PBI-Colombia accompanies CREDHOS to look at impact of oil industry on rivers

Published by Brent Patterson on

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This past July, the Peace Brigades International-Colombia Project accompanied the Regional Corporation for the Defence of Human Rights (CREDHOS) to observe the pollution in the Magdalena River caused by the oil industry in the city of Barrancabermeja.

Peace Brigades International-Canada is working with PBI-Colombia to bring a representative from CREDHOS to Vancouver, Nanaimo, Toronto and Ottawa this November to share more about the work they do in Colombia to defend the air, land and waterways.

PBI-Colombia field project volunteer Yvonne Furrer writes about her three-hour journey with CREDHOS on the Magdalena River and its nearby tributaries in this article.

She highlights that the trip included an international delegation organized by the Yariguíes Regional Corporation – Social Research Group into Extractives and the Environment in the Magdalena Medio Region (CRY-GEAM). CRY-GEAM is an ally of CREDHOS that works to raise awareness of the impacts of oil refineries and extractives in the region.

At the start of the trip, Oscar Sampayo, one of the members of CRY-GEAM, showed the group the grey-brown water pouring directly into the Magdalena River from the state-run Ecopetrol refinery in Barrancabermeja. He says that he no longer eats fish from the river because of the pollution.

The next stop showed those onboard the boat a new port being constructed by Impala Terminals (a subsidiary of the Geneva headquartered Trafigura Group Pte. Ltd.) to transport oil and coal down the river for companies including ExxonMobil, Ecopetrol, Conoco and Parex.

The journey then continued on the Sogamoso River, the second largest tributary of the Magdalena River. In March 2018, an oil spill from the Lisama 158 oil well owned by Ecopetrol resulted in oil flowing into the Sogamoso River, just a few metres from the Magdalena River. While this environmental disaster is denied by authorities, it is now more difficult for fishers in the area to sell their harvest given many customers say it smells of oil.

Next on the San Silvestre River, the main tributary of the Sogamoso River, the delegation saw an area where several fracking projects are due to start.

Returning back to Barrancabermeja, the delegation smelled the odours coming from the refinery and saw the black waters of the Picho River. Those waters are polluted because this river runs from the Miramar marshes which are situated right beside the refinery.

Before the conclusion of the trip, the boat visited to the San Silvestre marsh, the area where Barrancabermeja gets its drinking water. Furrer notes that Dr. Yésid Blanco had researched the health impacts of a landfill on this marsh before threats forced him to leave the country.

Readers in Canada may see similarities in this report about Colombia by Furrer to the situation in Fort McMurray and the Athabasca River in northern Alberta.

In August 2010, Reuters reported on a scientific research study, co-authored by Erin Kelly and David Schindler, on the impact of oil industry operations on that river system. The study found that mercury, arsenic, lead and cadmium are among the 13 toxins released into river.

Reuters reported, “Schindler said the incidence of pollutants in fish is particularly worrisome, as local populations depend on the region’s fishery for food.”

The story of Dr. Blanco may also bring to mind the experience of Dr. John O’Connor, a physician who worked in Fort Chipewyan, a community downstream from Fort McMurray.

Dr. O’Connor found elevated cancer rates in that community that he believed were attributable to tar sands activities polluting the water.

After he publicly raised those concerns, APTN reported, “Health Canada accused him of engendering mistrust, blocking access to files, billing irregularities, and raising undue alarm in the community” and he faced professional misconduct charges.

Dr. O’Connor was eventually cleared of all charges, but that didn’t come without him experiencing hardship and persecution for speaking the truth.

Peace Brigades International-Canada will be hosting a representative from CREDHOS and CCALCP (a legal collective that helped to stop Canadian fracking in Colombia) at public forums in Vancouver, Nanaimo, Toronto and Ottawa this coming November. More details on that November 3-10 speaking tour soon!

To help support that tour, please consider making a donation here.

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