Ecopetrol has just announced that it has negotiated an agreement to regain control of a natural gas plant in eastern Colombia that was taken over by members of the indigenous U’wa community last week. Along with representatives of the government, the state-controlled oil company spent more than 10 hours in discussions with community leaders and was able to end a week-long standoff and “restore normalcy” to its Gibraltar plant in the department of Norte de Santander, according to Ecopetrol.
The situation at the plant in Toledo near the Venezuelan border turned dire on July 21 when a U’wa protest that had been ongoing in some form for nearly two months turned into a siege of the facility. According to Ecopetrol, members of the U’wa community took 14 of its workers hostage and seized control of the plant’s command center at 5:45 a.m. in an attempt to force the government to sit down and listen to their grievances about local land management, environmental issues, and health concerns.
Among the provisions of the agreement, Ecopetrol will resume operations at Gibraltar today at 2 p.m. after inspecting the facility for any possible issues that may have been created while it was out of the firm’s hands. It will also begin repairs to one damaged pipeline whose condition had been harming the local environment while ceasing operations to bury its Caño Limón-Coveñas pipeline in La China, as it committed to do in 2014.
Over the longer term, according to RCN Radio, the government will award roughly $4.8 million USD to adjudicate claims made while spending $4.1 million USD on sanitation improvements, land acquisition, and other initiatives in El Cocuy National Park and elsewhere.
The Ministry of Environment will also devote some $1.7 million USD for protection efforts, and the departmental government will, along with Ecopetrol assistance, help rebuild local roads.
“We will leave the plant, but we will remain close to the plant to guarantee that agreements and our demands are met,” said U’wa representative Yimmy Aguablanca, according to RCN Radio.
The current controversy centers on the failure of parties to live up the agreement reached in May 2014, according to the U’wa community. Prior to that accord, the U’wa had blockaded the Gibraltar facility to force a response to its complaints about resource development on its ancestral lands. Recent activism efforts have seen hundreds of U’wa members surrounding the Gibraltar plant over the past two months and disrupting operations. They have been demanding that the government and Ecopetrol fulfill previously agreed-upon commitments.
Fears rose in June after a nearby pipeline was damaged — bursting and shown catching fire in photos distributed locally — and the police presence was elevated. No serious altercations have been reported, however. After regaining control of the Gibraltar facility, after more than 40 days of suspended operations, Ecopetrol says it will soon be able to resume providing gas to some 500,000 families in 11 municipalities throughout the departments of Norte de Santander, Santander, and Antioquia.
In mid-June, Mariela, a nurse in the community, told the Center for World Indigenous Studies that local children were suffering from respiratory disease and diarrhea amid widespread pollution in their ancestral home. “We’re here defending our territory, as always,” she said, according to the organization’s Intercontinental Cry magazine. “We’ll continue with the defense of our territory.”
The U’wa, a group that now may number as few as 6,000 people, have been fighting against natural resource extraction in their territory for decades. They successfully prevented drilling by the Houston-based Occidental Petroleum in the 1990s. Those efforts led to community leader Berito Kuwaru’wa receiving the Goldman Environmental Prize in 1998. The U’wa maintained that the permits granted to Occidental by the government were in clear violation of a 1991 constitutional decree that gave indigenous groups increased rights for self-determination on their lands. Community members threatened mass suicide to prevent natural resources being pulled from the ground.
While the U’wa have won some victories, their fight is ongoing. According to various reports, members were beaten, teargassed, and threatened routinely during their protests in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In more recent years, Ecopetrol, among others, have continued to seek development in the region amid continued opposition by the community. They consider drill into their historic lands a grave offense equivalent to “taking the blood of their Mother Earth.”
The agreement reached last night to end the Gibraltar takeover will be guaranteed through oversight by the United Nations mission in Colombia, the Organization of American States’ MAPP (Mission de Apoyo al Proceso de Paz), and the governmental Public Ombudsman’s Office (La Defensoría del Pueblo). The UN mission commenced in May, at the request of both the Colombia government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), to provide oversight for the terms of the ceasefire that the two sides reached in Havana.
Photo: Stakeholders pose for a photograph after the signing of the agreement on July 27 in Cubará, Colombia. (Credit: Ecopetrol)