The veredas (administrative districts) of Pio XII and Orotoy de Guamal, in the Meta department of Colombia, have been campaigning since February to prevent Ecopetrol from operating an exploratory well on the “La Porfía” property.
The organizing effort to fend off Goliath has been ongoing for eight months. The local residents have formed an “Environmental Committee for the Defence of Water and Life” to protect this Andean foothill region where the rivers find their source. The people know full well that neither oil nor money can replace water, without which all life ceases. They are humble peasants, but with deep roots in the soil. All their lives they have been growing crops and caring for their animals. As one man told us, “I raised my three children on two hectares. I sent them to school. We’re not fighting for ourselves anymore, but for our children and grandchildren. There has to be a future for the generations to come.”
The protesters have been holding a round-the-clock peaceful strike in front of La Porfía, the 9-hectare lot purchased by Ecopetrol for drilling and exploration that has ironically been dubbed “Trogon 1”; ironically, because the trogon is a lovely, brightly coloured bird that has been displaced by all these months of constant earth moving with heavy machinery. It should be said that Repsol purchased 45% of the broader project called “Bloque CPO-9” that comprises five Meta municipalities.
The powers that be, led by the mayor of Guamal, are protecting Ecopetrol while punishing the protesters in an attempt to force them to give up the fight. For example, one woman had her food subsidy withdrawn.
The residents are denouncing Ecopetrol and Repsol for violating their environmental permits in the following manner:
1. Such operations are not permitted on land over 575 metres above sea level, which is the case for a portion of Pio XII.
2. The family farm unit (UAF) on which the project takes place must be larger than 28 hectares, whereas all the farms on these densely populated slopes are much smaller, the majority covering only 3 or 4 hectares.
3. The veredas and municipalities of Guamal, Acacías, and Cubarral are highly earthquake- and flood-prone due to the Villavicencio fault, and this is especially true of the areas lying above 575 metres.
4. The access road used by all the Ecopetrol trucks and machinery is not designed for heavy machinery. The residents built this road with their own effort, yet months of constant heavy use by Ecopetrol’s trucks and machines have degraded its condition.
The communities have asked Ecopetrol and the mayor’s office for a dialogue, so that the community could be consulted on the project and get an explanation of the developer’s plans, but to no avail. Ecopetrol has talked to mayors and councilors who are known supporters of the project but, despite repeated requests, has never given any kind of explanation to the communities, or arranged any coordination with them.
On June 24, the riot squad (ESMAD) was put on constant patrol alongside the regular police on the premises of Ecopetrol, just in front of the peaceful protest. The army, too, has been on the site.
In August, the communities formed the Guamal Watershed Roundtable, which coordinates with the 15 other such roundtables in the region.
All the funding for this organizing effort comes from ordinary citizens who have banded together to stand up to Ecopetrol and its death-dealing project. They have received a small amount of funding through solidarity networks, but not much, and eight months of dedicated protests have drawn down the families’ savings. Even so, they remain committed to the struggle – hence the crucial importance of showing them our solidarity.
On August 18, four women chained themselves along the Ecopetrol access road and declared a hunger strike, and a general strike was declared in support. The next day at 4 a.m., a large number of police officers (including ESMAD) arrived and began hitting the chained women and all the people who were with them. They dragged them away and cut off the chains with shears. In short, the government security forces unleashed a brutal attack on a peaceful demonstration. With no ambulances available to attend to the injured, the Ombudsman’s office was called and a Red Cross ambulance finally showed up.
Nevertheless, the long struggle of these men and women has not been in vain. They have succeeded in drawing attention to the case and in eliciting expressions of solidarity from other organizations, such as Corporación Chuapo, CENSAT Agua Viva, Amigos de la Tierra Colombia, and the Meta Civic Committee for Human Rights. Their perseverance has been key to obtaining a report from the Ombudsman’s office that calls for the project to be put on hold until further notice, and also raises the prospect of fines for environmental offences allegedly committed by Ecopetrol.
The report, written by Hilmer Fino, the environmental prosecutor for Llanos Orientales, covers eight alleged offences and irregularities committed by Ecopetrol during the digging of its well, and asks the National Environmental Permitting Authority (ANLA) to investigate. It further calls for “suspension, without delay, of all activities being carried out by Ecopetrol on the platform corresponding to the Trogon 1 exploratory well.” According to the prosecutor, the project threatens the region’s bodies of water as well as the economic livelihood of many residents, whose farms are predominantly under three hectares.
RedHer spent several days with the mobilization and was able to witness how the police, ESMAD, and the army – whose role is presumably to protect the public, and whose expenses are paid out of the public treasury – have been placed at the service of the multinationals (Repsol is one) so that the land can be exploited with impunity, without the necessary environmental permits, and without the communities’ approval. The authorities know that this will necessitate the forced displacement of many peasant families and that it will destroy much of the area’s water and biodiversity.
We saw how the police escorted the employees of an Ecopetrol subcontractor as they cut branches off trees along the access road to allow for the passage of heavy machinery. The trees in question are on private land and used to provide shade along the road, yet the owners were never even consulted. The people tried to stop the tree cutters but the police defended them, and that is how we spent all day Sunday (they don’t stop on weekends – could it be that they’re in a hurry?). On Monday the destruction continued. It’s as if the only thing they understand is violence, for that is what they practise: violence, never dialogue or understanding. Community members asked the police if they were in charge, and if so, if they could please ask the company to present the permit authorizing it to cut branches, since it had never discussed the matter with the owners. After a long interval, an environmental engineer arrived, promising that a meeting would be held on the afternoon of Wednesday, September 6.
That same day we received a call from the protesters telling us that the numbers of police and ESMAD officers had been greatly augmented and that the drill was to be brought in the next day. So this was the meeting she had meant…
This is the peace on which Santos prides himself; this is the peace that the extractivist multinationals wanted and needed. As for the communities of Pio XII and Orotoy, they know that peaceful words can cover up for violent deeds.