The defense of water is costing Putumayo’s peasants their lives

A tour of the municipality of Puerto Asís, in Colombia’s Bajo Putumayo, reveals the daily drama faced by its inhabitants. Death threats that become reality and communities without water because of pollution.


Posted: April 22, 2020

This sign announces the -fenced- passage to the polluted areas, near the Buenos Aires sidewalk. Credits: Andrés Gutiérrez Cianci

The unpaved road from the vereda (rural settlement) of Puerto Vega to the rural settlement of Teteyé begins on the banks of the Putumayo River in the municipality of Puerto Asís. The dusty road reaches the border with Ecuador, and the tires of motorcycles, tractor trailer trucks, and oil-laden trucks pick up stones that dangerously embed themselves in the fenders, stinging eyes, and raising thick brown clouds.

The green of the Amazon flora is dazzling, covered with a thick layer of dust. Winding through the road are 18 wastewater streams that flow into the Cohembí, San Lorenzo and San Miguel Rivers, all tributaries of the Putumayo that 3,950 kilometers downstream takes its waters to the Amazon River.

Every now and then the landscape changes, and the green is transformed into firebrands, smoking chimneys and oily, blackish creeks in which no one bathes, and no one drinks anymore. It is rare that this happens in Putumayo, one of the country’s richest departments in terms of water, located at the entrance to the Colombian Amazonia.

This has been happening at least since 2002, as at least 16 of the 18 streams are contaminated with cadmium, arsenic and lead, according to the scientific consulting firm Terrae. For the past 18 years, oil spills and clouds of glyphosate for the eradication of coca crops have contaminated the water and soil that support the lives of the 3,000 inhabitants of the 63 rural settlements in this corridor.

Along the way there are two military bases of the Jungle Battalion No.27, three indigenous reservations (of the Awá and Nasa peoples) and a Territorial Training and Reincorporation Space (ETCR in Spanish) in the La Carmelita trail – the place where the former FARC guerrillas are making their transition to civilian life after laying down their arms.

This has been the scene of a dozen peasant strikes in opposition to oil exploitation, water pollution and glyphosate. It is also along this road that water defenders have been intimidated, persecuted, threatened with death or simply shot. Many do not dare to report the pollution of water in the Corridor for fear of reprisals that armed groups and oil companies with a presence in the region may have against them or their families.

The Corridor’s story of blood proves them right: at least four people have been killed in the last 10 years – two in January of this year – and to date there are eight threatened, according to the Putumayo Human Rights Network. As you walk along the paths, roads and water sources in this Bajo Putumayo corridor you can see the scars of the environmental damage they have reported and which has cost them their lives. “Here, we all are threatened for defending the water and the land. They want to exterminate us, to keep us out of the way,” says a woman who makes us promise not to reveal her identity. Like her, eleven other people interviewed preferred to speak anonymously.

No complaint has a face, because whoever makes it, loses. Such is the shadow that hangs over the defenders of the environment in Puerto Vega-Teteyé. But the fact that they are anonymous does not make them passive. In 2002, Ecopetrol installed its operation in what today are 36 active oil wells, which belonged to the Consorcio Colombia Energy and the operator Vetra, and which in 2016 (and until today) passed into the hands of the Canadian company Gran Tierra Energy. And during all these years, the peasants of Puerto Vega-Teteyé have literally stood up against oil activity.

The dead among the peasants

Many remember Luis Melo’s story, but few comment on it because his death marks the beginning of a series of threats and murders of water defenders.

Melo was the president of the Peasant Association of the South East of Putumayo (Acsomayo), and was among the first to warn in 2005 that the Consorcio Colombia Energy, then owner of eight wells, had not carried out prior consultation with the indigenous people of the area. He was the spokesperson for the 63 rural settlements, two reservations and five town councils in the area, and was one of the leaders in the talks with the company. His request was to stop the exploitation of the wells.

He was taken out of the public service vehicle in which he was traveling on December 1, 2005, at 3:30 p.m., by a group of armed “civilians”, apparently paramilitaries, in a spot five minutes from the town of Puerto Asís. His body was found in the municipal dump four days later.

That was the first and most dramatic warning to the communities of Puerto Vega-Teteyé. Four people in the corridor say they “killed him for screwing around with the oil issue.” When the women of his family went out to collect his body in Puerto Asís, the paramilitaries did not let them. They were told that they were taking him there themselves. They handed him over dressed and in a coffin. They said that they respected him because he was a very good leader, but that they were handing him over there for poking his nose into areas which were none of his business, says one of his best friends, who has also been threatened.

“We no longer have the confidence to bathe and drink water, and the scarcity. We were affected by the pollution because they came to assemble the machinery for the exploitation, which throw off some gases, have valves that when there is a leak, it’s no longer the same because you can’t sleep because of the smell, it smells very bad, it causes illnesses, it burns your eyes. You can’t sleep and you get sick because you don’t rest well. Environmental leader threatened in December 2019. Credits: Andrés Gutiérrez Cianci

There are no photos of Melo; his family left the area and there are no memorials. Little is left of his memory. After the episode, the defenders of water had to keep quiet. Since September 15, 2006, according to testimonies from residents, approximately 10 men, with long and short arms, dressed in civilian clothes, have settled in the hamlet of Puerto Vega. These people were recognized by the population as former paramilitaries of the urban command of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) in Puerto Asís, according to the reports of the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission. They say that this group of men lived in a house three kilometers from Puerto Vega, remained armed, patrolled the area and threatened public transporters to mobilize them throughout the region.

Between 2006 and 2011, peasants and indigenous people associated with Acsomayo staged seven strikes to prevent oil-laden tractor trailer trucks from reaching Puerto Vega. They all ended up with burned-out motorcycles and interventions by the National Police’s Mobile Anti-Riot Squad (Esmad), but never reached any dialogue. The situation changed in 2011, when peasants, indigenous people and Afro- descendants declared themselves in a permanent assembly and stopped traffic in the corridor, at the height of the Santa Maria trail, from 24 to 29 November.

These years were decisive: in 2010, the Ministry of the Environment had extended the environmental license to Consorcio Colombia Energy to allow them to exploit even more crude oil; yet when the National Environmental Licensing Authority (ANLA in Spanish) was created in 2011, it opened a sanctioning process against Vetra for contamination of water resources. In 2012, however, it extended the license to drill 39 more exploitation wells. A year later it began another investigation for non-compliance with the environmental management plan, and yet in March 2014 it extended the license for the opening of 100 more wells.

The leaders of the region have seen how the pipes from which they previously drank have contaminated over the years due to spills by third parties and operations. Credit: Andrés Gutiérrez Cianci.

The leaders who remember

Perhaps the only physical memory of the leaders who have been killed is the commemorative plaque installed two kilometers ahead of the La Carmelita trail, right at the entrance to the Kinancha indigenous town hall. There are no flowers anymore, but there are  pinwheels that sway in the wind. The writing is a tribute to those who participated in the civic strike, held from July 10 to September 14, 2014, which ended with the death of leader Arnoldo Muñoz.

“The plaque reminds us of the situation we have experienced with the struggles. It’s something very dangerous for our lives, but it also inspires us to keep going,” says a biker who is not a leader, but who, like the rest of the people who gave testimonies for this newspaper article, prefers to keep his name confidential because he believes that the tension in the area puts them at high risk.

Controversies and clashes between communities and organizations date back to before and after Arnold’s death. That is why the plaque begins: “The communities of the Puerto Vega-Teteyé corridor, Sincafromayo, nasa reservation, kiwnas cxchab and Asomayo pay posthumous tribute to the comrades who have offered their lives throughout history in defense of our territories, with abnegation, loyalty, courage, sacrifice and struggle.

With Arnoldo participated about 400 peasants from 27 communities. They were protesting near the headquarters of the Vetra company, operator of the Consorcio Colombia Energy. They demanded solutions to what they called a social crisis due to the extension of the environmental license that allowed Consorcio Colombia Energy to increase operations in 12,796 hectares of the corridor and in 100 more wells.

At that time, more than 20 water sources were dry or contaminated with crude oil, according to the Mining and Energy Commission of the Putumayo Regional Roundtable, a space for dialogue between civil society and the government that was born as a dialogue to end the farmer strike, but remained in place for another five years. At that time, in the Puerto Vega-Teteyé corridor there were 32 oil wells in 13 rural settlements and 1,200 families did not have drinking water.

In the area, the oil project of the Quinde, Cohembí and Quillacinga fields is being developed, which impacts the towns of Puerto Vega and Teteyé with the rural settlements of Los Ángeles, Buenos Aires, Montañitas, Cristales, Nuevo Porvenir, La Cabaña, La Carmelita, Campo Alegre, La Manuela, Santa María Medio and Remolino, as well as the Acevedo neighborhood, all in the jurisdiction of Puerto Asís.

According to the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective, the confrontations with the Esmad and the police that took place in the Alto Lorenzo nasa reservation in 2014 left at least 48 people injured. On September 14, after 74 days of strike, while peasants and the Esmad were confronting each other with slingshots and less lethal weapons, a rubber bullet thrown by a riot police reached the right side of Arnoldo’s head. He was wearing a T-shirt with a phrase attributed to Simon Bolivar printed on it: “We do the impossible because the possible is taken care of by others.” Although he was taken to the Cotocollao Hospital in Quito, Ecuador, 29-year-old Muñoz died with that wish in his chest.

“After what happened to our colleague Luis Melo, it was all very difficult. I started talking about it again in 2013, and when Arnoldo was killed, I wanted to shut up again. There was a lot of fear. When I began to demand that the water be no longer contaminated, I received threats, first subtle and then very direct,” says one of the late Melo’s best friends, who was also threatened, as she checks how a tan car fills two 500-liter cans in the courtyard of her house with water. “I received strange calls where they hung up on me as soon as I picked up the phone. Then I opened a little business and found out that the transporters were forbidden to eat here, and nobody went there. Then they began to take pictures of me from a car, thinking I was dumb or that I wouldn’t notice.

Despite the threats, the strikes continue. On January 8, nearly 100 residents of the El Cristal rural settlement decided to make a Water Strike, or in their words, a “confinement”, since the Gran Tierra Energy tank car that brings them drinking water to the Corridor’s rural settlements did not pass and they were left without water.

One of its organizers, a small and sweet-spoken woman, has been threatened on more than one occasion, before and after the January strike. Men on motorcycles have come to her house in the early hours of the morning. She never opens the door and they apparently never expect her to. It’s just a way of scaring her.

“We had no way of cooking, washing. In all the houses the water, which is the life of everyone, people and animals, ran out. A neighbor was asked to call the company, and they did not send any water. They said that it was a holiday, that there was no one to bring it. Then people said it was time to go into confinement, we couldn’t resist any more and with this summer. That was something peaceful,” says the peasant leader who lives in the rural settlement of El Cristal. She is, among others, one of the women who led the January water strike.

She makes a pause and continues: “When they saw the confinement they called for dialogue, the secretary of government called us, told us to stop that, that that was a crime, trying to frighten us, that he was going to send the safety cordon. We responded that we were taught to confront them, to send them, because what we are asking for is water.”

Another leader, who is a peasant representative in Puerto Asís and who left Puerto Vega-Teteyé because of threats a few years ago, adds that “the oil companies are harming us. For example, from the Piñuña Blanco River, which flows into the Putumayo River, water can no longer be consumed. This is because of those oil companies and mining, and instead of water there is mud. But they don’t say anything about these companies, so who is going to leave us without water? It’s not because of the talcum powder, the regattas or the celebration of November 28th. Until 2015 the water in that river was still clear, now it is muddy. The fish are dying with that pollution.

Some residents of the region remember the environmental leaders who were killed in defense of water. These crimes continue unpunished. Credit: Andrés Gutiérrez Cianci.

A solution from the Supreme Court

Despite the strikes and killings, for the people of the region there is only one milestone of triumph, at least in legal matters. After dozens of demonstrations and five years after the start of exploitation in the area of influence of indigenous reservations without prior consultation, an unexpected triumph came for the communities: the Supreme Court of Justice ruled in their favor in 2016 and ordered the protection of the rights to prior consultation, contradicting the Ministry of the Interior who had certified that there were no indigenous people in the area of influence, the healthy environment and the drinking water of peasants and indigenous people in Puerto Vega-Teteyé.

But to get to a court ruling blood had to run in the corridor. The threats, killings and displacement did not stop. “I was off my village for two years because of intimidation,” says one leader who returned to the area and who also prefers not to have his name published. “In the first 30 days of the year they have already killed two water defenders and six inhabitants of the corridor.”

In 2016, the representatives of nine peasant, indigenous and afro-descendant communities from the rural settlements of Buenos Aires, La Montañita, Teteyé, El Diamante, Guayabal, Campo Alegre and La Gotera filed a petition for protection arguing that their fundamental right to water was being violated and that they were victims of “negative impacts resulting from oil activity”. In particular, they blamed the “drilling and exploitation activities carried out by Consorcio Colombia Energy, Vetra Exploración y Producción Colombia S.A.”

The Ministry of the Environment, the consortium, the state oil company Ecopetrol, the regional environmental authority Corpoamazonia, ANLA, the Mayor’s Office of Puerto Asís and the Governor’s Office of Putumayo were held responsible in the petition, also including the Ministry of Housing, the Mallamas Indigenous Social Service (E.P.S.) and the I.P.S. Hospital Local de Puerto Asís, the Committee of Risk Management and Emergencies of the same city and the National Agency of Hydrocarbons (ANH), for the contamination near the areas of interest of the Quinde, Cohembí and Quillacinga wells, especially, in the channels and streams tributaries of the San Miguel River, El Diamante, Mochilero and Buenos Aires channels.

“Drilling and developments within the territory have affected “(…) the water sources of rivers, channels, streams, and the ecosystem (…)”, for not implementing an environmental management plan, since such activities have caused “(…) excessive pollution, noise and dumping of all kinds of pollutants (…)”, wrote the petitioners.

According to the file submitted to the Court, due to operational failures in October 2014 and then May, June and October 2015, the water sources of the inhabitants of the Agua Blanca, Buenos Aires, Montañita and Los Cristales rural settlements were affected. And although Putumayo’s risk management committees provided potable water in tanks, the communities reported that the municipal authorities never addressed the emergency, and that the agreements they reached with the company were not being fulfilled.

The Consorcio Colombia Energy has made a commitment to the community and the community authorities to do several things: to decontaminate the pipes and water bodies; to provide drinking water for human consumption; to do technical industrial work to mitigate the environmental impact generated by oil spills; and to hire people from the Puerto Vega-Teteyé Corridor for such work. However, these commitments are mostly “unfulfilled”, according to the Court: the supply “of drinking water transported in tank cars to these rural settlements, which has not been properly managed, since it has been publicly proven that water “reaches them contaminated”.

At the request of the Supreme Court, Vetra Exploración y Producción Colombia S.A.S explained that it only took water from the El Diamante, Agua Blanca, Río Cohembí and Río Putumayo streams -for which it has a license- and said that oil spills that were caused by the overturning of tractor trailer trucks into the bodies of water had been contained. They added that since 2011 no spills are made to any surface water body.

With regard to the drinking water that was to supply the community, the company said that they delivered it until 2015; “however, these tasks were suspended as events occurred “such as: blockades, intimidation by armed groups, and refusal of some members of the community as evidenced in the various communications sent to Corpoamazonia. So far, neither Vetra nor Gran Tierra Energy answered the questions of Tierra de Resistentes, an initiative of the Editorial Board that joins the efforts of Latin American journalists to tell the stories of the continent’s silenced environmental leaders. It should be noted that this journalistic team was able to verify that the water was being delivered to the houses in the Corridor.

Several of the inhabitants included their medical records as proof that the pollution was affecting their health. One of them, Gerardo Estrada, developed stomach cancer “due to the lack of an adequate water and sewage system” and died before the petition came into being. Another resident said his wife, who suffered from cervical cancer, died in 2014 when her condition worsened due to lack of drinking water. Another resident attached the medical records of his two children, who were suffering from stomach conditions and who, according to their EPS medical records shared with the Supreme Court, were related to drinking contaminated water.

Testimonies recorded in Supreme Court Decision 7360 of 2016 (Colombia). The names have been deleted.

The ANLA argued that the petitioners had not provided proof of the contamination. “It is a simple assumption of the petitioners, without full certainty of the real factors of a possible pollution of the channels and streams of the San Miguel River, Caño Diamante, Caño Mochilero, Caño Buenos Aires, Quebrada la Amarilla and Quebrada Montañita”, indicated in their communication to the Court.

After an ocular inspection, in June 2016, the Supreme Court determined that “the spills occurred in September 2013, October 2014 and May 2015 polluted the sources, because the company delayed the implementation of the contingency plan, allowing the spill to spread over their lands and streams. The petitioners have been affected in their health by the chemical pollutants spilled, and there are allergies, infections, esophageal cancer, and sick children. They have also been affected by noise as trucks transporting crude oil and industrial water pass by on the road. Among other things, and perhaps by a stroke of luck, the representatives of the Court visited the pipes in the summer, when the flow is low and it is possible to see stains of crude oil peeking through the mud more clearly.

That year, Postobón S.A. gave them five bottles of water per family and the French NGO Action Against Hunger provided them with tanks in each property and for each family to supply them with rainwater, but due to the drought that lasted two months, they were forced to use the water from the channels.

“We had coca, I’m not lying, but we were cool. From the streams we got minnows and sardines, guarajas. They were seen again, but dead. Environmental leader threatened in December 2019. Credits: Andrés Gutiérrez Cianci

The Supreme Court of Justice agreed with the indigenous people, peasants and Afro-descendants, forcing Consorcio Colombia Energy and Vetra Exploración y Producción Colombia S.A. to provide drinking water to those rural settlements and to decontaminate those streams, regardless of whether the contamination was caused by third parties.

“I’m a peasant, I’m not taught to drink from bottles and barrels like there are now in every house. I used to drink water from the streams, and now, to tell you the truth, it scares me, but I must do it. When there’s no water, we have to do it. The petition was important, but despite it, no one has solved the problem for us,” says a veteran leader who has lived in Putumayo since he was five years old and was displaced from the area, speaking about the petition.

Pollution by third parties

Although Gran Tierra Energy arrived in the Puerto Vega-Teteyé corridor only two years ago, oil exploitation in Putumayo is of long standing. Extractive activity dates back to the first half of the 20th century, when the U.S. Texas Petroleum Company (TPC) began exploration in 1942 and in 1963 the first well burst near the Orito River, according to the Crudo Transparente  portal.

The first conflicts between oil companies and local communities in Putumayo began in the 1960s. The peasant community that lived in the area at the time warned that the company was putting pressure on the authorities in charge of awarding the property to hinder the judicial processes of small farm owners located right where the wells are today. Those who maintained labor relations with TPC criticized the labor conditions and those who were dissatisfied with them ended up swelling the ranks of the labor force for coca crops that have been present in the municipality of Puerto Asís for the past five decades.

As oil became the region’s economy, massive fumigation of coca crops, incursions by paramilitary groups, the launch of Plan Colombia in 2000, the implementation of the Democratic Security Policy since 2002 until the department was declared a Special Mining District in 2011, killings and displacement continued. The eleven sources interviewed on the ground for this article agree that the intimidation that began in 2002 has worsened.

In 2007, Canada’s Gran Tierra Energy, which today owns the wells in the Puerto Vega Teteyé Corridor, extracted 23,920 barrels in other parts of Putumayo. By 2013 its net production had reached 36,770 barrels per day, according to Crudo Transparente, a civil society initiative to monitor the hydrocarbons sector.

“There certainly is pollution”

In the last two decades Putumayo has lived with oil spills and attacks on oil infrastructure, despite the presence of two military bases in the corridor. On July 15, 2014, five armed men, who claimed to belong to the 48th Front of the then-FARC guerrillas, intercepted four oil-laden tractors and forced them to spill all their cargo between the municipalities of Puerto Asís and Orito.

A fortnight before that incident, nineteen tractor-trailers had been stopped by armed men who dumped 5,090 barrels of oil on the ground and into the water. Almost a year later, on June 8, 2015, alleged members of the former FARC stopped a caravan of 23 tank cars at gunpoint in the Puerto Vega-Teteyé corridor, at the La Cabaña rural settlement, and forced the drivers to open the valves of 19 vehicles and spill the oil. Some 200,000 gallons of fuel were spilled that day, affecting about 150 families, according to the Puerto Asís Secretariat of Government. The oil ran two to three kilometers downstream.

But there is a part of the history of pollution in the region that is not so clear. Many people in this corridor believe that it is not only oil spills caused by the guerrillas that have contaminated their waters. “We have documented several operational failures of the company. They have hired us because they have to provide work and the operators themselves are reporting the damages to us,” says a farmer who was threatened on January 28th of this year, among others, for documenting the failures of Vetra’s, and today Gran Tierra Energy’s, operations that have resulted in spills in the pipelines.

In the Quillacinga and Curiquinga wells there was at least one spill a year in 2005, 2006, 2010 and 2011 according to the farmer, who knows first-hand about the contamination, particularly of the Buenos Aires channel, from working for each of the oil companies. “In many cases the operators stop looking at the tanks and they overflow, and even if it’s only for an hour, in that hour they dump between 500 and 1,000 barrels of oil into the water nearby. Other times the fire goes out and when the fire stops, the oil begins to flow and everything is left smeared, the soil, the water, everything. In Piñuña 5, in 2012, a valve broke on the platform and all the oil fell into the El Resguardo and El Diamante channels. In 2014, another valve broke on the rural settlement of Buenos Aires, and all the crude oil fell into El Mochilero channel”.

2015 was the most serious year in terms of operational failures. On September 30, a pipe owned by Consorcio Colombia Energy and Vetra that came from the Piñuña 5 well, near the Buenos Aires rural settlement, ruptured, polluting the El Mochilero channel, which flows into the San Miguel River, with oil, according to a report by the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective.

An oil slick near the Piñuña well, in the Buenos Aires area. The community claims that the waste was dumped there in 2002. Credits: Andrés Gutiérrez Cianci

Some 60 families were left without water for consumption and the lands of another five were practically buried under black tar, most of them in the Buenos Aires area. A month after the spill, the rains began, distributing the oil onto other streams that were not previously polluted. The school is located right on that rural settlement.

It is difficult to try to establish how much of the oil that was spilled is due to “third parties” and how much has been due to operational failure. However, some 17,000 hectares in the area have been affected by oil spills in the last ten years, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

According to the ANLA file, companies that have owned and operated the oil in the area have reported six operational spills from 2008 to 2020. In 2008, Ecopetrol reported the spill of 22 barrels at kilometer 37. “The company indicates that the contingency plan was activated to prevent the community from taking water from the stream,” the file reads.

Vetra reported the other five: two in 2010, one in 2011, and another in 2017, all in the Quillacinga Field, affecting the San Miguel River and the Buenos Aires stream beds, and although the containment plan depends on the emergency, most of them consisted of closing the valves that pump crude oil into containment tanks, collecting the crude oil in containment ditches, cleaning the water body – they do not specify how – and doing physical-chemical monitoring. All reports total 40 barrels of oil. As for “third party” spills, the companies reported four cases.

The oil slicks in the nearby channels are still visible on the road, some of them surrounded by antipersonnel mine warning signs. No one can go near or see them, much less venture to clear them. In late January of this year, a farmer’s cow fell on a three-meter-square oil slick just off the Buenos Aires rural settlement, and it took six men to dig it up and clean it up.

It took three hours to get the cows out. The economy of some small milk or meat producers depends on these animals. Credits: Courtesy

The water will never be the same

To put an end to the 2014 water strike, the government and the Putumayo Social Organizations Roundtable established a space for consultation on issues such as coca substitution programs, human rights and the mining and energy problems in the region. Part of the agreement was to hire an independent study by specialists chosen by the communities and financed by the National Hydrocarbons Agency (ANH) to address an old study that lightened the burden of responsibility of the companies.

According to a study by the Social-Environmental and Legal Review Commission of Resolution No. 1930 of 2010, conducted by the ANH and the Ministry of Environment, “in cases where the results of the measurements are above the ranges established by the standard, it is not possible to establish with a degree of certainty a direct relationship with hydrocarbon activities, because there are causes of anthropic or natural origin in the area that may contribute to the change of these elements”. In summary, the study indicates that it is not possible to determine whether the presence of cadmium, arsenic and lead in the water responds to industrial activity.

The Aguas Claras gorge, located in the Cristal path, is contaminated with crude oil thanks to the spill of a tank car caused by a guerrilla attack, in 2014. Here the community carries out decontamination work. Credits: Andrés Gutiérrez Cianci

But another study showed the other side of the story. The conclusion of the geologists from the scientific consulting firm Terrae, which was hired by the community to conduct alternative studies in 2015, was clear: there is cadmium, arsenic and lead in 16 of 18 streams. The independent geologists took 32 water samples at different points in the Puerto Vega-Teteyé Corridor and analyzed the documents from the environmental licensing process. There were also clear signs of pollution of water sources there.

In their opinion, the studies prior to Vetra’s environmental license lacked “technical rigor in terms of geology, geomorphology, geotechnics, hydrogeology and seismicity. There were also deficiencies in the collection of basic information needed to define an environmental baseline. “From the first environmental impact study, it was noted that there was an armed conflict in the area. In fact, this was an argument for not presenting more robust environmental baseline information,” says geologist Julio Fierro, leader of Terrae, former official of the General Comptroller’s Office on mining issues and main author of the communities’ report.

But analysis of the water from the San Miguel River and the Agua Blanca stream, on the border with Ecuador, showed levels of phenols of 323 mg/L, when the legal limit is 0.2mg/L. Even the El Porvenir school reservoir exceeded arsenic concentrations by four times the legal maximum. The study also mentions that groundwater has only been monitored since the second half of 2013 and only for the Quinde field.

“With regard to water for human consumption, phenols have exceeded the standard by between one hundred and two hundred times, and lead and cadmium, up to ten times. The rivers and lagoons also do not escape the environmental pollution related to the oil project, finding high concentrations with the same order of magnitude of the reservoirs for both phenols, chlorides, cadmium, lead and fats and oils,” reads the report.

Part of the decontamination work consists of taking the contaminated mud from the bottom of the rivers and streams to these “pools” made with poly shade mesh, or bagged and left at the side of the road. Credits: Andrés Gutiérrez Cianci

According to a right of petition answered by ANLA, the entity knew at least since 2014 that the company did not comply with the parameters of fat, oil, solids and chloride levels in the San Miguel River, thanks to reports from the National Hydrocarbons Agency.

Also, in 2014, after extending the environmental license to Vetra, ANLA had warned that the catchment of the Campo Alegre Creek was exceeding the permissible limits of pollution, but only until January 2019 did it order the company to make “a delimitation of affected areas, search for remaining hydrocarbons through inspections of affected areas, removal of polluted plant material, creation of fishbone trenches to channel the areas to be intervened, cleaning of the edges of water bodies, washing of the surface and bottom of intervened water bodies, removal of sludge and sediments, accumulated in the installed filters and installation of piezometers to verify infiltrated crude oil”.

ANLA’s extensive file on environmental licenses granted to Gran Tierra Energy – and prior to the Consorcio Colombia – shows that the companies have been very punctual in submitting the half-yearly reports to that authority, and the entity’s actions were limited to monitoring. In compliance with the Court’s order, ANLA said it has made 12 technical visits “based on the progress of the cleanup carried out by the company”, in this case Gran Tierra Energy. To date there are no economic sanctions against this or any other company as a result of these investigations.

“To date, there have been 12 verification committees in which ANLA has participated and from which the progress of the cleanup conducted by the company can be examined,” responded the licensing authority. To date, neither Vetra nor Consorcio Colombia Energy, nor Gran Tierra Energy responded to Tierra de Resistentes’ questions.

“Before 2002, we saw tigers, deer, squirrels, guaras, tintines; you don’t see them anymore. Squirrels, picones, turkeys, curassows babillas, ventones. And in the rivers now they hardly take out minnows and sardines, but the fish down there, like catfish, don’t come out anymore. The snakes come out dead, dentones and guarajas too. Everything died,” says one of the leaders who threatened at the beginning of the year.

There is a reason why this farmer and environmental leader has been able to document with such judgment the operational flaws: Jairo and eight of the eleven leaders interviewed are operatives of Gran Tierra. “It’s the only thing left in terms of employment around here.

He also asserts that there are many more operational failures than spills caused by any guerrilla, and despite her documentation work, he says he cannot share photos or videos: “The battery of my computer where everything is stored was broken.”

For several experts, differentiating how much of the water pollution is the fault of oil spills by “third parties” like the guerrillas and how much is due to operational failures is practically impossible, or at least very costly.

Some believe that other factors may also have contributed to this pollution. “Putumayo, as a coca growing area, had periods in which aerial spraying with glyphosate was frequent, every five months, more or less the same growth cycle of coca. Like most pesticides, its base is oil and it has the same components, so in addition to the pollution from oil spills, there is also contamination from glyphosate. Analyzing how much it responds to which event is impossible,” says Santiago Duque, director of the Water Laboratory at the National University in Leticia, who led the morphological characterization of soil and water for the Corporation for the Sustainable Development of the Southern Amazon (Corpoamazonia) in 2011.

“We are doing a cleanup, but we are not throwing chemicals, we are taking out wood, clearing (i.e. removing bush from the banks). That is to be able to walk and avoid accidents when doing the hydro washing. We use powdered soap for washing clothes, but that soap doesn’t kill the fish, you don’t use much. You use it and put up some barriers, the soap washes and disperses, a capsule collects the crude oil,” says the leader who organized the water strike at the beginning of the year, and who is also leading the decontamination of the streams.

Today’s dead

On January 18 of this year, the leader and member of the Border Farmworkers Union of Putumayo (Sintcafromayo), Yordan Tovar, was shot and killed at 7:30 p.m., while he was in a bar in front of the union’s headquarters in the rural settlement of Teteyé. Tovar had not been threatened or had no enemies, but according to a regional leader who was forced to move for five years to protect his life, he was unquestionably a defender of water.

“He actively participated in the meetings with the oil company and of course he was an environmental leader. He was very active in the 2014 water strike and was very insistent. What time will they come for us? My legs are shaking,” said a member of the Putumayo Human Rights Network who lives in Mocoa, after sharing the news with this journalistic team via WhatsApp.

And on January 28, just ten days later, at 6 a.m., Bayron Rueda Ruiz, former president of the Community Action Board of the rural settlement of “La 18” and inhabitant of the rural settlement of El Azul, in the Puerto Vega-Teteyé corridor, was murdered. Although the motives for his murder are still unclear, it is known that Bayron lived on the right bank of the San Miguel River and that he was shot to death that morning when he went out to work the land. In addition to these two murders, there was the murder of an unidentified Ecuadorian citizen, also in the rural settlement of La Azul.

The Ombudsman’s Office issued an early warning in September 2019 on the complex situation in Puerto Asís due to the territorial dispute between dissidents from the FARC’s 1st and 48th fronts, and the tightening of controls on community life “as a strategy and mechanism for pressure and population control on the entry and exit of the inhabitants of the area, an aspect that has affected the development of their daily activities and the exercise of other rights.” The same entity issued a risk report in 2016 and another early warning in 2018 with content similar to last year’s, in addition to speaking three times on security councils in the Putumayo department.

In this area of Bajo Putumayo, community leaders abound. At some point they have fought against the eradication of coca with glyphosate, against oil exploitation. “They have also done so for the interests of the agricultural sector. Moreover, the national agricultural strikes began here,” according to a representative of the National Association of Peasant Users (ANUC).

Furthermore, at various times, guerrillas, FARC, paramilitaries, southern bloc; drug traffickers, Medellin cartel and now coca crops; and common crime have converged. That’s why it’s complicated to determine where the bullets and threats come from, which they talk about in that territory.

Defending the water on this corridor is a death sentence. The La Vega-Teteyé Corridor, in Puerto Asís, is another end of Colombia where the natural wealth and green of its fields, once adorned by crystalline rivers, predominate. There, unfortunately, one also hears cries that contain stories like the one above.

“This happens to us because we were born in the country,” laments a woman from La Carmelita.