The challenge of the 83 indigenous reservations to which oil blocks are crossed

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This text is part of an alliance between El Espectador (national newspaper) and the Asociación Ambiente y Sociedad organization.

A calculation led by the Asociación Ambiente y Sociedad found that of the 51 contracts assigned in the Colombian Amazon, 39 overlap with indigenous territories; In addition, indigenous peoples denounce that prior consultations are not carried out.

Around 2011, the Nasas indigenous people of the Alto Lorenzo Reservation in Puerto Asís, Putumayo region, began to notice that their surroundings were filled with machinery and people who were not from the region. Later, they saw oil stains in rivers and streams and, as leader José Evaristo Garcés told El Espectador, “the guardian spirits did not reappear at the El Culebrero mouth, in the La Amarilla creek.”

The impacts were seen months later, were the consequence of an oil exploitation that was taking place in the area. Although the reservation was located within the 38,000 hectares of influence of the project, the community was never consulted about its position on the matter; the government did not even make prior consultation.

This confrontation between two visions of the territory, one ancestral and the other extractive, is what could be taking place in 83 indigenous reservations in the Colombian Amazon. The figure is part of a rigorous work carried out by la Asociación Ambiente y Sociedad (AAS), led by geographer Andrea Pietro, who used data from 2021 from the National Hydrocarbons Agency and from 2019 from the National Land Agency, to find out to date, how many indigenous reservations are affected by an oil block.

Additionally, “In the Amazon region there are 51 oil contracts, especially in Caquetá and Putumayo; 39 of these blocks intersect with 83 indigenous reservations”, he comments. “But you have to bear in mind that sometimes it is a single contract that overlaps with several receipts, or a receipt with several contracts. Furthermore, we are talking about the blocks that have already been awarded, but there could be more”, he explains. Among the 39 blocks that cross one or more reserves, eight are in the production stage (touching 12 reserves), 29 in exploration (out of 55 reserves) and two in technical evaluation (in 25 reserves).

As happened ten years ago with the Nasa community of Alto Lorenzo region, the indigenous people are concerned about the environmental and social problems that these types of projects bring. So much that leaders like Fernando Piguaje, an indigenous Siona and legal representative of the territory, (that represents fifteen Putumayo peoples), is very emphatic in saying that they do not want any oil projects in their territory.

“Our message is clear and it is that we want to live in peace with Mother Nature,” he says. “We have seen what happened in Villa Garzón and Puerto Asís, where the communities had to leave because of the noise, the oil spill and because it is no secret to anyone, these projects attract armed groups. The communities are displaced, leaving their ancestral territory and their historical memory”, is the scenario that he describes.

Fernando is not the only one who sees little advantage to oil projects reaching his shelters. Fanny Jael Jamoy, an Inga indigenous from the department of Caquetá, says she has seen how the arrival of oil does little to benefit the community. “Yes, at the beginning more resources come in, but that ends and it is not useful for living in the long term. On the other hand, if we remain in the territory, what we do is take care of it and continue to strengthen it. But we as indigenous peoples have not been allowed to stay ”.

What she refers to, and which several indigenous people repeat, is that prior consultation (constitutional right that exists so that they are the ones who define whether natural resources can be exploited in their territory) is not always respected. Furthermore, as Fanny Kuiru Castro, an indigenous Uitoto from the Amazon, points out, when prior consultations are made, transparency of the information is not guaranteed either. “It is a fundamental right that is often not respected, because it becomes a formalism. For example, they should be done with true, reliable and anticipated information, but this is not the case ”.

This idea is not only held by the indigenous people, but also by researchers who have put a magnifying glass on the subject. “There are repeated positions on the part of the Ministry of the Interior that are unaware of the presence of ethnic peoples in the country’s territories, which encourage communities to initiate lawsuits against the institutions; in order to, vindicate both the right to prior consultation and the right to territory and life or equality”, explains Vanessa Torres, deputy director of AAS.

For example, in the case of the Nasas del Alto Lorenzo, the so-called “prior” consultation, was only made in 2017 in response to a ruling issued by the Court because the community he demanded.  But the “prior”consultation came quite late, as the oil company had started activities since 2011 and the indigenous people were not able to shield the territory from contamination.

More than two weeks ago, El Espectador asked the Ministry of the Interior how many prior consultations have been carried out in Colombia; however, as of press time, he received no response. And it is that obtaining access to this figure seems to be a difficult task. In order to have  a better grasp of the scenario, the researcher Laura Montaño, also from AAS, filed a right to petition before the Ministry of the Interior asking for the files of the prior consultations made to the 80 indigenous reservations in Caquetá and Putumayo region, or other processes that had been advanced. But the response of the portfolio was that “because of reasons of protection of sensitive data, it was not possible to deliver this information.” Despite other resources that AAS has submitted to obtain the data, the refusal to deliver them persists.

Beyond prior consultation, how to organize the territory

The common thing when hearing the words “territorial ordering” is that one thinks of plans, CONPES (National Council for Economic and Social Policy), protected areas, urban areas, where a road can be opened, agricultural areas and a long etc… But for Mateo Estrada, advisor on environmental issues and climate change of the general coordination of the National Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the Amazon Colombia, the definition should be simpler. “It is something that comes from the law of origin, when the first men say and create an organized system of what life on earth should be. What is the role of humans, trees and animals; but also the role of the spirits that are under the earth, on the earth, and above the earth. It is a natural order of harmonious life”.

Estrada’s words are part of the request of several indigenous peoples for the Government to include their life plans, their traditions and perceptions when it comes to thinking of a road map for the Amazon. Until now, as they perceive, all the keys to how to organize come from outside and this, to a great extent, is what has given rise to the indigenous communities ending up in conflict with the economic interests of the Government. “The State plans from a chair and from an office. For example, I cannot go to someone else’s house to order their behavior, but that is what they do. So we are proposing that the regulations, decrees and laws that order our territory be made from us, with us,”adds Germinio Biguidima, an indigenous Múrui from the department of Amazonas.

If indigenous knowledge and their life plans were recognized at the institutional level, the indigenous people assure that not only would power disputes, such as the one with the oil industry, be avoided, but Colombia would also speed up its fight against climate change. But as Karla Díaz, a researcher at AAS, points out, “they do not have participation in decision-making scenarios, because they have been built from a technical language and particular knowledge that excludes them.”

Prior consultation, he assures, has been a gain for ethnic peoples and a powerful tool, but “we have forgotten that the Political Constitution has provided that indigenous peoples have powers in territorial ordering through the figure of territorial entities. Indigenous people”, he affirms. Maybe if these spaces were strong, we would not have the feeling to have an Amazonia under threat, but rather guarded by those who, as the UN itself has said, are the best suited to conserve natural resources and lead a path that takes us away from a nearby climate catastrophe.