I have lived in Barrancabermeja for the last 18 months, this city in Santander that grew around the oil industry. In all this time, with alarming frequency, I have heard and read about water pollution in the beautiful Magdalena River that passes through the city, and its marshes: wetlands that are home to an amazing range of flora and fauna. In my last week with PBI, the Regional Corporation for the Defence of Human Rights (Corporación Regional para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos – CREDHOS), invite us to observe the damage with an international delegation organised by CRY-GEAM.
The Yariguíes Regional Corporation – Social Research Group into Extractives and the Environment in the Magdalena Medio Region (Corporación Regional Yariguíes – Grupo de Estudios Sociales Extractivos y Ambientales del Magdalena Medio – CRY-GEAM) works tirelessly to raise awareness of the impacts of oil refineries and extractives on nature, accompanying communities from Barrancabermeja and the Magdalena Medio region. CREDHOS are an important ally in this work defending nature, due to their decades of experience raising awareness of human rights violations in the Magdalena Medio region and their struggle for social justice.
We meet at the Barrancabermeja docks at 8am, where the fishermen have been since the early morning selling the catch from their day´s work: catfish, doncella and bocachico, piled up on wooden tables, ready to be packaged and taken home to cook. They are fish from the river and nearby marshlands. Fish which live in polluted ecosystems, according to Óscar Sampayo. That is why he no longer eats them. Óscar Sampayo is one of the members of CRY-GEAM and is the organisation’s spokesperson in their public reports. He is like Google, any questions you ask him he can answer with a thousand figures. He tells me that this is the result of him reading environmental impact studies and research into extractive activities in the region. And from listening to the affected communities that have noticed changes in their surroundings. And so I take advantage of this journey along the river, with the sound of the boat’s engine in the background, to ask him about his life and to get to know more about the situation.
Óscar started defending nature after a meeting with the Misak indigenous people in the indigenous territory of La Maria, in Piendamó in the north of the Cauca department, and after seeing their harmonious relationship and respect for nature. This experience left a mark and inspires him to contribute to the defence of water, nature and life. That is why he is here today with the artisanal fishermen from the marshlands of El Llanito and San Silvestre, and with CREDHOS, to show the environmental impacts on the water to delegates from Haiti, the Congo and Brazil, and to German members of the Association for Development Cooperation (Arbeitsgemeinschaft für Entwicklungshilfe – AGEH), and to the Colombian social organisation Podion.
First of all we pass by the Ecopetrol refinery where Óscar shows us some pipes from which we can see grey-brown water from this Barrancabermeja refinery pouring directly into the Magdalena River. According to Óscar, these are waste waters produced by the oil refining process. He tells us that recently a PHD student in environmental toxicology from the University of Cartagena carried out a study on the level of pollution in the Magdalena River, for which she took samples of sediment in the river and she found some toxic, heavy metal and polynuclear elements near the Barrancabermeja refinery. The image of this industrial complex is no longer strange for me, but during my first few months here I had to get used to this city with its refinery like a cancer emitting pollution day and night. At times I have trouble breathing in the heavy air and some nights the smell wakes me up. However, I realise today, listening to this story, that I have become acclimatised to life in Barrancabermeja, to this area that has made environmental sacrifices imposed by capitalist interests.
We follow the riverflow and a little later, we see the new port of Impala Terminals. The Impala company invested in this huge construction in order to transport oil and coal down the river 365 days a year. This requires, and is already in progress, according to Óscar, channelling the river to improve its navigability, thereby affecting in just a few years the biodiversity in the wetlands, as it will cut off the river flow to the marshes and vice versa, limiting the natural relationship of the Magdalena Medio marshes with the Magdalena River. What will happen when there is an accident, like an oil spill for example, asks me Oscar. Behind Impala is the multinational company Trafigura which has a regional office in Switzerland, my country of origin. This makes me feel kind of ashamed, because Trafigura, among other companies, was involved in creating toxic waste in Cote d’Ivoire, which caused a health crisis in the country in 2006. Impala aims to offer its services to transport hydrocarbons to oil companies like ExxonMobil, Ecopetrol, Conoco and Parex.
Our journey continues under grey skies, which reflect just how I feel as I listen to the fishermen’s stories. Then we enter the Sogamoso River, the second largest tributary of the Magdalena River, and they turn the engine off so that we can hear better. In March 2018 there was an oil spill in the Lisama 158 oil well belonging to Ecopetrol, which was an environmental disaster. It happened near the road to Bucaramanga and although the authorities deny it, the fishermen and Oscar Sampayo together with another delegation, saw a layer of oil flowing down the river, right where we are today, just a few metres from the Magdalena River. The fishermen could no longer sell their fish, because the oil spill polluted different smaller rivers where the fish reproduce. It is no longer easy to sell the fish, because many consumers say it smells of oil.
Little by little the sun grows stronger and we have fun looking for and detecting howler monkeys and other little monkeys in the trees that grow along the banks of the San Silvestre River, which takes us first of all to the El Llanito marshes. The air has changed, it feels lighter. Amid these natural surroundings, we see a strange construction that blocks the river and cuts off some of the access routes to the El Llanito marshes, which are therefore full of sediment, also due to the fact that a hydro-electric project has affected the main tributary, the Sogamoso River. In addition to all this, several pilot fracking projects are due to start here, which environmentalists fear will have an even greater impact on the wetlands.
The boat takes us in a circle following the rivers, coming back to Barrancabermeja. I notice the change, the atmosphere gets heavier because the air is dense and there are offensive odours coming from the refinery. The fishermen tell us that sometimes these smells make them faint or even fall off their boats. We pass by a river known as the Picho River, whose waters are black, not the brown colour of the water we have seen since we left the docks, and they explain to us that this river flows from the Miramar marshes which are right beside the refinery.
We continue on and arrive at the San Silvestre marsh, home to manatees and the area where Barrancabermeja gets its drinking water. This swamp has another worrying story to tell: massive pollution generated by leachate from the landfill site in Barrancabermeja, operated by the Rediba company. Yésid Blanco, who is a doctor and paediatrician, and a colleague of Óscar, has researched and reported on this situation and its effects on health, including the causes and effects with evidence and toxicology reports. I have had the opportunity of getting to know Yésid and listen to his story during an accompaniment to CREDHOS who were acting as his lawyers. Unfortunately, he has since received threats and been forced to leave the country.
I have been surprised on this journey today to see flora and fauna that continue to flourish, so close to the centre of the city. Despite the fact that this is a region with 100 years of oil extraction, there is still nature to be protected and according to Óscar it must be protected. I have also been impacted by meeting and accompanying all these people who raise awareness of this need and human rights violations in the region.
For PBI today’s visit ends on the banks of the marshes, where the fishermen invite us to lunch. We are just fifteen minutes from the centre of Barrancabermeja and the journey took no more than three hours. Three hours that have left their mark on my life forever.
Credhos, Informe anual 2017 “Dinámicas de Actores Armados, Violaciones a los Derechos Humanos y Afectaciones en Barrancabermeja y la Región del Magdalena Medio”, Capitulo 4.1 Problemática medio ambiental; El Tiempo, Alerta ambiental por muerte de manatíes en ciénagas de Barrancabermeja, 22 February 2018; Credhos, Lizama: Desastre socioambiental, Prensa Rural 29 March 2018; El Tiempo, Denuncian contaminación con mercurio en aguas de Barrancabermeja, 26 March 2019
El Tiempo: El Magdalena, a la espera de la navegabilidad y del Conpes, 27 February 2019; El Heraldo, Ecopetrol y Cormagdalena firman convenio para recuperar navegabilidad en el Magdalena, 3 May 2019
 Reuters: Trafigura to pay $198 mln settlement to Ivory Coast, 13 February 2007
Verdad Abierta: El fracturamiento social que ya está generando el fracking, 24 April 2019
 La Silla Vacía: Detector de mentiras a la contaminación del agua en Barranca, 19 November 2016.
 El Tiempo: Denuncian contaminación con mercurio en aguas de Barrancabermeja, 26 March 2019
 Censat Agua Viva: Solidaridad con médico y ambientalista Yesid Blanco, 22 October 2018.