Indigenous Peoples Hopes for Justice Dashed

On 21 September 2018, the Colombian Constitutional Court responded to an application by the Cerro Matoso S.A. ferronickel mine to nullify a previous Court decision to award compensation to the Zenú and Embera Indigenous Peoples and the Afro-descendant communities living around the mine. It upheld the petition and nullified the part of the previous decision, which awarded damages to the Zenú and Embera and Afro-descendant communities for the irreparable impact of the mine on the health of the communities and on the enviroment. 

The Cerro Matoso mine was owned by UK-listed BHP Billiton for over 30 years until May 2015 when it spun-off a new company South32 and passed over the ownership of Cerro Matoso SA to this new company. Both companies are UK listed companies. Cerro Matoso SA is one of the largest open-pit ferronickel mines in the world.

On 16 March 2018, the Colombian Constitutional Court ruled that the Cerro Matoso SA ferronickel mine in Montelibano, Córdoba, had caused irreparable damage to the environment and health of people living in the surrounding area. More information on this decision here.

This is despite a study by the Colombian Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences which reported that the presence of nickel in urine and blood samples, high occurrences of dermatological lesions, and upper respiratory tract irritation in people living even up to approximately 15 km away from the Cerro Matoso Mine.

According to the Lancet Journal: In the original decision the company argued that the scientific studies done had methodological limitations. However, this is common in environmental epidemiology studies. The Lancet went on to say (about the original court decision):

…but the reality of the situation cannot be covered up by the company demanding further expensive studies when the lives and wellbeing of people in the community are at risk. For this reason, Colombian environmental health scientists, public health practitioners, and doctors rejoice at this decision that partly compensates for an obvious environmental injustice.

However, on Thursday, 21 September 2018, the Colombian Constitutional Court responded to an application by the Cerro Matoso S.A. ferronickel mine to nullify the compensation awarded to the communities for the damage to their health and told the company that it did not have to pay any damages or provide for an Ethnic Development Fund. However, the Court has confirmed that South32 must re-apply for its environmental licence, initiate procedures to address the environmental impacts of its operations and decontaminate the ecosystems they have polluted (air, soil and water).

According to Irrael Aguilar Solano, Zenú Indigenous Leader:

… the truth is that we are suffering because of companies that do not do mining in a balanced way, that is without respect for the inhabitants who live in the territory, and in a way that damages the environment.