UCL hosts activists from communities severely affected by the operations of the companies it invests in

Earlier this week, the Bartlett’s informal ethics research working group into mining and the London Mining Network (LMN) hosted Samuel Arregoces and Danilo Urrea from Colombia, who shared with us the atrocities committed by Cerrejon mining company. Samuel came representing FECONADEMIGUA — the Federation of Communities of African Descent Affected by Mining in La Guajira — and Danilo came as part of CENSAT Agua Viva — Colombia’s branch of Friends of the Earth. It was crucial that we hear what they had to say: the Cerrejon mining company is in equal parts owned by BHP Billiton, Glencore, and Anglo-American, and UCL is an investor in BHP Billiton and Glencore. BHP Billiton also established and funds the Institute of Sustainable Resources. As a shareholder, UCL has a duty to understand the implications of its investments upon the lives of people living close to the mine.

The Cerrejon mine has been operating in the area of La Guajira, close to Colombia’s border with Venezuela, in an area that was formerly dry tropical forest — a rare ecosystem — but has now been destroyed as a consequence of mining and is in the grips of a drought. For the past three decades — years which Samuel referred to as “30 years of destruction, 30 years of sadness, 30 years of pain” — the mining company has been operating in this area and has displaced populations of Afro-Caribbean residents, made their environment unlivable, and has actively prevented them from seeking recourse.

The mining company has been expanding its activities in the context of a general increase in mining in Colombia between 2002 and 2010 and a removal of many barriers to companies seeking mining licenses. Over the course of its expansion, many negotiations with the Colombian government occur without third party observation or negotiation, and are in a language many of the communities in the area are unable to understand or challenge. Rather than spend money on ensuring it meets its responsibilities to the people living in proximity to the mine, the company has spent large amounts of money on marketing and publicity.

By 2014, the widespread violations the company had wrought upon the communities living in the area and upon the environment led the communities to accuse the company of violating several human rights (under the UN Declaration of Human Rights) and their right to a healthy environment (under the Colombian constitution). The company had violated their right to water: in La Guajira, people consume less than one liter of water per day. The area has one of the highest infant mortality areas in the world as a consequence, and the highest infant mortality rate in Colombia. The company had also violated their right to a healthy life, by making respiratory, intestinal, and eye illnesses common, due to pollution and as a consequence of proximity to mining activities. The company had also violated the communities’ right to remain in their own territory by forceful displacement (backed by paramilitary forces) and by the annihilation of their land and water resources which have made agriculture impossible.

“Even as we are dying of thirst, the mining company wants to take away the little water we have,” Samuel told us. The Cerrejon mining company has been attempting to divert the seven tributaries that feed the Rancherria River, the main and only source of water for the region, in order to access the significant reserves of coal underneath the river. If they succeed in diverting these tributaries, the Rancherria will stop running.

A UCL staff member shared UCL’s principle that it is better to work with companies rather than to divest from them, and asked “What is better? Investing in companies in order to control them? Or divesting?” In answer to this question, Samuel highlighted that whatever decision a university makes — in favour or against divestment — it needs to be held accountable to those decisions and the effects of their investments on environment and culture. The only viable option if continuing to invest in BHP Billiton and Glencore is continued contact with the communities affected in order to find viable solutions and a better community. Danilo’s response was that an objective historical analysis of UCL’s role in the Cerrejon mine and La Guajira is necessary, and many members of the audience pointed out to chime in that that while UCL prides itself on evidence-based research, its tradition of promoting reductionist scientific principles often means discounting powerful testimonials such as these as evidence.

Samuel left us with the following words on the topic: “When you weigh the profits these companies are making against the environmental and cultural damage they impose, you can see for yourself whether these profits are worthwhile.”

Danilo left us with questions Fossil Free UCL would like to pose to the UCL Council and management: “How long do we have to wait for a decision? And what will be happening in the communities around the Cerrejon mine in this time?”

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