Three of the world’s biggest miners including BHP could be forced to close down Latin America’s largest open pit mine, with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) set to investigate environmental destruction and alleged human rights abuses.
The probe comes just months after the United Nations called on BHP, Anglo American and Glencore to suspend some operations at the massive Cerrejon thermal coal mine in Colombia, in the La Guajira region, near the border with Venezuela.
The mine has operated for 30 years and has long been accused by the local community, including the Indigenous Wayuu people, of forced evictions, pollution and human rights abuses.
Complaints to the OECD have been filed in Australia, Ireland, Switzerland and the United Kingdom by the Global Legal Action Network (GLAN) with the support of a coalition of Colombian and international human rights and environmental groups.
The mining giants could be forced to progressively stop mining at Cerrejon, rehabilitate the environment and compensate surrounding communities if the OECD finds they are responsible for the problems under its guidelines for multinational enterprises.
GLAN director Gearoid O’Cuinn said there had been a systemic failure by the mine’s owners to respect basic human rights.
Complaints have also been lodged against Ireland’s Electricity Supply Board, which is a major purchaser of the mine’s coal.
In September last year, UN special rapporteur on human rights and the environment David Boyd said Cerrejon had seriously damaged the environment and the health of the Wayuu, Colombia’s largest Indigenous group.
Last year, Colombia’s Constitutional Court also ordered Cerrejon to protect health and the environment, after it found high concentrations of harmful metals were present in the blood of people in communities living nearby.
Cerrejon is one of the largest coal mines in the world, with 150 kilometres of railway and port operations moving 550 million tonnes of coal annually.
But Dr O’Cuinn said any action against the three big miners depended on governments enforcing the OECD guidelines.
Rosa María Mateus Parra, a lawyer with CAJAR, a Colombian human rights organisation, said the operation of Cerrejon was a “striking example” of large multinational businesses fuelling injustice.
In November, Cerrejon said it had reached a preliminary agreement with the traditional owners to comply with environmental and health requirements in its operations, build a community health centre, rehabilitate the environment and carry out other measures ordered by the court.
However, community leaders denied there was an agreement with Cerrejon.
A report from Human Rights Watch last year said there were high rates of malnutrition, especially among rural Indigenous communities in the La Guajira region.
The NGO said there was “a lack of sufficient food, water, and access to health services, along with high poverty rates, complicated by a humanitarian crisis in neighbouring Venezuela, government corruption and mismanagement, and climate change”.
GLAN is a non-governmental organisation made up of lawyers, investigative journalists and academics that pursues legal action across borders.
BHP is trying to sell some of its thermal coal mines, including Cerrejon and Mount Arthur in the Hunter Valley in northern New South Wales.
In recent years, South America has seen some of the world’s worst mining disasters.
In 2015, the collapse of a giant waste dam at the Samarco mine in Brazil, co-owned by BHP and iron ore giant Vale, left 19 people dead and became the nation’s worst environmental disaster.
In 2019, nearly 300 people were killed when a tailings dam collapsed at another Vale mine in Brazil.