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Issue #1757      November 16, 2016

“We are slowly being killed by this mine”

Threats, pay-offs and skin defects. Daniel Macmillen Voskoboynik investigates the activities of a massive British-Australian ferronickel complex.

Amid the arid farmlands of Colombia’s Córdoba province, the grassed earth gives way to bare incisions. Upturned mounds of ochre puncture the landscape. Fuming chimneys spill white smoke. This is Cerro Matoso, one of the largest ferronickel mines and processing facilities in the world.

An aerial view of the Cerro Matoso mine – the impacts of contaminated air and waterways on local communities is evident through genetic deformations, illnesses and an epidemic of miscarriages.

Owned and part-owned for over 30 years by BHP Billiton, an Anglo-Australian corporation and the largest mining firm in the world, it was recently transferred to South32, a spin-off company.

Matoso has proven a lucrative source of wealth, delivering billions of dollars in sales. But former workers and local communities say that wealth has come at their expense; they are demanding justice for the destructive impact on their health, livelihoods, environment and safety.

Small-scale mining first started at Cerro Matoso in the 1960s, expanding in 1979 when the Colombian government granted a concession to Conicol, Ifi-Econiquel and Billington Overseas (the precursor of BHP Billiton, from the Royal Dutch Shell group). Funded by the World Bank, the mine boomed, becoming the region’s flagship industry. Montelíbano, a nearby town devoted to agriculture and livestock breeding, saw its population triple.

In 1997, BHP Billiton gained full ownership of the mine, doubling its production between 2001 and 2010. Today, Cerro Matoso’s high-quality ferronickel is shipped from Cartagena across the world, where it finds its way into countless industrial products, such as surgical instruments or mobile phones.

Extracting the material is an intricate process. Raw ferronickel is found in opencast spaces. It is mined using bulldozers and then transported to processing facilities. There, it is crushed and dried, and readied for the smelter. In high-temperature ovens, the nickel is melted, separated into segments, and cooled.

With four enormous furnaces in use, Cerro Matoso is the most energy-intensive industrial project in Colombia. But these ovens emit large amounts of toxic particles, which the wind carries to water sources and fields.

Cancer, defects and miscarriages

The impacts of contaminated air and waterways on local communities is evident through genetic deformations, illnesses and an epidemic of miscarriages.

Children have been born without reproductive organs or anuses. Cows and chickens have birthed offspring with two heads and excess limbs. DANE, the Colombian government bureau of statistics, reported an alarming rise in rates of cancer and respiratory illness in the region. Dermatological defects, such as blemishes, rashes or burst skin are common. Water studies have detected extremely high levels of iron in the principal local river.

Dayro Romero is the governor of the indigenous community of Pueblo Flecha, a village located a few hundred metres away from Cerro Matoso. “At first we didn’t see any changes,” he says. “But 20 years on we began to see the impacts. [Today] there are high rates of bronchitis, pneumonia … Our children have skin defects, eye problems, constant headaches. Our girls are embarrassed to wear short clothes that show the blemishes on their skin. We are known for our fertility, but in our community we now have so many miscarriages. In 2011, 14 out of 36 pregnancies in our village were aborted … We feel environmentally massacred.”

Irrael Aguilar, chieftain of the Zenú communities in the region, concurs: “We are slowly being killed by this mine. This is the end of us. We are on our way to extermination.”

Dozens of former mine workers have also experienced high rates of cancer, deafness and illness, with some initiating legal proceedings against the company.

Nickel isn’t the only source of pollution. Nearby coalmines and coal-fired power plants, relied on by Cerro Matoso to meet its enormous energy needs, cast coal dust into the air.

In 2013, Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities from areas surrounding Cerro Matoso blockaded the mine’s entrance in protest over the health and environmental impacts, halting operations. At first they were ignored. Then, riot police were sent in.

The pressure continued, eventually leading to an agreement between communities, the company and the government. One of the central compromises was that Cerro Matoso would finance an independent environmental and health study. Despite delays, the study has begun and is expected to reveal its results later in the year.

The company is adamant that there are no negative impacts from its operations. Luis Marulanda del Valle, Cerro Matoso’s Vice-President for External Affairs, maintains that “the health of these communities is affected by factors independent of our operations.”

A BHP Billiton spokesperson pointed to “detailed environmental and health studies carried out by Cerro Matoso up to 2014”, which indicated a minimal or absent impact on air quality, water quality and public health.

But in 2014, one of the public bodies responsible for monitoring Cerro Matoso’s impacts admitted lacking the necessary equipment to determine whether the company’s own environmental reporting matched reality.

Callous contrasts

In its communications, Cerro Matoso pays ample reference to its contribution to economic and social development. It claims to have significantly improved the quality of life in the region through royalties and social programs.

But local voices are more sceptical. Moreno argues that “they [the company] haven’t come through on their promise on water access, or the fixing of streets. They’ve built houses, but not using our traditional methods. In any case, what do we do with a house when we’re blighting our blood?”

Aguilar agrees: “We do not see the companies bringing real development. Rather, they have been preparing death for people here. They are destroying the forests, the water sources. We are merely looking for a dignified life for our coming generations, something which goes against the company’s vision.”

Montelíbano is a city of callous contrasts. Mine managers and workers benefit from a company country club, a private school and a private water supply. A gated Cerro Matoso neighbourhood sits inside the city centre. A closed condominium reserved for managers lies outside the city limits.

Yet thousands of families in Montelíbano live in conditions of extreme poverty. Many lack access to water, sewerage or adequate housing. Rates of illiteracy are high. Eighty percent of the inhabitants of the neighbouring municipality of San José de Uré have unmet basic needs.

In 2012, a delegate from the General Comptroller noted that municipalities affected by Cerro Matoso were worse off than those without mining projects. In rural districts and communities adjacent to the mine, pollution has wrecked traditional livelihoods and methods of subsistence. “Before,” Moreno says, “you could throw a net into the river and retrieve 20 fish. Now, it takes you a day to catch three.”

Cerro Matoso is not just a mine: it is an enormous development enterprise, linking coalmines with power plants and processing facilities. For its advocates, it has proven to be a dynamic engine of growth. For critics, it is a textbook example of maldevelopment, a network of extractive ventures which has harmed lives and impeded more salutary forms of development in the region.

The mine, which has polluted the land and lives of Zenú communities, was initially powered by a hydroelectric mega-dam which forcibly displaced Indigenous Emberá communities. Today, an enlarged Cerro Matoso is looking to meet its growing energy needs through the expansion of Geselca, a coal-fired power plant supplied by new local coalmines. All these polluting processes are in turn being ‘environmentally offset’ by the industrial plantation of swathes of palm and non-native teca trees, which consume more water than native species. Aguilar calls this “double damage”. He says: “They damage the environment, and then try to fix that damage with further damage.”

Paramilitary links

There are also concerns around how Cerro Matoso has woven itself into Colombia’s vivid landscape of violence. Historically, the province of Córdoba has been one of the areas most embroiled in the country’s armed conflict, with a patent presence of paramilitary and guerrilla forces.

Local residents have expressed fears about the relationship between the company and armed actors. One local shopkeeper, asking to remain nameless, reflects: “In this city, every business has to pay vacunas [extortion payments] to the paramilitaries, from wealthy retailers to the guys who sell passion-fruit juice on the street. They [Cerro Matoso] have been here for decades, and haven’t had a single reprisal, a single threat, a single kidnapping. How have they done that? Are we supposed to believe that they’ve never paid or engaged with the paramilitaries? We simply cannot explain to ourselves how such a company can move so freely in this territory.”

Others point to precedents. A Japanese company supplying carbon filters left the region, allegedly due to constant extortion. Non-governmental organisations have been unable to operate freely in surrounding villages.

There is not just suspicion around the mine’s engagement with paramilitaries to ensure unobstructed operations; allegations persist of the mine’s complicity in violence against social leaders.

Colombia is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for defenders of human and environmental rights. An explosive mix of armed groups, extensive land conflicts, lucrative extractive projects, and state paralysis create conditions for the killing of dozens of activists every year.

In Córdoba, the Indigenous Zenú community of El Alto San Jorge is home to a population of nearly 16,900 people, spread across dozens of villages. Over the past eight years, the community has seen 49 of its leaders killed. Another 14 leaders currently have protection measures and 19 more are undergoing risk assessments. Only two have obtained full protection measures.

Irrael Aguilar, the community’s chieftain, is under severe threat for his involvement in various rights struggles. He travels with an entourage of bodyguards and rarely spends consecutive nights in the same location. Aguilar says that “the company certainly has its hands in some of the threats.”

South32 and BHP Billiton deny the claims, with spokespersons from both companies affirming compliance with high standards of human rights due diligence.

But those under threat are often stuck in a bind. If they present concrete evidence of the threats against them to the authorities, the risk of reprisal increases. One community leader, who asked to remain anonymous, alleged that he had evidence from paramilitary leaders who had been approached by Cerro Matoso to “eliminate him”. But divulging that evidence would put him at further risk.

Until the security situation in the region changes, and thorough investigations can take place, there will be little clarity around the true nature of extortion and threats. Questions also arise around the company’s fiscal relationship to the Colombian state.

Cerro Matoso has been accused of avoiding tax, underpaying royalties, and under-invoicing. In 2010, the company was forced to pay over US$12 million in unpaid royalties, after an audit from the General Comptroller. Further analysis of Cerro Matoso’s finances suggests manipulation or creative accounting to reduce its taxable income. Mario Valencia, spokesperson for the Network for Tributary Justice in Colombia, noted: “[an] analysis of Cerro Matoso’s figures leaves us concerned, because there is strong evidence that they are presenting accounts which show a situation that is more critical than in reality.”

Cerro Matoso has also faced significant scrutiny for its lease over the mine, and the contracts it has negotiated with the government. Another Comptroller report in 2012 showed that the mine’s environmental licence was granted based on incomplete, inadequate and outdated data.

What next?

The future of Cerro Matoso is clouded in uncertainty. Despite plans to expand operations, a collapse in nickel prices has provoked a crisis. Many workers have been laid off, and there are doubts whether the mine’s concession will be extended beyond 2029.

But if Cerro Matoso closes operations, will there be justice for communities torn apart by its impacts?

In 2011, BHP Billiton registered the largest-ever profit by a British firm. It has been a generous sponsor of sports teams, cultural events, and Olympic medals, and has poured millions into lobbying. But its wealth has come at a cost – from flattened villages in Brazil to polluted lives in Colombia.

“The word Zenú means wonderful land, a place of found waters,” Aguilar laments. “The legacy of our ancestors is a world-vision of equilibrium, of harmony with the natural world. The Western man doesn’t understand this, let alone the businessman. They understand extraction, not conservation.”

Over the past eight years, the community has seen 49 of its leaders killed

The tension Aguilar references extends beyond Cerro Matoso; it lies at the heart of hundreds of disputes across the country. Two-fifths of Colombia’s land has been concessioned to or requested by mining or fossil-fuel companies.

The government has declared the country open for business, assuring all that it must develop its way to an enduring peace. The thrust of that development is the so-called “mining-energy locomotive”. But will an authentic peace be obtainable with a development policy that enflames social conflicts and degrades territories?

Social movements have been mobilising to demand instead a peace imbued with social and environmental justice. Danilo Urrea, from the environmental justice organisation CENSAT Agua Viva, criticises the government for proposing a “corporate peace”, “based on a development model which turns its back to environmental equilibrium, and closes its eyes to popular participation.

“Nature has been the setting of war, it holds the spoils of war and, therefore, it has been the victim of war,” he says. “Nature is also the only fertile ground for peace. Unless we reconfigure our relationships and economic models, unless we reconcile ourselves with nature and each other, then a lasting peace is unattainable.”

New Internationalist

Next article – Dying for democracy in Honduras

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