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Fracking effort closes in on impoverished Colombian communities

  • The village of Terraplén is an impoverished community in northeastern Colombia.
  • Residents, especially the farmers, say they fear what will happen to their sources of water with the arrival of a multimillion-dollar investment in fracking.
  • Nearby San Martín was the first municipality to oppose fracking in the country.
  • Many residents there have been protesting for four years and still maintain strong opposition to this technique for extracting oil and natural gas.

*This article is a collaboration between Semana Sostenible of Colombia and Mongabay Latam.

Sofía and Nicole, two young girls from the Colombian village of Terraplén, sing at the top of their lungs: “We are happy! We are happy!” They jump barefoot between their home’s dirt floor and the planks of wood that line their front yard.

Their innocent joy contrasts with the sadness of their surroundings. Terraplén does not have potable water service, reliable restrooms, paved roads, sports venues or a medical clinic. In the village, located in the municipality of Puerto Wilches in the department of Santander, all the houses seem to be identical: a zinc roof, wooden walls and a dirt floor. Only the school is different because it was built by the community using brick and cement.

“It is a place where children escape reality,” Liliana Palomino, the only teacher in town, said of the school. She said the smiles of her 11 students and the appreciation she receives from the community feel like the best rewards for Palomino. She has been fighting for several months for their school to be legally recognized by local and departmental government agencies, which hasn’t happened yet because it’s in a “red zone” where paramilitary or guerrilla groups operate.

At the same time, fracking researchers plan to conduct pilot projects very close to Terraplén. The same is true elsewhere within the municipality of San Martín, already well known for its constant anti-fracking protests.

The oil industry has operated in close proximity to Puerto Wilches for decades, but a high percentage of its residents still live with many of their basic needs unmet. Image by Pilar Mejía for Semana.

Terraplén: The invisible community

Residents of Terraplén speak in hushed voices when they discuss the presence of the National Liberation Army, a Colombian left-wing revolutionary group, as well as other paramilitary groups and the bands of thieves who often enter the extensive oil palm plantations that surround the village.

The Magdalena River, the longest in Colombia and principal source of water and fish for many communities, is only about 150 meters (500 feet) from Terraplén. In the early morning of Nov. 25, 2008, its murky waters swelled beyond its banks and destroyed several houses, forcing around 30 families to abandon their homeland. Many of them relocated to the town of Puerto Wilches, which has a population of 34,206, according to the National Administrative Department of Statistics (DANE) of Colombia.

“Those who had some animals, fish or plants left chose to stay here,” said Ciro Salvador Ruiz, a member of the Community Action Board of Terraplén. Despite the high levels of contamination in the Magdalena River, many people still cook their food using its water. Many of the area’s indigenous people adoringly refer to the river as the caripuña, or “big river.”

Currently, there are 25 families in Terraplén who survive by cultivating plantain, cassava and corn, in addition to raising pigs, chickens, goats and buffalo. The buffalo were given to them by ExxonMobil, which owns a well less than 500 m (1,640 ft) from the settlement. The corporation intends to use the well to extract oil and gas by fracking.

Ciro Carvajal Ruiz, a resident of the village of Terraplén in Puerto Wilches. Image by Pilar Mejía for Semana.

The well, called Manatí Blanco-1, is in Block VMM-37, where up to 12 additional wells could be drilled. The Manatí Blanco-1 project spans more than 154 square kilometers (about 60 square miles), or the equivalent of nearly 29,000 American football fields. A separate fracking pilot project recommended by a committee of fracking experts may also be conducted there.

According to Ruiz, “The truth is that we have never agreed with fracking in our territory because the big [entities] always take advantage of the smallest [people]. They have told us that this is a simulation, but we know that it is not. When a company makes such a large investment, it does not just hope to explore and then leave if people don’t accept it. We know that they will proceed anyway.”

According to Ruiz, “The truth is that we have never agreed with fracking in our territory because the big [entities] always take advantage of the smallest [people]. They have told us that this is a simulation, but we know that it is not. When a company makes such a large investment, it does not just hope to explore and then leave if people don’t accept it. We know that they will proceed anyway.”

Ruiz’s position is supported by the community, as well as by other leaders like Leonardo Gutiérrez, the president of the Association of Small- and Medium-Scale Oil Palm Producers of Puerto Wilches. The association’s members account for 22,000 jobs in the municipality.

Leonardo Gutiérrez, the president of the Association of Small- and Medium-Scale Oil Palm Producers of Puerto Wilches. Image by Pilar Mejía for Semana.

Gutiérrez, a mechanical engineer, said fracking could destroy the palm economy of the region. “We have a regulation that prohibits heavy metals and radioactive substances in palm crops or in the aquifers used to water fields,” he said. “If the oil is contaminated, the European Union will close the market to us, we will lose money and the economy will enter a depression.”

Gutiérrez said the chemicals used for fracking can contaminate groundwater, affecting the 600 km2 (232 mi2) of oil palm in the area. The palm fruit bunches grown in Puerto Wilches are normally sold to the municipality’s five oil extraction plants, which are situated on land that was previously dedicated to ranching.

“Here in Puerto Wilches, the soil is acidic, arid and sandy, so the topsoil is of low quality. Palm trees began to be planted in the large savannas that had been dedicated to ranching, where there used to be half of a cow per hectare because the pastures were very bad,” Gutiérrez said. “Here, we do not destroy tropical forests because they simply do not exist in this area. This means that we have not negatively impacted biodiversity, which does occur with these types of crops in other areas of the country.”

He said each oil palm consumes 8 liters (2 gallons) of groundwater per day, which returns to the atmosphere through the process of evapotranspiration. The residual liquid — water with traces of oil — from extraction plants is sent to open-air pools, where it is treated with aerobic bacteria and then discharged into streams. This occurs after tests confirm that the liquid’s oxygen content and biochemical properties comply with environmental regulations.

However, there are drawbacks to the palm oil industry in the area. The uncontrolled emission of methane gas into the atmosphere is currently the most significant environmental impact. “Nothing is being done at this moment surrounding methane odors and emissions,” Gutiérrez said. “There were intentions to implement a carbon credit payment system, but it has not had an optimal result.”

Puerto Wilches, as with other places in Colombia including the city of Barrancabermeja, is also home to a contingent that supports fracking because of the economic benefits that it could produce. “It will generate employment and a flow of resources that will be rewarded by the consumption of goods and services,” said Samuel Díaz, a hotel manager. “If it is done responsibly, without affecting the water sources as we have been told in various meetings, I believe that it should be done.”

Others prefer not to comment on the potential benefits or drawbacks of fracking because they lack sufficient knowledge about its implications. Many say they believe the compensation provided by the oil industry up until this point has failed to offset the social and environmental impacts it has caused.

The Bellavista neighborhood in Puerto Wilches. Image by Pilar Mejía for Semana.

“The resources that have come from royalties have been invested in parks and stadiums, but not in truly important works like the construction of a residual water treatment plant or the modernization of the water purification plant, which is why the quality of the liquid that arrives through the system is not the best and most people prefer to cook with bagged water,” said Edilberto Mesa, a business owner.

Consequently, the wastewater from Puerto Wilches is dumped without any treatment into the Yariguíes swamp, which empties into the Magdalena River. Construction of a residual water treatment plant began in the municipality a few years ago, but it was never finished.

Despite the Colombian government’s efforts to show the benefits of fracking, many citizens are concerned about the potential impacts of the technique. These include water, air, and soil contamination, earthquakes and detrimental effects on human health. These impacts have been documented in several international studies, including one by the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in August 2018. The study found that hydraulic fluid injection can generate earthquakes up to 10 kilometers (6 miles) away from where a well is located, and it can even activate geological faults.

A 2019 study by the University of Toledo in Ohio found a correlation between the proximity of fracking wells to higher concentrations of radon gas in homes. “The shorter the distance from a home to a fracking well, the greater the concentration of radon, and vice versa,” said Ashok Kumar, a co-author of the study and engineering professor at the University of Toledo.

Sunset over the Magdalena River in Puerto Wilches. Image by Pilar Mejía for Semana.

The study also indicated that the average radon concentration of all of the homes evaluated in Ohio was higher than the safe level permitted by the standards set by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Juan Pablo Ruiz, who studied environmental management at Yale University and is the spokesman for a committee of fracking experts, said concrete knowledge about the effects of fracking is limited. In Colombia, he said, there are no studies that allow anyone to fully understand how fracking would affect biodiversity or the quality of groundwater. It is also unknown whether fracking would increase seismic activity in the area.

“In other biophysical and institutional contexts, evaluations have been done with respect to its effects, but not here,” Ruiz said. “For that reason, the proposal to conduct the pilot projects is important, because those would be the first studies carried out in this country to understand the effects.”

Colombia’s Ministry of Mines says Puerto Wilches has benefited from oil activity, receiving about $9.5 million in royalties since 2012. This, it says, has allowed the municipality to co-finance investment projects worth more than $13.5 million in transportation, education, sports and recreation.

Still, many residents of Puerto Wilches say their main livelihoods are agriculture and fishing, which they say could eventually be complemented by tourism instead of oil and gas development. The same is true for residents of Terraplén, some of whom would prefer to have a more environmentally healthy place for children like Sofía and Nicole to sing about their happiness.

Unrest in San Martín

“Alert, alert, extractivist alert! Fracking contaminates water and life.” Announcements like this are familiar to many of the residents of San Martín municipality.

The fight that San Martín residents have put up against fracking has led them to educate themselves and others on the topic, adding even more voices to the discussion. Their municipality, located in the southern part of the department of Cesar, was the first in the country to raise its voice strongly against fracking.

An urban area in the municipality of San Martín in the department of Cesar. Image by Mauricio Ochoa Suárez.

The spark that ignited the municipality was the arrival of U.S.-based multinational corporation ConocoPhillips in 2015 when the National Hydrocarbons Agency (ANH) declared the company the operator of Block VMM-3, a nearby drilling site that spans 330 km2 (127 mi2).

“In the first few days of March 2016, some of the municipality’s social leaders and council members were notified that this company expected to conduct an unconventional exploration. Until that moment, nobody knew what fracking was,” said Carlos Andrés Santiago, the spokesman for the Alliance for a Colombia Free of Fracking. “After investigating and seeking advice, they began to alert the community.”

Santiago, a native of San Martín, recalled that a wave of resistance began at that time. This touched off a number of protests beginning on March 17, 2016, and another exactly a month later. On April 17, about 300 protesters prevented machinery from entering the Pico Plata-1 well in the community of Pita Limón, which is also in San Martín municipality but located 35 km (22 mi) from its urban area.

With the closure of the road between San Martín and the village of Cuatro Bocas that leads to the well, the movement accelerated. “We decided to lie down there, and we only allowed cars from farms to pass through — not the company’s trucks and machinery,” said Dorys Stella Gutiérrez, the legal representative of the Corporation in Defense of Water, Territory and Ecosystems. “We gained the support of the people, businesses, and farmers.”

Puerto Impala, in the city of Barrancabermeja, is one of the largest river ports in Latin America. Image by Pilar Mejía for Semana.

On Sept. 26, 2016, a new wave of protests developed over the course of several days. “In October, when the multinational company made a third attempt to put their machinery into the well, we decided to do a sit-in on the road,” Santiago said. “After two days, and after the pressure exerted by the company, the Mobile Anti-Disturbance Squadron (ESMAD) of the National Police, and the Public Forces [of Colombia] in general, they carelessly allowed the machines to pass through.”

As a result, a dozen people were injured, a large truck was burned, and the mayor’s office was pelted with stones. However, the resistance continued through legal and administrative means. In October 2018, the National Authority for Environmental Licenses (ANLA) decided to deny the license requests for the commercial fracking projects that were planned.

However, when the Ministry of Mines approved the regulatory framework for the execution of the pilot studies in December 2019, a sense of uncertainty returned to the people in the area. Cesar-Ranchería Basin, where at least one of the pilot studies would be conducted, contains Block VMM-2 and Block VMM-3, which are owned by ConocoPhillips and Calgary-based Canacol Energy. Activity in these blocks would interfere with four municipalities in the department of Cesar (San Martín, Aguachica, Río de Oro and Gamarra) and one municipality in the department of Santander (Puerto Wilches).

ConocoPhillips has indicated it is considering whether to partake in the pilot studies. It said in an interview with Mongabay Latam that, although it has two contracts in Block VMM-3, it is still waiting for regulations and decisions from the government.

The Yarirí swamp in Puerto Wilches, with evidence of the oil industry in the background. Image by Pilar Mejía for Semana.

ConocoPhillips says the Pico Plata-1 well is abandoned and that, despite the fact it is not operating, the company continues to engage in projects to benefit the region’s communities. These include the construction of a water well, activities for children, training and workshops.

ConocoPhillips says social trust is important and that its intention is for “communities to know that our company can be a good neighbor and a good operator.” The company said that in five of the 17 countries in which it operates, it is conducting fracking without having caused any environmental incidents or operational risks. ConocoPhillips added it is 100% certain fracking does not generate the impacts that some people believe, and that if the company does become involved in pilot projects, it will be “to demonstrate that it does not generate complications.”

Mongabay Latam and Semana Sostenible contacted Canacol Energy but did not receive a response by the time of this article’s original publication in Spanish.

“People in San Martín are very afraid because of everything that is said about the impacts and risks of fracking,” Santiago said. “Their concerns are not resolved by the government’s efforts to show the benefits of this technique.”

A plaza in the municipality of San Martín in the department of Cesar. Image by Mauricio Ochoa Suárez.

According to Santiago, the oil industry’s main strategy so far has been to divide communities. “These companies play with people’s needs,” he said. “They arrive with the promise of employment, and that causes many people — although they know that fracking is something negative — to end up involved in the industry.”

Santiago said he believes there is no “social license,” or widespread public acceptance, for fracking in his municipality or in the nearby Magdalena Medio region. He said he thinks this is a result of the impacts left by the conventional oil industry. “It is also because of the environmental liabilities that have not been solved and the dull compensation that has been given back. One can go to villages that are adjacent to wells and find extreme poverty and a lack of basic services,” he added.

According to the Ministry of Mines, investments in San Martín have been focused mainly on providing education, transportation and drinking water, with some attention also given to health and energy projects. It said that about $6 million has been invested in San Martín and that, since 2012, its population has benefited from more than $10 million in royalties.

“With the changes to the General Royalties System (SGR), which was recently approved by the Congress of the Republic, the resources assigned to productive regions like Magdalena Medio will increase from 11% to 25%,” the Ministry of Mines told Mongabay Latam and Semana Sostenible in an official statement.

According to the ministry, one of the government’s greatest challenges has been ensuring that the royalties paid by mining companies are effectively translated into projects that benefit communities. “The mechanism of projects [being used as] royalties was created in this government with the goal of generating new alternatives that facilitate the execution of these resources,” the ministry said.

However, Santiago of the Alliance for a Colombia Free of Fracking questioned how the ministry or the companies involved can guarantee that fracking will bring the benefits that have not arrived in more than a century of the traditional oil industry’s presence.

For now, while the Colombian government finishes complying with all the guidelines and requirements to begin the pilot projects, one thing is clear: Fear and suspicion are widespread among the residents of the municipalities where fracking is planned.


Banner image of residents of San Martín hold a protest against fracking by Mauricio Ochoa Suárez.

This story originally appeared in Spanish on Mongabay Latam on March 12, 2020.

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