‘This mine is killing us slowly’

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This mine is killing us slowly

Daniel Macmillen Voskoboynik writes about a very big British-Australian ferronickel company in Colombia.


Skin problems, cancer, and breathing problems are common near the mine. This Zenú boy is from El Alto San Jorge in Córdoba province in Colombia. © Irrael Aguilar

Cerro Matoso is in Córdoba province in Colombia. It is one of the biggest ferronickel mines in the world.

BHP Billiton is an Anglo-Australian company. It has owned part of Cerro Matoso for over 30 years and is the largest mining company in the world.

Cerro Matoso makes billions of dollars in sales. But workers and local communities say that the money has brought problems for them. They want justice for the problems for their health, jobs, and environment.

Mining started in a small way at Cerro Matoso in the 1960s. It grew in 1979 when the Colombian government gave a concession to Conicol, Ifi-Econiquel and Billington Overseas. They were from the Royal Dutch Shell group and they were there before BHP Billiton, With money from the World Bank, the mine grew bigger and bigger and it was the most important industry in Córdoba. Montelíbano is a town near Cerro Matoso. Its population grew by 300%. In 1997, BHP Billiton owned all of the mine, and doubled its production between 2001 and 2010. Today, Cerro Matoso sends ferronickel by ship from Cartagena across the world. It is in use in many industrial products, such as surgical instruments or mobile phones. The nickel is melted in very hot ovens. Cerro Matoso uses the most industrial energy in Colombia. But these ovens send a lot of pollution into the air and the wind carries it to the water and the fields.

Health problems and miscarriages

The pollution in the air and water make problems for the local communities: genetic changes, illnesses, and many miscarriages.

Children are born without sex organs or anuses. Cows and chickens have young with two heads and extra arms and legs. DANE is the Colombian government office of statistics. It reported a very big rise in cancer and breathing problems there. Skin problems are common. There are very high levels of iron in the water of the biggest local river.

Dayro Romero is the governor of the indigenous community of Pueblo Flecha. It is a village a few hundred metres away from Cerro Matoso. ‘At first we didn’t see any changes,’ he says. ‘But after 20 years we began to see problems. Today there is a lot of bronchitis and pneumonia. Our children have skin and eye problems, and headaches all the time. Our girls are embarrassed to wear short clothes that show the red marks on their skin. In our community we have so many miscarriages now. In 2011, we lost 14 out of 36 pregnancies in our village.’

Irrael Aguilar is the head of the Zenú communities there. He agrees, ‘This mine is killing us slowly. This is the end of us.’

Many former mine workers have cancer, deafness, and illness. Some workers are starting legal proceedings against the company.

Nickel isn’t the only reason for the pollution. Cerro Matoso needs coalmines and coal-fired power plants and they send coal dust into the air.

In 2013, indigenous communities around Cerro Matoso blocked the mine’s entrance in protest over the health and environmental problems. This stopped the mine working. Then the riot police came.

There were more protests and the communities, the company, and the government agreed that Cerro Matoso would pay for an independent environmental and health study. It was slow to begin but the results will come later in 2016.

The company says there are no problems from its mine and that the health problems do not come from the mine.

BHP Billiton says environmental and health studies by Cerro Matoso up to 2014 show no or very small effects on air, water, and public health.

But in 2014, one of the public organisations which looked at the effects from Cerro Matoso said they did not have the necessary equipment to check the company’s environmental reports.

No justice

Cerro Matoso says it has improved the quality of life there through giving money and starting social programmes.


The Cerro Matoso mines use power plants. This truck of coal goes from the Córdoba mines to the Geselca power plant. Daniel Macmillen Voskoboynik

But local communities don’t believe it. Moreno says that the company hasn’t helped with water or the fixing of streets. He says they’ve built houses, but not using their traditional methods. He says that a house does not help when they have health problems. Aguilar agrees and says that the companies are not really helping. He says they are preparing death for people here. They are destroying the forests and the water. He says they only want a good life for their children and their grandchildren, but the company’s plans are against this.

Montelíbano is a city with no justice. Mine managers and workers have a company country club, a private school, and a private water supply. There is a gated Cerro Matoso neighbourhood inside the city centre. There is a closed condominium for managers outside the city.

But thousands of families in Montelíbano are very poor. Many have no water, sewerage or good housing. Many cannot read or write. Eighty per cent of the people in the city of San José de Uré do not have help with their basic needs.

In 2012, a group from the General Comptroller said that communities affected by Cerro Matoso were worse than those without mines. In rural districts and communities near to the mine, pollution has ruined traditional ways of life. ‘Before,’ Moreno says, ‘you could throw a net into the river and catch 20 fish. Now, it takes a day to catch three fish.’ The mine, it seems, has polluted the land and lives of Zenú communities. At first, a hydroelectric mega-dam was the power for the mine and it forced indigenous Emberá communities to move away. Today, the bigger Cerro Matoso is looking to find its energy needs through Geselca, a coal-fired power plant supplied by new local coalmines. They are offsetting all this pollution by planting many palm trees and non-native trees, which use more water than native trees. Aguilar calls this ‘double damage’. He says: ‘They damage the environment, and then they try to fix that damage with more damage.’

Paramilitary links?

There are also problems with violence around Cerro Matoso. In the past Córdoba has been one of the most involved in the country’s armed conflict, with paramilitary and guerrilla forces.

Local people are worried about the link between the company and the armed forces. A local shopkeeper doesn’t want to give his name and says, ‘In this city, every business has to pay money to the paramilitaries - rich businesses and the people who sell fruit juice on the street. Cerro Matoso has been here for years and no one has done anything against them. How is that possible? We can’t believe that they’ve never paid or spoken with the paramilitaries? We cannot explain how this company can move so freely here.’

Other people talk about things from the past. A Japanese company left it seems because of constant extortion.19 Non-governmental organizations have been unable to operate freely in surrounding villages.


Irrael Aguilar and Juan Urango are two of the indigenous Zenú leaders. Irrael lives in danger because he is an environmental protester. Daniel Macmillen Voskoboynik

People think that the mine is involved with the paramilitary in violence against social leaders.

Colombia is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for defenders of human and environmental rights. Many activists are killed every year.

16,000 people live in many villages in El Alto San Jorge in Córdoba. El Alto San Jorge is an indigenous Zenú community. In the last eight years 49 of its leaders were killed. Irrael Aguilar, the community’s leader lives in danger because he is an environmental and human rights protester. He has bodyguards and almost never spends more than one night in the same place. Aguilar says that the company is involved.

BHP Billiton says none of this is true. The company says they respect human rights 100%. But if the people give information to the authorities about the danger they are in, they will be in more danger. One community leader said that he had information from paramilitary leaders who Cerro Matoso asked to kill him. But giving that information would put him in more danger.

People are also asking questions about the company’s taxes and the Colombian state.


Non-native trees do more damage to the environment. Daniel Macmillen Voskoboynik

People say Cerro Matoso does not pay enough tax. In 2010, the company was forced to pay over $12 million in unpaid royalties. There are also problems with Cerro Matoso’s contracts with the government

What is next?

The future of Cerro Matoso is uncertain. There are plans to grow but there are problems as the price of nickel went down. Many workers have lost their jobs, and it is not certain that the mine’s concession will continue after 2029.

But if Cerro Matoso closes, will there be justice for the communities?

In 2011, BHP Billiton made the biggest profit by a British company. It has given money to help sports teams, cultural events, and Olympic medals, and has spent millions on lobbying. But its money has come with problems. It has destroyed villages in Brazil and made pollution in Colombia.

Aguilar says that the word Zenú means wonderful land. He says they believe in living with nature and that people from the West don’t understand this, and businessmen don’t understand this.

Aguilar say this is a problem across Colombia. Two-fifths of Colombia’s land has mines. The government says the country is open for business and that the country must find its way to peace. But can there be real peace with a policy that makes social and environmental problems?

Daniel Macmillen Voskoboynik is a journalist and campaigner on human rights, ecology, and migration.

There are changes in some names, jobs, and places to protect people.

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: https://newint.org/features/2016/11/01/we-are-slowly-being-killed-by-this-mine/

(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have changed).