaking tours in North America and Europe by representatives of Yanama, the community and the union, organised by, among others, North Shore Colombia Solidarity (USA), Colombia Solidarity Campaign (UK) and Aktion Schweiz Kolumbien (ASK) (Switzerland), and involving public meetings, meetings with Government officials and members of legislative assemblies.
- Publication of material about the community's struggle on the MAC website and numerous other websites and in printed form, particularly through the work of Professor Avi Chomsky of Salem State University.
- Protests and letter-writing campaigns targeted at the multinational companies
- The bringing of a complaint against BHP Billiton to the Australian National Contact Point of the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) for breach of the OECD's voluntary guidelines on involuntary resettlement of communities by BHP Billiton at El Cerrejon, brought by South Australian lawyer Ralph Bleechmore.
- A similar complaint brought by ASK to the OECD's Swiss National Contact Point concerning Xstrata's role at El Cerrejon.
The OECD complaints seem to have been the last straw for Cerrejon Coal's multinational owners, which established in mid-2007 an Independent Panel of Inquiry into the Cerrejon mine's impacts. The Panel, chaired by John Harker,Vice Chancellor of Cape Breton University in Nova Scotia, made a number of recommendations about changes in mine management. Cerrejon Coal accepted the recommendations, and the agreement with the Tabaco Relocation Committee is one of the fruits of this.
The agreement has the potential to lead to the reconstruction, on adequate agricultural land, of a new community of Tabaco for those who wish to live there, and the rebuilding of people's livelihoods. But it is essential that supporters of the people of Tabaco continue to monitor implementation of the agreement to ensure that it does not simply gather dust like the Supreme Court decision of May 2002.
Furthermore, other communities - Tamaquitos, Roche, Chancleta and Patilla - still face relocation and need solidarity in their own negotiations with Cerrejon Coal. The company must accept those communities' demands concerning community membership and the quantity and quality of the land to which they are to be moved, and ensure that, in the period before relocation takes place, the livelihoods of all members of those communities are protected.
As well as this, the SINTRACARBON workers are currently (late December 2008) in the midst of negotiations with the company over pay and conditions.
Cerrejon Coal must accept all the demands which the union is making. Prominent among those demands are the conditions of subcontracted workers, who do not enjoy the same rights and conditions as directly employed workers. Prominent also is the issue of worker health. The company continues to resist SINTRACARBON's entirely legitimate demand that work involving prolonged exposure to carcinogenic substances be categorised as hazardous, because this would mean that the company would have to make the increased social security payments required by Colombian law so that workers could retire earlier.
Those of us who have accompanied the Tabaco Relocation Committee in its struggle can rejoice that collective perseverance has at last brought a measure of justice. But, to echo a well-known mid-twentieth century British Prime Minister, this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.
The struggle continues!