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 â€" 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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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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