BP’s Colombian oil pipeline companies are refusing to pay compensation claims of £600,000 to three hundred peasants. The peasants, from the region of Zaragoza in northern Antioquia, claim that two oil pipelines passing through their farms have caused extensive environmental damage, forcing them off their land. Meanwhile BP sells the oil onto the US market for £7 million a day.
The following question about BP’s treatment of the Zaragoza peasants was raised at the BP Amoco p.l.c. Annual General Meeting 2001, which took place in London on 19 April 2001:
Considering that it ought to be BP’s responsibility to respect the environment and local communities effected by its operations, and given the corporation’s claimed policies of land stewardship and Global Environmental Management, why have not these policies been implemented in the case of the Vasconia- CoveÒas and Cusiana-CoveÒas pipelines in Colombia, and why has not BP through its subsidiary Ocensa settled the ongoing and just claim for compensation for loss of livelihood by a community of 300 peasants from the Zaragoza area due to the environmental damage of these pipelines?
The ODC Pipeline
The first pipeline was built in 1990 by the state oil corporation Ecopetrol, which set up a special company ODC to run the project. The ODC pipeline is 480km long, starts in the central Magdalena valley, and ends at the Caribbean port of CoveÒas.
The pipe was laid along the higher ground of undulating terrain, with the peasant plots directly below. ODC stripped all the trees from along the pipeline corridor, leaving it without vegetation, exposed to water and wind erosion. The earth moving operations caused avalanches, blocked springs and diverted streams. Works for the pipeline destroyed 150 water sources along the Zaragoza section. ODC’s restoration work was carried out badly, topsoil was not replaced, and sacks of earth had rotten away within a few months. Farm animals that ate the synthetic sacking were poisoned. The peasants lost their fruit trees and other crops.
The Ocensa pipeline – enter BP
BP’s Casanare wells are today the most productive in Colombia, extracting some 400,000 barrels a day of high quality crude, nearly half the country’s total output. Drilling is centred on the Cusiana and Cupiaga fields, in the remote eastern Casanare province.
Back in the early 1990s, getting its Casanare production to the Caribbean was a crucial challenge for BP. In December 1994 BP formed a new company called Oleoducto Central, S.A. (Ocensa), partnered by Ecopetrol, two investment companies, and the oil operators Total and Triton. Ocensa managed the construction of a 700 km pipeline which crosses the eastern Andes, before it meets up with the ODC line, running alongside it north to CoveÒas.
BP got directly involved with communities along its new pipeline. David Arce Rojas, the agent of BP Exploration Company (Colombia), signed detailed eight page contracts with the peasant proprietors. The contracts agreed compensation for a strip of land just 12.5 metres wide. The compensation rate was 400 pesos (worth about 25p at the time) per square metre of this strip, plus any additional damages. Between June 1995 and March 1996 BP made three payments to each smallholder. In one typical case the peasant family’s total compensation package was for 1,576,250 pesos, about £1,000 or £4 per metre of pipeline at 1996 exchange rates.
BP’s Cusiana-CoveÒas line came on-stream in 1996, by which time the security situation had deteriorated in the Zaragoza region. Army units enforced a civilian free corridor for 100 meters on either side of the double pipeline. The army brought in a 6pm to 6am curfew, which curtailed locals’ access to their own land, and for some to their homes.
The combined effects of additional erosion from the second pipeline and the curfew meant that instead of losing use of a narrow corridor, the peasants had lost use of their entire holdings.
Ocensa now represents ODC’s interests as well as its own in the dispute with the peasants. Some of the peasants have been forced to quit their homes and have fallen into acute poverty in the outskirts of Medellin. The peasants sum up their predicament with the saying, "My shirt has no value to you, but for me it has".
Five families are still seeking compensation from ODC for damages and loss of 10 years income totalling 525 million pesos, or £159,000. A second group of twenty families has claims against Ocensa for £436,000 damages caused by BP’s Cusiana pipeline. There is ample evidence. A report by two officials of the Zaragoza court summarises the damage as "constant erosion, scarce re-vegetation, and fundamentally the total lack of water".
Ocensa has so far refused to make a settlement beyond the original payment. Its spokesman claims that, "No company has had such environmental responsibility. We’ve done things well".
BP’s global policies
BP’s ‘no damage to the environment’ policy goal sets a high standard that is not being met in Colombia. The company’s land stewardship policy emphasises prevention: "the best way to leave the land in a valuable condition is not to damage it while using it", guidance that has been ignored by its Colombian pipeline subsidiaries.
BP’s Colombia operation constitutes about one fifth of its worldwide oil output. How has BP managed to achieve record profits of £1 million an hour? The answer, at least in part, is that BP does not properly compensate victims who, like the peasants of Zaragoza, have lost their land and livelihoods as a consequence of its highly profitable operations.
The peasants’ lawyers published a letter in The Guardian on 5 May. They can be contacted by e-mail: CSanchez71@yahoo.com