Mining operations typically require large amounts of land, making land disputes one of the sector’s most pressing challenges. In countries characterised by widespread corruption, administrative structures related to the granting of concession rights to mining companies are often shadowy. Many governments are accused of enabling land theft. In many parts of Africa south of the Sahara, local populations lack formal rights to land on which they have lived for generations. This makes them vulnerable to companies applying for mining licences.
In many areas forced relocations of villagers or entire villages in the way of the expansion of mining operations or other extraction projects. Forced relocations are often characterised by extreme violence, poor compensation, relocation to new areas with poor housing and limited opportunities. Forced relocations linked to mining and oil extraction occur in many cases indirectly, for example as the result of environmental destruction and water shortages caused by extraction activities.
The Cerrejón coal mine in Colombia is one of the largest open pit mines in the world, and is owned by BHP Billiton, Anglo American, and Glencore. The mine is in the La Guajira region, in the middle of a tract of land that traditionally belongs to and is used by the Wayúu. Despite Colombian law requiring companies to consult indigenous people prior to starting work on such projects, consultations have frequently been inadequate or non-existent. Mining operations have resulted in members of the Wayúu losing their sacred sites. Their freedom of movement has also been restricted, as has their ability to fish, hunt, and collect medicinal plants. Expansion of the mine has also resulted in the forcible relocation of local and indigenous people, for example from the village of Tabaco in 2001, where mainly Afro-Colombians lived. The relocation was brutal, involving bulldozers that smashed homes, supported by police, the military, and armed guards according to eyewitnesses. Forced relocations have meant that many people have lost the ability to support themselves through agriculture, hunting, and fishing. This has left many unemployed and forced them to move to the cities. The new houses that people who have been forcibly relocated are offered tend to be of a poorer standard and without sufficient access to water.
“They destroyed the entire village. They took our land from us. We lost our cattle, everything. They moved us to another district where we now live in poverty because we can’t grow anything,” explains Samuel Arregoces, former resident of Tabaco village.
A dwelling in Roche village, from where residents were forcibly relocated due to mining at Cerrejón. Photo: Emma Banks