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A Case Study in Building Community Partnerships

22 DECEMBER 2021

We care about people, the communities we’re a part of and the world we depend on.

At South32, our purpose is to make a difference by developing natural resources, improving people’s lives now and for generations to come. We are trusted by our owners and partners to realise the potential of their resources. We care about people, the communities we’re a part of and the world we depend on. At Cerro Matoso in Colombia, we have worked closely with surrounding communities to form agreements that have produced positive relationships and provide a strong foundation into the future.

The Operation

Cerro Matoso is one of the world’s largest producers of ferronickel and is an important driver of the local economy in the Cordoba region of Colombia. The mine and smelter have been operating for more than 37 years and were first run with the participation of the Colombian government. The operation was owned by another mining company from 1996, until South32 assumed ownership in 2015. The communities surrounding the operation have faced challenges including poverty, overcrowding, access to education and declining employment as cattle-ranching has replaced more labour-intensive farming.

Cerro Matoso Communities

Cerro Matoso’s 15 communities comprise seven Indigenous (Zenu), two Afro Colombian (San José de Uré and Boca de Uré) and six non-Indigenous communities known as Community Action Boards who live in the San José de Uré and Puerto Libertador municipalities. 

The Journey

Colombian Indigenous people and Afro Colombian communities have historically experienced discrimination, lack of opportunities, significant intergenerational poverty and political instability and unrest. Since the end of the last century there was a movement towards recognising the rights of these groups and an ethnic identification campaign saw formal recognition of seven Indigenous Zenu communities near Cerro Matoso between 2009 and 2016.

Earlier work by the previous owner around extending Cerro Matoso’s mining contract had resulted in tension, with local community groups protesting about a lack of engagement. In 2013, a group of eight ethnic communities (seven Indigenous Zenu and one Afro Colombian group San José de Uré) began legal action against Cerro Matoso relating to concerns about an alleged lack of formal consultation as required under Colombian law and alleged damages to the environment and to the health of the communities. Since taking ownership of Cerro Matoso in 2015 and recognising the local challenges, South32 has worked to reset and strengthen the relationships with the community. This included inviting the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia to participate in these engagement sessions.

The Tutela Judgement

In April 2018, the Colombian Constitutional Court (the Court) made public a set of orders to address environmental, health and community concerns, in what became known as the T-733 Tutela Judgement. The orders included:

  1. Consulting with the eight ethnic communities to agree measures to prevent, mitigate or compensate for environmental impacts caused in the past and by the operations until termination of the mining concession, with the requirement that government agencies including the Ministries of Interior, Environment and Health, and the Office of the Public Prosecutor take part in these consultations; 
  2. Providing permanent health care for those members of the eight communities involved in the Tutela for the medical conditions listed in the Court order; 
  3. Obtaining a new environmental license that incorporates the measures agreed with communities during the consultation process; and
  4. Ordering government authorities to create a special team to follow up the implementation of the Court orders.

The Consultation Process

Commencing in January 2019, and in agreement with communities, CMSA undertook to: 

  1. Work with each community to complete a social baseline study;
  2. Complete environmental monitoring tests (water, air, soil, fauna and flora) with jointly selected independent consultants; 
  3. Hold workshops with each community to identify potential environmental and cultural impacts and agree measures to prevent, mitigate or compensate such impacts; and
  4. Reach agreement with communities on social investment.

By October 2019, Cerro Matoso successfully reached individual agreements with all eight concerned ethnic communities. Leading up to the agreements, over 100 sessions were held with approximately 460 people, including 120 community elders, consulted through forums such as community meetings, site visits and workshops. 

The community used 24 of their representatives who had previously been trained at Cerro Matoso in environmental monitoring, to assess the impacts and mitigation measures of the new environmental licence. They were supported by ten independent environmental, social and law experts appointed to provide technical advice throughout the consultations. Cerro Matoso’s commitments to managing its environmental impacts is documented in each agreement and importantly, the Ministries of Interior, Environment and Health and the Office of the Public Prosecutor, who participated in the engagement sessions, counter-signed the agreements. 

In addition to the eight ethnic communities covered by the court orders, Cerro Matoso engaged with the Boca de Uré Afro Colombian community and the six Community Action Boards who also lived in the region and voluntarily established similar agreements with them.

The agreements formed part of Cerro Matoso’s submission for a new environmental licence which was granted in February 2021 by the National Environmental Licensing Authority, following an extensive evaluation of the Environmental Impact Study.


In 2015, Cerro Matoso commenced a community participatory environmental monitoring program that gave community members the technical skills to understand and participate in the monitoring of the existing air and water network. Community members have direct access to the readings from all the stations including those that were located close to their communities. 

Through the agreement making process, the program has been expanded with more community members being trained to participate in the environmental monitoring and surveillance. The program will be bolstered by the installation of seven new monitoring stations to be placed in the communities later in 2020. The stations will measure PM10 (particulate matter), nickel and meteorological variables. This information, including Cerro Matoso’s industrial monitoring network, will also be analysed and presented to the communities on a two-yearly basis by a university that specialises in environmental and public health. 

Cerro Matoso’s environment management system has also been upgraded to comply with updated government regulations relating to nickel emissions. Real-time monitoring of particulate matter will improve Cerro Matoso’s monitoring and response regimes and all programs are verified and audited by government officials and by the community with the assistance of independent specialists.

Cerro Matoso has established a small tree nursery program with several of the local communities using nursery trees to create a green barrier between villages and the operation. The program is being evaluated to see if it can be expanded to supply more trees to Cerro Matoso and other companies in the region, creating a potential source of revenue from the sale of the trees. 


Since 2013, Cerro Matoso has worked to address water access issues in the eight surrounding villages where historically people were dependent on wells, rainwater and nearby rivers and creeks. Cerro Matoso is helping to facilitate the building of water infrastructure by preparing detailed design submissions for inclusion in government public works program. 

Cerro Matoso has established a community groundwater monitoring program and installed equipment allowing the community to monitor the quality and quantity of the water.

Health & Wellbeing

For more than 20 years, Cerro Matoso’s medical clinic has provided free emergency health care and ambulance transportation to local communities.

In addition to the medical clinic, Cerro Matoso is ready to provide health care for those members of the eight ethnic communities involved in the Tutela for the medical conditions listed in the Court order. The communities have been informed of their rights to healthcare under the orders and this was communicated verbally and in writing through a health assistance protocol developed by Cerro Matoso. It was discussed with the leaders of the community and their lawyers who were assisting the Tutela. 

In separate meetings, the Ministry of Health advised communities of their rights to access health care and the specifics of the Court order. The Ministry also conducted an epidemiologic survey in November 2019 in which the data showed that the prevalence of diseases among the communities is in line or lower to those of similar rural communities located in the Department of Cordoba region.  

Cerro Matoso continues to engage with and support all 15 local communities on issues relating to their health and wellbeing through the ongoing implementation of the environmental programs and more recently in response to COVID-19. Whilst community members regularly attend Cerro Matoso’s medical clinic for free emergency health care and ambulance transportation, CMSA and public health authorities are yet to receive a request for medical support from the eligible communities for the issues listed in the Court order.

During COVID-19, our response has focused on keeping our people safe and well, maintaining safe and reliable operations and supporting our communities. Since March 2020, Cerro Matoso has delivered more than 7,500 food parcels, 1,900 hygiene packs and cleaning supplies to surrounding communities. Cerro Matoso has established a dedicated community COVID clinic along-side the medical clinic, together with an exclusive COVID-19 hotline available for more than 1,000 families in the community to discuss any concerns and receive medical advice. With the support of our experienced medical team, we worked with local authorities to develop their regional emergency health response plans which was shared as an example of good practice with the International Council of Mining and Metals (ICMM). 

Monitoring and on-going engagement

There is a range of mechanisms to follow-up and engage with the community on the implementation and progress of the consultation agreements.

Every year the Ministry of Interior holds meetings with each ethnic community on the progress of the agreements and listens to concerns and feedback. The meetings are attended by key government agencies such as the Environmental Licensing Authority, Ministry of Health and the Office of the Public Prosecutor who can respond to queries and determine if there are any implications to Cerro Matoso’s environmental licence conditions. The first meeting was held in November 2019, not long after the agreements were signed, with this year’s meeting to be determined in line with COVID-19 restrictions.

To monitor progress of the licence conditions, the National Authority for Environmental Licencing will audit Cerro Matoso’s performance on a yearly basis including site and community visits as well as conducting in-field verification. Government agencies involved in the prior consultation are also able to participate in these audits.

Cerro Matoso engages with each community three times a year in line with the agreements. The meetings cover progress of initiatives and plans for upcoming activities. During COVID-19, virtual meetings have been held with all communities to discuss the FY21 social investment projects.

Social investment

As part of the social investment program, a housing improvement program is helping lift living conditions in local communities by building new homes or improving existing residences. The program was community-led with members of the communities also given the opportunity to undertake the improvement work themselves. The program has upskilled the community so they can replace dirt floors with concrete, help install stoves to replace inefficient and harmful open cooking fires and build bathrooms and toilets with septic wells. More than five hundred homes have been improved since the program commenced in 2014. 

We recognise land ownership is crucial to our ethnic communities being able to continue cultural practices and increase food production and we are very proud to have donated more than 390 hectares of land back to traditional owners in June 2020. 

We are supporting the communities to preserve their ethnic language and customs by reviving the Centro América Zenu ancestral language which is now incorporated into Colombia’s National Anthem. The traditional “pito” dance which is accompanied by traditional musical instruments has been restored and we’ve supported the Afro Colombian community of Boca de Uré recover their cultural dances which are performed at public ceremonies. 


Cerro Matoso’s long running scholarship program provides opportunities for community members to complete their schooling, helping provide employment options and build entrepreneurial capacity. Since its inception in 2014, more than 100 students have enrolled in the program and 30 have completed their studies in either bachelor or technical degrees. 

At South32, we care about people, the communities we’re a part of and the world we depend on. Cerro Matoso has a prosperous future that will continue delivering benefits to our partnering communities for years to come.