SEMANA, May 27, 2020

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

Nature tourism, agro-forestry development, and marketing of carbon are some of the options suggested instead of hydrocarbons. A study by Environment and Society indicates that right now 54 hydrocarbon projects are being developed in Putumayo and Caquetá.

The defeat last week by the full Chamber of Representatives of the proposal to prohibit the development of hydrocarbon extraction projects in the provinces of Amazonia puts squarely on the table the debate about the future of that area of the country, a place that so many are lusting for.

Juanita Goebertus, a Representative in the Chamber, and one of the principal supportof the proposal that attempts to preserve Amazonia from that type of initiative, considers that it’s crucial to define where mining and hydrocarbon activities may take place  because of their contribution to economic development, and where they must be prohibited, because of the environmental value of certain ecosystems that are fundamental.

“It’s incredible that in the midst of the pandemic we are living in, that we are not capable of agreeing on the immense value of the Amazon region, even to prevent the transmission of a virus like Covid-19 from animals to human beings,” she insists.

Julio Andrés Rozo, Director of the Amazonian Forest Entrepreneurship School, believes that the decision leaves open the possibility that in the future there would be oil-drilling projects opened in the Amazon territory. This is not just a territory that Colombians boast about, within the country and outside of it, but it is the greatest, most bio-diverse place on the planet.

Even though he admits that it’s not about demonizing hydrocarbons, he also points out that it’s necessary to intensify the debate about the importance of the Amazon, and to build a sustainable development model for the region. Even though it’s clear that the country still depends on these economic activities, they need to be developed in areas where the impacts could be more manageable. “It’s important that the country debate about decarbonization, in the way that other nations have,” he says, pointing out that we can’t continue to push extractivism without understanding it.

He believes it’s important to strengthen the development of green, regenerating businesses, oriented toward conservation for the million people who live in that region.

To his way of thinking, economics doesn’t compete with the environment, and  alternatives do exist. For example, there is nature tourism; there can be responsible planning and management of forest lumber and non-lumber forest products; and markets for carbon for the conservation of ecosystem services that the region offers, especially the restoration and regeneration of degraded ecosystems.

“There are important areas that have been degraded and where there is no jungle, such as the case of the Amazon piedmont. This is a great opportunity for the country to re-forest and re-generate, but not thinking that, since there is no forest, we can carry out extractive activities,” he insists.

The Chamber Representative Juan Carlos Losada agrees. For him it’s a fact that the country has to look for forms of agro-forest development, but not those kinds of projects that work against the environment and against the people who live in the region.

In his opinion, the Amazon ought to be a conservation zone, where the communities also have the possibility of economic growth, but in harmony with the natural resources.

Impact on the reservations belonging to indigenous people

Indeed, the objective is to avoid continuing the expansion of this type of extractive project in the area, not only because of the effects on the environment, but also because of the impact they have on the communities. The majority of the communities in the region are indigenous people.

One study carried out by the NGO Environment and Society, between Caquetá and Putumayo, which is where most of the oil drilling activity is going on right now, there are 54 hydrocarbon projects. Thirty of those overlap with 56 reservations: 25 are in Putumayo and five are in Caquetá.

The NGO carried out an analysis of the hydrocarbon industry at the foot of the Amazon hill country, studying the province of Putumayo. Laura Montaño, an attorney who was the investigator in the study, states that they determined to study the cases of three petroleum blocs: PUT-1, PUT-12, and PUT-14.

According to Montaño, they were able to establish that there are six transversal aspects that affect the inhabitants of the reservations and that overlap the projects that were studied: failure to comply with court decisions; absence of agencies to control the procedures carried out by the company and community; lack of Interior Ministry awareness of the presence of the communities; continuation of the consultation when the community has expressly said that it does not want the project to be developed in their territory; lack of awareness by the community of the extent of the actions carried out by the hydrocarbon companies; and violation of access to public information by government agencies.

According to Montaño, these problems come up because in the case, for example, of prior consultations, this is not a veto power for the communities. The problem is that the companies are not trying to reach agreements, but rather to go ahead with the process, independent of the position of the communities with regard to the project.

“These analyses allow us to determine that they are not considering the social and environmental problems created within the territories, and that the companies normally just work on compensating for the damage, and not on restructuring the project so as to minimize or avoid the damage they are doing to the communities,” warns Montaño.

In the analysis of the three cases, there was a business study where they evaluated the social structure present in the territory and what implications that has for the region. One of the principal conclusions of the Environment and Society analysis is that the companies are multinational; their home office is far away from Colombia. They create subsidiaries in Colombia, but the subsidiaries own minimal assets.

“The implication of this is that in any suit or litigation, the plaintiff can only obtain the assets of the subsidiary, as required by the statutes. Those limited assets don’t reflect the economic reality of these big companies.”

Amazonia is very attractive to the big companies because the principal oil reserves in Colombia are in the southern and eastern parts of the country, in the plains, in Arauca, and in Meta Province.

Putumayo and Caquetá are very attractive for the big multinationals interested in developing mining projects. Montaño says that, unlike a province like Amazonia, what happens in the other two is that, while it’s true that there are a number of reservations for indigenous people, there are no nature reserves, which leaves the area more exposed to the mining industry. Putumayo, specifically, has a high presence of indigenous people, but has no focus on the preservation of biodiversity, unlike other provinces.

According to the analysis by Environment and Society, the main impacts are in the area of security because the presence of the oil companies usually attracts the attention of illegal armed actors. “A judge in land restitution was able to establish the connection between paramilitary groups and the presence of the companies. They come and intimidate the communities to make them allow the mining activities.”

From an environmental point of view, these mining industries have a great impact because they affect water sources and natural resources, which translates into a direct impact on the inhabitants of the reservations, who find their most important sources of subsistence in water and in nature.

In addition, the presence of hydrocarbon companies brings cultures and ways of life that are different from those in the reservations and in the communities of people who live there. It destroys their social order, because it increases sexual violence and adolescent pregnancy, and it changes traditions, and all of that ends up hastening the extinction of indigenous culture.

With this panorama, the call is to start a debate about the adoption of sustainable economic models that allow the production of important levels of income without the need of resorting to extractive industries. According to Julio Andrés Rozo, it’s important to promote serious studies that reveal the real opportunities that this region offers, so that there can be judgments and decisions about the diversification of sustainable and productive activities.

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