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EL ESPECTADOR

In Colombia, A Clash Of Big Oil And Direct Democracy

Water taxi on Colombia's Magdalena river
Water taxi on Colombia's Magdalena river

- Editorial -

BOGOTA — Voters in Colombia recently rejected multinational gold mining near Piedras, and now people in Tauramena, near Bogotá, have said no to oil prospecting.

The people have spoken, but will the state listen?

Specifically, residents in seven rural localities voted against seismic testing as part of the oil firm Ecopetrol’sOdisea 3D project. It was, in fact, an overwhelming outpouring of opposition: 4,426 townspeople voted No, and only 151 voted Yes. Tauramena Mayor Alexander Contreras, who was elected in a municipality known for high voter abstention, has noted that more people came out to oppose the testing than cast votes for him.

What has gone on here is a specific and unequivocal expression of democracy. Residents simply don’t want seismic testing because they fear it could damage mountainous areas and the protected water reserves found there. The vote should settle the matter.

And no, this is not simply a passing issue of the day. Local residents have been worried about the prospect of oil fields for three years, which was also true of the 400 residents who protested production by British Petroleum, over labor conditions. They filed a collective action to stop Odisea 3D. Their opposition was palpable, which is why a ministerial team sent to the district to reconcile residents to the project proved useless.

Nobody — neither the mines nor the environment ministries, the deputy interior minister nor the president of Ecopetrol — could halt the opposition.

Who owns the soil?

The question is whether the vote is valid in legal terms. Defenders of participatory democracy would say yes, and with good reason. One of the central tenets of Colombia's 1991 constitution is administrative decentralization — that is, giving local communities the opportunity to determine their own affairs, not just by electing local leaders but, as in this case, by making use of voting mechanisms the law permits.

“These polls are illegal and have no legal effect,” President Juan Manuel Santos told this newspaper, because “the underground belongs to all Colombians.” He characterized the voting as distorted, saying the questions put to voters were manipulated. The mines and energy minister said such votes endangered business investment and threatened the municipality’s “competitiveness.”

Both sides have their arguments, but who can deny these precedents? Surely other Colombian municipalities will follow, especially because of the new norms governing royalties, which leave many residents feeling like they shoulder all the costs with very few of the benefits.

Can something be done, beyond simply ignoring the overwhelming will of the people and imposing unwanted industry? Because it’s not just rejection we’ve witnessed. Citizens have also voiced fear and mistrust — fear that things will turn out badly and that water resources will become scarce, and mistrust that the state will be unable to prevent companies from coming and going like some disease, extracting everything and leaving behind only destruction and despair.

Hopefully, something positive will emerge from this face-off. Perhaps national and local interests can be harmonized in some way. We will be watching closely.

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