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The Text Message That Stopped an Oil Exploration Project in Colombia

Caño Cristales, el río de los cinco colores, sector El Tapete. Fotografía de Mario Carvajal para Caño Cristales usada bajo licencia CC 3.0

Caño Cristales, the “River of Five Colors”, El Tapete area. Photo by Mario Carvajal from the Caño Cristales website, used under license CC 3.0

After an intense debate that involved the whole country, the government of Colombia has decided to revoke the license given to an oil company to carry out exploration in an area adjacent to La Macarena, a nature reserve located 281 kilometers from Bogotá and considered to be one of the largest wildlife refuges in the world.

The turn of events might not of happened, had it not been for a text message. The fact that “oil wells are being drilled in La Macarena” first came to the attention of Paloma Valencia, a senator from the Democratic Pole party, through a group chat. She then made the decision to summon the mayor of the municipality, Ismael Medellin Dueñas, to Congress to report to his colleagues about these grave allegations.

Valencia recounted for the independent online newspaper Debate Periódico what had happened:

Con los amigos del Centro Democrático pudimos entrar en contacto con el recién elegido alcalde del Municipio y otras autoridades locales que de tiempo atrás han venido defendiendo el territorio de la explotación petrolera. Logramos que el Alcalde se dirigiera a la plenaria [del Congreso], y la reacción fue inmediata, se conformó una comisión para redactar una proposición del Senado en pleno para pedir la revocatoria de la licencia.

With the help of the friends from the Democratic Center, we were able to contact the newly elected mayor of the municipality and other local authorities who have been defending the territory from oil exploitation for a long time ago. We managed to convince the mayor to address the plenary [of Congress], and the reaction was immediate: a commission was set up to draft a proposal to the Senate in plenary meeting calling for the revocation of the license.

This situation forced the director of the entity responsible for granting environmental licenses, the National Agency of Environmental Licenses (Agencia Nacional de Licencias Ambientales, or ANLA), to organize a press conference. In it, he confirmed that on March 18, 2016, he gave permission to the US company Hupecol to drill 150 sites for oil in a territory covering about 30,000 hectares, adjacent to the spring of three major rivers that run through the region.

The mayor of La Macarena, Ismael Medellín Dueñas, explained in an interview with the daily newspaper El Espectador:

Yo quiero denunciar la entrega de esta licencia 0286 para la explotación de 150 pozos, nosotros somos un municipio ecológico y turístico, llevamos más de 15 años preparándonos para esto y ahora resulta que el Gobierno da vía libre para acabar con todo nuestro ecosistema. Hoy recibimos más de 14 mil turistas al año por la belleza de nuestros recursos y ahora nos pretenden convertir en una zona de explotación de hidrocarburos.

I condemn the issuing of the license 0286 for the operation of 150 wells, we are an ecological and touristic municipality, we have been preparing for this for over 15 years, and now it turns out that the government gives the go-ahead for the destruction of our entire ecosystem. Today we receive more than 14,000 tourists a year, attracted by our beautiful [natural] resources, and now the government seeks to turn this into an area of exploitation of hydrocarbons.

After the official confirmation, the news was splashed across the country's front pages and became a trending topic on social media the next day, April 14.

The scandal reached international media because the area is home to the famous “River of Five Colors,” the Caño Cristales, visited by thousands of tourists a year and an emblem of the Serranía de La Macarena mountain range.

Several hashtags on Twitter, including #YoDefiendoLaMacarena (#IDefendLaMacarena) and #LaMacarenaNoSeToca (#DoNotTouchLaMacarena) expressed the concerns of those who opposed the oil project. Hector Lorenzana, for example, shared a video about Caño Cristales:

I love you, Cristales ⎯ River of Five Colors

ANLA, Disgusting National Agency of Environmental Licenses.

Alicia GT showed her indignation at the explanation given by the director of the ANLA that “the licensed oil exploration does not affect the Caño Cristales”:

Do they think people are stupid?

A senator for the Green Party, Claudia Lopez, stated that the party would respect the environment:

The Green Party will defend Serrania de La Macarena from this absurd attempt to destroy it with oil exploration!

Others, like Marcoteto, used memes to express their anger:

Tweet: #IDefendLaMacarena

Image: Here, you dropped this.

Meanwhile, Andrés Correa reminded people about Colombia's top ranking among countries of the world in terms of the number of environmental conflicts:

Colombia ranks in the top in the world for environmental conflicts and we want to add more of these conflicts? #IDefendLaMacarena

César Jerez provided a map showing where the 150 wells are drilled:

This is Serrania Area where 150 oil wells were drilled in La Macarena

And Alberto Castilla gave an account of the demonstrations against the project in the departmental capital, Villavicencio:

Six thousand people in Villavicencio overwhelmingly expressed their defense of La Macarena

However, despite the growing outrage, the president of the state-owned oil company (Ecopetrol) threatened, “Either the country extracts more oil, or it increases taxes or makes fewer road improvements. So, you have to protect the oil and gas resources because this country is financially dependent on crude oil.”

The scandal escalated when it was revealed that the ANLA had already been warned of the risks involved in the approval of the license by the Autonomous Corporation of La Macarena (Cormacarena), which is the first environmental authority that must be consulted before issuing any environmental license. On July 29, 2015, the corporation ruled that the approved mining project was not feasible.

All this led President Juan Manuel Santos to order the suspension of the license, while the Environment Ministry denied in a contradictory tweet that there was a license at all:

Tweet: It is not true that an exploration license in Caño Cristales was issued #ThereIsNoLicenseInCañoCristales

Image: #ThereIsNoLicenseInCañoCristales It is not true that a license for mining or hydrocarbon exploitation has been awarded in Caño Cristales

At the same time, the Ministry of Commerce sought to de-escalate the controversy with this statement:

Tweet: Colombia's National Parks agency promotes conservation projects and environmental tourism #ThereIsNoLicenseInCañoCristales

Image: The only projects that we in the National Parks promote are those for conservation and environmental tourism. #ThereIsNoLicenseInCañoCristales

It all culminated in this forceful statement from the president:

Our commitment is to protect and conserve national parks. #IDefendLaMacarena #ThereIsNoLicenseInCañoCristales

Three days later, following the statements of the president and the minister of environment against the decision of the ANLA, the director of ANLA officially announced in a press conference as expected that the license was revoked, arguing that he did not know about the Autonomous Corporation of La Macarena's statement.

In response, the company Hupecol, through its legal representative, did not rule out filing a lawsuit against the government or appealing to a court of arbitration. Meanwhile, the oil sector expressed its concern about the credibility of the country's institutions.

However, this license is not the only one, as journalist Victor Solano warned:

Thus, although many Colombians say #DoNotTouchLaMacarena, the National Hydrocarbons Agency and ANLA insist on the contrary

Meanwhile, Manuel Rodriguez, pointed out that there's more work to be done:

#MacarenaIsCelebrating: 12 more titles [to explore for oil and gas] still need to be revoked  #DoNotTouchLaMacarena

On April 25, the director of the ANLA submitted his resignation, a day before being summoned to the Senate to explain the granting of the disputed license. On the same day, in a cabinet reshuffle, the president appointed a new minister of environment.

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