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El Hatillo, the Tense Struggle to Not Breathe Coal

By: Ivonne Rodríguez González

Posted: April 23, 2019





In the department of Cesar in northeastern Colombia, a countryside community has been waiting for nearly a decade to be resettled because of pollution generated by nearby mines. In the last four years, one leader was killed and eight more have received threats.

Whoever goes to El Hatillo will find that it is a village left to its own fate. The community bears the same name as a coal mine that the Colombian government promoted 22 years ago without local communities knowing about it (see page 11 of the document).

All that remains of their agricultural period are the memories. They do not have drinking water nor paved roads. The houses are mostly made of mud and sticks and the lack of infrastructure and job opportunities in the area depend on the three mining companies with which they have had to negotiate resettlement options. Their resettlement was ordered by the Ministry of Environment in 2010 after the conclusion that coal mining was affecting this population, as well as the neighboring communities of Plan Bonito and Boquerón.

“The State left us here alone,” the townspeople repeat, describing the resettlement as a process that desecrated their tranquility and kept them in suspense.

That is why in this village, two hours from Valledupar, the capital of Cesar, the community watches its words carefully.

Few people want to talk about the murder of Aldemar Parra García, that occurred on January 7, 2017, and the threats that began in 2014, made against the leaders who participated in the talks with the mining companies. The risk intensified in 2016 when they filed a civil rights action for the delay in resettlement, to the point that the Ombudsman’s Office – which oversees the human rights of Colombians – included their names in a report that warned of the vulnerability of 80 regional social leaders.

The situation did not improve: “The danger is latent,” says one of the eight leaders with a protection scheme provided by the Colombian state, who asks not to reveal his name out of fear.

Over the next five years, the community will enter a new process: the implementation of the so-called Resettlement Action Plan (PAR), a document that took them six years of negotiation with the mining companies and which was finally signed on November 29, 2018. For Hatillo’s leaders, what is fundamental is that the commitments made in its 700 pages do not remain on paper and, above all, that there are guarantees that they can rebuild their lives elsewhere.

The field that was no longer

José del Carmen Correa speaks with nostalgia as he walks through the ramshackle, dusty streets of El Hatillo.

He is Hatillano and likes to evoke scenes from his childhood, when he ran freely through that green field that is currently a crater on one side and a mountain of sediments that grows with the exploitation of coal on the other. He is a descendant of settlers who came to this area in the 19th century to grow corn, banana, and cotton, without worrying whether or not they had land deeds. As these were empty lands belonging to the nation, they had the right to ask for them legally after several years of work, so the villagers lived quietly, cultivating their food, raising animals, and fishing in the Calenturitas river.

That agricultural landscape changed in the late 1980s when the Colombian government granted much of the land for mining and when the African palm oil boom began.

Today, El Hatillo is surrounded, not only by the mine that bears that name, but also by four others: Calenturitas, La Francia, El Descanso, and Pribbenow-La Loma. Its exploitation has turned the center of Cesar into the region with the highest production of coal in Colombia, with exports to Turkey, South Korea, Brazil, Israel, Chile, the United States, Spain, Poland, Puerto Rico, and Portugal, according to data from the Ministry of Mining and Energy (See response of the Ministry of Mines).

The first one is operated by Prodeco, a subsidiary of the Anglo-Swiss multinational Glencore Xstrata. The second is owned by Colombian Natural Resources (CNR), which belonged to the investment bank Goldman Sachs and was then sold to the Murray Energy Group in 2015. The last two mines are owned by the American family-owned mining company Drummond. The last min, namesake of the village, has switched hands several times: first Empresa Promotora y Explotadora de Carbón del Cesar y La Guajira (Emcarbón), then Carbones del Caribe (today Sator, from Grupo Argos), followed by Brazilian Vale Do Rio Doce and finally CNR. Like La Francia mine, El Hatillo mine was purchased by the Murray Energy Group in 2015, but continued to operate under the name CNR (see mine information, National Mining Agency). HECHOS DE VIOLENCIA DESARROLLO MINERO

Its only non-mining neighbor is Palmagro S.A., formerly called Palmeras de Alamosa Ltda, which, since 1991, has operated an extraction plant in a nearby property to process the fruit of the African oil palm to be used in industries such as cosmetics and food.

For the villagers, mining and agribusiness have been responsible, not only for changes in land use, but also for the pollution of the air and water bodies that have accompanied them. There is no longer any way to feed on crops because, they say, the land has become infertile. They cannot hunt peccaries, lowland pacas, deer, rabbits, armadillos, agoutis or capybara anymore. Nor can they fish for catfish or smallmouths. They all disappeared. The Piedra canyon and nearby springs dried up and the Calenturitas river was diverted, with the authorization from the Ministry of Environment, to favor the coal industry (See Ministry of Environment auto).

“The vocation from the village was fishing and hunting and the work was done on the nearby farms that were dedicated to cattle farming. It was a 100% village community. With the arrival of mining, everything changed,” says Deiby Rojas, treasurer of the local community board.

With these changes, health problems also began. Miriam Jaimes, a local board councilor, explains that respiratory infections in children and older adults have become constant, and a plague attacks the few farmyard animals they can raise.

“There is much pollution and there is a lot of lung disease. Animals too: pigs get the plague and die; chickens get the same,” she says.

The long wait

This contamination that the peasants talk about is the origin of their struggles.

El Hatillo is 10 minutes by motorbike from La Loma, the largest town in El Paso. This municipality is part of the La Jagua Mining District, which also includes Becerril, Agustín Codazzi, Chimichagua, Chiriguaná, Curumaní, and La Jagua de Ibirico, which, according to data from the National Mining Agency, produced 3,025,662 tons of coal in 2018. Although the El Hatillo mine was granted an exploitation permit in 1997 and, according to villagers, began operating in 2006, only until 2010 did the government recognize that its exploitation and that of the surrounding mines had affected the rural population around it. 

Thus, in May 2010, the Ministry of Environment concluded, at the end of President Álvaro Uribe’s administration, that the increase in particulate matter emissions resulting from coal mining “has severely affected the health and quality of life of the inhabitants of populated centers located in the area of influence of mining projects.” Along with that diagnosis came an order to the mining companies Prodeco, CNR, Drummond, and Vale Coal to immediately resettle the populations of Plan Bonito, Boquerón, and El Hatillo (Read Resolution 0970 of May 20, 2010). 

The mining companies appealed the decision, and, in a new resolution on August 5 of the same year, the Ministry reiterated its peremptory order, attributing to each mining company precise percentages of responsibility in the resettlement of the three communities.

According to the Government’s decision, companies were to finance the process and hire an operator to formulate and then implement a Resettlement Action Plan (RAP), which would include a population diagnosis, a regional analysis, and proposals for resettlement, as well as an auditor to monitor the process. The deadline for completing resettlement was two years, which expired in September 2012 (see Resolution 1525 of 5 August 2010).

However, that did not happen. 

In El Hatillo, peasants report that the companies were slow to comply with the Ministry’s orders and to guarantee the participation of the inhabitants. The NGO Pensamiento y Acción Social (PAS), which legally accompanied the community, documented that in March 2011 the Ministry imposed a preventive measure of a written reprimand to the companies for not hiring the operator. A month later, the Health Secretariat of Cesar department warned about the “unfit water” of El Hatillo and the prevalence of respiratory, skin, and eye diseases in 51.48 percent of the local population.

Following the reprimand, the mining companies contracted the central government’s National Development Fund (Fonade) as a plan operator in mid 2011 and the Corporation for Interdisciplinary Studies and Technical Advisory (Cetec), a non-profit organization from Cali, as a controller. In Hatillo, the community decided to organize to start negotiating the so-called Resettlement Action Plan (PAR), so in April 2012 they created a conciliation committee.

Permanent anguish

For the Hatillians, the announcement of the resettlement negotiation coincided with the onset of unrest.

When the news of the agreement with the mining companies spread, say the villagers, people from outside came to El Hatillo to buy small plots in the town that would allow them to benefit from the compensation that the mining companies would have to make. “180 new plots appeared,” said the peasants.

Then came the threats.

In June 2014, the former manager of the El Hatillo Workers’ Cooperative received several threatening phone calls. In September of the same year, pamphlets appeared threatening community leaders because of the delay in the resettlement process. In December, calls to the cooperative’s manager were resumed, urging him to withdraw from the negotiation.

During 2015 these calls were made to other members of the community action board and the conciliation committee, which participated in the resettlement plan meetings. In addition to this were text messages and follow-ups by strangers on motorcycles, situations that led the community to install alarms on the homes of the leaders.

“This process had many eyes on it, and the threats came down to the fact that we are two groups: residents and non-residents. So when we fought for the residents’ process, we did not fight for the non-residents’ process. There was a lot of fear because of the pressure we had from them; it was constant pressure,” remembers one of the committee members.

Those who participated in the negotiation say that the most critical years were the last three. They felt anguish every time they sat at the table, say several committee members.

The delay in signing was not a personal whim, they explained, but for them the importance of reaching agreements on fundamental issues for the community such as access to land, housing, and productive projects was paramount.

Meanwhile, other delays were because mining companies had changed local allies several times. By 2015, the implementation contract had been transferred from Fonade to rePlan and finally to Socya, a private non-profit organization. The auditing responsibility moved from Cetec to Environmental Resources Management (ERM), an environmental consulting firm (see page 4 of the Resettlement Action Plan). 

In July 2016, men on motorcycles with covered faces continued to prowl around the leaders’ homes, who continued to receive text messages with death threats and signs that they were delaying the resettlement process. Intimidation intensified after the Hatillo community filed a protective action in November of that year against Drummond, Prodeco, and CNR, the three companies in charge of resettlement after Vale Coal sold the El Hatillo mine to CNR.

In their civil rights action, the locals demanded the fulfillment of their rights to life, decent housing, health, territory, and food, emphasizing the risks for the leaders at that time. “At present, 11 leaders of the resettlement process have suffered threats to their integrity, their lives, and those of their families. All of the above came as a consequence of their activities as representatives of the conciliation and resettlement committees in the relocation process of the El Hatillo village,” they said in their legal action.

The end of 2016 was a nightmare for the leaders. At night they began to see men armed and dressed in black, with rubber boots and ski masks, roaming the streets and near their homes. Calls continued to the members of the Committee, including the only member who had so far received no threats.

What exacerbated the community’s fear was the assassination of Aldemar Parra García on January 7, 2017, on the road leading to the village of La Loma. A pair of assassins on a red motorcycle, a Bajaj Discover without license plates, shot him four times.

Friends and family say that Aldemar, 31, had not received threats, but the community recognized his leadership. Although he was not part of the conciliation committee, from his community leadership position, he promoted the employment table, demanding work opportunities for the Hatillanos from the mining companies.

The community says that Aldemar was a trade unionist who had worked as a coal analyst for CNR and was looking for an economic settlement with that company. They explain that a large portion of CNR’s former workers was laid off in 2015 when Murray Energy Corp bought the company. However, Parra refused to sign the liquidation, arguing that the work had had an effect on his health and demanded fair compensation for it.  

His wife Leanis Suarez explains that, while reaching an economic agreement with the company, Aldemar had decided to carry out the Apicultural Association of Cesar (Asograve), an initiative that was developed in the courses on productive projects offered by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). Parra insisted on the need to generate employment for the community. “He liked working on that project. In December they produced a good amount of honey, 17 jugs, of which, on balance, he said they were doing well because one jug was selling for almost a million pesos (300 dollars),” says Suarez.

When CNR was asked about Parra’s employment situation, the company responded, through the Technical Resettlement Team of the mining companies, that he was an employee of the company and was affiliated to a union of the mining industry. “At the time of his death, he had not worked in the mine for several years due to a medical recommendation, although his contract was still valid. There was no labor lawsuit against the company,” they said.

The companies considered that Aldemar did not represent a leadership capacity in the resettlement process.

“Mr. Aldemar García’s active participation in the resettlement process was not evident from the Resettlement Technical Team and the Mining Companies, except for his involvement in the beekeeping project developed with UNDP. For that reason, it cannot be said that he was a leader in the process and we cannot confirm that his death is directly or indirectly attributable to the resettlement process, bearing in mind that his case is still under investigation,” the companies said in a joint response released March 22, after consulting Aldemar’s employment situation and their actions on the risk situation of community leaders.

In El Hatillo, there are only questions about this crime and about the threats that increased throughout 2017 and 2018, until last November they were finally able to sign the PAR. 

“The pressure was so great,” one cried. “We were in a meeting to prepare ourselves, before arriving at the table, to defend ourselves before the companies.

The negotiation was between company and community when they called us and told us that they will killed our children, that they knew where they were studying. There was so much pressure that some teammates withdrew,” said one leader. 

The members of the conciliation committee agree that this period was the tensest because it addressed the more structural aspects of resettlement, such as access to land, housing, and productive projects. Several people recognized that the companies arranged for Army transportation and presence to ensure their safe mobility to the meeting tables. However, the authorities did not investigate who the perpetrators of the threats and harassment were, and, according to one of the leaders, “they no longer wanted to receive complaints from us in the Prosecutor’s Office in Chiriguaná or in Bosconia,” two neighboring municipalities in El Cesar. 

The community and the mining companies signed the PAR on November 29, 2018 after more than 200 working groups and negotiation on 151 points. After six years of negotiation, eight of the eleven leaders of the conciliation committee received protection measures for the threats. Many believe that the anguish and pressure of so many years affected the health of leaders Alberto Mejía and Alfonso Martínez, both of whom died of illness during that period. Others decided to move to other cities out of fear, exhaustion, and uncertainty about the security guarantees for the coming years.

From paper plan to actual resettlement

For the Hatillians, a new process began last November that is not free of risks.

Of the 191 families that originally made up the community, 111 had already expressed interest in collective resettlement, which means that the mining companies must build them a new town elsewhere. The property where this resettlement is planned is called Mata de Palma. It will be 400 hectares and is located in the neighboring village of Potrerillo, although it is currently in the process of being purchased. In addition to housing, road infrastructure, and access to public services, each family should receive a productive project to provide an income.

For the other 96 families who have expressed a preference for individual resettlement, the companies will have to guarantee the purchase of a house in the place where they want to rebuild their lives and a productive project.

“The risk continues because now it is to demand that they comply with us,” repeat several members of the Committee.  

According to the PAR, the companies will have a five-year term in the now called Transition Plan, so the community hopes its time it will be accompanied by the State.

“The Transition Plan worries us because the move means that it really must improve the quality of life of the community,” says Jesualdo Vega, secretary of the community board.

Although negotiations between the community and the companies began in 2012, the Ministry of Mines and Energy acknowledges that since February 2017 it has accompanied the PAR roundtables and that “it maintains its commitment to accompany the process in its implementation phase”. However, in response to a request for information, the Ministry clarifies that, since resettlement is the product of resolutions of the Ministry of the Environment, “it is up to the environmental authorities to demand compliance with what has been agreed upon in the Resettlement Plan and derived from the licensing process”.

Since March 4, we have been requesting information verbally and in writing from the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development about its commitment to accompany the community of El Hatillo in the implementation of the PAR and in demanding compliance from mining companies with the agreements. However, as of the publication date of this story, we have not received a response from the institution.

Regarding the risk situation of social leaders, the Ministry of Mining and Energy indicates that it formulated a human rights policy for the mining and energy sector and is currently developing action plans for its implementation. It also participates in the Human Rights and Coal Working Group, which signed a joint declaration rejecting threats to people’s lives and integrity, with the support of civil society organizations such as the CREER-Institute for Human Rights and Business and the Ideas for Peace Foundation (Read response from the Ministry of Mines).

The Group is made up of the Department of Human Rights; the Ministry of Mining; the National Mining Agency; and the companies Cerrejón, Drummond, Prodeco, and CNR, which are working on the formulation of a “Procedure for the activation of a route for the protection of the life and personal integrity of interest groups”.

When asking Drummond, Prodeco, and CNR about the actions they took to respond to the threat or risk situations of the leaders of El Hatillo, they explained that they suggested that those affected present the accusation. In several cases, the companies accompanied these people to set them up and also developed workshops on security competencies, addressed to community representatives, with the Cesar Development and Peace Program.

“Similarly, entities such as the National Army, the National Police, and the National Protection Unit (UNP) participated, intensifying their units in the area to bring closer and provide greater protection to the population of El Hatillo. Likewise, on each of the occasions when the threat to the representatives or members of the community board was demonstrable, the Mining Companies sent press releases, rejecting the facts,” the three companies responded in a joint document, which bears their three logos and in the name of the Resettlement Technical Team led by José Link. 

They are faced with security guarantees now in the transition process. The three mining companies point out that the strength of the process agreed in 2018 is that it involves at least two ministries and three central government agencies, in addition to the Ombudsman’s Office and the regional and local governments. “Some of these actors will continue to be present during the process of relocation and subsequent accompaniment of the community at its resettlement site,” they said.

However, they emphasize that, in their opinion, the level of risk in the communities has not increased, but decreased. “It should be noted that the level of risk that the families of El Hatillo during the transition period will not be greater than they have lived so far. The risks are related to the situation of lack of security in the region and the country, for multiple reasons,” they say, adding that they have facilitated community meetings with the Ministry of Security of President Ivan Duque, the National Protection Unit (UNP) and local police (Read the full responses of the companies).

In El Hatillo, it has been the mining companies that have served as the de facto State, and the uncertainty is because once the PAR was signed, for example, the physical education teacher and the nurse did not return to the village. Both were paid for by the companies. 

As of March 2019, three roundtables had already been held to begin the transition process. With uncertainty, it is hoped that security conditions will exist to achieve resettlement, that the university, technical, and technological study grants implemented with the mining companies will allow them to have the first professionals for the next 11 years and, above all, that their struggle not to breathe coal has been worthwhile.

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