Citing environmental concerns, central Colombian villages use months of direct action to delay planned state oil project.
OSCAR LEÓN, TRNN PRODUCER: In the central Colombian region of Meta, communities won an important victory in the fight to preserve their lands from possible contamination from drilling by Ecopetrol, Colombia’s national oil company.
The Meta region’s administrative court suspended the operation license while it reaches its final verdict. In the meantime, the community maintains the blockade of Ecopetrol’s facility.
Communities say they fear the project will pollute their home and are determined to impede any kind of operation by the oil company in the zone. They have blocked the access to Lorito 1 facility for six months now.
WILMAR PINILLA, HUMADEA TOWN MERCHANT (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): This has happened before in many places. They have already ruined many rivers. It has been many years, and they haven’t been able to fix those rivers. They can’t fix the water–by this I mean the Orotoy River. The Orotoy River is now very contaminated. And it was once one of the most beautiful rivers around here. All the fish are gone, and the river life in general is gone.
LEÓN: Colombian villagers fought for six months, not only blocking the site, but also organizing meetings and talking to other villagers, authorities, and the press.
ALIRIO GAITAN LOPEZ, VILLAGER, HUMADEA (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): We are here at the base of the projected Lorito 1, where Ecopetrol wants to establish an exploratory platform to dig for oil. And we the people of Humadea reject that idea.
LEÓN: We bring you the story of the peaceful resistance by the people in the Colombian towns of Guamal, Humadea, Castilla Nueva, and Las Acacias.
Senator Maritza Martinez Ariztizabal represents El Meta region in Colombia’s Congress. She describers how six months of struggle have changed the local people.
MARITZA MARTINEZ ARIZTIZABAL, SENATOR, NATIONAL UNITY PARTY (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): There is such a huge difference between the attitude you used to find in those communities then and the one they have now. Now those are communities that get involved, that try to understand the technical details. Now when in doubt, they study and research; and when they are sure harm is meant for them, they act and face whoever is necessary.
LEÓN: Ecopetrol, a public company that trade its stock in New York Stock Exchange and generates 60 percent of Colombia’s oil production, is not only an important contributor of income for the Colombian state, but it also hires tens of thousands of people every year. Its policies to hire local people for its projects make it an important actor in Colombian economy.
On February 28, the government and local authorities cleared Lorito 1 drill to operate very close to the town of Montecristo. But local people have resisted ever since.
GERARDO SOTTO, HUMADEA TOWN MERCHANT (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): Do you really think the town of Humadea would be the only one affected? The problem would be for all of El Meta, perhaps all of Colombia.
LEÓN: To prevent heavy machinery and supplies from going in, a blockade was soon established. Despite the fact that the exploratory platform has been already constructed, all operations were forced to stop.
Carrying signs and flags, making noise with pots and pans, the villagers blocked the site and took a very active approach to inform every possible member of the community. As weeks went by, the blockade resisted.
The drilling site was established very close to an underground aquifer. The operation base is only 100 meters away from the town’s main river. Oscar Vanegas, a former petroleum engineer for Ecopetrol and now lecturer in Santander’s Industrial University, says it is risky to have the drill so close to the aquifer and the river.
OSCAR VANEGAS ANGARITA, LECTURER, PETROLEUM ENGINEERING, SANTANDER INDUSTRIAL U (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): First the perforation “mud” can overflow and get to the river, which would contaminate the water. In the maintenance operations, there are oil spills. This “dirty water” goes in a pool system, but when it rains, these pools could overflow, reach and contaminate the rivers and aqueducts. Also, if a pipe breaks and the oil leaks, it would hopelessly contaminate the creeks and rivers.
LEÓN: Ecopetrol responded by implementing security measures additional to those required by the environmental impact assessment, constructing a pipe that, according to them, will ensure that the liquids from the operation will remain under control. Trenches and ditches were built.
Trees were also planted between the site of the drill and the riverbed. In this, Lorito 1 promotional video by Colombia’s national oil company, Ecopetrol, Jose Yesid Moreno, the project manager, says that the environmental license given by the Colombian environmental agency required very demanding security measures.
JOSE YESID MORENO, ECOPETROL’S LORITO 1 PROJECT MANAGER (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): This environmental license for Lorito 1 is one of the most demanding and restrictive Ecopetrol has ever faced, certainly the first time we had to undergo a public audience in the process.
LEÓN: However the villagers would not believe Ecopetrol, claiming they have seen too much. In this video recollected by the villagers in the zone, we can see crude and petrol spills, dead fish, creeks and rivers contaminated by oil, dead cattle and animals poisoned by the chemicals in the water, also mudslides and ground erosion allegedly caused by the seismic charges used for exploration underground. All this has become a familiar sight for the people in other parts of El Meta, and it has been reported in the press as well as it has been submitted as evidence in the courts.
They fear the oil operations will contaminate the water sources like it has already happened in the nearby villages of Esmeralda and Caño Grande, where great numbers of people have reported many grave health problems, from skin infections and respiratory affections all the way to cancer, as EFE press agency reported on August 22.
UNIDENTIFIED (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): You can see this weird foam with a dark color, kind of grey. And we can clearly see how contaminated this is. This is how the water is flowing now in our river, the Acacias river. We can see (the contaminated water) going downstream.
LEÓN: Despite the fact that the project Lorito 1 by Ecopetrol was granted an operation license from Colombia’s environmental agency and it has two favorable verdicts from the Constitutional Court, the population is widely opposed to risk their water sources, especially because the town’s riverbed is a local tourism hub.
UNIDENTIFIED (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): The main affected will be the child, because we all play in the river, both the children and the youth.
UNIDENTIFIED (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): They need to think about it and stop harming nature and our water.
LEÓN: Young and old, men and women, all kinds of local people participated in the blockade of Ecopetrol’s site. The villagers’ ecological awareness was increased every time they found out about the damage similar projects have caused in nearby regions.
VILLAGER (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): This is a flagrant violation to our human rights. It threatens our life.
VILLAGER (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): Pure water is worth more than a road or a few months of work for them.
VILLAGER (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): We are defending something just that the oil company fails to see.
LEÓN: On August 29, Judge Eduardo Salinas Escobar decreed an “immediate cessation of activities” by Ecopetrol on its CP09 Lorito 1 site, sealing–at least for now–a victory for the people of this region who oppose the oil drill. However, this is a temporary cessation of activities, which will take place until a final verdict is reached.
NIDIA CALDERON, HUMADEA VILLAGER (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): They have their tactics. They speak everyone’s language, which is the money. They promised sporting complex, schools, soccer fields, roads. And they never fulfill their promises anyway … some people are so naive that they still believe them.
LEÓN: On October 4, 2013, a public environmental meeting was held in Guamal. As El Tiempo reported Senator Maritza Martinez and Tierra Mágica, an ecological NGO, called for the meeting, to which Alan Jara, governor of El Meta; Arsenio Vargas, Acacías’s mayor; and Albeiro Serna, mayor of Cumaral assisted. This is Lopez Humberto Gavis, who represented the municipality of Castilla La Nueva in the meeting.
LOPEZ HUMERTO GAVIS ZAMBRANO, CASTILLA LA NUEVA MUNICIPAL DEPUTY (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): –thought this process, it has been proved, and by now it is evident that this will affect our communities.
NELSON VIVAS MORAS, ENVIRONMENTAL DEPUTY FOR THE TOWN OF VILLAVICENCIO (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): We demand the environmental agency to definitely cancel the permit to build Lorito 1, because the environmental consequences are irreversible. This would cause immense damage to El Meta province.
LEÓN: In this meeting, the mayors and the senator expressed their concern for the environmental consequences of the Lorito 1 project.
MARTINEZ: It is very hard to understand why the environmental agency won’t support the community on this matter, especially because they have no scientific arguments to prove the villagers wrong, to prove they are inventing this. We haven’t seen (the environmental agency) showing us a profound and serious study. We have seen quite the opposite. It is the community that have collected evidence and gotten samples. They have gathered elements to make many of us question and realize that something is wrong in here and that we need to listen to the community on this.
LEÓN: Talking about process safety in their systems of production, Nestor Saavedra, Ecopetrol’s vice president of technology, in an interview with CCPS’ Laura Turci, has this to say:
NESTOR SAAVEDRA, VICE PRESIDENT OF TECHNOLOGY, ECOPETROL: We have operational dangerous [mV’tiri@nz]. We are digging for producing oil. We are transporting this oil to our refineries. And we are converting this oil in even dangerous products. And we are transporting again these dangerous products to our communities. So we need to do everything in a safe way.
LEÓN: El Meta communities may have got a victory, but the battle against Colombia’s largest corporation is not over.
Colombia as a state has experimented an immense growth in their energy sector. Communities in towns like Humadea and Castilla La Nueva have got in the path of this multimillion-dollar push. Many wonder: how long can they resist? This is Mauricio Cárdenas, who has sat at the board of Ecopetrol as Colombia’s former minister of energy and now is a minister of finance, talking to journalist Xavier Serbia in an interview for CNN.
MAURICIO CÁRDENAS, MINISTER OF FINANCE (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): In Colombia we have great, energetic wealth. All of the sudden we became an energy player, selling a lot of oil and carbon. We are now selling electric energy to Panama and other Central American nations, even to Chile. We are a regional power now and we have to do this right.
LEÓN: Ecopetrol is 88 percent owned by the Colombian state. It is by law bonded to have much more accountability than other enterprises working in the zone. Precisely in our next report, we will go over the cases of a number of farmers and indigenous leaders who have been murdered because of their opposition to mega mining and oil projects, choosing to preserve natural resources instead of supporting industrial development, because for them it was more important to preserve the water than getting quick money.
–A special report from El Meta, Colombia, by Bladimir Sanchez Espitia and Oscar León. This is The Real News.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.