Business, church and NGOs united against oil exploitation in Colombia

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The rejection of an oil project in the department of Caquetá, Colombia, has brought together an unusual alliance of academics, businesspeople, agricultural producers, the church and other concerned citizens. For months, they have been warning against the environmental damage of drilling in the heart of the Amazon. More than 100 rural villagers from the municipality of Valparaíso refused to move from a bridge throughout May and June to allow the passage of mining machinery belonging to Britain’s Emerald Energy, a subsidiary of Sinochem of China. However, violence broke out as the protest was broken-up by the Colombian government’s Mobile Anti-Disorder Squad (ESMAD in Spanish), local press reports. Three people have been injured.

Emerald was awarded the Nogal block concession in 2012, which extends across the municipalities of Florencia, Milán, Morelia, Valparaíso, Belén de los Andaquíes, Albania, La Montañita and Paujil – all of which are in Caquetá, in the south of Colombia. The project encompasses 250,000 hectares of an area which is home to 3,000 people. But in spite of Emerald’s interest in analysing soil conditions for the extraction of hydrocarbons, the community insistently rejects their entry into the department. They fear that water sources will be contaminated, the soil will become infertile and that they will be displaced just as they were years ago during conflicts with guerrilla group FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in English).

“There’s a strong police presence in the area as the company prepares to find out what kind of oil there is,” said Yolima Salazar Higuera, Director of the Catholic rights organisation La Vicaria del Sur (the Southern Vicarage in English). “The villagers want to carry on living off the land and for the company to respect the richness of the water supply and the area’s biodiversity,” said Salazar, who points out that the exploration phase doesn’t require an environmental permit.

The villagers have become increasingly organized and have created the Commission for the Life of Water, the entity that now represents them. The lack of information on the area’s suitability for oil projects led them to request that the University of the Amazon carry out a study verifying the importance of its biodiversity. Research found that in the area designated to Emerald Energy there are five ravines flowing into the Rio Pescado and a huge variety of plant species such as the Cedrela Odorata (or Spanish cedar) and Costus Erythrolphyllus (or Rubra) that grow in its wetlands. It is also home to a significant variety of insect species and the Caquetá Titi monkey, whose numbers are critically depleted.

“There are also a lot of concerns about water. It’s currently of good quality and is not polluted by the villagers, who source it from the wells,” said Mercedes Mejía, a researcher at the University of the Amazon who particpated in the study. “We don’t know how much water the oil company is going to use because no one has seen their environmental management plan. We’ve seen some of their slides, but they have over 700,” Mejía added.

Leaders of the rural communities rapidly came together and united support from the church, the regional chamber of commerce, the mayor and the local government and have collectively requested that the national government undertake a study advising on the suitability of the project. They also managed to get a meeting with Colombia’s vice Minister of the Interior, Carlos Ferro, in which he committed to setting up a dialogue with Emerald Energy. But they have not stopped the project as the government and Emerald are adamant that it will not harm the environment. Diálogo Chino tried to contact Emerald Energy and Sinochem repeatedly via their offices in Colombia, London and China but received no response.

“Production in the area has to be aligned with the interests of the environment. If it doesn’t conform to existing standards of environmental protection then exploration affects our ecosystem,” said Eduardo Moya, executive president of the Florencia Chamber of Commerce. “We want Caquetá to focus on its own products, like chocolate, beekeeping and fruit. The exploitation of hydrocarbons is only temporary, the Amazon is forever,” Moya continued.

Precedents in Colombia

In Caquetá alone it is estimated that since 2002, 26,699 hectares have been designated to oil projects, representing 42% of the region’s total habitable area. Emerald Energy has numerous exploration and extraction contracts in Colombia in areas such as Campo Rico, Marata, Jacarandá and Magdalena. The Caquetá deal was signed in 2012 with local oil company Ecopetrol after which Emerald purchased a 50% share of three contracts for exploration and production in the Caguán basin, where most of Colombia’s hydrocarbon extraction takes place.

Colombia is the country with the second highest incidence of environment-related conflicts in the world, according to the Environmental Justice Atlas. And protestors on the front line have been especially wary of Emerald since 2013 when a court suspended its environmental permit. Emerald failed to carry out a prior consultation with local communities before beginning on a project in the Putumayo basin. The court ordered Emerald to properly observe procedures. Seven months later Emerald complied.

The project is part of an increasing investment drive by China in Colombia. The two countries signed multiple agreements in May including for the development of the Pacific Port of Buenaventura, better navigability of the Magdalena River and the construction of an oil pipeline running alongside it. “They’re not interested in preserving our natural resources, only economic benefits,” Salazar Higuera said of Colombia’s government and its stated “concrete interest” in doing business with China.

Emerald will undertake seismic operations that could affect 23 blocks in Valparaiso and 13 in Morelia. There are fears that these could cause landslides at higher altitudes, changes to water levels in rivers in lakes and could stimulate volcanic activity, among other impacts. “Beyond mining and hydrocarbons policy, the country needs urgent reforms that take communities into account and allow for the protection of our environment,” said Natalia Gómez Peña, a researcher at Colombian NGO Asociación Ambiente y Sociedad (Environment and Society Association in English). “It’s important that foreign investment, in this case from China, complies with Colombian policies and regulations,” Gómez Peña said.