Social and Environmental Impacts of Colombia's Oil Industry

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Social Impact

Labour Union Unrest

According to reports by Platts in late 2011 and early 2012 there were protests by communities in oil-producing regions in various parts of Colombia, who blockaded roads to protest against alleged environmental damage and heavy traffic of tanker trucks because of pipeline bottlenecks.

In January 2012 oilfield services company Estrella International Energy Services closed down all of its rigs and makeover platforms in the Barrancabermeja region, home to the Barrancabermeja Refinery. In early November, 26 Ecopetrol workers were injured during clashes with police when Colombia's largest oil workers union, USO, called a 24-hour strike in protest over working, environmental and organizing conditions.[1]

Interaction with Indigenous Communities

Pressure group Amazon Watch asserts that the militarization that accompanies oil exploitation has resulted in human rights violations for indigenous communities and often in forced displacement from their lands.[2] The group estimated in 2003 that one in four Colombian soldiers are detailed to protect oil installations.[3]

One of the most high profile cases of indigenous resistance to drilling activities in Colombia is that of the U'Wa community who live in the cloud forests of north-eastern Colombia. Following a successful campaign against the operations of Occidental Petroleum on their land, which led to protest tours by U'Wa leader across the USA, the international oil company announced in 2002 that it would return the oil block in question to the Colombian government. The U'Wa community claimed that the operations would raise the civilian death toll as the country's civil war would be attracted to the region. At one stage, approximately 5000 members of the community threatened to commit collective suicide unless the oil company halted operations on their territory.

Occidental cited economic reasons for their withdrawal from the block, however Atossa Soltani, of Amazon Watch claimed that "the company’s continuing public relations nightmare around the U’wa issue weighed heavily on the decision".[3]

Environmental Impact

Pipeline Spills

At the height of Colombia's internal conflict, Colombia's Environment Ministry calculates that between 1989-1991 guerrilla pipeline bombings polluted 375 miles of creeks and rivers and fouled 12,500 acres.[4]

According to the 2006 report “GIWA Regional Assessment 3b and 3c for Colombia, Venezuela, Central America and Mexico”, in the bay of Cartagena petroleum exploration, extraction, refining and spills from ships represent 80% of the total petroleum discharged in the region.[5]

Since this period the security environment in Colombia has significantly improved. However in December 2011 Colombian Ecopetrol halted pumping on the Cano Limon Pipeline in the Norte de Santander department after a rupture resulted in oil leaked into the Pamplonita river. According to press reports, the rupture was believed to be due to extreme weather conditions rather than an attack by militant groups.[6] Local reporters claimed that the spill could leave nearly a million people with scarce potable water for at least two weeks.[7]

Furthermore, on the 23 December 2011 another Ecopetro-controlled pipeline suffered an explosion in the Risaralda province south-west of Bogota, resulting in 11 deaths, more than 70 injuries and the destruction of at least 30 homes. According to reports by the UK's Guardian, "the waters of a nearby stream were flaming with some of the spilled fuel."[8]

San Andres Marine Environment

In October 2011 Colombian President Santos announced that no oil or gas exploration in the Caribbean department of San Andres y Providencia, in order to protect the islands' environment, society and culture. The National Hydrocarbons Agency (ANH) had put 78 oil exploration and production blocks up for bidding in 2010, of which two were located in San Andres and were won by Spain's Repsol and Colombia's state-owned Ecopetrol.[9] However, contract talks between the oil companies and the Colombian government stalled as the two parties waited "until environmental authorities gave the go-ahead on the viability of exploration work in the area!, according the the ANH.

Environmentalists argue that allowing the concession would cause irreversible environmental damage. In 2000 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared the Archipelago of San Andres, Providencia and Santa Catalina a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. The area is home to more than three-quarters of Colombia's coral reefs, over 400 species of fish, hundreds of other flora and fauna and a delicate and interconnected ecosystem. The head of governmental agency 'Coralina' claims that the concession received a green light "without the corresponding legal consultations, among them with the fishing communities on the archipelago".[10]


  1. Estrella shuts down rigs in Colombia because of unrestPlatts, 16 January 2012.
  2. ColombiaAmazon Watch, retrieved 20 January 2012.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Occidental Petroleum Abandons Oil Development on U’wa LandSynthesis/Regeneration, Winter 2003.
  4. Oil Production and Environmental DamageAmerican University Washington, retrieved 20 January 2012.
  5. Oils (Hydrocarbons)The Caribbean Environment Programe, retrieved 20 January 2012.
  6. Ecopetrol says halts pumping on Cano Limon pipeline after rupturePlatts, 12 December 2011.
  7. Ecopetrol battles pipeline spill controversyUpstream Online, 14 December 2011.
  8. Colombian pipeline explosion kills 11Guardian, 23 December 2011.
  9. Colombia will not allow oil and gas exploration in San AndresColombia Reports, 2 October 2011.
  10. Caribbean islands at risk from oil explorationLatin American Press, 26 May 2011.