La Guajira, Colombia - Heavy dust clouds fill the dry, warm air as Said Lara uses a crowbar to tear down his wife's house in the small community of Las Casitas, in the northernmost Colombian province of La Guajira.

Only two days earlier an official representing the Cerrejon mining company told them that the time had come to demolish the house.

"We have spent our entire lives here, and now they are forcing us to [do this]," says Lara's wife, Novelis Lara, who can only stand passively by and watch as her beloved home crumbles to the ground.

Once a thriving community of 49 families, only a dozen or so remain in Las Casitas.

Back in 2009, Cerrejon told the families that they had to be relocated due to dangerously high levels of dust particles in the air.

The company had estimated that by 2012 the harmful concentrations of dust particles would reach a level that would seriously affect the quality of life in Las Casitas. Since then, the community has struggled to ensure that the company compensates them for their losses, and provides them with satisfactory alternative ways of living. 

"They are telling us that our lives will improve if we agree to be moved, but how can they promise that?" asks Virgilia Puche, 71, one of the few remaining residents of Las Casitas. "Right here I have my paddock, my animals and a large piece of land where I can grow my own food. This land is connected to me and my family in so many ways, which makes it impossible to picture myself living elsewhere."

Puche was a young woman when the coal mine first opened in the early 1980s.

Over nearly 40 years she has witnessed the contamination and rapid drying up of the River Rancheria - once a reliable and clean source of water for many communities in the area. She has also seen an increase in breathing problems and other illnesses among villagers, as well as the forced relocation of various communities and the continual expansion of what is today Latin America's largest open-pit coal mine. 

"Life was a thousand times better before the mine was constructed. We have lost so much because of Cerrejon," says Puche. 

The story of Cerrejon 

Las Casitas farmers Andres Avelino Perez, left, and Celito Puche Ramirez have been self-sufficient all their lives. Now they worry they will not find work when they are relocated [Fredrik Brogeland Laache/Al Jazeera]

Bordering the Caribbean Sea in the north and neighbouring Venezuela in the south, La Guajira is one of Colombia's poorest provinces, with 53 percent of its inhabitants living in poverty in 2014, according to the National Administrative Department of Statistics in Colombia.  

Almost half the population in La Guajira are indigenous, the majority belonging to the Wayuu tribe. In addition 14.8 percent are descendants of African slaves brought to Colombia by European colonisers between the 15th and 19th centuries. Today, these ethnic minorities are the ones most affected by the Cerrejon mine. 

Map Cerrejon 

Living off the land in traditional communities for several centuries, Afro-Colombian and indigenous people have developed a completely different understanding of ownership and connection to territory than that of multinational companies such as Cerrejon. 

"For these people the land is an expression of historical relations and extensive family ties, and not pieces of property that are marketable. Thus the relocation of these communities brings a lot of harm to people, such as loss of culture, disintegration of social relations and eventually loss of identity," says Dora Lucy, a Colombian human rights lawyer representing the non-governmental organisation, Colectivo de Abogados Jose Alvear Restrepo (CCAJAR).   

It was in 1976 that a contract was signed between the state-owned firm Carbocol SA and Intercor - an Exxon affiliate - allowing the exploitation of a huge coal deposit  in the municipalities of Albania, Barrancas and Hatonuevo.

Since then, 15 out of approximately 21 indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities living in the mining zone have been displaced, mainly due to expansions of the mine, with Las Casitas being the most recent one.

Today, three multinational corporations own the mine: Glencore Xstrata (Switzerland), BHP Billiton (UK/Australia) and Anglo American (UK/South Africa). The mine's slogan is "responsible mining", which is sometimes perceived as a provocation. 

"This company is anything but responsible; they're irresponsible. And all the Western countries that import coal from Cerrejon or invest in the company have a joint responsibility for the wellbeing of the displaced communities," says Lucy. 

The relocation process 

Alonso Rafael Molina, 61, relocated to Las Nuevas Casitas with his wife and five children last year. He complains about the lack of work in his new urban village [Fredrik Brogeland Laache/Al Jazeera]

One former Las Casitas resident who was forced to relocate by Cerrejon is 61-year-old Alonso Rafael Molina. He now lives in the relocation site allotted to former Las Casitas residents, named Las Nuevas Casitas, in a small town home right next to a busy highway on the periphery of Barrancas. On the other side of the highway, three additional relocation sites have been built for other affected communities. 

Fact Box - La Guajira
La Guajira is a province in Colombia, located in the northeastern part of the country. The province is one of Colombia's poorest. 
Over the last four years La Guajira has been hit by serious drought, resulting in high levels of malnutrition and dehydration, especially among Wayuu children.
 
Latin America's largest open-pit coal mine, Cerrejon, is located in the southeast part of the province. The construction, operation and expansion of the mine have led to the relocation and displacement of thousands of people.  

Like many of his relatives and former community members, Molina and his family was promised one hectare of arable land, access to clean drinking water and, according to community members, verbal promises of employment opportunities were made to villagers by Cerrejon representatives, although the company denies this. After 10 months spent in the relocation site, Molina is still waiting.

"The water is not drinkable because it contains too much salt. As for the land, I am still waiting to be allotted the promised hectare, but I doubt it will be arable. Life here is no good, it's very expensive. We don't have the means to pay for the services needed here," Molina says.

Though many families have already received a piece of land close to the new relocation sites, the majority of the lots stand uncultivated as residents complain about poor soil and a general lack of water.

To provide for his family, Alonso walks for two hours each day back to Las Casitas where he still cultivates yucca, potato and maize on a piece of land. But Molina says it is just a matter of time before the land is expropriated, forcing him to look for a different source of income.

When asked about work opportunities in the new settlement, Molina sighs loudly.

"There are no jobs here, nothing, nothing, nothing. And let me tell you something, the air is just as contaminated here as it was in Las Casitas," he says.

While the company has provided the residents with housing, a school and a health centre, as well as a small economic compensation for lost property, the people of Las Nuevas Casitas feel foreign in their newly adopted environment.

At the age of 81, Nely Beatrice Duarte saw her life take a sudden turn for the worse when she was relocated to Las Nuevas Casitas last year. 

"They told us we would become the new wealthy, but what is wealth? I don't feel very wealthy. And I don't want this house, I want to go back to my old land and tend to my animals. There's no future for me here," she says.

Duarte and Molina fall into a group of thousands of Afro-Colombians, as well as indigenous people and farmers, who have been relocated or displaced due to the construction and expansion of Cerrejon. 

But on the other side of the accusations is a multinational company confident that they are providing the affected communities with the best possible 'new start'.

Nely Beatrice Duarte, 81, is one of the oldest people to have been relocated from Las Casitas. "I miss my old life, far away from the sounds of the city," she says  [Fredrik Brogeland Laache/Al Jazeera]

Rejects accusations

"We only relocate people when there is no other alternative," says Carlos Franco, Cerrejon's head of social standards and international relations. 

Over the years, Cerrejon has been fiercely criticised by national and international human rights organisations for their relocation practice and damage caused to the environment.

The company first fell under the scrutiny of the international human rights community in 2001 when the Afro-Colombian village of Tabaco was bulldozed, leading to violent clashes between the police and villagers. Following the incident a Supreme Court order was issued calling for the resettlement of the community. Until this day, that still has not been carried out.

"There's no doubt that lessons from earlier cases of relocation have made us more equipped to ensure better opportunities for the communities. As of now, the heads of most relocated families are happy that their children are closer to educational institutions and that they have better access to health facilities. We also believe that the houses we have given them comply more with international standards of living compared with the housing arrangements in the old communities," says Franco, adding that Cerrejon is obligated to follow regulations made by the International Finance Corporation, a member of the World Bank group, when it comes to Land Acquisition and Involuntary Resettlement (Performance Standard 5). 

In addition, Cerrejon is committed to protecting and promoting human rights in accordance with Colombian legislation, he adds. This includes paying special attention to the welfare of vulnerable groups, such as ethnic minorities, and respecting the customs and culture of indigenous communities.  

Contrary to what many families report, Franco rejects reports of incidences of favouritism when making decisions on compensation and other benefits. 

"Through a clause in the relocation contracts with affected families we have made it very clear that the principle of equality is very important to us. Having said that, we have given priority to the relocation of people who actually work together, collectively, on a daily basis. Still, it would not make sense for us to use division as a strategy in carrying out communal relocations," Franco says. 

In spite of these claims, several members of the affected communities have accused Cerrejon negotiators of manipulating community leaders by offering them benefits in an effort to create distrust among people. A separation between those who have been recognised as "relocatable' and those who have not has added to the problem.

In addition, human rights organisations like Colectivo de Abogados Jose Alvear Restrepo have emphasised the asymmetry that characterises the negotiations, with a huge multinational company backed by the Colombian state on one side, and small rural communities whose understanding of the written language is limited, on the other. 

Lack of water

Remains of demolished houses are everywhere in Las Casitas. Since Cerrejon asked the residents to move out of the village in 2009, the majority of the people have left [Fredrik Brogeland Laache/Al Jazeera]

Today, Cerrejon employs 13,000 workers and stretches over an area of 690 square kilometres.

Last year, Cerrejon exported 33.4 million tonnes of coal, mostly to Europe and North America.

In order to extract the large amount of coal, the company reported in 2011 to have used 17 million litres of water daily, while the average person in the drought-stricken province of La Guajira has access to 0.7 litres a day, according to UNDP Colombia

Danilo Urrea is a coordinator at Friends of the Earth Colombia, and has worked extensively to determine the environmental and social consequences of mining in Colombia. 

"In the region where Cerrejon operates, there have been huge environmental changes over the past couple of decades. Many water sources have dried out after the mine entered the area and the air is heavily contaminated. It is also important to point out that many water sources formerly available to the communities, are now located within the boundaries of the mine," says Urrea. 

The contamination from the mine not only damages the rivers, creeks and other sources of water; it also takes a toll on people's health.

Last November, the Municipal Court of Barrancas ordered environmental authorities to oblige the company to reduce levels of air contamination after a two-year-old Wayuu child showed symptoms of serious respiratory difficulties. While such decisions show that there are possibilities to exert pressure on Cerrejon and state authorities, Danilo Urrea demands a Colombian government more inclined to protect its people, and not multinationals. 

"As a state founded on the principle of social rights, Colombian authorities are obligated to ensure a healthy environment. Unfortunately, the Colombian state has allowed big corporations to be ever more flexible, resulting in fewer environmental standards as far as the extraction of minerals are concerned," says Urrea. 

According to Peace Brigades International Colombia, a staggering 40 percent of Colombia's landmass "has been licensed to, or is being solicited by, multinational companies to develop mineral and crude oil mining projects".

Today, Colombia is the sixth-largest coal exporter in the world. Cerrejon's Franco sees no end to his company's coal production in the near future. 

"We will continue to produce coal as long as the business is viable, and socially and economically sustainable," he says.

Looking back  

Andres Avelino Perez, 67, and his wife Virgilia Puche, 71, pictured with their 10-year-old granddaughter Maria, strongly oppose Cerrejon's relocation practice. [Fredrik Brogeland Laache/Al Jazeera]

Back in Las Casitas, on the shielded patio outside her wooden house, Virgilia Puche glares over at her two small granddaughters as they are just about to catch a chicken.

For a brief moment she allows her memory to travel back to the time before the mine.

She tells a story of a closely linked community, where neighbours shared with neighbours, and the land was a limitless source of life.

"Everyone contributed to the wellbeing of the community, no matter what you produced. Water was flowing in the river, we harvested what we seeded and the air was clean. It was a time of joy," she says before falling back into silence. 

Follow Fredrik Brogeland on Instagram: @flaache

Source: Al Jazeera