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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Colombia’s Civil War and the Environment

Air Date: Week of

This week, we begin a two-part series on the effect of Colombia’s civil war on the environment. For the past two decades, rebel groups there have been blowing up pipelines that carry oil for foreign companies. Angela Swafford traveled to her homeland and reports on the devastation.


CURWOOD: For almost four decades, Colombia has been wracked by a civil war that's killed tens of thousands of people, and also ravaged the environment. Colombia is a major oil-producing country, with much of that oil going to the United States. But in the last 20 years, millions of barrels of Colombia's oil have ended up in the soil and water. Rebels have been blowing up pipelines that carry oil for foreign companies, most often one jointly operated by the Colombian government and U.S.-based Occidental Petroleum. This pipeline transports 100,000 barrels of oil a day – that is, when it's up and running. Last year alone, attacks shut it down more than two-thirds of the time. A few months ago, the Bush administration ordered special forces into Colombia to train local soldiers to defend the pipeline. In the first of a two-part series on Colombia’s civil war and the environment, reporter Angela Swafford traveled to her homeland, and has this report.

SWAFFORD: This is the National Control Center of Ecopetrol, Colombia’s state oil company, located on the penthouse of a massive downtown building in Bogota. The place is a fortress, protected with thick security windows and doors. Like NASA mission control engineers, a dozen employees face computer screens intently monitoring every inch of its 7,500 miles of oil and gas pipelines that run throughout the country.


An alarm here means the system has detected a sudden drop in oil pressure. Engineer John Garcia, points to a blinking red light on his computer screen.

GARCIA: [VOICEOVER] You can see here with the pipe is leaking, between kilometers 81 and 83. So let's inform people over at headquarters so they can start acting on this one.


SWAFFORD: Though it can't be verified yet, chances are this leak is actually the result of an attack, one of the many carried out each week by the country's two main leftist rebel groups. The Caño Limon-Coveñas pipeline has been attacked about 900 times in its 16-year history, spilling almost three million barrels of oil. In the common scale used to rate oil disasters, that amounts to 14 Exxon Valdezes. Again, engineer John Garcia.

GARCIA: [VOICEOVER] Each pipeline is equipped with remotely controlled check valves that close off the broken section of pipe. The trouble is that Colombia's geography is very complicated, and the first thing that get polluted are streams and rivers. But if we didn't have these valves, the environmental damage would be a lot worse.

SWAFFORD: Nevertheless, the damage that is done both to the environment and to human lives is dramatic. Those are the words of Colombia's former Minister of the Environment, Juan Mayr.

MAYR: [VOICEOVER] I had the opportunity of personally visiting a region where the guerillas had attacked a pipeline. It was the town of Machuca. The attack on the pipeline resulted in the death by burns of 80 Colombian citizens. And, of course, that is another tragedy, another drama of terrorism on our national oil infrastructure. This is why I think the topic of peace has a lot to do with the environment. I see in the future a day when we will be at peace, and Colombia will preserve its rich biodiversity. At the moment, what we have are hard times, times of environmental destruction.

SWAFFORD: A helicopter prepares to travel northeast from Bogota, towards the Venezuelan border, straight into territory held by the rebel armies known as the FARC and the ELN. On board is an Ecopetrol biologist.

RUEDA: [VOICEOVER] My name is Alvaro Rueda. I work for Ecopetrol, and we are heading to Banadía Pumping Station, along the Caño Limon-Coveñas pipeline, in order to see the areas affected by the oil spills resulting from recent terrorist attacks.

SWAFFORD: We take off in a light rain. The helicopter will eventually climb to 3,000 feet, high enough, I'm told, to avoid enemy bullets.

RUEDA: [VOICEOVER] As soon as we get notice of an oil spill, we fly over it to determine its location relative to the rivers in order to forecast where the oil will possibly travel. Then we rush back and formulate a contingency plan.

SWAFFORD: After 40 minutes, we begin to pass over undulating mountain ranges, covered by thick forests and dramatic jagged peaks. This is an area of Colombia rich in biodiversity. Somewhere down there the pipeline lies buried a few feet underneath the soil, a failed attempt to hide it from terrorists. Spills here have been especially difficult to clean up, since there is no easy access into this wilderness, and the rivers are quick to carry the oil downstream. But geography is not the only obstacle here. Just a couple of days ago the guerilla groups announced a step-up in violence, declaring that they would attack both military and civilian choppers attempting to land along the pipeline to carry out repairs. As the mountains turn into valleys, and the clouds part, I spot a large oil spill, a black insult against the green grass.

RUEDA: [VOICEOVER] Right now we are flying over a spill that is about 1,000 by 16,000 feet wide. We have still not been able to land down there because of security reasons. It is a dark spill, very recent. These are areas for yucca and maize crops.

SWAFFORD: Multiple attacks have occurred so close together here, their spills have merged into one long chain. To compound the devastation, the underground natural aquifer in this region lies very near the surface, so oil can easily penetrate it. Already, the spill has reached a field of food crops, and it's heading towards a wide, milky river some 10 miles west, where a small village lies on its bank. The Colombian government estimates that at least 10,000 farmers and fisherman have been affected in the past decade by the pipeline attacks, either through loss of crops, contamination of drinking water and soils, or pollution of fisheries.

SWAFFORD (in helicopter): We’re circling the station now. As we approach the station, we have to circle it so that we give less opportunity for the guerillas to shoot us down. This is one evasive measure.

Banadía Pumping Station is a dangerous place to live and work. Less than a mile from the pipeline, it has become a field operation center in the middle of the wilderness. From here, repair teams are dispatched to damaged portions of the pipeline. The first thing you see when you get off the chopper is a huge section of twisted, blown up pipe. In another time and place, it could look like a modern art sculpture, but here it silently announces what this place is about.

Crews are sent out on an almost weekly basis
to survey pipeline damage and make repairs.

Company employees move in to greet us. Several of them wear bulletproof vests. Five small, white buildings serve as housing and dining facilities here. Most have bunkers inside them, lined with sacks of sand. Employees are instructed to dive into them during a guerilla attack. Carlos Baguett is in charge of maintenance and repair here, and he has a lot to say about the perils of trying to do his job. He remembers being flown by helicopter a few months ago to a section of the pipeline that had been severely mauled by dynamite, the standard method of attack.

BAGUETT: [VOICEOVER] Yes, it was about 5 p.m. when we got there. We were getting the place organized to work where the pipeline had been broken. Then they started to launch cylinders stuffed with dynamite against the army, and we were right in between the army and the guerrillas. But, fortunately, nothing happened to us civilians. We had been instructed to lie on the ground, facing down, and to keep our mouths open so that the explosive wave would not rip us apart.

SWAFFORD: Not exactly a typical day at the office. Guerillas also plant mines next to the pipelines, so before workers can start repairs, the army must first clear the site, a process that can take days. We pass by destroyed sections of pipeline that now look like huge over-cooked pieces of pasta twisted and bent in a variety of shapes.

BAGUETT: [VOICEOVER] This is a cemetery of the blown up pieces of pipeline. Look, that is because of the impact of dynamite. Look at that other one, it is even pretty. Who knows how many kilos of explosives they use to leave it like that. They always place the dynamite underneath.

SWAFFORD: We enter one of several warehouses filled with equipment used to scoop up oil and repair pipeline.

BAGUETT: [VOICEOVER] Here we have a piece of equipment that is basically a power unit with rolls that you place on the surface of the river or lake. It has these hydraulic hoses that make the rolls spin and pick up the oil, which is then sent to a portable tank.

SWAFFORD: Baguett also uses suctioning equipment to soak oil from the ground.

BAGUETT: [VOICEOVER] Then we treat the soil with lime and slowly keep working on it until it is ready to be planted again. But when the spill takes place during the rainy season, the oil in the ground tends to resurface somewhere else, carried by the water in the aquifer, affecting places that were not contaminated before.

SWAFFORD: We walk away from the pumping station towards the pipeline. Since the tubes are buried, all I see is a slight change in the color of the grass. The part of the pipeline we're standing on now was attacked last year. The soil is light brown here, and the grass is dead. Ecopetrol biologist Alvaro Rueda.

RUEDA: [VOICEOVER] When I kick the soil, you can see how loose it is. The oil that was spilled last year here is underneath, in this very permeable soil. The deposit is still down there.

SWAFFORD: He digs through the sandy topsoil, and almost immediately the dirt turns darker brown. As I kneel down to take a look, I begin to smell oil. There is a small stream about 80 feet from us, and its banks are also stained in brown. Alvaro Rueda remembers the devastation as it happened.

RUEDA: [VOICEOVER] Though this is flat terrain, it does have some gradient. So the oil ended up in a stream that feeds a major river called Arauca. We managed to stop the large patch, but we lost many birds, like that kingfisher that you see over there. The oil makes sort of a mirror that confuses birds who mistake it for water. Saving them once they have fallen in oil is extremely difficult. Other species that always die are reptiles, like snakes, insects and amphibians. The vegetation along the river margins ends up totally covered in oil.

SWAFFORD: Ecopetrol estimates that over the years it has tried to clean up more than 12,000 miles of rivers and 3,700 acres of land throughout the country. But it's impossible to know the full extent of the damage suffered by the plant and animal life here, because the region is so dangerous. No in-depth scientific studies have been done on that question. Of course, if there were no pipeline attacks, the oil development here would still be controversial. It brings with it its own list of consequences, including air and water pollution, soil erosion, and disturbance of wildlife. But to see devastation that has been so purposely inflicted is particularly disturbing.

I look to the east toward Venezuela and to the mountains there that are surrounded in mist. Two helicopters appear in the distance, like silent dragonflies. They might be carrying the elite U.S. military personnel sent here to help protect these pipelines. Underneath those choppers lies an ecosystem under attack. This is the other often overlooked consequence of the Colombian civil war, an environment whose future depends on a peace that remains tragically elusive. In the Colombian state of Arauca, along the Caño Limon-Coveñas pipeline, I am Angela Swafford, for Living On Earth.



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