Lawyer Marta Hinestroza acts for farmers who say their livelihoods were ruined by a pipeline part-owned by BP. After death threats from paramilitaries, she’s had to flee Colombia. Jeremy Lennard reports *
Sitting at a table strewn with paperwork, Marta Hinestroza pulls the collar of her jacket up around her chin and shivers. The 37-year-old lawyer is a recent arrival from northwest Colombia, and looks mortified when she is told that London may get colder still as the winter drags on.
Hinestroza never imagined she would leave Colombia, but then she never imagined that her legal battles with British Petroleum, on behalf of peasant farmers who claim their livelihoods had been ruined by the construction of an oil pipeline, would lead, however indirectly, to death threats from paramilitary organisations. Nor did she imagine that these threats – which a spokesman in BP’s London office yesterday described as "a disgrace" – would eventually drive her out of her home country.
"When your work might make all the difference for more than 200 helpless and impoverished families, it is difficult to walk away," she says. "But in the end you have to ask, ‘What use am I to anyone dead?’"
The final straw came when, on a recent trip to visit her clients, she was told that her name had appeared on a paramilitary hit list. Hinestroza packed her bags, and her files, and with help from the London-based Colombia Solidarity Campaign, arrived in Britain last month with her 14-year-old daughter Mayra. While their asylum claim is being processed, they feel disorientated, wrenched from all that is familiar and, above all, cold; but they do at least feel safe.
Hinestroza’s decision to leave Colombia was not taken lightly. "I’d already had to move my office in the city because the people I shared with were frightened by the vile phone calls I was receiving," she says. "I’d only been in the new place a few days when they began again, and then a couple of very dodgy characters turned up on the doorstep."
The daughter of a miner and a seamstress, Hinestroza grew up in El Bagre, in the state of Antioquia. At the age of 12 she moved to the city of Medellin to complete her secondary education and stayed there to study law at university. Then, in 1991, just around the time she graduated, came an event that would have an untold effect on her life, and those of thousands of others.
Hundreds of kilometres away to the east, BP struck oil. More precisely, the company found itself sitting on reserves of about two billion barrels of high-grade crude. It was initially pumped through the Oleoducto de Colombia (ODC) pipeline, the construction of which had wreaked havoc with local eco-systems and made many farms along its route unworkable. Then, in 1995, a new company called Ocensa was set up – in which BP took a 15% stake – to construct and operate an 800km pipeline passing from the Cusiana-Cupiagua fields through four states, 40 municipalities and 192 villages to the port of Covenas in northwest Colombia. Following the original ODC route, the new pipeline passed through the municipality of Zaragosa, not far from Hinestroza’s hometown of El Bagre, and where she was employed as the local ombudsman.
It had been BP’s responsibility to obtain environmental licences for the pipeline, and to compensate farmers along its route for the loss of a 12-metre strip of land at a price of 400 Colombian pesos (at today’s exchange rate, about 10 pence) per square metre. But in Zaragosa alone, farmers claim, the construction of the pipeline destroyed hundreds of water sources and brought on landslides that ruined local farmers. Security was brought in to protect the pipeline from the guerrillas, who were angry at the fact that, far from improving the lot of local people, construction of the pipeline was making their lives a misery. An exclusion zone was enforced 100m either side of the pipeline. The farmers lost more land.
Hinestroza began to hear complaints from the likes of farmer Horacio Gaviria, who claims his land became unworkable without water sources and, because of its proximity to the pipeline, heavily militarised. He told her that 25 members of his family eventually abandoned their land and fled to Moravia, a shanty town built on a rubbish dump on the outskirts of Medellin. They now live in abject poverty, the children selling sweets and cigarettes on buses and at traffic lights instead of attending school.
As she investigated, it became clear that there were hundreds in Zaragosa and neighbouring Segovia who were unhappy. But Hinestroza did not stay long in her job. The construction of the Ocensa pipeline coincided with a surge of paramilitary activity in the region under the governorship of Alvaro Uribe, now the Colombian president. During 1995 and 1996, the United Self Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) went on the rampage, torturing and massacring civilians it accused of collaboration with the guerrillas.
Four of her colleagues – ombudsmen in neighbouring municipalities – were assassinated, and Hinestroza began to receive threats. The AUC turned up at the home of her aunt. They dragged her out, tied her hands behind her back and made her kneel down. Then, in front of the villagers, they shot her through the back of the head.
Hinestroza resigned, but continued to represent her clients. BP refused to pay further compensation. She says a Ocensa employee offered her £7,000 to drop her cases. The paramilitaries also had an offer – they would back off if she quietened down.
BP has since paid out £180,000 to 17 families affected by the ODC pipeline. But its offer of compensation of less than £100 per person to other claimants is rejected by virtually all those whom Hinestroza represents. A few have accepted, but most – and there are some 1,600 people involved – are holding out for claims worth a total around £20m. BP is defending the claim and believes its offer is fair and reasonable.
The farmers received a further setback last week when the their appeal was thrown out of court – the result, according to BP’s spokesman in Bogota, Pablo Urrutia, of farmers’ lawyers failing to turn up to a conciliation hearing.
Hinestroza waves a resigned hand over the piles of paperwork around her. She has no intention of giving up her fight. "It’s frustrating," she says. "Everyone knows that security is a headache for multinationals operating in war-torn countries like Colombia, but had the company settled with these people in a decent and prompt manner, it might have helped to defuse rather than inflame an already tense situation."
A pause, and then she adds with a wistful smile: "And perhaps I wouldn’t have to be sitting here wearing an overcoat indoors."
How much or how little responsibility BP should bear for any of this is, as is the way of things, unclear. "If such threats have been made, we utterly condemn them," its London spokesman said yesterday, but he would not comment on other aspects of the case.
* This article was published on December 18, 2002 in The Guardian and appears here with the author’s permission.
Marta Hinestroza has won her asylum application. She thanks everyone who has helped.
Marta is available to speak on the situation of the pipeline victims. If you want Marta to address your organisation contact her through the Colombia Solidarity Campaign at e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or by post at PO Box 8446, London N17 6NZ.