Colombia’s Oil War

A war that many forget to mention

“When there was no petroleum, there was no war,” says Dario Tulivila, a traditional Guahibo Indian leader from Colombia’s bloodily conflicted department of Arauca. “When the oil came, the war came. Before that, we had a dignified life here. Our council of cabildos does not permit them to take the blood from the earth in our territories. The wealth goes to other countries, and only brings war to us Colombians”– Tulivila the president of Cabildos and Traditional Indigenous Authorities of the Department of Arauca (ASCATIDAR).

The metaphor oil is like blood is known beyond the borders of Guatemala. This week I will take you through a never ending oil Civil War in northwestern corner of Arauca and the pacific coast of Colombia. Here we will stop in afro-Colombian and indigenous communities. These communities’ lands have been most affected by Civil war and these areas alone contribute to the staggering number of 3 million internally displaced people (IDPs) in Colombia. In Arauca and Pacific Coast people flee their homes in a hurry, carrying just personal belongings, and have headed to slums in the big cities, with hopes of finding safety. The America media portrays only one side to this conflict. In the news Colombia is a drug war zone. However, what they are not showing you is other side, which is deeply rooted in United States interest of protecting oil in Colombia.

The war in Iraq, which began in 2001 distracted Americans from other wars that were taking place just south of our borders. In November 2002 President Bush ordered U.S. Special Forces to go train the Colombian army and defend an oil pipeline. The pipeline is 800 kilometers long and remains a vulnerable target- easy to spot and almost impossible to defend. Once again it had been bombed by leftist Colombia rebel groups. The plan as clearly outlined by President Bush was to “counter terrorism” and US Special Force troops arrived in Arauca Colombia, in order to train units of the 18th Battalion. The 18th Battalion was a plan to protect the oil pipeline, which belongs to an American oil and gas company called Occidental Petroleum (OXY). The initiative was part of a $94 million counterinsurgency program approved by the US Congress. This program included the delivery of helicopters and other military aid to back-up Colombian soldiers against rebel groups.

The pipeline

Tulivila, the president of the Association of Cabildos and Traditional Indigenous Authorities of the Department of Arauca (ASCATIDAR); claimed that the pipeline violated the indigenous people‚Äôs rights. The ASCATIDAR was created in 2003 in order to recognize local autonomy of Guahibo and Uwa Indian people in the Arauca region. The objective was to stop exploitation of their lands from US interest. A similar law was passed called the: Law of Black Communities created in 1991, in order to protect, guarantee, and recognized the rights of Afro-Columbians. Like the ASCATIDAR initiative, the law of black communities outlined-the protection of traditional territories, mechanisms of participation, affirmative action, and cultural rights. Nevertheless the constitutional rights of indigenous and black communities were both violated when the Colombian court granted OXY the right to drill in Arauca and in the pacific coast without their consent. Despite clear opposition from both groups the Colombia government’s vision was distorted by OXY’s deal to receive as much as $900 million in addition to taxes and royalties annually from oil revenue. With a foreign debt of over $32 billion dollars, Colombian government argued that Colombia needs the money. With one sign of the pen the contract was sealed and the constitutional rights of these people were destroyed.

The U’wa indigenous people have responded to the government’s actions by saying, “For our people, it’s ominous and abusive that the men of Occidental, along with the Colombian government program actions that injure and violate the cultural and territorial principals of the U’wa and of the campesinos … our brothers who come with impartiality to support our cause.” The voices of black and indigenous groups were ignored and oil exploration did not come to halt. Instead oil brought war to their lands and left millions of people without anywhere to go.

The oil pipeline attracts rebels groups who intimidate people in the area and have demanded money from the construction companies who repair the pipeline. In 2000 alone, the pipeline was bombed 98 times and kidnapping for ransoms were frequent; according to one estimate, rebel groups have managed to earn estimate windfall of $140 million annually. In an attempt to secure US interest, offers have been made by the Columbian government leftist groups. However, rebel groups have been unwilling to comply. They have responded that they oppose exploitation of Colombia’s oil resources by foreign multinationals.

The side of the rebels

Rebel groups are arguing that communities have not at all reaped the benefits of OXY’s oil. Instead of bringing jobs and development to the community, there has been just the opposite. Since the pipeline was built there are higher health risk of oil contaminated the waters, lands are infertile to farm due to oil leaks, there are no jobs, and little educational opportunities.

The bombings on the pipeline done by these rebel groups have only tripled these affects. Oil from the pipes leaks in nearby rivers, where people wash clothes and bath. Violence of rebel groups have caused disturbance in these communities, which had up to 400 assassinations in the last six months. This can especially be seen in a region called Barranca in the South.

The Colombian army has responded with fear of rebel ambushes. Heavily equipped with US rnilitary aid, Colombian soldiers have raided Arauca and the pacific coast with automatic rifle fire. The two forces continue to battle to control the oil revenues and the people who once owned the land there flee.