Before coming to Colombia, I knew that multinational oil and gas companies used private security guards backed up by the Colombian military. I did not know that the private security officers are literally in the driver’s seat while the military literally takes the back seat. This is something I learned in the booming Llanos basin earlier this week.
It’s not the sort of thing you learn if you contact Pacific Rubiales Energy Corp. and request a tour of their field and get flown the 200 km from Bogotá on a small plane in 45 minutes, with charming overhead views of the pastoral countryside. It is the sort of thing one learns when visiting with an embittered former farmer who is now a labour activist for oilfield contractors, whose family sold a little parcel of land to an oil company to develop the pictured well in what is no longer simply some finca in the middle of nowhere but is instead “the Jaguar field.” He and his siblings can’t afford to farm anymore, since prices in the region have shot up with the presence of oil money, while prices for farm goods haven’t risen. I did not know that Dutch disease could affect a single town, but there it is.
This farmer wanted to show the effects of oil development on the native wetlands where he and his family have counted 15, 25, or even 35 species of parrots, the numbers rising with each telling. He made the unwise choice of parking on oil company property rather than blocking the road with the 4×4.
According to time stamps on my camera, from the time we got out of the pickup to when the army arrived, 12 minutes passed. That is impressive, given as how we were an hour’s drive from nowhere. But the soldiers didn’t arrive in government vehicles. Instead they arrived in a pair of white pickups, a Mazda and a Toyota. The first disgorged four Military Forces of Colombia infantrymen with their AR-15s and digital cameras and uniforms straight outta Fort Knox. The second had five. Each car was driven by a man in a light blue shirt with a badge from the Cara Cara project of Cepcolsa, the local affiliate of Cepsa, a Spanish oil company. These men don’t work for Cepcolsa, but rather for a contract security company. And in this case, the security company is accompanied all day by a few of Colombia’s 200,000 active-duty troops.
The army recruits were all perfectly nice kids, very polite. In an unguarded moment, one of them said they may be Colombian army, but it’s the multinationals who call the shots. “Son los multinacionales que mandan.” He shrugged. They serve a couple years and move on, and that’s life. They have a serious mission, as Colombian oil pipeline attacks are up this year (37 in southern Putumayo department alone) and the oil industry is a big driver of the Colombian economy right now. But it was clear pretty quickly that we weren’t there to cut pipelines.
So, after all that, was there environmental damage? I don’t know. I didn’t see much, but it’s really hard for a non-specialist to tell on a first visit. What’s clear is that this is a fragile environment. In the background is a morichal. Morichals are oases on the wet savannah where moriche palms naturally cluster. These springs often create little streams with frogs and fishes. The locals in the Colombian and Venezuelan llanos call them “birthplaces of water.” At this one, we saw dozens of parrots and macaws, but the light sucked so no good photos to share.
This oil well’s surface equipment is atop a little gravel and concrete platform. The natural direction of runoff is toward a ditch around the edge of the site. Water in that ditch is channelled into a little concrete pool called a skimmer (see photo, which is clickable for a big version), from which it drains to the morichal. Normally the site’s pollution is just construction waste. If there is ever a problem with the well or its pipelines, that would be bad. The local we were with said that dark lines in the skimmer were evidence of crude flowing there, but without any expertise, I can’t say it was. All I know is that is one very nice place for an oil well.
In the end, we did get out of there without incident. The military people told us to stay and await the police. But the police took forever to arrive. We couldn’t figure out the truth: Why were we being told to wait for the cops? Was it because we were a couple foreign journalists, as they told us? Or was it because our hosts were union activists, as the unionists said? At last, one of the union guys heard soldiers saying the police were lost trying to find the well. He got us back in the truck and drove off. For all their weapons, the soldiers don’t have the right to detain people who aren’t doing anything. And where we went? A story for another time.