BHP-Billiton is the world’s largest mining company. The dual-listed company was formed in 2001 with the merger of Australian mining company BHP and Anglo-Dutch Billiton plc.
Communities living near BHP mines in South America have a long history of resistance and subsequent problems associated with the company. Controversy has dogged many of BHP’s interests in South America, sometimes for decades. Environmental issues and human rights abuses have often been concerns in regards to BHP's operations globally,  none more so than the collapse of the tailings dam at their Samarco mine in 2015, which was the world's worst tailings dam disaster, and Brazil's worst environmental disaster, with 19 people killed and 670 km of the Rio Doce River contaminated with of millions of cubic metres of tailings waste.


On the 5th of November 2015, the Fundao iron tailings dam collapsed at the Samarco iron ore mine upstream of the village of Bento Rodrigues. Nineteen people were killed, 50 people injured, and 90% of Bento Rodrigues’s homes were destroyed. The flood of mud directly impacted on 2000 people. 670 km of the Rio Doce River was devastated from tens of millions of cubic metres of tailings.
The amount of tailings and extent of the pollution was the most ever recorded in a mining disaster in the world. The worst impact occurred in the first 80km of the river with 90% of tailings remaining upstream of the Risoleta Neves (hydroelectric) Reservoir (120kmdownstream of the Fundo dam). Thirty-nine municipalities in two states, Minas Gerais and Espirito Santo were impacted. Nine city water supplies were impacted (arsenic, lead and mercury contamination were detected at levels 20 times higher than Brazilian regulations), including Governador Valadares (population 260,000). 300 families in Bento Rodrigues and Paracuta have had their lives severely impacted, with their communities turned into ghost towns. Communities along the length of the river have lost their livelihoods.
The Doce river basin lies between two biodiversity hotspots (the Atlantic forest and Brazilian savanna). 900ha of Permanent Preserved Areas were hit by the flood and many streams and rivers flowing into the Rio Doce were also impacted. The disaster led to a fisheries ban and numerous species including many endemic species may have been made extinct.


With copper demand expected to grow, and BHP's Escondida copper mine in Chile reaching the end of its productive value, BHP is now looking to Ecuador. The Ecuadorian government softened its position on mining in 2017 in the wake of a US$6.5 billion debt to China, sending mining companies around the world into a flurry to gain a piece of the holdings on offer.

BHP Billiton has been active in Ecuador since at least 1999 when it had options to explore properties in the Rio Zamora valley in south-east Ecuador. In 2002, BHP transferred a number of properties to the Canadian company, Corriente in two joint-venture agreements, including Mirador. BHP retained a 2% net smelter interest.

BHP Billiton operates in Ecuador under the subsidiary “Cerro Quebrado S.A.”, opening an office in Ecuador in 2017 after the purchase of several concessions along the North-Andean Copper Belt. BHP strengthened its strategic position in October 2018 with a US$36 million investment in SolGold, bringing its stake in the company to 11.2%. BHP and Newcrest Mining are now both major shareholders in company SolGold, with Newcrest holding a 14.5% stake. With SolGold’s Cascabel mine mooted to be as big as Ecsondida in Chile, and rumours suggesting Newcrest and BHP are in a tussle to take over SolGold, BHP’s involvement in Ecuador is likely to be significant.

"SolGold's predictably positive view of itself is informed by the richness of its own, ever-expanding drilling success and the fact that pretty much everyone who is anyone in global copper and gold has subsequently acquired exploration territory around SolGold's Cascabel province. BHP sits at the front of that new crowd having acquired four exploration licenses that sit in relatively close proximity to the Cascabel. BHP secured those rights by pitching an $US80 million exploration work program to the government."

Financial Review, 6 September 2018

Above: North of Ecuador showing BHP concessions in yellow. Mauve areas on map indicate Protected Forests.
The forests and vegetation of Intag where BHP has its concessions are within two of the most important biological hotspots in the world: the Tropical Andes, and the access points to the Choco/Darien/Western Ecuador (Myers et al., 2000). Here, the concessions border on several biologically significant reserves,including the Cotacachi Cayapas Reserve and the Los Cedros Reserve which is also under threat of mining by ENAMI and Cornerstone Capital Resources.
In the case of the primary tropical and subtropical cloud forests, very little remains in the northwest of Ecuador, and they constitute habitats for forest animals in danger of extinction. The BHP Billiton concessions also include ten vital water sources that supply local communities.
As of November 2018, BHP are undertaking initial exploratory activities in five areas located in the province of Imbabura. Two of these, in the area of Intag, are only five kilometres from the Cotacachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve and are on top of two native cloud forest reserves. Their concessions in Intag cover 9, 266 hectares, in the parishes of Cuellaje, Apuela and Plaza Guitiérrez. 4,326 hectares correspond to the concession named Santa Teresa 1, and the other 4,940 to the concession Santa Teresa 2.
Below: BHP concessions in south Ecuador. Note that they overlap protected forests.



Environmental contamination caused by extractive industries continues to be the main cause of social conflict in the country, sometimes exploding into all-out violence. Conflicts at the Antamina mine are predominantly linked to environmental issues. People in the rural highlands have seen little from the mining boom which has contaminated water, air and livestock, and undermined land rights. Malnutrition and health problems are common and services remain poor, despite enormous mining royalties. Corruption of local officials is rife.


The Cerrejón coalmine is located in a semi-arid area, 40% of which is desert. The coalmine uses 17 million litres of water per day, yet an average resident in nearby Alta Guajira now only has access to 0.7 litres of poor-quality water daily, a tiny fraction of what is needed. Wayuu villagers were forced to give up land and were not consulted about the construction of the mine. In 2001, Colombian rural police forces participated in the forced removal of 420 families living in Cerrejón’s active concession zone in Tabaco. Police and private security forces used riot gear and tear gas to remove people and their animals from the territory. They bulldozed houses, barns, corrals, and the local school as horrified residents looked on, leaving Tabaco in ruins. By 2016, 15 communities had been relocated into badly built settlements rife with social, economic and environmental issues.


In the water-scarce Antofagasta Region, where BHP’s Escondida and Spence mines are located, mining uses more than 1,000 litres of water a second, and mining companies hold almost 100% of the groundwater rights. The Chilean Copper Corporation admitted in a 2009 sustainability report of Minera Escondida that this region will experience an “extreme deficit” in drinking water by 2025. There have been constant strikes, with a 43-day strike from February-March, 2017 which cost the company $US546 million. 14 people were injured by fire that occurred only hours before 300 masked people stormed into a camp where 1500 contractors were based. The strike reduced copper production by 39% over the first half of the year costing $740 million.


Pollution from the mine over the past 40 years has severely impacted the local Afro-Colombian and Indigenous population. The first public health impact was published in 2015 and stated that people living 15km away commonly had nickel in blood and urine samples, skin lesions and upper tract respiratory problems. In 2018, the Constitutional Court of Colombia ordered the mine to damages to local communities, a decision which was overturned a few months later. Mining waste has included heavy metals, with rain water collected near the mine including mercury, copper, lead, zinc and cadmium.


Overview of BHP in  South America + its explorations in Ecuador
(2 page document)

Rainforest Action Group BHP in South America cover

Detailed information on BHP, its explorations in Ecuador and issues with its operations in South America.
(28 page document)

Información sobre BHP en Español

Rainforest Action Group Resumen de BHP en Sudamérica

Resumen de BHP, sus exploraciones en Ecuador y problemas con sus operaciones en Sudamérica.
(Documento de 2 páginas)

Información detallada sobre BHP, sus exploraciones en Ecuador y problemas con sus operaciones en Sudamérica.
(Documento de 28 páginas)