Plans by Colombia’s state-owned firm Ecopetrol to drill for gas in the north of the country have been suspended following opposition from the indigenous U’wa people. An organization representing 17 U´wa communities, Asou’wa, raised the alarm about the drilling in late February reporting the arrival of “an avalanche of heavy machinery” and an increasing army presence.
Plans by Colombia’s state-owned firm Ecopetrol to drill for gas in the north of the country have been suspended following opposition from the indigenous U’wa people.
An organization representing 17 U´wa communities, Asou’wa, raised the alarm about the drilling in late February reporting the arrival of “an avalanche of heavy machinery” and an increasing army presence.
The site that Ecopetrol wants to drill is called ‘Magallanes’, situated just to the north of the U’was’ reserve, but which Asou’wa says falls within the ancestral territory of three U´wa communities.
“The Magallanes project is an imminent threat to the physical, social and cultural integrity, environment, and ancestral territory of the U´wa people, as well as an assault on our historic and cultural patrimony,” Asou’wa states. “The U’wa are appalled that the sacred river Cubogón, a tributary of the river Arauca, is just 500 metres from where the drilling is planned. Continuing the project would lead to its gradual and silent death.”
According to Asou´wa, drilling Magallanes violates international law, Colombia’s constitution, and the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
The drilling also ignores a 2009 ruling by the constitutional court, states Asou’wa, which called the U’was in danger of “extermination” and ordered the government to prepare and implement a “safeguard plan” protecting them.
“Drilling at Magallanes is a direct contradiction of that ruling which said that special considerations are required,” says U’wa woman and Asou’wa legal advisor Aura Tegria Cristancho.
The situation has been made more complicated after a series of terrorist attacks in February, March, and earlier this month on the Caño Limon-Covenas oil pipeline which runs through the north-east of U´wa territory.
In the penultimate attack, on March 25, the pipeline was detonated 100 meters from U’wa and colonos’ settlements, leading to oil pouring into a river Cubogón tributary, a miscarriage, and people seeking medical help. Asou’wa has strongly condemned the attacks and emphasized how extractive industry projects continue to bring serious negative impacts to the Uwas’ territory and lives.
“Once again we urge Ecopetrol to suspend the Magallanes project because it is an assault on the cosmovision of our people and will affect our territory, our environment, and our culture,” Asou’wa announced.
Initially the U’was refused to allow Ecopetrol to repair the pipeline, saying its presence in their territory and the attacks on it are leading to human rights violations and “repeated social and environmental dangers.”
Asou’wa said their decision was also in response to “the avalanche of new extractive projects in their ancestral territory”, and because the government had not provided timely responses to past U’wa requests.
One such request was made to the Ministry of the Interior in September 2013 asking for a commission to visit the region to see how the U’was will be impacted by Magallanes. The request was ignored.
According to the Washington Post, Ecopetrol, which runs the pipeline, has stated via email that after more than four weeks of it not being fixed production had decreased by 2.7 million barrels.
After a failed attempt to meet on April 19 and a deeply unsatisfactory meeting six days later, the U’was met again with three ministers, other government representatives and Ecopetrol’s president on May 1.
That meeting took place following increasing army presence around the March 25 attack site and comments to the media by the Energy Minister implying the government might enter U’wa territory by force.
The May 1 meeting – held the same day as another attack on the pipeline – lasted for more than 11 hours and led to a series of what the U’was called “minimal” agreements, including one that the pipeline could be repaired.
“We saw no other option than offering free access to the reparation of the Caño Limón oil pipeline in order to avoid our U’wa people…being violently evicted,” Asou’wa announced.
Another agreement was to form a “verification commission” made up of the U’was and representatives of various state bodies to enter the Magallanes site and verify operations have been suspended. Furthermore, it was argued that a technical study would be conducted and overseen by an institution chosen by the U´was and paid for by the government in order to research the potential social and environmental impacts of drilling.
“We arrived at some minimal agreements,” Asou’wa states, but “the U’wa nation confirms that it will not renounce its right over the land currently in the hands of mining and other extractive industry companies.”
“The Caño Limón-Coveñas pipeline continues to seriously affect the environment, territory, spirituality and culture of the U’wa and puts their survival, in the midst of the armed conflict, at risk,” Asou’wa continues. “As if this weren’t enough, as part of a mining and energy policy, the government continues approving environmental licenses…for projects in concessions in U’wa territory.”
According to Asou’wa’s vice-president, Heber Tegria, the verification commission effectively split into two in order to visit the Magallanes site on May 19 and 20.
Tegria told Upside Down World the U’was didn’t trust the state representatives and as a result each party entered independently – 13 U’was on May 20 when they confirmed operations have been suspended.
The U’was, government representatives and Ecopetrol are now due to meet on June 1 when, says Tegria, they will urge the government to extend the suspension and the period to conduct their impact study.
“One month was a very short time to do a rigorous and effective report,” said Tegria. “We’re going to ask that the suspension is extended between 8 and 12 months. That’s on the agenda for the June 1 meeting.”
Andrew Miller, from NGO Amazon Watch, said that his “suspicion is the ministers and Ecopetrol’s president knew it was an impossibly short timeframe and plan renewing work in June under the pretense of an incomplete study.”
Asked if Ecopetrol is planning on resuming work after June 1, and about the U’was charges that Magallanes violates laws and norms, a company representative said, “The company acts according to the law and constitution.”
Jorge Mauricio Tellez says that Ecopetrol is ‘principally’ looking for gas, and that operations in Magallanes have indeed been suspended as was agreed on May 1.
Ecopetrol received permission to drill from Colombia’s Ministry of the Environment and Sustainable Development in September 2012, and has plans for up to three wells at Magallanes.
“Ecopetrol is sure that Magallanes is being carried out responsibly regarding the environment as well as communities,” said Mauricio Tellez. “That’s why it has accepted a third party does an environmental audit this month.”