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The Rio Tinto Company and the massacre of 1888, Andalusia, Spain

The Rio Tinto company was formed in 1873. In February 1888 a big demonstration against sulphurous gases produced by the combustion of copper pyrites led to a massacre carried out by the Army.


Como narran Felix Talego y Juan Diego Pérez Cebada, el 4 de febrero de 1888 una manifestación pacífica de doce mil personas que, al grito de “Abajo los humos”, se había concentrado en la plaza del ayuntamiento de Rio Tinto convocada por la Liga Contra las Calcinaciones, terminó en tragedia. Una descarga de fusilería del ejército causó la muerte a unas doscientas personas. Eran mujeres, hombres, niños, ancianos, campesinos, mineros, vecinos, acompañados por una banda de música. Procedían de todos los rincones de la cuenca minera onubense,  “el país de los Humos”. Estaban unidos en la Liga contra las Calcinaciones y en las incipientes organizaciones sindicales. Exigían mejoras en el trabajo y, simultáneamente, el fin de la lluvia ácida (anhídrido sulfúrico), provocada por la calcinación al aire libre de piritas a una escala sin precedentes, en las llmadas "teleras". El cobre así obtenido nutría la demanda mundial de la industria en expansión. 

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Basic Data
Name of conflict:The Rio Tinto Company and the massacre of 1888, Andalusia, Spain
State or province:Huelva, Adalucía
Location of conflict:Rio Tinto
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)
Source of Conflict
Type of conflict. 1st level:Mineral Ores and Building Materials Extraction
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Mineral processing
Specific commodities:Copper
Project Details and Actors
Project details

Rio Tinto is an Australian-British multinational and one of the world's largest metals and mining corporations. The company was founded in 1873, by Hugh Matheson. A consortium of investors purchased the old mine on the Rio Tinto, in Huelva, Spain, from the Spanish government. This is where the company's name comes from. For many years the technique used in Spainn was to burn the copper pyrites in the open air, in "teleras". The sulphurous fumes led to protests by farmers and mine workers and their families. This led in turn to the massacre of 4th February 1988, in which the company was complicit. In 1954 the company disinvested from Spain, and the Rio Tinto copper mines went back slowly to Spanish ownership. The company focused mainly on Northern Rodhesia (later Zambia). It has grown to place itself among the world leaders in the production of aluminium, iron ore, copper, uranium, coal, and diamonds. It never acknowledged liability for the damage to human lives and nature done in Rio Tinto, Huelva.

Type of populationRural
Affected Population:40,000
Start of the conflict:1877
Company names or state enterprises:Rio Tinto PLC from Australia
Relevant government actors:Governor of Huelva
Spanish Army (Regimiento de Pavia)
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Liga anti Humos
Conflict & Mobilization
IntensityHIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:Farmers
Industrial workers
Informal workers
Local government/political parties
Social movements
Trade unions
Local scientists/professionals
Forms of mobilization:Blockades
Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of alternative proposals
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Official complaint letters and petitions
Street protest/marches
Occupation of buildings/public spaces
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Fires, Food insecurity (crop damage), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil contamination, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Mine tailing spills
Health ImpactsVisible: Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Occupational disease and accidents, Other Health impacts
Potential: Accidents, Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Displacement, Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment, Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Militarization and increased police presence, Specific impacts on women, Violations of human rights, Land dispossession, Loss of landscape/sense of place
Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Criminalization of activists
Deaths, Assassinations, Murders
Court decision (undecided)
Violent targeting of activists
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:There was no compensation (or even legal acknowledgment) of the mass killings. No court proceedings against army officers. The burning of pyrites (and production of sulphurous gases) continued still for a few years although other technologies were available.
Sources & Materials
References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

Gérard Chastagnaret (2017): De fumées et de sang. Pollution minière et massacre de masse. Andalousie – XXe siècle. Madrid, Casa de Velázquez. pp. XXIV + 423.
[click to view]

Ximo Guillem-Llobat. Medical Experts and Agnotology in the Fumes Controversy of the Huelva Copper Mines (1888–1890). Medical history 61(03):424-443
[click to view]

Maria Dolores Ferrero Blanco, Capitalismo minero y resistencia rural en el suroeste andaluz. Riotinto, 1873-1900, Universidad de Huelva, 1999 ISBN 84-88751-61-3

David Avery, Not on Queen Victoria's Birthday: Story of the Rio Tinto Mines. 464 pages. HarperCollins Distribution Services (1974).

Juan Diego Pérez Cebada, Tierra Devastada. Historia de la contaminación minera. (en las grandes cuencas de minerales no ferrosos hasta 1945). Madrid: Editorial Sinteses, 2014 (283 pp).

Links to general newspaper articles, blogs or other websites

Joan Martinez-Alier, Chapter of the book: Ageyman, J. et al., Just Sustainabilities: Development in an Unequal World, p. 5-7.
[click to view]

El País. Los muertos sin nombre de Riotinto. La primera protesta ecologista de la historia costó más de cien vidas en 1888. LOLA GALÁN. 25 MAR 2007
[click to view]

Meta information
Contributor:JPC, FT and JMA
Last update18/08/2019
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