A five-month-long labour and community mobilization against embattled oil giant BP, in Casanare, Colombia, has undergone its latest twist. Workers had been on strike since 23 May, for the second time this year, due to BP’s ongoing failure to address their social, environmental and labour demands. On 4 June, BP and the Colombian government pressured the National Oil Workers’ Union to call an end to the strike, promising that then they would restart negotiations. But just four days after the strike was called off, 200 workers involved in the strike were sacked, in what looks like retaliation. ‘The presence of BP in Casanare has not brought development or employment, but rather poverty, militarization and environmental disaster,’ explains Pacho Eslava, a community leader. ‘We demand changes for the wellbeing of our communities, and not for investors’ economic interests. We dream of a region where human life and our environment are respected.’
Since oil exploitation began in Casanare 20 years ago, more than 3 per cent of the population has been killed or disappeared.1 Community leaders have been murdered, persecuted, threatened and displaced by state-linked paramilitaries operating around BP’s oil fields, often in partnership with Colombian Army leaders. BP provides support to the Colombian Army’s 16th Brigade, despite their long cruel history of human rights violations.2 A preliminary public hearing on BP’s activities in Colombia stated that ‘there is sufficient evidence to conclude that BP has a case to answer that it is complicit in the extermination of social organizations in Casanare as part of a direct strategy to maximize profits.’3
Despite this history of repression, on 22 January, a small group of workers broke the silence and blockaded access roads after BP refused to recognize their right to a union and a collective bargaining agreement. They were violently attacked by the notorious Colombian riot police in an operation to end the protest.4 The mobilization by local people in response to this violence was overwhelming, and communities and local businesses joined the blockade. The Movement for the Dignity of Casanare (MDC) was born.
As a result of the strike and blockade, BP was forced to come to the table, and agreed to participate in five commissions on labour, environment, human rights, public goods and social investments issues. However, after two months of negotiation, the labour commission had made no advances and a second strike began.
Throughout the dispute, the Movement has condemned BP’s approach: ‘BP are using their power to mislead Colombians about what is happening in Casanare,’ insists Pacho, ‘just as they have done in response to the Gulf of Mexico disaster. Our community process is weaker due to BP’s manipulation. Instead of managing their image and dividing communities, they should resolve the problems.’
Previous Colombian protests against BP in 2003 ended with BP refusing to negotiate. Some of the community leaders who were involved were later assassinated.5 Today, the security situation is once again worrying, and the strikers are calling for international solidarity. ‘We think that there are going to be retaliations against us,’ fears Pacho. ‘We are scared that they are going to kill us. History tells us that companies operate in this way here. But if people elsewhere know that our Movement exists and is organizing, this helps to protect us.’
- Casanare: Exhuming a Genocide, Cinep (2009)