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Oil extraction in Colombia: Tragedy announced

Oil extraction in Colombia: Tragedy announced


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When the media uproar was unleashed by the extreme drought that is experienced in the municipality of Paz de Ariporo-Casanare, Colombia, amidst the strong images that generate collective outrage, the confusing disparity of official figures and the different pronouncements of residents, authorities and organizations to denounce the lack of immediate attention, multiple versions have been generated about the causes of this tragedy and the culprits behind it.

While the pronouncements from the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development and the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies of Colombia (IDEAM) speak of "an announced tragedy" due to climate change, the voices against exploration are growing more and more and oil exploitation in the region. However, it is the inhabitants of the region, who have seen the territorial transformations over time and built their ways of life and cultural identities rooted in the savannah, who can give clear signals about what is currently happening in the eastern plains. . So we went looking for their testimonials.

Since arriving in Yopal, strong social and environmental transformations have been felt due to oil exploitation. Yopal is the city in Colombia with the highest population and commercial growth in recent years, and with one of the highest costs of living in the country. Its streets are flooded with hotels and restaurants to house the contractors and employees of the different oil companies that have settled in the region. However, there has been no drinking water supply for three years after the collapse of two treatment plants in 2012 and 2013 and the geological destabilization suffered by the intake of the aqueduct, after in 1994 BP company contractors carried out seismic exploration in the La Tablona forest reserve where it is located. While the inhabitants of Yopal talk about how they have already got used to making long lines in front of a tank car to get the vital liquid, their fear is expressed that what they observe in the newspapers and news, as a close but foreign reality, will spread throughout the department. At the same time, there in Yopal, the environment minister Luz Helena Sarmiento, the directors of various institutions such as the Von Humboldt Institute, IDEAM and the departmental authorities met behind closed doors at the Corporinoquía offices. At the end of the meeting, during a press conference, the minister announces the investments that will be made within the framework of a node to face climate change.

Where did the water go?

Dozens of journalists from local media and two deputies from Casanare asked him about the relationship between the granting of environmental licenses to various oil companies by the National Environmental Licensing Agency (ANLA) and the little monitoring of the respective Environmental Management Plans. (PMA), with the severe drought that the department is experiencing, however, the minister's response is evasive. The truth, according to journalists, is that none of the entities have made public a hydrogeological study that can clarify the inescapable question: Where did the water go? Droughts are a climatic condition typical of the region that are repeated year after year, but never before have they had such magnitude in terms of depletion of water bodies.

With this panorama, we set out for Paz de Ariporo, the second largest municipality in Colombia, with a journey of almost 300 km from the municipal seat to Normandy, the emergency area. In the first section, the rice crops that gradually disappear as well as the paved road extend to the side and side of the road. In the second section, the dust raised by the oil transport trucks that travel incessantly along the uncovered road bathes the pastures, livestock and small bodies of water, where some animals still survive.

Already in the third section, as the road branches off with different signs with names such as Leona, Dorotea, La Cuerva, Guachiría -which indicate the entrance to the 17 oil wells assigned in the area-, the landscape becomes desolate. You can already see the holes where the estuaries were, habitat of a large number of animal species, among which a variety of fish, turtles, alligators, deer and chigüiros are counted; The latter, still alive, were piled up under the drains of the road in a strong state of dehydration, as well as the cows and calves typical of extensive livestock -in the area there is a ratio of one head of cattle for every two hectares- that it has been carried out historically in the region. The oil palm, which due to its high consumption of water has been named as the cause of this environmental damage, never appeared and the residents say they have never seen one of these monocultures in the area. "Twenty-one"

The stories of the settlers who accompanied us during the tour were contrasted between the pride in their heritage as a tough people, who fought for freedom against the Spanish in the Vargas swamp and with Guadalupe Salcedo in the 1950s, and the pain for the disappearance of the cattle culture that was established in these flooded savannas at the hands of the Jesuit monks since the colony. Today the residents say that young people no longer want to work in the livestock trades and are waiting for a "blowout", as they call in the area the twenty-eight-day service contracts offered by oil companies every three or four months . Thus, the landscapes of the plains no longer resound from the gallop of bay, roan or bay horses, but from the noise of motorcycles and trucks.

Finally we arrive at the camp established by the Red Cross and the Civil Defense, where an advertisement is raised that reads "Declaration of calamity due to dry season." The deployment for the emergency cited from officials of the Autonomous Corporation to members of the National Police and the CTI (Technical Investigation Body, of the Attorney General's Office), to them are added some members of the community who are in charge of guiding operations, and attend to the food and lodging of the large number of people who are in the area, something never seen by the inhabitants of the savannah.

As reported by these community leaders, the mobilized machinery and the contingency plan that has been put in place has two axes. The first, the supply of water for the dry estuaries by means of tank trucks and the construction of deep wells; the second, the final disposal of the remains of dead animals due to the health emergency they represent. The tank cars take at least three hours to complete the water recharge and an hour to fill, on the other hand, the water takes a couple of days to re-filter or evaporate and the estuary is dry again. For its part, the construction of the wells takes one or two days to locate the aquifer and drill the well. Parallel to the contingency plan, the Attorney General's Office is conducting an investigation with members of the CTI to find the causes of the event. In this way, access to other academic research aimed at establishing the causes of water shortages is prohibited because it is considered that they may alter the scene of the judicial investigation. From there, the route through the most affected areas is made by trails marked in the gray and cracked savannahs on which the towers of the drills of several oil wells can be observed. The rotten smell that comes from the piles of animal bodies next to the machines that excavate the pits spreads over thousands of hectares announcing what will come in sight. Cattle that do not find adequate pastures for their nutrition, nor the water in the estuaries that serve as drinking troughs, lie on the ground giving in to lethal cramps.

We also find remains of chigüiros in different states of decomposition and, together with them, many other of these rodents that, due to their territorial behavior, remain in dry estuaries. The stacked freshwater turtles walk on top of one another in one of the small wells reloaded with tank cars and some stumps are also found there. Despite their thirst, wild pigs take the opportunity to feed on the remains of other animals and flocks of buzzards, in the surroundings, perch on the trees, sniffing attentively to find the possibility of survival among death.

Mass death, forced migration

The inhabitants of this corner of Paz de Ariporo, the Normandía village, are in charge of making troughs and filling estuaries with the extracted underground water, trying to save their own or other people's livestock - a large number of them are in charge of herds and farms of landowners who do not They live in the area - which is their main source of livelihood. The residents express great shock at the disappearance of the fauna that many of them safeguarded for years with techniques such as the "caps" of water -small reservoirs that are dug and filled with water in preparation for droughts-, now prohibited by Corporinoquía. But, above all, they are concerned that in an upcoming drought we will encounter a massive death and forced migration of their own species, the human.

For them, the "criollos", the causes of the drought are clearly associated with the exploitation of hydrocarbons and the preliminary seismic exploration that arrived in this remote area of ​​the country before the schools, the health center, the electricity or the signal. of cell phones. Their arguments are based on the comparison between the savannas that they knew twenty years ago where cattle ranching had coexisted for half a century, as well as the endemic species of fauna and flora with the drought and flood seasons typical of the region, and the extreme conditions climatic conditions and the depletion of surface waters that intensified year after year since the arrival of the oil industry.

It was then that they told us about a nearby place called Los Cristales lagoon, which is within the same municipality and therefore faces the same dry season, but far from the oil wells.

Looking to get to Los Cristales, the night welcomed us in La Busaca, where, as Hermes -the Vaquiano who has come to Paris as one of the last exhibitors of the cowboy songs- had told us, we observed the horizon "like a manger" flooded with lights from the operation of oil wells. Meanwhile Hermes, between the lullaby of the llaneros walks that he composes and the noise of machinery that did not cease throughout the morning, told us that he, like many other peasants in the region, is involved in legal disputes with the Ecopetrol company and with the possibility of being left without his land and with an immense debt, for opposing the seismic exploration carried out on his farm four years ago.

We arrive at Los Cristales at dawn, an extensive water mirror that opens into the morichal where flocks of cockerels, spoonbills, gavanes and herons fly over the herds of chigüiros and tapirs, like an oasis of life in the middle of the great wave of death that we traveled there, a "sacred" place that for the inhabitants must be preserved and respected. Obviously, the existence of the Moorish that retain moisture has contributed to the fact that the water there did not disappear as in other areas. However, it is no coincidence that Los Cristales is an area where seismic lines and drills have not come close.

Ariporo's thirst for Peace

More than answers and culprits, this visit to Paz de Ariporo leaves us with many questions in mind.Why have the institutions distorted the claims of the communities about the influence of the oil industry in the environmental disaster that are argued in direct knowledge about the territory? Under what arguments have environmental licenses for oil exploitation been issued, if there are not even baselines that allow knowing the specific characteristics and fragile conditions of these ecosystems? and finally: Beyond the contingency measures, what will be the changes that will be made to attack the structural causes of this situation?


It will then be necessary to reflect, beyond the drought that is experienced today, on the profound transformations in the territory due to oil, since it has become the central axis of development of this municipality as well as of the Orinoco region, due to its environmental effects direct and also due to the displacement that it generates in other productive activities and land uses towards places until now conserved and ecosystems as fragile as the flooded savannas, the moors, the foothills and the jungles.

On the other hand, in addition to the evidence that this journey leaves us in the environmental plane and in that of the socio-cultural transformations, it leads us to understand why today the communities seek participation mechanisms such as popular consultation -Cases of Tauramena, Casanare and Piedras, Tolima- or the popular normative initiative to defend water, natural assets and their traditional ways of life.

With our reflections and open questions, we started back, but not before going through the disaster relief camp again, to learn with surprise that the Attorney General's Office had ordered the cessation of the construction of deep wells for the extraction of water, because despite the fact that Corporinoquía had promoted them as one of the main strategies to overcome the emergency, they had to have a special permit from the Ministry of the Environment.

Unfortunately the contradictions between the decisions of the different institutions, the needs of the communities and the natural dynamics for the life of the planet are the mark of this history from its causes to the actions to face its consequences.

CENSAT-Agua Viva Colombia


Video: Colombias oil industry challenges (July 2022).


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