Since February 15, 2017, communities in the municipalities of Yopal and Aguazul, in the department of Casanare, peacefully gathered and blocked a road opposite the oil block project El Porton, run by the Canadian oil company Gran Tierra. Since the beginning of the mobilization, social leaders have received threatening calls, have been followed by different vehicles and three have been charged for obstructing the transit way.
The department of Casanare is highly sought after for its oil resources. Discovery of an oil well in the ’90s transformed the region into one of the most important for oil extraction. The consequences on Casanare’s ecosystem were disastrous. For example, on March 2014, a drought, caused by seismic exploration and digging of oil wells resulted in the death of more than 25,000 capybaras and the extinction of the specie throughout the department. Water sources have also been affected, facing a 70% reduction in volume and some rivers have even disappeared.
In the region, several communities are opposing the oil projects which have affected the local economy, eating away the social fabric and taking over the local indigenous population ancestral territories. In 2015, Daniel Abril, a well known local social leader and human right activist, was assassinated by paramilitaries. He is not the only activist to have laid down his life for his beliefs in Casanare.
In 2009, an environmental licence was granted by the Ministry of Environment, Habitat and Territorial Development to the Spanish Oil Company CEPCOLSA. According to the agreement reached for the exploratory phase of the project, no environmental study was necessary. The aim for the oil block was to create 30 platforms with 5 oil wells each, for a total of 150 wells.
In 2014, CEPCOLSA came back to consult the population for the extraction phase. After facing opposition from the communities worried about their water sources, CEPCOLSA decided to step back. The following year, the Canadian Oil Company PAREX took over and received fierce opposition from the communities of La Union and the citizens of Yopal and Palmarito. For a second time, the project was abandoned.
In 2015, a study conducted by the Cataruben Foundation and paid for by the community established that the region was inhabited by a rich biodiversity. It was also concluded that its state of preservation could not sustain mining activities, of hydrocarbons nor of minerals.
Then, on August 7th, the Canadian Oil Company Gran Tierra came to the region. Helped by the National Agency for Environmental Licences (ANLA), the National Agency for Hydrocarbons and the Ministry of Interior, the company “consulted” the local population. According to reports from the community, the consultation was conducted in total disrespect and with an obvious lack of transparency. A farmer from the community of La Union reported that they were asked to sign coupons for a snack. Unknown to the people was that by signing, they were also accepting the Prosperidad 1 well project, something which was somehow written on the same coupons. Furthermore, some signatures were bought to inhabitants who were in need of money or work.
To this day, the seismic exploration phase has been completed and the extraction phase has begun on some platforms. Other oil platforms to be built in the future are supposed to be installed only a few kilometres from the urban centres of Yopal and Aguazul. Yopal is the capital of Casanare with a population of 130,000. A few years ago, the aqueduct carrying drinking water to the town ran out due to natural causes, putting the urban centre in a precarious situation. On site, the Red Cross is often seen distributing water in times of crisis.
As a result of this precarious situation, the inhabitants of the communities at risk have gathered to peacefully block the road, since February 17, 2017. The measures previously taken have stopped the first drills, essential to the operations on the platforms, from arriving to the El Porton Block.
Yopal Is All of Us
La Union and the communities affected by the oil project of the Company Gran Tierra are standing against the negative impacts of oil drilling in the region, impacts which are well known. Multiple reasons motivate the pacific road block, namely that: (1) the consultation was not done properly as there was obvious opposition to the project; (2) the wells are located only a few kilometres from the city of Yopal, which already had an expansion plan for its urban region and is not willing to compromise the suburbs of the departmental capital; (3) no serious environmental study has been conducted for the extraction phase; (4) presently, the community lives on agriculture, fish farming and cattle raising, an economy which would be ruined by oil drilling (5) at least 5 sources of drinking water and access to the phreatic layer have been discovered, which would allow water to be brought to the town. Considering the already existing water dilemma, the city depends upon these water sources which must be preserved.
Facing this threat, the community of La Union and the citizens of Yopal have gathered to form an organization known as Yopal, somos todos. This association attemps to find ways to stop the company and to apprise the population of the potential risk of oil extraction to the water sources.
Resistance is not an easy task in the region. Representatives of different neighbourhoods have received threats. Individuals have been followed to their homes on motorcycles. Some have also found symbols on their house, which serve to identify military targets in the region, a gesture of intimidation. Many individuals have received calls telling them not to join the blockade for their own security and the safety of their families. The government supports Gran Tierra and states that the community is asking for trouble.
On March 5, 2017, three leaders were charged for obstruction of the transit way on the request of the oil company. Furthermore, on March 16th, the company accused the community of disregarding the right to work of their fellow workers. The fact that these incidents have been brought forth in court is an attempt to prevent the defence of the fundamental right to have access to drinking water.
In spite of the various requests to investigate the threats received, the Public Ministry has shirked the responsibility by refusing to receive the complaints or to provide security to the individuals who received the threats. Other claims were brought forward to the Preventive Alert System (Sistema de alerta temprana) by Human Rights Organizations supporting the community.
On April 6th, Gathering to Defend Their Water
On April 6, 2017, the streets of Yopal were filled by protestors asking for a fundamental right : to have access to drinking water. An invitation to gather and to fight for this right has been launched by the association Yopal, Somos Todos. A president of the junta de acción comunal involved with the association said they were accused of expressing their discontent in the wrong way. However, she said that without these actions, the company would have already started the exploitation with disastrous consequences.
Until now, the community has received support from the town hall, the Yopal Water Company and of CORPORINOQUIA, a Colombian environmental protection agency. The latter is requesting the project be suspended until a proper environmental study is conducted.
The support of the national and international community is needed at this time in order to prevent the Gran Tierra Company from moving forward with its extraction phase and possibly affecting the water sources of the department.