Necessity Still Breeds Ingenuity - Archive of SQUALL MAGAZINE 1992-2006
A soldier of the XVI Brigade: 'The Oil companies loyal friend.'
A soldier of the XVI Brigade: 'The Oil companies loyal friend.'
Photos courtesy of Peace Brigades International.

The Drilling Fields

Colombian President, Ernesto Samper, has admitted that more than 30% of his country's military machine is currently engaged in protecting oil fields and pipelines. Debbie Young investigates the involvement of British Petroleum in the rush for Colombian oil.

Squall 15, Summer 1997, pg. 47.

The Casanare region of Colombia is a remote frontiersland in the Andean foothills, a few hundred kilometres north east of Bogota, home to cowboys, subsistence farmers and peasants. The discovery of oil in the late '80s changed everything: communities have been forced to move from their land; the Colombian army moved in to protect oil installations and pipelines, including those of British Petroleum Plc, from guerilla groups in conflict with the Government. Locals who voiced opposition to environmental damage and lack of steady employment have become victims of intimidation, torture, murder and disappearance. As a result of its links with the Colombian army, BP has been confronted with loaded allegations but denies all.

In an effort to stamp out further allegations of links with human rights abuses and environmental destruction in the region, British Petroleum Plc last month published a leaflet BP In Colombia - The Facts. BP says it "is convinced its presence in Colombia is fundamentally good and honourable and deserves to be better understood".

The sign outside the XVIth Brigade's headquarters in Yopal reads Ejercito Nacional Un Amigo Leal. Translated this means National Army A Loyal Friend. The XVIth Brigade protects BP's operations from guerrilla groups who live in the remote Andean foothills. According to locals, people are more afraid of the army with whom BP has very close ties. In a country with one of the worst human-rights records in the world, approximately 100 campaigners voicing opposition to BP's operations in the Casanare region have been brutally murdered or disappeared. Other campaigners have been silenced by intimidation and beatings. One of BP's latest PR tactics, according to The Facts, is "sponsorship of 'human rights cards' (pocket guidelines) for Colombian soldiers".

Richard Howitt, South Essex Labour MEP, has made two visits to Casanare, this year and last year, to follow up allegations of human-rights abuses and environmental destruction. He was told by a local that to speak out against BP is suicidal. Typically, anyone opposing BP is branded a subversive, a guerrilla sympathiser and therefore an enemy. Pedro is a highly respected member of his community but when he tried to help resolve a strike against BP contractors, he was accused of being a guerrilla and detained. Pedro told his translator that the army in Casanare is BP's army and the Colombian Government does exactly as BP says. A soldier told Howitt plainly "we work for BP, they give us orders".

In 1991, the 5,000 troop-strong XVIth Brigade was established in the region to protect oil installations. It is alleged that BP funded the Brigade's barracks and other military complexes. BP state in The Facts they "do not employ a private army" and "do not resort to bribing" although they have struck an agreement with the Ministry of Defence to provide housing, food, transportation and health services to troops. To fund security, oil companies are obliged to pay $1.25 a barrel for 'war tax' to the military for protection from guerrillas. In BP's case, an extra $11.6 million was paid to the military for tighter security measures over the next three years.

A report from a multi-institutional human rights commission which included the Attorney General's Office, the National Peasant Union and the Committee for Solidarity with Political Prisoners, alleged that information on strikers and protestors were passed on to the army by informers working for oil companies. This resulted in the murders of ANUC, (the peasant farmers union) members and supporters. BP flatly denies passing on any information but local sources say the company is guilty of colluding in this way. Howitt told Squall that "video surveillance may not have been passed on to the military but to the government, and the government/military link is paper thin".

Colombia - The Drilling Fields

Amnesty International has called for "BP and other oil companies to review their policies of operation in areas of conflict to ensure that never again, however unwittingly, do they provide information to military intelligence or to the security forces which subsequently leads to human rights violations". 

Roddy King works in BP's Press Office in London. He told Squall that "'BP has made some stupid mistakes but nothing as extreme as the media has made out". La Tablona is the main source of water for Yopal, capital of the Casanare region. When questioned about the environmental damage in the area, King denied all allegations shifting the blame instead onto migrant workers. In regards to reports about cows and horses blinded by water contamination he said that "that was just emotive". Landslides caused by erosion as a result of seismic exploration in protected forest area was caused, said King, by "heavy rainfall". Nothing to do with BP. An ex-governor of the Casanare region has said that, "oil companies are benefiting from a deliberate lack of environmental control at provisional and national levels."

Striking oil here has not rewarded locals with steady employment but with 28-day contracts that are intermittent, unreliable and badly paid. Any strike measures against BP and their sub-contractors have been broken up by the army resulting in violence and death. The most basic complaint is that none of the oil's wealth has filtered down to the people of the region. King estimated that this might take five to ten years but that it would happen eventually. In The Facts, BP maintains that they have invested in "programmes designed to raise educational, housing and health standards..."

A campaigner who asked not to be identified, writing from Casanare, told Squall: "BP has spent a good deal of money on projects but more to win public opinion and politicians over than for the projects themselves. Most of BP's social action has been concentrated on the construction of works (schools, healthposts, roads etc) without analysing their role within the infratstructure of the region and whether they are really necessary."

Helena Paul of Oilwatch, a London-based organisation which monitors the oil industry, says there is often "a lack of respect on the part of companies and no understanding or appreciation of cultural differences".

Writing in the March 23rd edition of Colombia's El Espectador, Editor Marta Morales Manchego described Casanare as a region of "nineteen forgotten municipalities that were born one day with a budget of a hundred billion pesos" which was now a "rich poor man with many problems". Manchego reported the jail had 64 prisoners in a space for only 25 and there is pollution and overcrowding. The Human Rights Ombudsman Miguel Alfonso Perez told Manchego there was an "non-existent political system; no justice; no support to victims of crime and there has been too much investment without development."

Howitt told Squall he has "nothing against BP and no axe to grind" but when he was approached by a Colombian in exile who presented a clear story of human rights abuses and environmental damage he decided he would not let allegations against BP go unchecked.

"I would be evading my repsonsibilities if I didn't follow these issues closely. I have no great wish to bash BP. As a British politician I want to be proud of a British company's successes but these are very serious allegations."

If capitalism works on expectation and investors get a whiff of any difficulties in the proverbial pipeline, share prices will plummet. BP is riding on the back of a £23 billion "elephant"; a huge find in oil industry lingo. BP has put 20 per cent of its entire budget into Colombia this year. Next to Alaska and the North Sea, Casanare represents BP's third most profitable operation. Derek Newman, a close observer of the oil industry explained to Squall the motivating factors behind BP's grip on Casanare.

"It is important for people to understand the corporate dynamism in which BP impels itself, to carry on a course of action which it started upon a decade ago; to expand its exploration in non Anglo-Saxon areas - the foremost of these at the moment being Colombia - and this dynamism makes it extremely difficult for BP to change tack on Colombia. Therefore, they can persuade themselves and others that everything is going according to plan."

Phil Mead, Associate President of BP's operations in Colombia, requires bodyguards everywhere he goes. In a speech to reporters he lamented the deaths of local activists but denied any link whatsoever between their fate and BP. He said 'the last thing that BP wants to do is to have these people disappear in a shroud of secrecy and mystery and surrounded by accusations. It's not in our long term interest."

In The Facts, in the section entitled 'Why is BP in Colombia?', they sum up their presence with the proclamation:"Finally, we believe that responsible oil development represents Colombia's best hope for future peace and prosperity."

In contrast Helena Paul of Oilwatch believes they may be fuelling tension just by being there. BP's presence in this part of Colombia "makes them a focus for increasing the stakes and therefore the violence in this region. This is inevitable given the conflicts in this region".

The situation in Casanare is so complex that there needs to be a total rethink of the over-consumption of oil and oil derivatives which make the exploitation of people and resources so necessary.