- Oil activity in the town of Puerto Boyacá in Colombia is responsible for 109 contaminated sites, 37 of which have been caused by the company Mansarovar Energy, according to data from Colombia’s National Authority for Environmental Licencing (ANLA).
- Mongabay Latam and Rutas del Conflicto carried out a visit to the region to see the damage firsthand and hear stories of local inhabitants.
- Oil spills have polluted an important wetland, led to a 90% loss in fish and contaminated farmland — sparking a legal backlash by fishers and farmers who say their livelihoods have been gravely impacted.
- Although lawsuits over the damage caused to the local ecosystem and the region’s bodies of water have been filed by local inhabitants, fishers, farmers and even the municipal authorities of Puerto Boyacá, no work has yet been carried out to restore the contaminated sites by the company.
José Celestino Trujillo is a fisherman who lived for nearly 80 years in the same rural district in central Colombia. For decades, he had borne witness to the transformations that have been wrought upon the land of Puerto Boyacá where he was born.
One of the areas where these changes are most apparent, José Celestino says, is on the Palagua wetlands, the second-most important freshwater body in the department, after Lake Tota. Home to at least 160 species, the wetlands are also one of the places where the pollution caused by the oil industry is most evident.
In his youth, José Celestino used to go out and fish on the Palagua wetlands, which are part of the Magdalena River valley. Celestino recalled how in each net he could catch three or four of a species of fish known locally as bocachicos, each one the size of a person’s forearm. Today, these fish are few and far between, and the ones that are caught have decreased significantly in size, now measuring no more than the length of one’s hand.
Mongabay Latam and Rutas del Conflicto carried out a visit to the region, where they saw firsthand the damage that the oil industry, which has operated in the area for over fifty years, has caused in the area. We heard the stories of the local inhabitants of Muelle Velázquez, who say that around 200 hectares (494 acres) of the wetlands have been polluted by hydrocarbon waste.
Pollution in Campo Velásquez
An area of the Palagua wetlands dubbed El Aceitero (‘The Oil Mill’) by local fisherman Milton Guzmán is one such example of the impacts left behind by oil activity in the region. Oil waste abounds in the depths of this stretch of water, so much so that when a boat’s motor is ignited or a stick of wood is dragged through the water, oil becomes visible on the surface.
In 1946, the Texas Petroleum Company began drilling for oil on the Campo Velásquez oilfield, which sits to the south of the Palagua wetlands. Nearly fifty years later, the Colombian subsidiary of Omimex Resources bought TPC’s assets in the region, which today belong to Mansarovar Energy. Campo Velásquez oilfield has 95 oil wells in operation, with 185 abandoned oil wells and 32 that are currently closed, according to Mansarovar Energy’s official site. No additional details about the differences between the different oil wells are offered, which together produce around 3,270 barrels of crude oil every day.
Milton Guzmán, who is also an administrator at Asopezpalagua, the local fishermen’s association, spoke of how Mansarovar Energy came to acquire the underwater pipelines. According to Guzmán, the pipelines – poorly maintained and overburdened by the vast amount of crude oil they pumped – used to break, releasing its contents into the surrounding water. “After three or four days we would see huge numbers of fish die off,” said José Celestino, who is also a member of Asopezpalagua.
Its operations on the Campo Velásquez oilfield are the main reason why Mansarovar Energy is responsible for 37 of the 109 contaminated sites in Puerto Boyacá caused by oil drilling activity, according to data made available by Colombia’s National Authority for Environmental Licencing (ANLA) for the purposes of this investigation.
The database that was constructed for the purposes of this transnational investigation was able to establish the existence of at least 161 sites of “unresolved impacts” across Colombia, located mainly in the departments of Boyacá, Santander, Antioquia and Putumayo.
Leonardo Granados is lawyer and advisor to the mayor of Puerto Boyacá on matters for the strategic defense of the area. He is also the director of the San Silvestre Green corporation, an NGO whose aim is to support sustainable development. Granados confirms the environmental damage locals observe in the area.
“After georeferencing the contamination zones and the properties affected by Mansarovar’s operations in Campo Velázquez, it was concluded that the waters run into the Palagua wetlands and reach El Aceitero. This has led to a 90% loss in fish [populations] and water [quality],” he tells Mongabay.
Palagua wetlands are made up of 180 hectares (444 acres) of open water as well as a further 1,200 hectares (2965 acres) of marshes. The neighboring farms get their water supply from this body of water, and when the rainy season comes the rain mixes with the oil, circulates through the neighboring villages and ultimately flows into the wetlands, explains Mauricio Salazar, a forestry engineer and, until the end of 2022, the coordinator of the Municipal Environmental Management Unit of Puerto Boyacá.
In 2021, the owners of 18 properties in the area initiated criminal and administrative proceedings against Mansarovar Energy over the pollution of the area’s water, while saying that the number of those affected is indeed higher.
One of the properties affected by the pollution is that of El Jordán. According to ANLA, the national environmental licensing authority, El Jordán is one of 37 “unresolved impacts” in the region that Mansarovar Energy is responsible for.
According to Édgar and Giovanny Bermúdez, a father and son farmer duo who own El Jordán, their property has been affected by the activities on the Campo Velásquez oilfield. Two years ago, the farmers tried to dig some small jagüeyes, or watering holes, for their livestock, only to find, to their surprise, that the water was full of oil.
“We got in touch with the company, [as] at the time there were personnel there to check. They took some tests and confirmed that [the water] was contaminated, but then they never came back or gave us an answer. Mansarovar has always been aware of this situation,” Giovanny said.
The Bermúdez family now only own calves. In the past they had cows, however they said that the animals would suffer from dehydration in the hotter months of the year – when temperatures can reach 40 degrees celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) – and that, as the wells of drinking water dried up in the heat, if the cows drank the contaminated water, they would get sick, lose weight, abort and even die.
According to Mansarovar Energy, it has carried out the initial phase of diagnostic activities in order to then establish an intervention strategy in El Aceitero. As for El Jordán, Mansarovar stated that it did not have permission to access the property. The company did not respond to Mongabay’s other questions.
Giovanny Bermúdez explains that he denied permission to enter his property in order to support his case and asked Mansarovar to deal with his legal representative, Leonardo Granados.
“Generally, when companies are given permission to enter a property, they enter in order to destroy evidence. As we are in the process with the Attorney General’s Office to collect the material evidence, the oil company could commit the crime of destroying or covering up such evidence. For that reason, entrance to the property was not permitted,” Granados tells Mongabay.
A bad inheritance and environmental damage left unremedied
Though Mansarovar Energy started operations in the region fifteen years ago, the environmental damage in the area dates back to the twentieth century, when the Texas Petroleum Company arrived in Puerto Boyacá to begin its decades-long involvement in oil extraction on the Campo Velásquez oilfield.
Texas Petroleum was the main responsible party for the ecological impacts that have been caused in the region, since, according to a report from the now dissolved National Institute of Renewable and Natural Resources and the Environment (INDERENA), the company carried out its work without any environmental considerations, used outdated equipment and did nothing to treat the oil spills that it caused.
José Celestino recalled how instead of dealing with the environmental damage, the Texas Petroleum Company tried instead to cover it up. It used heavy machinery to remove the oil waste that was found in the earth, and when the water was too thick with oil, they would set it alight. According to José Celestino and other local inhabitants, in the 1970s the company dropped reed seeds into the wetlands from above using an airplane.
Today, nearly 50 hectares (about 123 acres) of the Palagua wetlands is taken up by these reeds and, according to the lawyer Leonardo Granados, “that is where the jewel in the pollution’s crown is and they covered it up [with the reeds].”
Mauricio Salazar, also said that common water hyacinths (Eichhornia crassipes), known locally as taruya, were also used to cover up the oil waste that sat in the depths of El Aceitero. As an introduced species, there was no predator to control its population and it has become an invasive species.
“It spreads as nothing is there to stop it,” Salazar explained. To make matters worse, when the plants die, the organic matter is deposited at the bottom of the water, creating a bed of dead plants that, bit by bit, causes the wetlands to dry out, lose oxygen and the surface area of the open water to become smaller and smaller.
“We are calling for the whole area to be removed, for all the invasive reeds to be removed and for the wetlands to be filtered, cleansed, but they won’t do it because it’s expensive,” said Milton Guzmán, the administrator of Asopezpalagua.
“The company claims that everything is perfect, that according to the documents it has complied [with its duties]. But the evidence on the ground tells a different story. Reality has to take precedence over what’s on paper.”
In the face of the environmental damages, in 1994 the municipality of Puerto Boyacá filed a class action suit against the Texas Petroleum Company. In 2008, the Sixth Civil Circuit Court of Bogotá found Texas Petroleum Company and Omimex Colombia to be responsible for the “deterioration of the environment and of the renewable natural resources in the areas of Campo Velásquez and Campo Palagua,” the latter of which is located just north of the wetlands. In their judgment, the court handed down a sentence to the petrol companies obliging them to carry through with a special management plan for the recuperation of the wetlands.
Omimex Colombia became Mansarovar Energy and acquired not only its assets in the shape of the Campo Velásquez oilfield, but also became responsible for the environmental liabilities, or “unresolved impacts”. Mansarovar Energy therefore became responsible for the ecological remediation of the area.
“We can’t keep allowing the oil industry, which has caused so much damage to the environment and ecosystem to go on unpunished, as has happened with Texas [Petroleum Company], Omimex, and is basically happening again now with Mansarovar,” says Mauricio Salazar, the former coordinator of the Municipal Environmental Management Unit of Puerto Boyacá.
Meanwhile, the members of Asopezpalagua also brought a parallel class action suit against the companies, which they won in 2010. In their case, the court ordered something more specific: “it called for the oil companies to carry out a deep water study at the bottom of the wetlands, because the sediments are completely full of hydrocarbons, which is what has damaged the fish stocks and put an end to fishing activities,” the lawyer Granados explained.
On Nov. 23, 2022, representatives from Colombia’s Attorney General’s Office, the Ombudsman’s Office, the National Authority for Environmental Licencing, the Regional Autonomous Corporation of Boyacá, the Municipal Environmental Management Unit of Puerto Boyacá, and Asopezpalagua carried out a visit to the area to see if the companies had complied with what had been ordered in the sentences of the lawsuits.
The visit started at Oil Well No. 100, known as Puerto Nuevo, and took in a number of other spots, among them Muelle Velásquez and El Aceitero.
During the tour the visitors were able to see evidence of the oil that still sits among the reed beds.
“We hope that the judge will take action against the contempt [for the ruling] and force the company to finally comply after 30 years,” said Asopezpalagua’s Guzmán.
Campo Moriche, where the pollution continues
Campo Moriche is another oilfield in Puerto Boyacá operated by Mansarovar Energy and, just as with the Campo Velásquez oilfield, its operations there have caused a number of environmental impacts.
Two of these impacts occurred on Jun. 8, 2020 and Sept. 9, 2020, in the rural district of Ermitaño, where one of the companies pipelines ruptured, causing damage to the soil, water bodies, flora and fauna of the area. According to Herman Amaya, director of the Regional Autonomous Corporation of Boyacá, only the spill that occurred in September caused irreparable damage, since it happened just three kilometers (1.8 miles) from the Magdalena River.
Mansarovar reported the incidents to Colombia’s National Authority for Environmental Licencing. In the case of the Sept. 9 spill, the company reported that only three quarters of a barrel of crude oil had been spilled. But, two days after the spill took place, members of the Regional Autonomous Corporation of Boyacá and local council employees from Puerto Boyacá visited the site to carry out a fact-finding mission — and found Mansarovar Energy’s reported data to be far from the truth.
“It was clear that around 100 barrels of crude oil – of which 15 were of net crude oil – had been spilled in Campo Moriche, over an area of 1,200 square meters [over 12,900 square feet],” the Regional Autonomous Corporation of Boyacá said in a statement.
At the time of the spill, images of capybaras covered in crude oil went viral online. Mauricio Salazar was the photographer of these viral images.
“We found the capybaras completely covered [in oil]. Normally when they see a human, they hide, but they were so lethargic that they just stood there, completely still,” he says. “The ground [the animals were stood on] was unstable and we didn’t know how deep [the oil] was, so our body weight would’ve made it dangerous to attempt to rescue the animals. The plan was for people equipped with special clothing to do it and clean them, but then I later saw in a report that they had died.”
Salazar made a number of visits to inspect the site and said that Mansarovar Energy always gave him the same tour of the area, and prevented him from accessing certain areas. On top of this, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there were biosecurity protocols and special permits that had to be followed and applied for before carrying out a visit. From Salazar’s point of view, these measures helped the company buy time so that everything was in order by the time the authorities had arrived to inspect the area.
On one of the inspections, the former coordinator of the Municipal Environmental Management Unit of Puerto Boyacá heard heavy machinery being used. He saw two bulldozers working to knock down a large portion of a hillside, something Salazar found strange, as he had not received any documents telling him that a large amount of earth was going to be moved.
“I went up and on the other side of the hill there was what appeared to be a sea of contaminated water, it was quite the sight. I didn’t understand at first what it was and when I analyzed it, it was pure crude oil. They were hiding it,” Salazar said on his inspection visit.
Mongabay and Rutas del Conflicto tried to contact Mansarovar Energy to hear their side of the story, as well as contacting ANLA, the national environmental licensing authority, to request an interview. Neither party responded to the requests.
Initiatives, complaints and demands
According Jicly Mutis, mayor of Puerto Boyacá, his council has invested in buying of water sites and reforestation programs in the vicinity of the basins. Both the mayor and Leonardo Granados, his advisor, agreed, however, that Mansarovar Energy is the main party responsible for cleaning and restoring the Palagua wetlands.
According to Granados, ANLA is also partially responsible on an account of negligence relating to the environmental impacts caused by the petrol company.
“It is inadmissible that no penalties have been applied. We are calling for the Ministry of the Environment to act on this as a priority. Puerto Boyacá is a victim, [and] it must be compensated as such and the [damaged] areas should be restored,” Granados says. “The region relies on ecotourism and gastronomy, but the pollution is stopping this alternative development path to the oil industry [from being developed].”
Currently, the San Silvestre Green corporation is calling for Colombia’s Attorney General’s Office to bring charges against Mansarovar Energy for the crimes of damaging natural resources, causing pollution with hydrocarbon deposits, procedural fraud, the concealment of evidence and, in specific reference to the case of the Campo Velásquez oilfield, the crime of violating a judicial ruling by non-compliance with the sentences handed down by said ruling.
Granados estimated that Mansarovar Energy could be handed fines totalling around 9 million Colombian pesos, equivalent to $1,871,697.
The lawyer explained that in the case of the Campo Moriche oilfield, laboratory samples had already been taken and they are currently waiting for the prosecutor to proceed with the ratification and amplification of the facts before charges can be brought forward.
For the Campo Velásquez case, the process has been slower as a larger expanse of land was affected by the spill, and a greater number of laboratory samples must be taken. Granados hoped that the charges will be brought against Mansarovar Energy before June this year, though no progress has been made in the case yet.
Even as it stands, he said, it is the first time in the history of Colombia that the government is faced with an opportunity to lay down a precedent when it comes to environmental liabilities.
Banner image: An oil-contaminated jagüeye in the El Jordán property. Image by Juan Carlos Contreras.
This investigation is part of a partnership between Mongabay Latam and Rutas del Conflicto.
This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latam‘s team and first published here.
Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: We look at how the Shuar Indigenous community in Ecuador recently won a major victory to protect its ancestral territory of Tiwi Nunka Forest from cattle ranchers, loggers and miners. Listen here:
FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.