Speech by Louise Winstanley (ABColombia) during London AGM of BHP Billiton

The following is a transcript of the speech given by ABColombia Programme and Advocacy Manager Louise Winstanley at the London AGM of BHP Billiton on 17 October 2018.

I would like to address my question to the historical legacy of BHP Billiton in Colombia in relation to one of the largest open-pit ferronickel mines exploited by BHP: the Cerro Matoso mine – this company was spun off in 2015 to South 32. I am aware that BHP has passed all its obligations and liabilities on to South32, but given the importance that BHP places on a good reputation and its desire to do the right thing – it was good to hear Ian McKenzie earlier re-iterated BHP’s determination to do the right thing. I want to ask that BHP not walk away from its historical responsibilities.

The Cerro Matoso mine is situated in the territory of indigenous peoples at risk of – according to the Colombian Constitutional Court – physical and cultural extinction. Whilst BHP owned this mine it was made aware by the communities and NGOs of – in addition to other things – the life-threatening diseases linked to mineral exploitation they were experiencing. At that time the community were discussing with BHP about paying for an independent medical study. This medical survey was finally undertaken by the Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences and the results were presented to the Colombian Constitutional Court. The report indicates nickel levels in blood and urine samples of indigenous and Afro-descendant communities living around the mine and up to 15 km away  – in amounts significantly – and I really do mean significantly – higher than World Health Organisations (WHO) recommended levels. The information presented to the Constitutional Court also demonstrated air pollution, soil and water contamination.

The Indigenous community members have been diagnosed with serious health complaints, like lung cancer and other deadly diseases.

Will BHP accept its moral responsibility to pressure its successor to compensate communities for 30 years of damage to their health?

In considering this it is important to note that the Constitutional Court ruled in December of last year [2017] that that Cerro Matoso must address the health needs of the community and it ordered the company, among other things, to:

  • pay for medical bills;
  • obtain a new environmental license, as the one it was operating under did not come up to constitutional standards – and this was also the case when BHP was operating the mine;
  • initiate procedures to address the environmental impacts of its operations and to decontaminate the ecosystems they had polluted (air, soil and water);
  • set up an ethnic development fund for the community.

After decades of suffering from toxic waste emissions Indigenous Peoples around the Cerro Matoso Mine are dying through lack of medical care.

Although the Court has recently – at the request of South32 – nullified the damages awarded – note – not on medical grounds but on a legal technicality. Will BHP respond to its moral obligations to address the health issues it left behind after spinning off South32 and pressure your successor to respond to this with compensation for the community?

I note, as chairman Mr Mc Kenzie said, he was happy about contributing to communities where BHP operate, the indigenous Peoples of Cerro Matoso have been strung out by BHP waiting for years for the promised medical survey.

Ken MacKenzie replied that since 2015 Cerro Matoso had been part of South 32. “Cerro Matoso is owned and operated by South 32 and you need to raise these issues with South 32,” he said. “It is not appropriate for us to comment. When Cerro Matoso was part of BHP it was held to the same standard as any other operation in BHP. We always apply our own standards and these are often more strict than the local regulations.” At the time of BHP’s divestment, he said, the nickel exposure standard was twice as strict as the Colombian standard.

You can read the full report on the AGM by Richard Solly from London Mining Network.