One of the people displaced by the massive, 30-by-five-mile Cerrejón mine was Aura Pérez, then age 70. “[Tabaco] was very beautiful,” she mourned in a videotaped testimonial, as she stood before the ruins of her house on that fateful August day. “There was plenty of food — the people here hardly ever got sick because everything was clean. There was a beautiful pond, unpolluted — this was what life used to be like here. It was very safe; you could go wherever you wanted, at any hour of the day or night. . . . Look how it’s all destroyed. They destroyed everything.”

Some 100 of the people displaced on August 9 took refuge in Tabaco’s school, which had been left standing. When it was razed in January of 2002, they moved to a plot of land they had formerly farmed that had since been purchased by the mine. They slept in hammocks. In April, the mine company evicted them from there, as well. By November, Aura Pérez was dead.

“She died of impotence,” says her brother José Julio Pérez, who also was displaced when Tabaco was destroyed. Aura Pérez was one of 14 people who died in the months after the village was evacuated. “When she became sick,” her brother explained, “there was no way to get the medicine she needed. We lost our homes, we lost our land, we lost our community, we lost our livelihoods — we lost everything.”

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Map of Colombia’s La Guajira Province, which borders Venezuela and the Caribbean Sea.

Another one bites the dust
Tabaco was an Afro-Colombian community founded, according to its elders, by enslaved Africans who rebelled aboard a slave ship at the end of the 1700s, overcame their captors, and reached land on the northern Colombian coast as free men and women. They traveled inland and established several free villages near the Ranchería River. In this remote, windswept region, they farmed and traded with local indigenous Wayuu for 200 years — until the coal mine came and everything changed.

Under Colombian law, Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities can claim collective legal title to lands that they identify as ancestral lands. Although Tabaco’s residents have farmed the land around their former village for generations, they can’t pursue a legal claim because the land no longer exists — it has been swallowed up by the mine since Tabaco was displaced in 2001.

That’s because Tabaco, in northern Colombia’s resource-rich Guajira peninsula near the Venezuelan border, sat on top of some of the hemisphere’s largest remaining coal deposits. In the 1980s — spurred on by both the high cost of mining and new environmental regulations that required lower emissions in the United States — the Exxon corporation opened Cerrejón Zona Norte. The country’s second-biggest mine, La Loma — owned by the Birmingham, Alabama–based Drummond Company — soon followed in neighboring Cesar Province. Today, Tabaco lies buried in the huge, gaping gash of Cerrejón. Its residents have scattered, and about 60 families have crowded into inadequate provisional dwellings in the town of Albania.

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