For years, Colombia’s largest oil refinery, owned by the nationwide oil firm Ecopetrol, has discharged oil and poisonous waste into water our bodies, impacting fish and the livelihoods of fishers.Yuly Velásquez, a neighborhood fisher and president of an environmental group, has spent years documenting water contamination and corruption linked to the refinery, and he or she faces constant threats and assaults.According to a 2022 report by the NGO Global Witness, Colombia is essentially the most harmful nation on this planet for environmental and land defenders, with 60 murders that 12 months.In this interview with Mongabay, she discusses the threats environmental defenders face in Colombia and what helps her keep resilient within the face of assaults.
Yuly Velásquez grew up on the banks of the Magdalena River close to the Colombian metropolis of Barrancabermeja, an space surrounded by a big community of swamps, lagoons and tropical forests. These wetlands are house to a bunch of migratory fish species, such because the bocachico (Prochilodus magdalenae) and dorada (Brycon moorei), which riverside communities rely on for his or her livelihoods.
But in latest many years, the fish have develop into more and more scarce as town’s profitable oil trade and a close-by landfill discharge oil and poisonous waste into water our bodies. The nation’s largest oil refinery, owned by the nationwide oil firm Ecopetrol, is positioned in Barrancabermeja and contributes to 70% of the native financial system, in line with the newest estimates. It refines every part from gasoline to propane, and the economic complicated additionally hosts a big petrochemical plant to supply merchandise derived from petrol, resembling plastic. But though the refinery is a pillar within the native financial system, researchers and locals say insufficient administration and unlawful discharge is impacting the well being of residents and the livelihoods of fishers.
As a fisher and president of an environmental group that focuses on defending the area’s wetlands and waterways, Velásquez has confronted violent threats and assaults, together with three assassination makes an attempt by unidentified aggressors. Despite efforts by her group, FEDEPESAN (the Federation of Artisanal, Environmental and Tourist Fishermen of the Department of Santander), to observe and report air pollution and corruption within the area, Velásquez says a variety of their complaints have been ignored. Instead, assaults suffered by environmental defenders have reportedly elevated.
These are the challenges Velásquez and her colleagues face every day. But her ardour to guard the wetlands and assure entry to scrub water, she says, pushes her to proceed her work, regardless of the threats to her private security and her household’s safety.
Colombia’s largest oil refinery, owned by the nationwide oil firm Ecopetrol. “There is a hopelessness in observing day by day how Ecopetrol and their refinery pollute our water sources and never be capable to say something,” says Velásquez. Image by Aris Gionis by way of Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).
In 2022, the Colombian authorities introduced their determination to ratify the Escazú Agreement, a global treaty adopted in 2018 that goals to guard environmental human rights defenders. Velásquez welcomes the transfer. However, she has expressed concern that the settlement nonetheless wants work. Since coming into into power in April 2021, little progress has been made attributable to ratification delays and inconsistencies in its tips.
In an unique interview, Mongabay spoke with Velásquez in regards to the threats environmental defenders face and what helps her keep resilient within the face of assaults.
This interview was edited for size and readability.
Mongabay: Since 2020, after we final reported on oil air pollution in Barrancabermeja, how has the oil trade impacted your neighborhood?
Yuly Velásquez: Among the newest impacts in Barrancabermeja, a metropolis in Colombia’s Santander division, is discharge from the Ecopetrol refinery within the Caño del Rosario. The Caño del Rosario was baptized by us fishers as Caño Picho (the Rotten Stream) as a result of it’s now not a channel that’s appropriate for communities to make use of and revel in nature. Instead, it’s a channel that has been transformed into poisonous waste from the discharge coming from Ecopetrol’s refinery [resulting from the cleaning of its tanks]. This is affecting all of the fish and the Antillean manatee [Trichechus manatus], which is on the verge of extinction. In the final two months, we rescued one, however sadly it was already lifeless. The birds additionally die. They don’t know what sorts of toxins are coming down this pipe. Every time they launch these chemical substances, all species die.
We have already got a second report that we created with CREDHOS, the human rights group that accompanies us and assists us with neighborhood monitoring. But now we have not obtained a response from the Regional Autonomous Corporation of Santander, the competent entity that should be sure that we get pleasure from a wholesome atmosphere.
Wetlands outdoors Colombia’s metropolis of Barrancabermeja. Image by Óscar Castaño / Amnesty International.
Mongabay: The refinery is a driver within the native financial system. In the previous, what social and financial guarantees drove members of your neighborhood to permit the businesses to enter the area?
Yuly Velásquez: Well, a few years in the past, our ancestors found oil in Barrancabermeja. It was the Yariguí and Pipatón peoples who found the vital oil potential that existed right here within the metropolis. Barrancabermeja is an oil metropolis, however what the businesses have finished is contaminate our water sources. Progress and growth can’t be above communities, immediately affecting water consumption.
In many sectors, as a substitute of water for consumption, what comes out of artisanal wells that folks make manually within the floor to attract water from, is fuel. You can’t name that growth. We are in 2024 and there are a lot of households close to water sources who nonetheless do not need the correct to an aqueduct to have the ability to eat and revel in consuming water. The trade has been, subsequently, virtually the primary financial issue that has been developed within the metropolis they usually don’t care what occurs to the communities or the ecosystems within the atmosphere as a result of what pursuits them, like Ecopetrol, is to have cash and to promote or market giant portions of oil. Meanwhile, the communities that rely on fishing, agriculture and different actions are immediately affected.
Mongabay: According to a 2022 report by the NGO Global Witness, Colombia is essentially the most harmful nation on this planet for environmental defenders. What threats and assaults have you ever and your colleagues confronted whereas finishing up your work?
Yuly Velásquez: Colombia is without doubt one of the nations the place really defending the atmosphere means having a tombstone or a cross over you. It is having dying upon us. Because right here, in Colombia and in Barrancabermeja, when a human rights defender or environmentalist denounces an act and the grievance is about contamination from crude oil hydrocarbon spills or from all of the contamination discharged by the refinery within the completely different water sources, we’re stigmatized, bodily, psychologically, verbally and economically.
Because when an environmentalist is defending the atmosphere, the employment doorways are closed to each them and their household.
We are frowned upon, and there are even dying threats, as in my case, the place three assaults have been carried out on me. I started to obtain these assaults as a result of, earlier than, fishers by no means reported on this challenge. We had a fantastic chief, Luis Arango, who was assassinated just a few years in the past and, after that chief was assassinated, everybody was afraid to report or converse out. There is a hopelessness in observing day by day how Ecopetrol and their refinery pollute our water sources and never be capable to say something.
My colleagues from FEDEPESAN have additionally been systematically attacked for all of the complaints that now we have made, as a result of if we don’t maintain the water sources, the Las Ciénegas River, which is the place we fish, then we aren’t going to have the ability to fish, which we depend on to outlive.
When there was the affect of the Lizama 158 oil spill [in 2018], they promised they might not pollute water sources once more. But we realized that the settlement remained within the air as a result of they proceed to infect. Ecopetrol and its refinery say that they’ve had a superb environmental status for the final 20, 30, 50 years, however they proceed to discharge by Caño Rosario and proceed to have an effect on all species. Every day, we fishers discover ourselves displaced.
Yuly Velásquez, an environmental defender from Barrancabermeja. Image by Óscar Castaño / Amnesty International.
Mongabay: Can you clarify exactly what assaults occurred and when?
Yuly Velásquez: [Before] the fishers by no means denounced the acts, resembling corruption in contracting — a corruption that’s carried out by the Regional Autonomous Corporation of Santander CAS [the government body responsible for monitoring pollution], which in flip virtually works hand in hand with Ecopetrol and its refinery. And what occurs is, as a substitute of producing growth or having a superb water system, contractors profit from [a scheme] between Ecopetrol and the CAS. Ecopetrol hires contractors to scrub up air pollution and goes to the CAS for funds, however Ecopetrol doesn’t make investments that cash into these affected or contaminated water sources. For instance, a contract was introduced for the Ciénega San Silvestre [San Silvestre Swamp] and, as long as Ecopetrol delivers the cash, the CAS awards that contract. We have already got a case with the Attorney General’s Office, concerning this act of corruption.
So, till at present, 2024, now we have not obtained a transparent, concise response concerning all of the proof that the fishing communities supplied earlier than the general public tender [the Prosecutor’s Office]. I had the primary assault after we, with the fishers, started to publicly denounce acts of corruption that happen when Ecopetrol locations this cash. In that case, it was 5 billion pesos [$1.25 million]. And the Autonomous Corporation [CAS], which is identical one which should take care of all of the contamination occasions that happen in water sources within the atmosphere, has by no means supplied a constant response.
And, this [pollution] led us to, firstly, manage ourselves as a small fishers’ group. Secondly, we made the choice to type the federation, which was not the identical factor as an affiliation of 30 fishers. In a federation, there are 300 or 400 fishers dealing with the identical issues. So, this led us to work collectively, to arrange and make many extra efforts to make seen the issues that come up.
What gave us essentially the most power was creating blockades on the principle roads. By blocking a bridge, it prevented Ecopetrol from working on the completely different stations that they had round right here in Los Caños and Las Ciénegas. When making these blockades, the order was altered and Ecopetrol didn’t need their oil wells to cease. For them, what pursuits them is cash.
Afterward, Ecopetrol officers arrange working teams and visited the communities to seek out out what it was that we have been denouncing. But they all the time rejected duty. They mentioned this was not hydrocarbons, that this was home wastewater. But in a number of movies that we introduced, we put our palms the place the hydrocarbons, the crude oil, was discovered, and we have been in a position to display that these black stains of oil and hydrocarbons weren’t home wastewater however have been immediately generated from the method they carried out on the Ecopetrol refinery. This has meant that my household has gone by a fairly severe disaster due to assaults.
Photos of the crime scene at Yuly’s house when the attacker shot at her home and the police. Images courtesy of Yuly Velásquez.
The first assault on my home was when armed males arrived; they shot at us repeatedly within the doorways, within the home windows, however fortuitously there have been no accidents. We needed to go away, displaced from our first house. From there, we needed to go search for a close-by police station the place we may take shelter in a home as a result of the criminals have been chasing us.
Just a few months later, whereas I used to be with my colleagues finishing up the monitoring, which is what we will use to determine the sorts of air pollution that happen, in addition they approached the boat from the shore and shot at us. We additionally got here nose to nose, my bodyguard and different president leaders of the associations, at that second with the one that was driving the boat. There have been round six or seven individuals and we have been in shock. Thank God nobody was injured, fortuitously. We needed to go away the world and name the police to reach.
Not even 20 days had handed since that second assault once I was in a gathering with my bodyguard and the affiliation, they usually carried out the third assault. My bodyguard was wounded [by a gunshot] in a part of his face and, from the bottom, he was yelling at me to run and to get away from the place as a result of he was already injured on the ground.
Mongabay: Do you recognize who or which group is accountable for these assaults?
Yuly Velásquez: It has been fairly troublesome as a result of the police didn’t ship a transparent report. They have no idea who, how, why it’s occurring. But we do know that it’s due to all of the complaints that now we have made seen. Thank God we don’t really feel alone, as a result of the worldwide neighborhood can also be supporting us, exhibiting and making us seen. And it is a weapon that helps us say that we aren’t alone, there are different individuals who know the complaints that we’re making and, if one thing have been to occur to us, it’s due to the complaints we made towards the Ecopetrol refinery, attributable to all of the sorts of air pollution that happen right here within the territory.
Mongabay: Environmental defenders can generally be seen as getting in the best way of native financial or industrial growth. Or as a hindrance to a greater materials life for the neighborhood. As an environmental defender your self, what do you consider this?
Yuly Velásquez: It shouldn’t be like that as a result of we combat not just for the fishers however for the complete neighborhood normally, in order that these 300,000 inhabitants in Barrancabermeja can eat water in optimum circumstances, which is the least that any human can have. A proper to eat water and the correct to have the ability to entry water. On the opposite hand, better power is required on the a part of regulation enforcement to hold out surveillance and assure safety within the territories for the communities, as a result of the communities are virtually alone and weak. On the opposite hand, since we as environmentalists are conscious that the combat we’re finishing up is a combat for a typical good, for a collective group of communities that really feel impacted, now we have two choices: defend the water or die defending the water. But we don’t wish to die to achieve that place.
Wetlands outdoors Colombia’s metropolis of Barrancabermeja. Image by Óscar Castaño / Amnesty International.
Mongabay: Has this expertise made you and different members of your group change the best way you’re employed? Has it prevented locals, like fishers, from protesting or being vocal about their opposition to those actions?
Yuly Velásquez: Slightly concern is all the time there, it’s latent, however now we have managed to attach with different individuals, different fishers. We have achieved a community wherein completely different fishers from everywhere in the area know us and, once they need assistance for any air pollution state of affairs that’s occurring from the oil trade of their space, they inform us and we help them. We know that many fishers have been murdered all through the area.
This makes us very afraid, however on the similar time it additionally provides us power to have the ability to attain each nook of the area and make seen these deaths that happen with fishers whose deaths stay unpunished, fishers who’re murdered and thrown into the river or who’re thrown on the banks of the canals and rivers. Their households imagine that they’re fishing and it seems that they’re murdered. With this community, now we have managed to achieve a number of households of fishers that suffer from this concern of those murders, of dropping their family members.
So, we really feel that now we have made a bit progress, with a variety of concern, as a result of because the community turns into stronger, we’re additionally way more seen, and so the latent concern of being attacked is bigger, it’s robust. That is why we accompany ourselves with CREDHOS, additionally with Peace Brigades International [an international NGO that works to protect human rights and environmental defenders]. They now accompany us to hold out monitoring of the pipes in Las Ciénegas. We can have a bit peace of thoughts to have the ability to perform the work.
Mongabay: And what do you assume your work has achieved thus far?
Yuly Velásquez: What have we achieved with the complaints we made? What now we have achieved is that it considerably mitigates these corrupt contracts that they take out steadily to legalize their exchanges. Now, they know that there’s a neighborhood that’s organized, that carries out oversight and is denouncing them. So, we do really feel that now we have achieved one thing robust, however we want way more. We actually need that help from the nationwide authorities.
A canoe on the Magdalena River. Fish have develop into more and more scarce as town’s profitable oil trade and a close-by landfill discharge oil and poisonous waste into water our bodies. Image by Aris Gionis by way of Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).
Mongabay: What would you say to different environmental defenders in comparable circumstances who’re afraid to maintain on preventing for the wetlands, rivers and different vital ecosystems?
Yuly Velásquez: The message I give to my colleagues, to all environmentalists on this planet, is that we should maintain on, primarily to God who guides us, and work collectively, not alone however collectively with different organizations or different colleagues to assist us make seen the work we do. For us, it has been of nice significance to have the ability to work hand in hand with different worldwide organizations as a result of we really feel that right here in Colombia, after we discuss a global group that’s supporting girls leaders, we additionally really feel revered and we aren’t alone. So, I invite you to attempt to make these contacts with the worldwide neighborhood, that the worldwide neighborhood helps you, doesn’t go away you alone. Do not surrender, don’t surrender on that combat, on that vital work that now we have.
Because after we do collective work, we will take that power and attain the nationwide authorities itself. We present that we’re doing work that advantages the complete neighborhood, advantages the atmosphere. It is that this combat that we do with power, that we don’t surrender; quite the opposite, that we maintain on to the hand of God to maneuver ahead within the work we do.
Mongabay: You’ve risked lots for this work. What reflections do you could have in your profession? Is there something you’d change?
Yuly Velásquez: Well, the primary reflection I’ve is that I felt like I misplaced every part within the first assault they carried out towards me. I felt like I misplaced every part as a result of I left my house that we had constructed with my husband and youngsters. With a lot sacrifice, we bought out of there due to that assault. They made me go away that home — I used to be displaced. I felt like I used to be dropping every part as a result of I felt like my household was breaking into items. But on the similar time, my household is aware of the work I do, that it’s work that’s by vocation, that it’s work that advantages us all.
The feeling of help from my household; my husband, my kids, my mom, who instructed me not to surrender, made me stronger. And feeling that help from them made me perceive how I needed to change my means of working. Previously, we arrived immediately on the air pollution factors, however on subsequent journeys we needed to be extra strategic and arrive to the positioning with different methods. And these different methods labored. The incontrovertible fact that my husband accompanies me whereas I’m monitoring water our bodies, is all the time with me, that generates peace for me, that generates a way of safety for me.
Since my kids have grown, in addition they accompany me to the sector to do the work we do. They know the wildlife and feed the manatees. They join with me, too, and inform me, “Mom, you must proceed doing the gorgeous work you do.” My kids at present are pleased with our work, of what now we have achieved, although there have been moments the place all of us cry, and there have additionally been moments the place we snort at our experiences. So, if I may change one thing, I would supply a greater place of safety for my kids.
An oil refinery in Barrancabermeja. Image by Aris Gionis by way of Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).
Mongabay: What are your ideas on the Escazú Agreement to guard environmental defenders such as you? Do you assume it may ever be an efficient mechanism for environmental defenders in Colombia?
Yuly Velásquez: Well, that’s the dream. I believe that the Escazú Agreement nonetheless wants a variety of work. But it’s, let’s say, as an initiative, a hope that we environmentalists, human rights defenders and environmental defenders have. We need the Escazú settlement to be carried out, so leaders can train our management. So, we will exit to do our work, in order that we will get a assure of our proper to life, in order that we will converse out with none concern. Industry, giant firms and multinationals should additionally start to have a way of duty in order that we — everybody locally — will not be affected by their actions.
We are very grateful for the complete worldwide neighborhood, for all of the colleagues who have been now on the U.N. local weather and biodiversity conferences offering a lot info and making seen every part that’s occurring right here. And additionally exhibiting what we do as communities to mitigate local weather change.
Banner picture: A heron within the wetlands of Barrancabermeja. Image by Aris Gionis by way of Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).
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Activism, Conflict, Conservation, Ecosystems, Environment, Environmental Activism, Fish, Fishing, Fracking, Freshwater Ecosystems, Indigenous Communities, Indigenous Peoples, Indigenous Rights, Oil, Pollution, Resource Conflict, Rivers, Violence, Water, Water Pollution, Wetlands
Colombia, Latin America, South America