A new fracking initiative has been formalized by the Colombian government in cooperation with the state enterprise Ecopetrol. The first of four exploratory projects will take place in Puerto Wilches, a small community located next to the Magdalena River, one of the largest in Colombia. Fracking has been associated with water pollution, which could lead to severe consequences for local people’s livelihoods and the region as a whole. Social and environmental activists have received death threats and have grown increasingly vulnerable since 2016. Nevertheless, protests have emerged and will likely continue, despite COVID-19 restrictions.
On 24 December 2020, the government of Colombia confirmed that the national mining company, Ecopetrol, would execute new pilot fracking projects over about 455 hectares in the department Santander, around the small town of Puerto Wilches, allocating the equivalent of 76 million USD for its realization. Already, on December 12 in the small community of Puerto Wilches, hundreds of people had left their homes, despite all restrictions to protest the coming fracking project first announced on November 25. To date, this small movement has been the only public gathering against these projects, because of restrictions concerning the COVID-19 pandemic. The project is still pending approbation by the state environmental protection agency (ANLA), which could delay the start of extraction until the end of 2021.
Environmental politics under President Duque
The administration of Ivan Duque has been under scrutiny from the beginning of his presidency in 2018; first because of disagreements over the implementation of the 2016 peace agreement with the FARC guerrilla, and later due to a series of anti-corruption measures, as well as tributary and police reforms. Duque promised, in his presidential campaign in Bucaramanga (capital of Santander), that his government would not permit fracking under any circumstance, and would protect the priceless ecosystems of Colombia and Santander. He nevertheless allowed the use of glyphosate in coca plantations in his first year as president.
The signing of the new fracking initiative was therefore another incitement to environmental movements throughout the country where a majority cannot leave their homes to protest because of curfews and restrictions designed to limit the spread of COVID-19. Santander is believed to be one of the most vulnerable regions of Colombia in terms of climate change and environmental disasters and the Magdalena River is of vital importance to many people in the region. Not only does it, together with its many tributaries and underground water reservoirs, constitute the basis for many local peasants’ livelihood but fracking has been especially associated with water pollution. The contamination of the Magdalena River could result in the loss of means of subsistence of a high number of peasants, along with their displacement into nearby urban regions.
The local government of Santander, on the other hand, is very keen to secure its position in the oil and mining industry. Santander is an oil and mineral focused region of Colombia, and has thus been traditionally contested ground. A heavy presence of paramilitary groups and of the guerrilla ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, National Liberation Army) has marked the area for a long time. The latter has diminished in recent years. Oil and Mining companies have suffered from ELN attacks in the past, which made them rely on paramilitary actions for protection.
The entire region has been party to controversies surrounding not only fracking operations, but also the mining project ‘Soto Norte’. This project, further up in the high mountain range of Santurbán, exploration for which began in the early 1990s, was put on hold just last week after a process of revision that started in 2016. The history of social movements resisting mining incursions is therefore widespread. National movements like the Movimiento Ambiental Nacional (National Environmental Movement) and Colombia libre de fracking (Colombia free of fracking) show distinct mobilizations throughout the country, work together with local groups like the Corporación Yariguies and are collectively targeted by paramilitary groups.
Dangerous environment for activists
In Santander there exists a host of small environmental movements, many of which try to enlarge protected areas and stand up against any type of export focused resource extraction economies. While seeking to remain neutral, many environmental activists are targeted by the anti-communist rhetoric of paramilitary groups who consider any type of community activism a possible sign of collaboration with the guerillas. Throughout the over 50 year history of Colombia’s internal armed conflict, many community leaders were forced into close contact with, or even supported, guerrilla groups. As especially the FARC are peasant in their origin, there continues to be at least a perceived association between grass roots organisations and guerrilla sympathies on the part of their right-wing oposition. Government discourse has supported this association by putting labels on their opposition such as “castro-chavista”.
Colombia has suffered at least 400 assassinations of community activists since 2016. In the last few years power has shifted as areas formerly controlled by FARC are now fought over by criminal and paramilitary groups destabilizing these spaces. In 2020 alone, there have been over 30 reported death threats by right-wing extremists like the Black Eagles (Águilas negras) against environmental activists. One specific threat was made against 14 environmental activists from Puerto Wilches, and surrounding areas, who state to have observed increased industrial activity in the region since the beginning of 2020 and spoke out against fracking.
These threats are not to be taken lightly, as Colombia continues to figure in the list of countries with the most assassinations of social activists. In 2019, 64 cases were filed of environmentalists assassinated. In 2019, Colombia led the world statistic in this regard with 64 filed cases and the past year could turn out to show another deterioration as the numbers of 2020 are still under review. In 2021 there already have been reports of over 14 killed activists.
Suffocated protest in the face of COVID-19
It is probably no coincidence that the fracking decision was made public on December 24, when the population was distracted by the Christmas holidays. A year before, there was social unrest across the country, which was suspended first by Christmas, and later fading out slowly facing the pandemic. Colombian governments have tried to use the distraction of public holidays, or even national football matches, to limit public protests; for example, with the important pension reform on December 27 2019, or the reelection decree on December 27 2004.
In the same way, Police and Government institutions tried to control the 2019/2020 protests with drastic measures. Human rights organizations have been very critical of the police and government positions, criticizing the many protest-related deaths at the hands of the police. These official complaints have resulted in a new government decree, passed on the 5th of January 2021, which pretends to improve and regulate police violence in the context of social protests. This was, however, criticized by important legal observation organizations like CAJAR and Coljuristas as mere window dressing for failing to address many of the official complaints; e.g. the unsanctioned use of certain non-lethal weapons, as well as guarantees for journalists and the participation of human rights observers, among others.
Another limiting point that reduces social mobilization is the ongoing pandemic, and related limitations of meetings and contact. The one permitted protest in Puerto Wilches is the exception, as particularly urban movements are not allowed to meet in large numbers. In Bogotá, many demonstrations against assassinations of social activists, and measures to fight the spread of COVID-19 were not allowed to go forward. It is probable that, without these limitations, there would have been more protests and public attention given to these projects.
Future and possible impact
Three more pilot projects are scheduled to be signed at the end of March. Right now, environmental control agencies are beginning to review the environmental studies. They plan to finish by the third quarter of 2021, meaning fracking activities could begin by the end of the year.
Government and local industry representatives argue in favor of fracking, and emphasize the many positive impacts this project could potentially have in the future. They insist on the exploratory nature, and small scale, of the operation, and try to highlight the possible positive consequences for the region. The fracking project does contain environmental guidelines, and obliges Ecopetrol to invest part of their budget on local resources and labor.
Environmental movements point to many already existing projects in the world, especially their consequences on water contamination. Hence, their argument is that no pilot project is necessary. They will continue to protest, and aim to stop the projects while environmental revision is still pending. All the while, local activists remain in danger because they continue to stand against industry interests hoping to sway environmental analysis in their favor.
This will not remain the only reason for unrest in 2021. With topics of the 2019 protest still unresolved, and an economic crisis on the horizon, this year will see many protests emerge for different reasons throughout Colombia. The situation of social activists throughout the country is still dire, and international organizations yearn for a solution. There have been limited possibilities for protesting in public spaces while maintaining distance. Celebrations surrounding the end of the pandemic will allow for environmental topics to be swept under the rug again and it remains to be seen how strongly the public, facing upcoming economic crisis, will mobilize, once it is allowed to do so again.