Extractive Industries

Pollution, Drought and Threats: the Disturbing Cocktail of Colombia’s Oil Industry

by Nadège Mazars

Perenco is a low-profile French oil company, owned by one of France’s richest families. Basta! and the Multinationals Observatory investigated its practices in Colombia where Perenco owns several concessions, alongside other companies. The oil industry has been accused of playing a role in the droughts that have grown more frequent in the Amazon Savannah. It also faces accusations of negligence in regards to the pollution left to contaminate marshes and rivers. In spite of the blockading actions taken by communities and hundreds of complaints laid, local authorities seem entirely indifferent. Death threats await anyone who goes so far as to denounce the oil companies’ practices.

Originally published in French.

Milton Cardenas has the weary look of someone who has tried everything. Sitting at a table in the patio of his parents’ house, he scrolls through the images displayed on his computer that, according to him, cost him his job and resulted in death threats: “Look! The chemicals they’re dumping anywhere and everywhere! They are extremely dangerous! Caustic soda! Look!” Some of the photos were taken when he worked for the French multinational corporation Perenco. “Look at all the dead fish! They drill and this is where they store whatever they get out – a mix of soil and oil. When it rains, it all goes into the marsh. [1] […] Look at this dead cow that’s being pulled out of the water!”

One by one, the photos speak for themselves: there are photos of animals like the capybara, a large rodent found in the Llanos savannah, covered in oil. The tanks where the oil is discharged are not well insulated and animals can get in. Rainwater that falls in these pools is dumped untreated into the savannah. Milton also talks about the oil tankers of which up to seven a day dump wastewater into the surrounding rivers. He is chairman of the municipal executive board of Tesoro del Bubuy and has since 2009 been fighting what has become a legal battle against the multinational company that operates the La Gloria oil field.

The following is a selection of photographs taken by local people around Perenco’s oil operations in the Casanare region:

A region sucked dry by the oil industry

The village lies in the heart of the Llanos savannah in Colombia, a three-hour drive from Yopal, the capital of Casanare, situated at the foot of the Andes. The vast grassland plain studded with palm groves, gives rise, when flooded, to a number of shallow rivers that flow throughout the region. It is a water-rich area even when water is sucked into the ground over the summer months. The Colombian Orinoco Basin, which includes the Casanare, contains about one third of the country’s water reserves. Casanare is home to the llanera tradition, a culture built around extensive cattle breeding. But over the last thirty years the region has undergone profound socio-economic changes.

Oil extraction has become the region’s main economic resource, making Casanare the second biggest oil producer nationwide, with 2 286 million dollars worth of oil exported in 2014. Yet droughts –previously uncommon in the region – have become more frequent. Last year’s drought killed more than 20,000 animals (both wild and farmed) in the area of Paz de Ariporo. [2] People are blaming the oil industry, which is extremely water-intensive. It takes at least nine barrels of water to produce one barrel of oil. Groundwater extraction by the oil industry is seen as responsible for the dried-up “summer” marshes, which even during the dry period used to retain some water. Crucial to sustaining an ecological balance, these ponds provide water to livestock and wildlife in a region where it is not unusual for the temperature to reach 40°C in the shade.

Groundwater extracted through pumping is also particular in that is saline. Dumped in the natural environment or stored improperly, it also contributes to upsetting the ecological balance of the Llanos and its biodiversity. Usually a tax is imposed on oil companies in order to compensate towns whose water they are pumping. But the Contraloría, a national regulatory body that oversees public institutions, recently revealed that over the past year, more than seven million euros in taxes intended to go towards water management was lost, due to mismanagement in the department of Casanare. [3]

We asked Perenco to respond to the allegations made in this article. Its spokesperson ensured us that it was working in Colombia “in coordination with national authorities that have jurisdiction over oil operations” and “in strict compliance with environmental and social standards,” which includes the prohibition of dumping untreated water in the surrounding environment. “A part of wastewater treatment is carried out in closed holding tanks in order to minimise intrusions. The drought that sometimes hits the east of the country is not due to oil but is a well-known climatic phenomenon in the Llanos.”

Milton Cardenas montre les documents des procédures judiciaires en cours, accumulées depuis un peu plus d'un an. Le dossier de déclarations du tribunal et d'échange de lettres entre la communauté, les institutions et Perenco comporte plus de 200 pages. Tesoro del Bubuy, municipalité de Aguazul, 30/04/2015.

Death threats for those that turn their backs on oil

For seventeen unfailing years Milton worked for the French company, installing pipelines, setting up storage tanks and undertaking routine maintenance. Like most of the locals, including the younger generations that have gradually abandoned livestock for the oil sector, he benefited from a local agreement between the community and the company. But in 2009 he lost his job because, as chairman of the municipal board, he took part in the blockading of Perenco sites. The community accused the company of water pollution and failure to comply with previous agreements.

His action even put him on a blacklist that bans him from doing any kind of work in the area. And what is most disturbing is that he was indirectly told that his life is in danger. “A Perenco employee told my father that there was no knowing what was going to happen to me – or to others – if we continued down this track . . .” In a region formerly controlled by paramilitary groups and where the demobilised armed forces are still present, the message is very chilling. Perenco categorically refutes such claims: “Perenco denies any link with terrorist groups in Colombia. It was itself a victim of their attacks - on their staff and equipment on 29 June 2015.”

However, there is a precedent. One of the leaders of an extremist right-wing paramilitary group, Nelson Vargas Gordillo, admitted that thirteen years earlier there had been an agreement between the paramilitaries and Perenco. [4] According to Gordillo, who made the admission from prison, the company paid paramilitary groups just over 150 euros per tanker truck to ensure they safely exited the sites. It was at this time that Wilson Pizon Romero, one of the leaders of the village of Tesoro del Bubuy, was assassinated.

Perenco owners: 13th wealthiest family in France

The La Gloria oil wells were originally owned by Elf Aquitaine, the French giant that has since been taken over by Total. Perenco took over management and operation in 1997 in partnership with the Colombian national oil company Ecopetrol. From its beginnings as a small marine services company in Singapore in the 1970s, Perenco has become a heavyweight in the industry, working all over Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America. The company is owned by a single family, the Perrodos. Its logo features an ermine, pointing to their roots in Brittany.

Perenco really took off in 2002, then again in 2012. Relatively unknown to the public, Perenco turned its low-profile position to its advantage, and the company was able to produce enough capital to make the Perrodos the 13th wealthiest family in France, with a net worth evaluated at 5.5 billion euros in 2014. [5] On its webpage, Perenco states that it produces 35,000 barrels of oil per day in Colombia. [6]

To get a foothold in the sector, Perenco adopted a specific strategy. The company bought wells whose production was estimated to be declining, seeking to give them a second life. However this seemingly astute strategy had its flaws: although the facilities already existed, they were not in great shape due to years of use. There were, consequently, two accidental oil spills in Tesoro del Bubuy – the first in late 2012, then again in late 2013. The only permanent water source – the caño Palo Blanco – was contaminated due to a faulty pipeline.

When the two spills occurred, the locals denounced Perenco’s inadequate action, and blockaded access to the La Gloria sites in March 2014. They also realised that the recommendations made by Corporinoquia (the regional body for environmental protection and monitoring) after the first incident in 2012, had not been undertaken. The blockading actions were an opportunity for residents to visit the drilling sites, where they witnessed how bad the situation was, with evidence of pollution and negligence. However, Perenco and the three communities (Tesoro del Bubuy, Coralia, Piñalito) were able to reach an agreement after a month . . . an agreement which Perenco then failed to observe.

Do 1 % of profits really go to communities?

As a result, a second blockading action began in August 2014 and lasted three months, fuelled by two specific issues. The faulty pipeline was the primary concern. In February 2014, the National Environmental Licensing Authority (ANLA) issued a report requiring certain actions, including included closing the pipeline. [7] But Perenco denied the community access to the site to check it had taken the recommended action. In response to our questions, the company claims to have “adhered to this decision”: “The pipelines will be reopened only after being validated by the authorities, who will ensure they were replaced in satisfactory conditions.”

The documents collected in the dispute settlement process reveal that the company failed to comply with its commitments made both in the impact assessment and the environmental management plan it submitted to the ANLA. These documents allowed it to obtain an environmental license – which is mandatory for any underground drilling. As compensatory measures, the licence provided for a reforestation project and that Perenco would put 1% of its profits towards developing safe water sources and rivers in the area. Perenco has failed to respect either commitment. In response to our questions, it said that the “1% of profits was paid into a departmental-scale project, in collaboration with IDEAM; the community wanted a project that was more local in its scope, but had not yet obtained the approval of ANLA”.

Criticism of the oil industry in the Casanare is unfortunately not limited to Perenco. In late April, members of Cospacc [8], a human rights organisation, noted them down at an inspection visit. Other companies such as the Canadian company Pacific Energy and the Spanish company CEPSA are also responsible for on-going ecological pollution. Local representatives in San Luis de Palenque and Orocué are currently carrying out proceedings against Pacific Energy for non-compliance. Gustavo Torres, coordinator of the environmental control association of the Surimena community, says that near Orocué, in the Cravo Viejo oil site, Pacific Energy located its facilities much too close to the Matemarrano summer marsh, endangering its survival. An oil pipeline was recently built which passes close to Carrizales homes, in complete disregard of safety norms. Inquiring about actions taken by regulatory bodies about all this, local representatives have had the unpleasant surprise at finding that the evidence submitted to support proceedings had been lost . . .

Pipeline leaks and dubious-looking scum in water . . .

Companies are granted environmental licenses fairly quickly compared to farmers who have to wait several months to get authorisation to cut down a tree on their land. Ulvio Martín Ayala, Chair of the Cospacc executive board, is frustrated at the role of monitoring bodies. “They hand out environmental licenses as fast as they can. It’s thanks to them that we’re being stripped of all our natural resources so quickly. […] Most environmental studies are done from the office. They don’t actually visit the sites. Nor do they analyse the environmental impact studies.” Basically, the monitoring bodies work from the offices in Bogotá, slapping an “ecologically approved” stamp on companies whose actual onsite operations and repercussions have barely been investigated.

Spills due to faulty pipelines are common, states Cospacc. After the Caño El Duya was polluted in 2010, due to a faulty Perenco pipeline, the landowners received a modest compensation, but the pollution is on-going. [9] The water has a dubious-looking scum in it and one of the storage tanks does not comply with insulation standards, as witnessed by Jorge Eliecer Oros, a farmer who has had to leave a section of his land to Perenco. [10]

And then there is the drought, the gradual diminution and even disappearance of marshes that had previously withstood summers without rain, as is the case in the indigenous reserve of El Duya. In Trinidad, the constant passing of oil tanker trucks on the red dirt track raises unbearable amounts of dust and pollutes the surrounding grass and fields. The solution companies found to limit dust clouds was not to pave the track, but to spray the makeshift road with water. Yet it is believed that this water is the same polluted wastewater from the extraction process, this being a technique commonly used by the neighbouring department of Meta. Perenco’s spokesperson says that “the water used on the roads is authorised for these operations or is purchased locally, with the approval of environmental authorities.”

500 complaints filed, zero investigation

This on-going state of affairs led Cospacc to request the resignation of the Chair of Corporinoquia, the regional body for environmental protection and monitoring, Martha Plazas Roa. [11] “We received more than 500 complaints in 2014, concerning various wells in the Casanare. Corporinoquia has not made any investigation into who is accountable,” explains Martin. “People are sick of laying complaints that don’t get followed up by institutions. In her public report issued on 7 April 2015, the director of Corporinoquia made no attempt to force companies to assume responsibility. Her behaviour reflects her own cynicism and we are requesting her resignation due to incompetence.”

Companies are just as irresponsible in their attitude to and relations with communities. Although it is mandatory to consult with the community, the decisions made during these meetings are not always respected. The employment agreements with communities are used as levers of influence. As was the case in Tesoro del Bubuy, as soon as there’s any kind of dispute, there’s also the threat of being fired. But recently there have been a number of blockading actions, many of which have gone on for several months. The industry is currently going through a crisis, with a drop in oil prices, and companies have decided to reduce their payroll.

Oil companies’ response to the blockading actions was to initiate legal proceedings against community representatives for obstructing access and restricting oil exploitation, which could result in imprisonment. This is what is happening to a municipal councillor and two other people in San Luis de Palenque, where a confrontation with Pacific Energy is taking place. In Miralindo, Poré and Trinidad, other local figures and leaders are also being targeted by similar proceedings, which will be put into effect if the blockading starts up again. In Tesoro del Bubuy, this sword of Damocles also hangs over Milton and two others.

“Destruction of the region and public institutions”

With right-wing Juan Manuel Santos’ coming to power in 2010, he has made the oil industry a national priority. Colombia’s economic policy follows a “national development plan” where what Santos refers to as “energy-mining drivers” [12] are supposed to encourage both foreign investment and the signing of free-trade treaties. But as is often the case, economic logic runs counter to democratic processes and the respect these require.

This has been the impression of Ivan Cepeda, Polo Democrático senator, who is also one of the main leaders of the left-wing opposition party. “Multinational corporations play by their own rules and institutional order has got nothing to do with them,” he explains. “We are talking about destruction of both the environment and public institutions.” A new national development plan supporting fossil fuel mining in the páramos has just been approved. [13] This highland area has a unique biodiversity and is also home to water sources that are pivotal to ensuring the equilibrium of the different ecological zones of the Andes mountains and plains. Cepeda is concerned that it is “simply the destruction of our country” that is at stake.

In Tesoro del Bubuy, a few victories cause Milton’s eyes to light up. One of the landowners that was forced to let the company use his land won an initial legal battle. The good news allows him to forget for a moment the recent threats his family have been subjected to: a week after Cospacc’s visit, Milton’s family was attacked by two hooded men. His mother and father were tied up and held for several hours. They stole some money and several other objects. The attack came as a surprise in a rural area where everyone knows and trusts each other enough to leave their doors unlocked when they’re out. It is hard to say who is behind this assault. But whatever the case, it’s clear that there is a blatant discrepancy between what Perenco do and the virtuous image they like to convey on their website.

Nadège Mazars

Translation: Susanna Gendall

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Photos : © Nadège Mazars | hanslucas.com (except community photographs).

- John Eliecer Oros visits the land he loans to Perenco. Black masses of earth mixed with oil have accumulated, without any form of insulation. Miralindo community, municipality of Orocué, 26/04/2015.
- Milton Cardenas shows documents in relation to the pending judicial proceedings. Tesoro del Bubuy, municipality of Aguazul, 30/04/2015.
- A dried out “estero” on John Eliecer Oros’ land.
- At an annual meeting with Corporinoquia, Cospacc members and supporters express theur disagreement with the institution’s policy by coerving their mouth. Yopal, 17/04/2015.
- Community meeting in Miralindo with Cospacc members, Miralindo community, municipality of Orocué, 26/04/2015.
- A trace of Perenco’s social work in the Miralindo community, municipality of Orocué, 26/04/2015.
- A Miralindo community leader leads Cospacc delegates towards the El Duya stream and the Sardinas wastewater pipeline, Miralindo community, municipality of Orocué, 26/04/2015