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Colombian town forcibly relocated due to air contamination from open-pit coal mining - Community takes on multinationals in fight for rights

"Damned black rock
That changed my life
A child and a mother cry
The disastrous departure of a whole life"(1)

Boquerón, Cesar Department, Colombia -- August 16, 2013

When people living in Boquerón, Colombia, got word of a 2010 order by the Colombian government to relocate their village, they had mixed feelings. "The inhabitants of this town didn't want to be relocated, but now that farming has become impossible and sicknesses are growing in our animals and people, they're ready to move," said Boquerón native Flower Arias to the magazine La Silla Vacia in 2011.

Boquerón and three other rural communities are located within miles of large-scale, open-pit coal mines owned by Drummond Company (American); Colombian Natural Resources (American, subsidiary of Goldman Sachs); and Glencore Xstrata (Switzerland).

In 2009, the Colombian government commissioned a study that found that levels of coal dust in the air near the towns exceeded the amount that livable standards allow. In 2010, they gave the companies one year to move the town of Plan Bonito and two years to move nearby El Hatillo and Boquerón. Relocation orders were not issued for a number of other nearby population centers.

Today, all three communities have yet to be relocated.

In April 2012, the companies hired the Canadian firm rePlan to operate the resettlement process. "Since 2012 the process has continued to drag, with key issues of the move still up in the air, including how the community will be compensated for what they are being put through," said pro bono attorney Andrea Torres. Torres is one of the founders of Tierra Digna, the non-profit organization accompanying Boquerón residents through the relocation process.

"Contaminating a village's environment to the point that it is unlivable, and then forcing inhabitants off of their land is the most traumatic impact that a mining project can have," added Torres. "At the very least the people of Boquerón deserve to be compensated and to be guaranteed that, once they are relocated, this doesn't happen to them again."

She notes that the vast majority of land in Cesar, the department (province) where the town is located, is currently being solicited for mining exploration and exploitation licenses.

The health risks of living in coal mining zones are well-documented. A 2012 study by the University of Sydney compared 50 international peer reviewed studies on the health and social impacts of coal mining. Looking at cases from the U.S., Canada, China and Turkey, the study concluded that adults in coal mining communities have been found to have higher rates of cardiopulmonary disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and other lung diseases, hypertension, kidney disease, heart attack, stroke and asthma.

The study also recorded common social impacts like water pollution, slurry spills, distress resulting from uncertainties about health, impacts of mining-related pollution, inability of the community to capture economic benefits, and social changes inhibiting economic activities other than mining.

"Theses companies have not only generated major health risks but, with the resettlement, they are gravely impacting the social fabric of the community -- this, on top of the terrible cultural loss generated by the forced relocation of an historic Afro-Colombian village ," said Torres.

Life next to coal mines has been a relatively new development in the history of Boquerón. The community was founded at the end of the 19th century by five families who developed a self-sustaining village based on farming, hunting and raising animals. Through the years, it grew to be recognized by town members and scholars alike as an historic spot and space for the expression of rural Afro-Colombian culture.

National and foreign-owned coal mines sprung up around Boquerón in the 1980s and 1990s. This period also saw a spike in the presence of armed actors and forced displacement in the area -- a trend which is common in Colombian regions rich in natural resources. Between 1997 and 2004, 123 massacres occurred in the Cesar department, with 607 people killed. In Jagua de Ibirico, the municipality where Boquerón is located, 200 were killed with 58.3% of the inhabitants displaced.

"Many abandoned their land or sold it at below market prices out of fear," said Ximena Gonzalez, a researcher at the Javeriana University in the Colombian capital of Bogota. "Much of the abandoned land was converted to oil palm plantations and coal mining operations."

Despite the fear associated with remaining on their land, and other impacts linked to large-scale coal mining, some Boquerón residents were able to stay put -- until today.

Now that they have no choice but to leave, leaders are struggling to keep their community as much intact as possible. With the help of Tierra Digna, each month village representatives take on attorneys and professionals from three separate mining companies in order to push for a resettlement process that respects their rights and recognizes the harm they have suffered.

One of the main issues that leaders have fought for has been to have some form of paid legal representation and a social worker to help them deal with land disputes and other social issues provoked by the resettlement.

"We're not negotiating with these companies," said community representative Lesvi Leonor Rivera Mejia to crowd at Javeriana University in Bogota this June, "We're demanding our rights."


Leah Gardner is a law student at McGill University. She interned at Tierra Digna in Bogota, Colombia in the summer of 2013 through Canadian Lawyers Abroad and Lawyers Without Borders Canada.

(1) From the poem, “To My Boquerón”, by Flower Arias. Original stanza:

"Maldita piedra negra
Que hizo cambiar mi historia
Un niño y una madre llora
La funesta partida de toda una vida"

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