Colombian Pipeline Goes 'Boom!' Local Economies Go Bust : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Headline: Colombian Pipeline Goes 'Boom!' Local Economies Go Bust

Source: New York Times, 16 August 2001


ARAUQUITA, Colombia, Aug. 12 -- The first thunderous blast came at 3:40 p.m. today, quickly followed by a second. A plume of acrid black smoke then rose to the sky, and everyone for miles around knew exactly what had happened: leftist rebels had once more bombed the oil pipeline that runs through this rich oil producing area.

It is an all too common occurrence here in Colombia's eastern hinterlands, a region of swamps and rice paddies where Occidental Petroleum of Los Angeles has pumped crude for 16 years.

With today's bombing, 119 attacks on the pipeline have been recorded this year, up from 96 in all of 2000, a terror campaign that has destroyed farms and crippled local governments that depend on oil royalties to bankroll schools, hospitals and road repairs. "It happens so much -- 'boom!' is what you hear -- that you do not even pay attention anymore," said Espedito Gutiérrez, 63, a farmer who spoke as the pipeline burned in the background just outside this town. "But it makes you feel like you should just leave this place. It saps your morale. You do not want to work. All your work is suddenly sacrificed."

Just a month ago, rebels blew up the section of pipeline running behind Mr. Gutiérrez's small farm, just half a mile from today's explosion. Trees were charred. Oil seeped out across 15 acres. With little grassland left for grazing, Mr. Gutiérrez now has no alternative but to allow his cattle to continue feeding in the oily mess.

He is one of many victims of a wave of bombings that since 1986, when the first attack was recorded, has resulted in the spilling of 2.6 million barrels of oil, nearly 11 times what was lost in the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska.

The government has tried to guard the pipeline, but it is simply too long, stretching 500 miles from the Caño Limón oil field to the Caribbean port of Covenas. "To prevent them from blowing up the pipeline is almost impossible," said Brig. Gen. Carlos Lemus, commander of the local brigade. "We can maybe control it, but it is hard to say we are going to stop it completely."

Two rebel groups are responsible for the attacks, the National Liberation Army and the much larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, both of which have said the bombings are strikes against multinational corporations that they accuse of exploiting Colombian resources.

But here in this largely rural province, Arauca, people say the attacks have done nothing but sow misery for them. This year's bombings have spilled nearly 220,000 barrels of oil and stopped Occidental from pumping 17 million barrels, causing losses estimated at $400 million. And because local and provincial governments depend on oil royalties to make up the vast majority of their budgets, bills have not been paid, teachers are working without wages and hospitals have canceled non-emergency surgeries.

"You feel bad," said Dr. Brenda Caroprese, who works at the San Vicente Hospital, where 60 percent of the budget comes from royalties. "People come in and they need help. But they cannot pay, and there is nothing we can do to resolve their problems." Indeed, Dr. César Londoño, the hospital's administrator, said he had slashed services, like optometry and speech therapy. The hospital, located in the provincial capital, also called Arauca, lacks intravenous drips, bed sheets and bandages. Some lab tests, even simple ones like those testing people for their blood type, are put off for lack of equipment. On a recent day, the emergency room staff could not even provide painkillers to a teenage girl moaning in pain from a miscarriage.

The lack of funds has crippled the capital. By this time of year, Arauca expected $7.1 million in royalties. Instead, only $4.1 million has arrived, devastating for a community whose total annual budget is just $14.2 million, said Narda Martínez, who overseas the budget. "We wrote our budget last year based on what we thought we would have from royalties, but we have not received that money, so we cannot comply with our commitments," Ms. Martínez explained.

The lack of money has nearly shut down city projects like the completion of a children's hospital here, which had been scheduled to be finished this year. Rooms that have been completed are now in danger of being damaged by humidity and rain, since there is no money for upkeep. "What we have here is a white elephant," said the construction foreman, Juan Pérez, who is one of only two construction workers at the site. He said the project needed 18 workers.

The provincial government is in even worse shape. About 90 percent of its $74 million budget depends on royalties, said Heriberto Villamizar, who oversees the budget. Nearly 1,000 teachers, he said, have been working without pay since the end of May. And because private contractors have not been paid by the government, those companies are laying off workers.

Residents are scrimping and saving. "People do not spend, since they are not being paid," said Luis Sandoval, who owns a large ice cream shop in Arauca. "So things get hard for everyone, even for someone selling ice cream."

But it is in the countryside where the pipeline bombings, and the lingering effects, are felt most keenly. For the farmers who raise small herds of cattle or grow rice and bananas, the bombings have not only ruined fields but also led to an increase in violence. Indeed, in the last two months an army offensive through the region has put villagers on edge, in part because government troops often accuse them of aiding the guerrillas, several residents said in interviews in a handful of towns across this province.

Nighttime is the worst. Villagers who live near the pipeline know it can blow at any moment. Or that soldiers and rebels might tangle in a firefight. Those who venture out on the road have something else to fear: government planes may strafe suspicious vehicles on the road after curfew, a policy aimed at preventing rebel groups from moving fighters in the dead of night. "There is nothing but destruction, destruction, destruction," said María Cristancho, who farms just outside Arauquita.

Blanca Flor Fajardo, who with her family owns a small plot just west of Arauquita, knows all about destruction. A pipeline bombing three weeks ago destroyed 37 acres of rice, killed most of her ducks and nearly burned down her little house. Now, the lagoon out back is covered in oil. "There is nothing we can do about it," said Ms. Fajardo, 60. "There is no way to clean it. We cannot do anything about these pipeline attacks. I am just sick of it."

As the pipeline continued burning today, two brothers rode by on bicycles, almost oblivious to the destruction. They have seen it before, they said, and are resigned about what they now face. "It is terrible, because you cannot work or anything," said Francisco Triana, 18. "There are people who come and blow this up and then they leave. But we are the ones left behind to deal with this."

-- Andre Weltman (, August 16, 2001

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