BHP Billiton was part of a consortium of three multinational companies which in late 2000 bought the Colombian Government’s 50% share of the massive opencast Cerrejon coal mine in the Department (province) of La Guajira in northern Colombia, one of the largest opencast coal mines in the world.

The mine, operated by Exxon subsidiary Intercor (which owned the other 50% share) had a history of forced relocations of Indigenous and Afrocolombian communities, with inadequate or non-existent compensation, to make way for mine expansion[1].

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Indigenous Wayuu communities were moved to make way for a coal export port at Puerto Bolivar, and for a railway built to carry coal from the mine to the port. Burial sites were desecrated and tensions caused between family groups as displaced families moved into the traditional territory of other families[2].

In August 2001, the small farming village of Tabaco, inhabited mainly by Colombians of African descent, was bulldozed by the mining company in a brutal operation accompanied by hundreds of armed soldiers and security personnel[3]. In February 2002, the consortium of which BHP Billiton was a part bought the remaining 50% of the Cerrejon mine from Intercor. BHP Billiton now owns 33.33% of Cerrejon Coal, the mine’s operator[4].

A sustained campaign of community opposition followed, supported by dissident shareholders in BHP Billiton and others around the world. Some of the former residents of Tabaco organised themselves through the Tabaco Relocation Committee, which was demanding not only compensation for the destruction of homes and livelihoods but also community relocation to farmland of equivalent agricultural value – as the World Bank’s Guidelines on Involuntary Resettlement urge[5]. The best that Cerrejon Coal was willing to offer was family by family financial payouts based on property valuations which many in the community disputed. In 2007 a complaint against BHP Billiton was made to the Australian National Contact Point of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development)[6].

In response to the criticism, in 2007 BHP Billiton and the other two multinational companies involved in Cerrejon Coal (Anglo American and Xstrata) commissioned an Independent Panel of Investigation to look into Cerrejon Coal’s social programmes and its general impacts on local communities[7]. The Panel found substance in much of the criticism that had been levelled at the company. It made a number of recommendations, particularly concerning a just settlement for the people of Tabaco. The Panel recommended, among other things, that Cerrejon Coal work with the Tabaco Relocation Committee as well as with other former residents of the village to ensure just compensation, buy collective land for agriculture and help construct a church and community centre for common use by former residents. The Panel also recommended that in future open, transparent negotiations take place with communities badly affected by the proximity of the mine, leading to collective relocation with community consent[8].

Cerrejon Coal and its three multinational shareholders, including BHP Billiton, broadly accepted the Panel’s recommendations[9]. Negotiations with the Tabaco Relocation Committee led to an agreement in December 2008 which, according to the Relocation Committee’s lawyer, contained most of what the Committee had been struggling for, including the purchase of a piece of land to which families from the former settlement could be moved, in order to continue their life together as farmers[10]. Negotiations began with other small farming communities facing relocation as the mine expands – Roche, Chancleta, Patilla and Tamaquitos.

But conflict continues. There has been strong criticism of the levels of financial compensation in the Tabaco agreement. Provision of infrastructure to the new community – roads, drainage, electricity – is the responsibility of the local authority, and therefore relies on good will from the local mayor. The land being bought by the company is sufficient for housing but insufficient for farming on the scale practised at Tabaco. It is still unclear how people will make a living[11].

Difficulties also remain for the communities currently facing displacement. A Peruvian research organisation, Social Capital Group, is making recommendations to company and communities about the relocation process, and some of the communities are being advised by a Colombian NGO, Indepaz, at the company’s expense. But disagreements persist over the number of people subject to relocation, the need for productive land in the relocated settlements, how to compensate for the disruption to people’s lives over the past decade and more, and the fact that the communities’ consent to the mine was never sought in the first place. In recent years, people have found it almost impossible to support themselves as mining expansion has encroached on agricultural land, and while the relocation process is under way people will have no means at all of supporting themselves. The pressures under which communities are living cause disputes. Community members accuse Cerrejon Coal of undermining their community leadership, taking decisions without consultation, publishing relocation timetables on the company’s website without informing the communities, calling meetings at short notice and causing confusion and divisions by cancelling meetings already agreed at the last minute, informing only some of the participants and not others. Community members remain in the dark about what they will eventually receive – what kind of houses, land, work and financial compensation. The quality of negotiation has improved since BHP Billiton’s last AGM, but the whole process continues to take place extremely slowly[12].

Meanwhile, people are living in extremely difficult conditions, with blasting from the mine causing damage to homes, coal dust in the air causing skin and respiratory problems, land on which people used to work being swallowed up by mining activities or fenced off in readiness for mine expansion. People feel that their communities are being ‘strangled’. The Independent Panel of Investigation recommended that the company do more to ensure that people could make a living – including provision of services and financing of smallscale economic projects – but the company’s efforts have been inadequate. It has taken company representatives many months to accept that they need to listen to the community’s own experience and suggestions. Some cattle belonging to community members have died after wandering into the mine lease area[13].

At the same time, Cerrejon mine workers who are members of the SINTRACARBON trade union are concerned about the inferior working conditions of non-unionised contract workers at the mine. SINTRACARBON is also worried about exposure to coal dust. The union says that coal dust is a hazardous substance under Colombian law and that because of this the company is legally bound to pay higher social
security contributions than it is currently paying, in order to facilitate earlier retirement for mine workers. The union reports little progress on these matters since last year’s BHP
Billiton AGM[14].

Mine workers and representatives of communities affected by the Cerrejon mine are agreed that international pressure on the mine’s owners – including BHP Billiton – is crucial if progress is to be made.

Richard Solly, Colombia Solidarity Campaign


[1]. Richard Solly and Roger Moody, Stripping Guajira Bare, 15 January 2001

[2]. Coal Mines and Communities in Colombia: The Salem Connection, Aviva Chomsky, Salem State College, paper prepared for presentation at Graduate Research Day, April 27, 2002. See

[3]. Armando Perez Araujo, Further action on crisis involving Exxon in Colombia, 12 August 2001

[4]. Richard Solly, Colombia: change of ownership at Intercor, 4 March 2002,

[5]. World Bank Operational Manual OP 4.12 – Involuntary Resettlement /0,,contentMDK:20064610~pagePK:64141683~piPK:64141620~theSitePK:502184,00.html

[6]. Jeremy Roberts and Andrew Trounson, Miner accused of evicting townsfolk, 3 July 2007,

[7]. Independent Third Party Review information, Cerrejon Coal website,

[8]. Cerrejon Coal and Social Responsibility, Final report of the Independent Panel of Investigation, February 2008,

[9]. Response to the Independent Panel’s Assessment of Cerrejon’s Social Engagement Practices, 11 April 2008,

[10]. Personal communications between Richard Solly and Armando Perez, December 2008, reflected in Richard Solly, Colombia: Seven year long peoples’ struggle achieves a victory,

[11]. Personal communication between community members, overseas supporters and author, May 2009

[12]. Personal communication with Aviva Chomsky and community leaders from Roche and Chancleta, October 2009; personal communication with community leaders and Aktion Schweiz Kolumbien, September 2010

[13]. Personal communication with Aviva Chomsky and community leaders from Roche and Chancleta, October 2009; personal communication with community leaders and Aktion Schweiz Kolumbien, September 2010

[14]. Email communications with SINTRACARBON representatives, various, October 2008 – July 2009 and September 2010