(IPS) – It’s an interesting sign of the times when the chairman of a mining company notorious for illegally evicting subsistence farmers to increase international coal exports is invited to lecture on "sustainability".
But that is what happened when Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada invited Sir Mark Moody-Stuart, chairman of Anglo American plc, the world’s second largest mining company, to address a packed house about "Sustainability Challenges for Extractive Industries Operating Globally".
"There is a lot of buzz in the crowd, which is great," said Ray Cote, a professor of environmental studies, in introducing Sir Moody-Stuart, as student activists passed out leaflets about Anglo American’s alleged transgressions in Colombia.
"This company, through its stake in the Cerrejon mine, is responsible for forcibly displacing hundreds of subsistence farmers in northeastern Colombia," said Bronwen White, a fourth-year international development studies student at Dalhousie who passed out critical leaflets prior to the event.
The village of Tabaco, a sustainable farming community populated primarily by Afro-Colombians, was destroyed by Cerrejon’s bulldozers in 2001-2002 to make way for more coal exports. "This is not the kind of person who should be speaking about sustainability," White told IPS.
Sir Moody-Stuart is no stranger to this sort of controversy. With gentile candour and huge bushy white eyebrows, Moody-Stuart (he was knighted in 2000) once headed up Shell Oil’s controversial Nigerian operations.
Because of his work at Shell and the ensuing allegations that the company had collaborated with Nigeria’s military to murder environmental activists, Moody was featured in the popular documentary "The Corporation"; he serves tea to radical earth-first environmentalists as they protest on his front lawn.
While most corporate honchos don a pinstriped suit for these sorts of engagements, Moody-Stuart wore a rumpled blazer atop an un-ironed blue shirt, with several pens stuffed into the breast pocket.
He says he doesn’t believe profit should be the driving force for corporations. "The ultimate goal of a company is to produce quality goods and services," he told the audience. "There is not much trust in big business these days."
Activists, however, weren’t buying what Sir Moody was selling. One audience member, a master’s student at Saint Mary’s University, accused him of "corporate green washing" while others held colour photos of Colombian families displaced by Anglo American’s operations.
The Cerrejon mine, owned by Anglo American and two other multinationals, is the largest open pit coal mine in the world.
Bronwen White and other students showed video footage of Tabaco’s destruction prior to Sir Moody’s presentation. In it, a small girl with pigtails and pink overalls cries and pushes against the shields of Colombian riot police as bulldozers ram her family’s home while other community members scream and wail.
Prior to its destruction, Tabaco boasted a school, health clinic, good farmland and a telephone exchange. Today, most former residents have joined three million internally displaced Colombians eking out a living however they can.
"Cerrejon employs thousands of Colombians, paying high wages," Moody-Stuart told IPS in an interview prior to the event. "The original relocation [of Tabaco], I think, was carried out in accordance with Colombian law." However, he adds, "We have always said that we don’t think it [the displacement] was perfectly executed."
When pressed about whether shipping coal, tainted by allegations of human rights abuses, from Colombia to Canada represents a sustainable business practice, he said, "We can stop producing coal, but your lights are going to go out."
In 2007, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) launched an investigation of BHP Billiton, an Australian multinational with a stake in the Cerrejon mine, for the eviction of Tabaco. Moody-Stuart thinks an OECD investigation of Anglo American is a realistic possibility.
In response to human rights concerns around Anglo American’s operations, Moody-Stuart told IPS his company has struck a committee, chaired by the President of Cape Breton University and consisting of NGOs from Chile, a Colombian economist and other notables to investigate allegations around Cerrejon. Their report is due out soon.
Moody-Stuart maintains that only "a small number" of families from Tabaco were not compensated for their property. After interviewing more than 60 families displaced from the community, Dr. Avi Chomsky at Salem State University came to a different conclusion.
"We heard the same story again and again," Dr. Chomsky told IPS in an e-mail after completing the most comprehensive research available on the Tabaco displacement. "’We are peasants, we are farmers,’ people told us," said Chomsky. "’We used to be productive people; we used to support ourselves and our families. We were not rich, but we worked our land and we provided our children with what they needed. Since the company took our town and our land, there is nothing for us to do. There is no work’."
Cerrejon produced 30 million tonnes of coal last year and hopes to expand to 38 million to 42 million tonnes by early next decade. This means more communities will soon be displaced.
"Four more villages — Roche, Pantilla, Chancleta and Tamaquito — are threatened with displacement in the next few years," said Garry Leech, a lecturer at Cape Breton University who has interviewed scores of farmers displaced by Moody-Stuart’s mining operations.
"Cerrejon has been harassing people living in these communities, demanding that they leave the area," Leech told IPS in a phone interview, adding that the mine refuses to collectively negotiate with the nearby communities.
"Throughout history, people have had to move for industrial projects," said Moody-Stuart in an interview. "The question is how you manage those displacements."
"Everyone can make mistakes," said Bronwen White after Moody’s talk and the lively question and answer session which followed. "But it seems like Anglo American’s Colombian operations haven’t learned anything from the displacement of Tabaco. These aren’t just numbers; we’re talking about people’s homes and lives that will be destroyed."