Environmental disaster in the municipality of Tumaco has left Colombians around the country in shock, but none more so than the communities that live and depend on the area’s abundant watersheds.
The attack at the end of June by Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, (FARC), on the Transandino oil pipeline in the southeastern department of Nariño, resulted in the spill of over 400,000 gallons of oil into nearby waterways.
Municipal water supplies are contaminated, and the mainly Afro-Colombian communities that depend on the rivers for their livelihood have been irreversibly impacted, in all too familiar story of environmental degradation.
These issues, however, have yet to be formally addressed in peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC in Havana, Cuba.
“The river is a source of food, the river is public life, the river is part of the very culture of the communities,” states Jesus Alacròn, member of a local development agency in Tumaco. “Being there in the hamlets, in the communities, one hears not only about their suffering, but also a call for an end to the war.”
With some media sources calling the attack the worst environmental disaster in ten years, it is currently one of the most demonstrative examples of both the way conflict and a lack of institutional environmental concern have taken a drastic toll on Colombia and its people.
“Conflict does not simply impact the lives of combatants,”
“We have heard much about this current act, in the middle of the peace negotiations, but it is not in reality something new. However, the focus on this event does help by putting these themes into current discussion.” said Carlos Tapia, a researcher from the Colombian Von Humboldt Institute, during a recent radio interview.
“Conflict does not simply impact the lives of the combatants, but also the lives of the populations, the communities, and also the territories that people depend on to live. Yet environmental damages are not addressed in Havana nor or they considered to be war crimes.”
During years of conflict, violence has forced millions of Colombians to flee. Multinational corporations, mining companies and large scale agribusinesses move in to use the land left behind. The often resulting environmental damage also impacts local communities and populations, revealing an institutional disconnect in the relationship with the land.
“What we must recover is the idea that we are nature, that human beings and nature are not that separate. We depend on each other as part of a socio-ecological system.”
According to Tapia, “The question is how do we understand nature and ourselves as part of nature?”
As in Tumaco, those who first feel the impacts of this disconnect are local communities.
Alcarò, agrees. ““Those most impacted by the spill are the Afro-Colombian communities, who through many years of hard work have finally gained access to their own collective land. Four different community councils had their ecosystems affected.”
A wake up call?
Even though the Colombian constitution provides special rights, such as collective land ownership, to Afro communities, those rights have little meaning when the land is damaged. “A good percentage of the members of these community councils earn a living through fishing from those rivers.” Alcaròn reports. “It is not only the environment that has been impacted, but also the means by which the communities live. There is no infrastructure. There are no aqueducts or any systems to collect rainwater. The people live exclusively from the river.”
“What is attention worthy is the lack of coverage and alarm over all of the other environmental damage that happens daily in this country.”
In his research, Tapia has come across countless other examples of contamination, yet the response is very different when the events are not viewed as directly conflict-related. “When aggressive activities such as mining, or giant infrastructure projects such as dams cause environmental damage, the same scandal is not generated.”
Only the start
For Tapia, the recent events and media attention must serve as a wake up call to not only the connections between conflict and the environment, but also as to how Colombian institutions and society respond and relate to nature.
“It is not only conflict that generates environmental destruction. In general, a model of development based on extraction and consumption generate systematic and daily environmental damage that impact human rights and dignity.”
The FARC´s recent declaration of a bilateral ceasefire for one month, starting July 20, is a step in the right direction to ending attacks like the one in Tumaco and supporting the local communities caught in the middle Is is only the start, however, of the need for a serious conversation about a relationship with the land.
Whether through formal discussion in Havana or local protective measures, Colombia´s vibrant ecosystems, including the people that are part of them, must be protected.