By Oliver Griffin
PUERTO WILCHES, Colombia (Reuters) – Colombia’s anti-fracking activists are facing increased threats and violence as two investigative pilot projects to extract oil and gas from unconventional fields move forward, five campaigners said, with some forced to flee in fear for their lives.
While the Andean nation has a moratorium on commercial fracking, its highest administrative tribunal has approved the pilot projects that will collect scientific data in order to decide whether to allow the controversial drilling.
Supporters say fracking is key to shoring up dwindling production as it could nearly triple Colombia’s crude and gas reserves, while opponents decry risks to water quality and human health.
Both the Kale and Platero projects, operated by majority state-owned Ecopetrol, in turn partnered by U.S. oil major Exxon Mobil Corp, are located near the Magdalena River town of Puerto Wilches, in Santander province.
The anti-fracking activists told Reuters that threats, intimidation and attacks from unknown assailants have spiked since February, after a public hearing on the Kale project’s environmental license.
Campaigners accuse Ecopetrol of tarring protesters as hooligans, after the company decried what it said were “acts of vandalism” during the February hearing.
Ecopetrol has publicly rejected violence against campaigners, it said in a statement, adding it will continue due diligence to identify any workers, partners, suppliers or contractors acting illegally.
Exxon told Reuters it is “committed to conducting business in a manner that is compatible with the environmental and economic needs of the communities in which we operate.”
Contractors who stand to lose out if the projects do not go ahead are behind the threats, two of the activists alleged, as did another who was attacked in 2021.
Reuters approached five associations representing oil and gas businesses, including contractors, for comment. Three did not respond, while two said to contact Ecopetrol.
Threats against activists are common in Colombia, which was the deadliest country for environmental and land defenders in 2019 and 2020, according to campaign group Global Witness.
Threats pushed two of the campaigners to leave the town this year, including Yuvelis Natalia Morales, 21, who fled to France after she and her bodyguards were chased through Puerto Wilches by men on a motorbike.
Prior to that February incident, Morales – a member of the Aguawil committee, a group seeking to protect water sources – received various threats from people who approached her at home, she said.
Then one day, just after leaving home with two bodyguards provided by an anti-fracking coalition, she got a terrifying message.
“My mom wrote to me two minutes after saying ‘sweetie, there are two armed men looking for you here, they’re on a high-powered motorcycle,'” Morales said by telephone. “That’s when everything started to feel like a movie.”
Morales and her bodyguards drove around the municipality to try to escape the pursuers, she said. They could not go far because the leftist National Liberation Army rebels, who are active locally, had forbidden citizens to leave that weekend.
Local police took more than an hour to arrive at a hotel where they sought refuge, Morales said.
They did not take her statement, she added, but asked her to sign a document confirming they had spoken to her.
The Magdalena Medio regional police confirmed officers found Morales and the bodyguards at a hotel, adding they responded to the reports “immediately” and arranged protection measures.
‘SHAKING WITH FEAR’
The Kale project was granted its environmental license, but a court suspended it last week after ruling certain nearby communities were not properly consulted. Ecopetrol has said it will appeal.
Permissions are still pending for the Platero project.
The attorney general’s office has received 33 reports of threats made to activists in Puerto Wilches and Barrancabermeja, a nearby city, of which 12 cases remain active, it told Reuters in a statement.
Three cases have been shelved and 17 are considered inactive, because there is evidence they are connected to other crimes, the office said. In one other case, the victim withdrew their complaint.
Leonardo Gutierrez, 66, a palm oil producer and anti-fracking member of the committee evaluating the pilot projects, told Reuters that a recent call left him shaking with fear.
“They told me that if I keep messing around, if I keep getting involved, they are going to kill me.”
The attorney general’s office requested protection for Guttierez following the threats.
The government unit which provides security to activists would not comment in detail but Gutierrez said the request was denied.
Other activists also reported threatening phone calls, text messages, intimidation and attacks.
“Environmentalists have repeatedly reported that the authorities dismiss their complaints of threats and do not give them adequate protection,” said Juan Pappier, advocacy group Human Rights Watch’s senior investigator for the Americas.
Morales met with France’s President Emmanuel Macron in March, as part of an initiative by the French government to protect human rights defenders who have faced threats.
“These have been the worst days of my life,” she said. “But ironically, also the best days, because I’m alive.”
(Reporting by Oliver Griffin; Editing by Marguerita Choy)