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Colombian Farmers Turn To Pope In Dispute With Big Oil

After Colombian Energy Giant Mansarovar announced plans for oil exploration around one of Colombia's natural reserves, local farmers asked Pope Francis to intervene.

A Mansarovar pipeline in Puerto Boyaca, Colombia
A Mansarovar pipeline in Puerto Boyaca, Colombia
María Mónica Monsalve

BOGOTÁ — What can a few Colombian farmers do in the face of a major oil company's announcement that it plans to survey in their backyards? Given their government's reluctance to protect ordinary citizens against major interests, they decided to write to Pope Francis, who has turned environmental protection into a papal crusade.

Peasants and plot owners from the village of San Pedro de Guajaray, southeast of Bogotá, sent a letter to the Argentine-born pope last month to tell him "of the situation oppressing us as a community and as Christians, to do with the destruction of our ecosystem by multinationals intent on extracting resources."

Characterizing their home as "a very small village on the world map," they explained in the letter that "the Colombian state has not really given us protection, under any of the governments in the course of our 50 years of existence."

The villagers also wrote that they had been victims of different guerrilla and paramilitary groups but were determined to live in "normal conditions, understanding that the environment must be kept in a state of harmony."

Their reaction came after Mansarovar Energy announced plans for oil exploration in the area. Three years ago, Colombia's National Hydrocarbons Agency (ANH) allocated to the company an area of 216 square kilometers between the districts of Medina, Cumaral, Restrepo and El Calvario, giving it carte blanche to extract crude oil if it were located.

While the project is still being studied and is in the community outreach phase, during which farmers are being notified, many people in and around the village are opposed to its continuation. Their main fear is that water sources feeding the Guacavía and Caney rivers will be polluted and that the project will contaminate the foothills bordering one of the country's national parks, where the sources are located. These fears were reflected in a March poll taken by local environmental authorities.

"The situation is terrible because we do not want any type of activity in the foothills, mountains or the moorland," says Nelson Vivas, former environment chief of nearby Villavicencio.

The company line

Mansarovar executive Carlos Benavides says that the company's seismic exploration techniques are innovative and environmentally friendly. He says Mansarovar is trying a system of microvibrations, which "work like ultrasound," sending sound waves to the depths to detect relevant information such as rock formation type. Companies usually use dynamite for surveying, he says, but insists "we are not going to use it here. Only if it is strictly necessary."

Officials at local environmental authority Corpoguavio say there is no reason why such surveying should create significant seismic movement, but locals are skeptical. "They tell me the vibrations find nothing in other areas," says Ómar Javier Umaña, a lawyer and community leader from San Pedro de Guajaray.

He says many locals were angered during the surveying process. "On various occasions, employees of the Antea Group the company conducting community outreach and environmental impact studies for the project tricked people and didn't tell them they were coming on behalf of an oil company but instead to count plants and things like that," Umaña says.

In his case, Umaña says, Antea actually entereed his property without permission and was dishonest, changing a document signed by one member of his family to make it valid for entry into all of Umaña's properties.

The company responds by saying that only the Umaña family has reported such incidents, insisting it has implemented all relevant protocols and that all entry permits signed had the seals of both Antea and the oil company. "We are ready to meet with them to explain everything again," Benavides says.

As the project progresses, farmers eagerly await a reply from the Vatican, which they hope will "make a declaration on all such cases happening in Colombia, Latin America and the world," their letter to Pope Francis reads, citing his environmental encyclical. "As they say on this continent, it fell from heaven and emboldens us to maintain our opposition to multinationals and economic policies that entail the destruction of the environment."

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