Héctor Sánchez, the president of the Community Action Board of Rubiales and representative of the Puerto Gaitán Environmental, Agrarian, and Community Association, agrees that oil palm cultivation is contributing to pollution in the area. “There are 8,600 acres of oil palm, which they treat with pesticides, and that poison ends up in the river,” Sánchez said. Community members say the situation is getting worse and that their wells and reservoirs, which they created to bypass the water shortages, are collecting less and less water.

The arrival of oil palm has also affected the area’s biodiversity. Evaristo Urrea, also a Puerto Gaitán resident, says that “the gallery forests, moriche palm trees, and rivers have been reduced by 40 percent. Animals leave due to pollution, and the fish die.” Urrea’s observation is corroborated by a study produced by the National University of Colombia and published in Biota Colombiana, which found large expanses of oil palm “enclose” ecosystems, fragmenting wildlife habitat and degrading the soil.

Paredes has seen these changes, saying that when he first started farming in the region, his yucca, bananas, and fruit trees were often visited by deer, macaws, and tapirs. But these species have since disappeared from his land.

Young oil palm trees grow in a plantation near Puerto Gaitán. Image by Álvaro Avendaño.

Diana Tamaris of the National University of Colombia has studied oil palm and its impact on bird populations. She warns agrochemicals can have a direct impact on an area’s wildlife.

“When birds consume insects or plants that have had contact with agrochemicals, that can trigger effects on the density of the [egg]shell and increase the mortality rate of the offspring of some bird species,” Tamaris said.

The fight for water

Urrea and Paredes have both given up projects on their farms due to the water shortage.

“I had a livestock project, and I reached about 1,400 cattle 11 years ago,” Urrea said. “Currently, I have about 300 cattle left because there is no water. Every year, about 100 of them die.” Paredes faced similar challenges: “I managed to have a pig project, which I later had to abandon. I had to get water from Caño Rubiales, but the pigs could not have offspring, and I believe it’s because of the water.” Paredes added that he catches fewer fish in the Tillavá River than before, and that he no longer waters his plants with water from the river because their leaves turn yellow.

Caño Rubiales, a tributary that borders part of Paredes’ property, has a water quality index value of 0.48, according to the Tillavá River Water Resource Management Plan. The index ranges from 0.00 to 1.00, with the latter indicating higher quality water. A value of 0.48 puts Caño Rubiales in the “poor” category.

The situation is also difficult for those who do not live on farms, like Ramírez. She lives in the nearby hamlet of El Porvenir, which is the only community in the area that has access to clean water through an aqueduct. But even there, conditions are worsening.

“We get water through the aqueduct, but it is very scarce because the water only comes through it for one or two hours per day,” Ramírez said. “Otherwise, we go two or three days without water.” She adds that residents sometimes need to resort to buying 20-liter bottles of water for about $2.50 each.

Puerto Gaitán residents say their water is polluted. Image by Álvaro Avendaño.

Oil palm cultivation is adding to an environment already stressed by industrial development. The Rubiales oil field has been operating for 35 years, managed by Pacific Rubiales (now Frontera Energy) before Ecopetrol took over in 2016.

“When I arrived, the oil company was distanced from the farms, but when they began creating artificial seismic tremors to extract oil, the water began to dry up and the animals began to leave,” Paredes said.

In addition to seismic tremors, the oil industry in Rubiales also uses a reinjection technique involving pressurized water to extract oil. According to Luis Carlos Montenegro, a lawyer and member of the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers Collective Corporation (CCAJAR), “the technique of water reinjection —although it is not fracking— is not a conventional technique. That is, it is not regulated by a standard in Colombia. And if it is not regulated, the impact it has on soils and subsoils is not clear.”

Oil palm cultivation in Colombia’s Puerto Gaitán municipality has damaged natural ecosystems. Image by Álvaro Avendaño.

José Barragán, who lives near oil extraction infrastructure, says that his home’s roof support beam broke in half because of the seismic tremors. “It kept shaking hard; every five minutes it sounded like a bomb, and then the whole house shook,” Barragán said.

An uncertain future

In 2014, Pacific Rubiales developed one of the area’s largest and most ambitious oil palm projects, called Agrocascada. The goal was to create an efficient way to reuse water from crude oil fields, which is done by reducing its temperature from 140 degrees to 98 degrees Fahrenheit (60 to 37 degrees Celsius) and filtering it, after which the water is used to irrigate oil palm. The project, regarded as highly innovative, was to be carried out by Proagrollanos and Agro Cascada S.A.S., two subsidiaries of Pacific Rubiales.

However, Agrocascada never officially went into operation. According to the Office of the Comptroller General of Colombia, the water treatment infrastructure was built, but there was no commercial agreement between Ecopetrol and Proagrollanos that would allow the plan to be implemented.

Sánchez, from the Community Action Board of Rubiales, claims that although the project didn’t implement water treatment, it still planted thousands of acres of oil palm. “They had planned to plant 74,000 acres of palm for Agrocascada, but they stopped the project and left those 8,600 acres planted, which they do not stop contaminating with their chemicals,” Sánchez said. “Now there is a big problem because we don’t know who is managing that palm.”

However, Frontera Energy appears to know which company responsible for managing the oil palm project.

“Proagrollanos is a company with an agricultural objective which owns a crop of oil palm located in the Rubiales village in Puerto Gaitán,” said a representative of Frontera Energy.

According to the Office of the Comptroller General, Proagrollanos did receive permission to reuse water from the Meta Petroleum Corporation to irrigate oil palm plantations used for biofuel production in 2015. But because of environmental damage, the office has initiated legal proceedings against some of those involved in the Agrocascada project, including two representatives of Ecopetrol.

Community concern over the environmental impacts of oil extraction and oil palm cultivation prompted a March 2016 proposal of a resolution that sought “the safeguarding of the collective rights to a healthy environment, public health standards, ecological equilibrium, and water,” said CCAJAR  lawyer Montenegro. According to Montenegro, however, residents have been waiting for the results from the first judgement for over a year.

Part of the proposed resolution aims to resume discussions between Ecopetrol and the indigenous organizations in Puerto Gaitán. Ecopetrol, which has made an effort to improve its environmental policies in recent years, currently reuses 30 percent of the water it siphons from rivers, according to the company’s 2018 Integrated Report on Sustainable Management. The report also states that the water poured back into tributaries by Ecopetrol has a contamination level of 7.3 parts per million, which is well under the required limit of 15 parts per million.

These figures suggest that Ecopetrol is compliant with environmental quality and responsibility standards. Meanwhile, those in Rubiales wonder if they’ll ever again be able to drink clean, local water.

 

This is a translated and adapted version of a story that was produced by Mongabay Latam and first published on October 8, 2019.

Banner image: An oil palm plantation in Puerto Gaitán, Colombia. Image by Álvaro Avendaño.

Editor’s note: This story was powered by Places to Watch, a Global Forest Watch (GFW) initiative designed to quickly identify concerning forest loss around the world and catalyze further investigation of these areas. Places to Watch draws on a combination of near-real-time satellite data, automated algorithms and field intelligence to identify new areas on a monthly basis. In partnership with Mongabay, GFW is supporting data-driven journalism by providing data and maps generated by Places to Watch. Mongabay maintains complete editorial independence over the stories reported using this data.

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