Mining giant Glencore’s operations in Peru and Colombia continue to threaten Indigenous communities and cause extensive environmental damage despite the company’s public pledges to mitigate harms, according to three new reports by advocacy organizations. European banks are also among the top investors in these mines, according to their findings.
The Switzerland-based miner has a long history of human and environmental rights abuses. In the past decade, it has been entangled in land rights violations, numerous bribery and corruption investigations, court cases, and denunciations by local and international officials, including the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights and the environment.
Since 2013 and continuing to this day, Glenore’s Antapaccay copper mine in the Peruvian province of Espinar has reportedly led to air pollution levels that exceed international safe limits. The Peruvian NGO CooperAcción, an author of one of the reports, detailed high concentrations of chlorides and sulfates in many of the surrounding rivers, such as the Salado, as well as toxic metals in local plants and animals.
And in Colombia, Censat Agua Viva (CENSAT) and the Center for Research and Popular Education (CINEP), two organizations that authored another report, identified extensive environmental damage and pollution caused by Glencore’s Cerrejón coal mine in the department of La Guajira. Ever since 1975, when the mine was first owned by INTERCOR, a subsidiary of ExxonMobil, the NGOs say the mine has drastically transformed the natural landscape and affected the health of more than 336,000 people. Glencore completed its purchase of the mine in 2022.
Glencore disputes many of the reports’ findings and says the organizations are pulling from old data. The company did not respond to all the allegations.
Mines in Peru and Colombia
CooperAcción’s report says the Antapaccay copper mine in Peru is having a detrimental impact on the Indigenous Quechua and K’ana communities who live in the area. According to the report, Glencore continues to withhold compensation to affected residents for the contamination it has caused, and refuses to conduct free, prior and informed consent processes while negotiating an expansion of the mine by more than 200 square kilometers (77 square miles) — an area the size of Liechtenstein.
Paola Serna Alva, head of institutional relations at the Peruvian government’s Agency for Environmental Assessment and Enforcement (OEFA), denied the expansion will have any impact on the population, saying the planned area “is not [yet] influenced by mining activity.”
However, the report says the proposed enlargement would “almost obliterate” the Pacopata community in Espinar, based on past experiences. “Since the mining company arrived, everything has changed,” Elsa Merma Ccahua, a K’ana Indigenous leader from Espinar, told Mongabay. “There is no longer much [farming], pollution is advancing and the rivers, springs and lagoons are drying up. Our health is in danger because we have heavy metals in the water.”
In Colombia, CENSAT and CINEP documented a litany of violations. For decades, while the mine was owned by the ExxonMobil subsidiary, it caused “widespread and systematic violations,” including the forced displacement of more than 25 Indigenous Wayuu and Afro-Colombian communities, the report said. Ever since Glencore led operations in the central part of the mine in 1995 and then began acquiring it in 2021, access for local community members to ancestral paths, sacred land, water sources and grazing areas has remained restricted, the report says.
The report also lists an ongoing series of 70 human rights violations in 2022 and 2023 by the army, police and unknown assailants against land defenders protesting against the mine and its activities.
Glencore says it plans to eventually phase out its coal operations in Colombia. Cerrejón is one of at least 12 mines Glencore says it will shut around the world to meet its target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 15% before 2026 and 50% by 2035.
Environmental advocates involved in the report are calling on the company to conduct the closure in a responsible manner, one that involves comprehensive reparations to communities who will have to live with the cumulative damages caused by Glencore’s mine for many years after it shuts.
“With the impending closure of the mine, there is a risk that social and environmental injustices will be exacerbated, and with them the impunity in which the company has been operating,” the CENSAT and CINEP report says.
One major concern is for the health of Wayuu and Afro-Colombian communities who suffer from respiratory issues and other health problems because of toxic pollutants in the air, water and soils. Leobardo Alberto Sierra Frias, a Wayuu Indigenous leader and environmental defender from La Guajira, told Mongabay that Glencore has cleared large swaths of forest and destroyed the rivers and streams.
“They have killed all that dry, tropical forest, the waters and the territory that was ours,” he said.
In response to the allegations raised in the reports, Glencore told Mongabay the NGOs had included “incorrect” and “outdated references” in their findings on the Antapaccay case in Peru. The company also denies any involvement in the displacement of communities in Colombia while INTERCOR owned the mine there. It disputes allegations that it’s involved in threats or attacks on community leaders or other human rights defenders, and denies contaminating or altering water sources in Colombia based on its data.
It also said its Cerrejón mine is “prepared and continues to maintain a closure and reversion plan that includes progressive closure measures, associated with the responsible management of environmental and social impacts.”
European banks and wallets
The Peruvian and Colombian reports were supported by U.K.-based charity Oxfam and its Fair Finance International network. A third report, by Oxfam and FFI, shows how European banks and financial institutions helped finance Glencore’s operations in Peru and Colombia. They accounted for nearly 50% of the total $88.1 billion the company received in loans and underwriting between January 2016 and June 2023.
Yann Louvel, a senior financial institutions policy analyst at Reclaim Finance, told Mongabay this may be explained by the fact that Glencore’s headquarters are in Switzerland, and “coal policies adopted by most European banks contain loopholes and are not stringent enough to exclude Glencore despite its coal expansion plans” and their own environmental standards.
The reports list UBS of Switzerland, BNP Paribas and Société Générale of France, ING Group of the Netherlands, and HSBC of the U.K. as among the banks that have provided Glencore with loans and underwriting since 2016. Among these companies, ING Group was the only one that responded to Mongabay’s requests for comment, saying it has “social and environmental risk policies in place” and that “the position of Indigenous peoples is explicitly taken into account in our due diligence process.”
Several of the banks that provided Glencore with loans and underwriting in the past seven years, including HSBC, Standard Chartered, Société Générale and ABN AMRO, recently pulled out of the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi), a collaboration to certify the climate targets set by corporations and control financing for fossil fuels. They cited concerns that the initiative’s emissions target-setting goals are too hard to meet, according to Reuters.
According to the NGOs, since 2016 major European banks and investors have pumped $44.2 billion into Glencore. The top investor was Groupe BPCE, a French bank that loaned $802.7 million to Glencore. Abrdn, a U.K.-based investment company, was the second-largest investor, followed by Royal London Group and Legal & General of the U.K. and UBS of Switzerland.
An Abrdn spokesperson told Mongabay that the company is “aware of the various issues that have been raised and have engaged with the company to understand the steps being taken to both respect and uphold human rights and mitigate environmental impacts.”
In recent years, many institutional investors have divested from Glencore, including the Norwegian Government Pension Fund in 2020 and its Dutch counterpart, which cited “bribery, corruption, conflicts with local communities, and poor working conditions” as the “major sustainability risks” that pushed it to exclude Glencore from its portfolio in 2021.
A global coalition of institutional investors, including Legal & General and HSBC, co-filed a shareholder resolution in January 2023 pressuring Glencore to disclose how it intends to align its coal mining plans with the 2015 Paris Agreement goals. But Glencore’s recent “Climate Report,” published in March 2023, didn’t offer the disclosures that were sought, according to a statement by the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility (ACCR).
Nearly a quarter of shareholders voted in support of the resolution at the company’s annual general meeting this year. But despite their wishes, Glencore’s board recommended voting against the resolution.
“Glencore has made clear and public commitments to human rights and respecting the rights of Indigenous peoples and therefore there is a clear expectation by the company’s investors that action will be taken by the company to ensure its own commitments are being upheld,” Naomi Hogan, company strategy lead at ACCR, told Mongabay.
“Glencore’s shareholders would expect that the company take reputable action at the highest level to ensure there is an end to any human rights abuses,” she said.