Colombian coal mining company Prodeco, a subsidiary of the Swiss multinational Glencore, has finally released the results of its 2019 due diligence investigation into the human rights impacts of its operations in Cesar, Colombia, a region that has been severely affected by the armed conflict and is currently experiencing a new wave of violence by illegal armed groups.
Context: coal mining in Cesar
For the past 25 years, Prodeco/Glencore, together with the US mining company Drummond, has supplied large quantities of coal to European energy producers. While the two mining multinationals were going about their business in this region between 1996 and 2006, more than 3,100 people were killed and tens of thousands of farmers were displaced from their land – land that later ended up more than once in the hands of the mining companies. Although mining has provided employment and royalties, it has also had many negative social, economic, and environmental impacts, particularly on local communities. PAX and other civil society organisations – such as ASK! in Switzerland and SOMO in the Netherlands – have written extensively about these impacts in recent years.
Human rights impact assessment
The report published by Prodeco was highly anticipated as it is the result of a Human Rights Impact Assessment (HRIA) commissioned back in 2018 to comply with international standards for Responsible Business Conduct (UNGP and OECD guidelines). Publication of the study’s results was postponed because of the economic uncertainty besetting the company, leading Prodeco to announce recently that it has relinquished its mining titles and will exit Cesar (although its parent company, Glencore, has expanded its operations in the neighbouring department of La Guajira). This decision does not, however, exempt the company from the obligation to take responsibility for the consequences of its operations for the people and the environment in Cesar. In this sense, it is commendable that the company has published the HRIA findings, especially as it is unusual for multinational companies in Colombia to do so. When read critically however, the report is less than comprehensive and sometimes contradictory, raising questions about the effectiveness of the measures that the company is taking to mitigate and remedy the impacts that it has caused or to which it has contributed.
Prodeco says that the study has identified 20 adverse human rights impacts, five of which are directly “caused” by its mining activities. Regarding the others, it finds that the company has merely “contributed” to the impacts or is “linked” to them. Strikingly, most of the impacts relate to infringements of social, economic, or cultural rights, such as farmers’ and fishermen’s dwindling livelihoods, air and water pollution, discouragement of trade union membership, increased government corruption, and disregard for the cultural practices of Afro-Colombian communities (impacts on the indigenous Yukpa people are not mentioned at all in the report). Only three impacts refer to security issues, and only one relates to the armed conflict. This is remarkable in a region so marked by violence and contradicts numerous studies and reports by human rights organisations and government agencies such as the National Centre for Historical Memory. The study registers “threats against community leaders” as an impact to which Prodeco has contributed, but at the same time impacts such as “perceived increased citizen insecurity” and “armed forces perceived as prioritizing company interests” are dismissed as perceptions and the result of broken trust relationships that can be easily mended with information meetings and participatory workshops. Ironically, the company identifies “the absence of clarity about Prodeco’s role in the armed conflict”, which “affects the victims’ right to truth”, as an impact that it has caused. While defensively denying that it has participated in any way with illegal groups, the company does not show that it has taken serious steps to investigate the indirect effects of mining on the armed conflict.
PAX program leader Joris van de Sandt: “It is a pity that Prodeco did not take the opportunity of the HRIA to investigate the extent to which its mining activities have influenced the dynamics of the armed conflict in the region and in this way may have contributed to adverse human rights impacts for the local population. Only in this way can it remove the lack of clarity about its role in the conflict and show that it takes responsibility for the past.” The Asamblea Campesina del Cesar, the largest victims’ organisation in the region, has been calling on the company for years to engage in a dialogue on this and other matters relating to Prodeco, but such a process still has not started. Meanwhile, the company has always categorically refused to cooperate with the Colombian Truth Commission. “Perhaps now that Prodeco has identified the problem, it will soon be willing to cooperate in clarifying this issue”, says Van de Sandt.
Lack of clarity, more openness wanted
The HRIA report contains only scant information about the methodology followed and does not dwell more than superficially on its findings. Important information is lacking: when did the impacts first occur, when and for how long were mitigating measures taken, and what have been the effects of these measures? It also focuses primarily on impacts identified in communities that are directly adjacent to the mining operations (its “area of influence”), where the company can show that it is making efforts to mitigate them. Other communities where the same impacts are also noticeable are left out of the picture. Sometimes, the information is simply misleading: the company often presents regular obligations with which it must comply by law as special measures put in place to mitigate human rights impacts.
Prodeco mentions the existence of a Human Rights Management Plan (2020–2022), but among civil society organisations, victims, and communities nothing is known of its existence (let alone its content). Van de Sandt: “The company should be more open about its analysis of the findings of the HRIA study. It should also make a public presentation about its plans for mitigating human rights impacts in the coming years. These plans should benefit not only the few villages adjacent to the mines, but also all communities adversely affected by mining, including the victims of the armed conflict.”
Virtual speakers’ tour
Many of the topics covered in the Prodeco report were also the subject of a virtual speakers’ tour organised late last year by leaders of the Asamblea Campesina del Cesar to discuss the case with European allies and stakeholders in the coal supply chain. In talks with energy companies, investors, parliamentarians, and government institutions, the leaders of the forcibly displaced communities drew attention to their open invitation to Prodeco and Drummond to enter into a formal dialogue about truth and reconciliation, and they called on the companies and their investors to contribute to remedy for the victims of violence in the Cesar mining region through the creation of a compensation fund. The victims fear that the phasing out of coal in Europe will lead to the departure of more companies from Cesar, and they are concerned that the mining and energy companies will leave without first taking responsibility for the impacts they have caused or to which they have contributed.