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Emerald Energy Exploits Colombian Andes

Elias Cabrera* - IPS/CorpWatch

GARZÓN, Huila, Colombia, Mar 21 2012 (IPS) - A thick fog flows over the eastern range of the Colombian Andes. Here and there, the constant wind lifts the clouds to reveal lagoons, cloud forests, and páramo, an Andean alpine ecosystem known as a “mountaintop sponge” for its massive water-holding capacity.

Emerald Energy oil well in Colombia.  Credit: Elias Cabrera

Emerald Energy oil well in Colombia. Credit: Elias Cabrera

Descending lower into the Upper Magdalena Valley, about 400 kilometres southwest of Bogotá, rural communities farm a wide variety of fruit and vegetable crops, and raise animals that not only sustain families, but help feed Colombia’s major cities.

In the municipal districts of Gigante and Garzón in the department (province) of Huila, the bucolic setting is interrupted by the platforms of several oil wells belonging to Emerald Energy PLC.

Emerald Energy, founded in London in 1996, was awarded its first exploration permit for the Matambo Bloc in Gigante. (Governments typically auction off oil exploration rights on specific parcels of land known as blocks or blocs.)

On Aug. 9, 2011, the Colombian Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development issued Environmental License 1609 to Emerald Energy, allowing it to install five new platforms and three oil wells in the VSM 32 Bloc, adjacent and uphill of the Matambo Bloc.

FARC Threatens to Force Emerald Energy out of Caqueta

Just over the Oriental Mountain chain of the Colombian Andes, south of Huila, Emerald Energy operates in the Amazonian oil-rich departments of Putumayo and Caqueta where the company's 12- well field in the region of San Vicente del Caguan, Caqueta produces about 600 barrels a day.

Security concerns in this region have repeatedly plagued Emerald Energy’s operations. In November 2011 the company temporarily halted activity in Los Pozos, Caqueta. In June the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) kidnapped four Chinese contract workers from Los Pozos, and is still holding them for ransom. Two months later in the same region, the FARC attacked and incinerated six Emerald Energy tanker trucks leaving the region with crude oil.

In September, a similar attack left one person dead and five trucks destroyed along the same route, prompting the company to suspend operations temporarily. And on Mar. 5, an attack from the FARC's Teofil Foreo Mobile Column caused the company to suspend activities in the San Vicente del Caguan Bloc for four days.

Energy and Mines Minister Mauricio Cardenas and governor of Caqueta, Victor Isidro Ramirez, have offered Colombian Army troops to provide greater protection to Emerald Energy. Nonetheless, on Mar. 14, the two local transportation companies contracted by Emerald to transport the crude oil out of the Caqueta, Rapientrega and Cootransamazonía areas announced an indefinite strike owing to the deaths of the truck drivers. Protests against the violence were scheduled for Mar. 16.

Four months after the permit was authorised, campesinos opposing the project gathered in the farming village of Zuluaga.

“I believe we are all united here because of the Emerald’s crude behaviour within our region,” said Luis Jorge Sanchez Garcia, Huila’s former governor. “It is vital that we unite to protect our natural resources from oil development, (and) in particular protect our water. If some disaster happens, it will not affect just the countryside where the operations are; it will affect our entire region.”

“Emerald Energy is destroying the land and water,” Armando Acuña, a municipal council member from Garzón, told CorpWatch. “Their exploration, with underground explosions is causing landslides and the ground to sink, homes, and crops are being destroyed and we are losing our water.”

Communities defend Matambo

Unique to the Americas, páramo are mostly found in the Andes Mountains, with more than 60 percent occurring in Colombia. The vegetation, a unique mixture of lichens, mosses, algae and grasses, has incredible water retention capacity, birthing major rivers such as the Orinoco, Magdalena and Amazon.

The Matambo Bloc, which sits below the páramo in the Magdalena Valley, gets its name from a mountain in the shape of the face of a giant who, according to local legend, will one day arise from the earth.

Since the Matambo Bloc was opened, the region encompassed by the operations has seen a steady deterioration of its land and water, according to the Intersectorial Association of Gigante & Garzón (AISEG).

In 2000, two years after the Gigante 1 well was drilled to 4,815 metres, “there was an explosion that resulted in a fire that burned for 25 days with a flame that was about 30 meters high, shutting down operations,” Jorge Enrique Alvarado, a municipal council member, told CorpWatch.

“This whole area had a dense hazy cloud over it during that whole month and the area nearby had all sorts of burnt oil and ash accumulated on their crops, cattle and fish ponds.”

In early January, the communities affected by Emerald Energy attempted to stop Emerald’s expansion.

“As of November 2011 we have been blocking the entrance to all operations in VSM 32 Bloc, and do not intend to allow any machinery to enter,” said Alberto Calderon, a member of Intersectorial Association of Gigante & Garzón (AISEG), at a public roundtable that followed the blockade.

The middle-aged farmer lives with his wife, two children and some cows and chickens on a small, self-sufficient farm that produces coffee, avocados, onions, and cacao. His land borders Emerald’s oil well Iskana 1.

“Nothing they have brought us has helped us,” he said of Emerald. “Our rivers are drying. They foment divisions within the community, and our youth do not want to work the land after they have worked for the company.”

Public meetings

In public meetings with Huila’s Governor Cielo Gonzalez in late January, Emerald Energy Legal Issues Representative Juan Manuel Cuellar defended the company’s commitment to affected communities.

“Emerald participated in the building of the school in Alto Corozal and the renovations of the cafeterias in the schools of Los Medios, Bajo Corozal, and the Silvania Educational Insitute. The company has also invested nearly three million dollars in repairing the region’s roads,” he said.

On Feb. 15, Cuellar held another public meeting in the city of Neiva with Gonzalez.

“The environmental license that was granted for the operations in the VSM 32 Bloc is one of the strictest in the country,” Cuellar told the gathering. “The company will respect it with responsibility and vigour, and there will be no exploration activities within Regional Natural Park Páramo of Miraflores Peak boundaries.”

Cuellar described other ways Emerald was helping the local communities, including road maintenance, repairing buildings, and making other investments that help offset its impact.

“Matambo Bloc includes three oil wells in production, three more wells being drilled and daily produces about 2,500 barrels of crude oil of which a 20 percent (fee) is paid to the Municipality of Gigante,” he said.

Cuellar did not respond to requests from CorpWatch to explain what measures the company was taking to minimise negative environmental impacts, how far the five oil wells in that bloc were from the national park boundary, and the situation facing the school in Cascajal.

The struggle for Miraflores

Uphill from the area of the Matambo Bloc, the climate cools and the crops and ecosystems adapt to the different environmental conditions. This is the area of the Miraflores Park and the VSM 32 Bloc, where activists are trying to block Emerald’s five new wells.

The Miraflores Park was established in 2005, after years of activism to support maintaining essential ecosystems. It is home to an array of biodiversity that includes endangered species such as the spectacled bear Tremarctos ornatus, puma Puma concolor, the endemic rufous-fronted parakeet Bolborhynchus ferrugineifrons and a variety of plant, fungi, bird, and butterfly species.

In the lower altitudes of this area sits the village of Silvania within a massive sea of coffee plants.

“This area supports the food security of all of Colombia. The coffee, plantain, lulo, grenadilla and other fruit crops that are produced here are exported all over the country to cities like Bogotá, Medellin, and Cali,” explains Edgar Quintero, a local shopkeeper and board member of the Intersectorial Association of Gigante & Garzón (AISEG), as he sips a cup of locally grown coffee in front of his corner store in Silvania’s small, nearly empty central plaza.

“This new license allows Emerald exploration and extraction rights up to 1,900 metres above sea level,” says Quintero.

Because the aqueducts for Gigante and Garzón are below 1,800 metres, “If any sort of spill or explosion were to happen, it would be a disaster since our water for drinking and irrigation comes from a source that is downhill and downstream from these new oil wells,” he says.

As the last rays of sunlight lit the western slope of the mountain, Calderon looked across the fertile landscape of fruits and vegetables and into an uncertain future: “This struggle for the land, the water, the forests and the páramo, it is not just for us and the earth. It is so our children have something to live from as the earth’s climate continues to change.”

*A longer version of this article originally appeared at Corpwatch.

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