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The UN special rapporteur for the defence of human rights in Colombia, Michel Forst, is concerned about the judicialization of social movement leaders in Colombia and the fact that the government is not taking action to protect these leaders and human rights defenders.

The arrest of eight residents of the town of San Luis de Palenque (Casanare department) who had taken part in protests and negotiations with the Canadian oil company Frontera Energy is a matter of great concern for the rapporteur and the international community.

The facts leading to the arrest of these eight people are connected with the arrival of the Canadian company Frontera Energy (until 2017, Pacific Rubiales) in the department of Casanare in 2005. Since then, the company has been involved in oil exploration and production, and its operations have altered the lives of the region’s inhabitants. The large volume of tanker truck traffic has torn up the roads, and as the National Environmental Licensing Authority (ANLA) has stated, air pollution from the dust particles kicked up by these trucks is causing health problems for the residents. Furthermore, the company is dumping its process water into the Pauto River and on the roads, polluting the water sources on which local people and animals depend and causing animal mortality as well as respiratory conditions among the residents. Yet another burden is that the company has long been subsidized by loans from the community for transportation, housing, and food services for the employees. In 2018, the debt for these services stood at 3.400 million COP.

In 2017 and 2018, the residents of the town of San Luis de Palenque started protesting to demand that the company repair the roads and pay down the debt.

In parallel with the protests, there were negotiations between the company and the community, in which local residents such as Ferney Salcedo, Jesús Leal Salcedo, Carmen Iraida Salcedo, and Yulivel Leal took part as people affected by the company, which is personally indebted to them, and as community leaders.

On 19 November 2018, the company signed an agreement with the Colombian Armed Forces to offer “special protection within the company’s area of interest”; i.e., that of the Corcel, Llanos 25, Arrendajo, Casimena, Cubiro, Cravo Viejo, and Cachicamo projects.

On 27 November 2018, eight residents (two women and six men) of San Luis de Palenque were arrested and charged with using the protest as a façade for racketeering. The people arrested were social movement leaders who had participated in the negotiations with the company. They are farmers, drivers, and labourers.

PASC wishes to alert the Canadian government to its responsibility for a Canadian company’s complicity in a process leading to the criminalization of social protest. The jailing of community leaders embroiled in negotiations with the company, after a military intelligence report was issued while the Armed Forces were in the pay of the company, can be likened to an act of corruption designed to criminalize social movement leaders, who are, moreover, some of the people directly affected by the Canadian company’s industrial and administrative activities. Also, it is a legally demonstrated fact, implicating the ethical and political responsibility of the Government of Canada, that a Canadian company is signing security contracts with the Armed Forces, whose involvement in human rights violations has been repeatedly proved before domestic and international tribunals.

Finally, it should not be forgotten that Frontera Energy used to be called Pacific Rubiales Energy, a company with a long history of violations of labour rights and environmental laws. It has been implicated in corruption cases that are still under investigation by agencies such as the National Comptroller.