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Environmental Crisis in Casanare- 20,000 animals dead; What caused it?

Since last week, dryness in Colombia’s eastern Casanare state have resulted in the environmental devastation and the death of over 20,000 animals, mostly chiguiros, alligators, cows/cattle, pigs, turtles, deer, fish and birds. The crisis has centred around northern Casanare in the municpality of Paz de Ariporo.

chiguiros in Casanare. Photo credit: RCN La Radio.

The environmental crisis in Casanare has hit a nerve in the Colombian media and in social media networks. Generally, the crisis has been attributed to varying degrees to land use and climate change, although there is controversy about what actors bear what responsibility. Here  is a brief overview of what is being said and by whom.

According to local authorities, the crisis has killed off almost 10% of the animals in the region. There hasn’t been any rainfall in the savanna since December. Some environmentalists have attributed the crisis to cattle-ranching activities, others to the exploitation of oil in the region; the National Entrepreneurs Association (ANDI) President Bruce Mac Master says that climate change, and not oil companies,  is the culprit.

Whereas government environmental agency, the IDEAM, is saying that is is a ‘normal’ part of the dry season, environmentalists Wilder Burgos and Leon Paz says that usually the dry season leaves some water, and that this is unprecedented.

The Colombian Minister of Mines and Energy, Amylkar Acosta Medina, says that its would be premature to blame oil companies; Acosta said that the main agent here is the State, and he reminded that there are other activities in the region which leave a significant environmental footprint such as agribusiness (particularly Palm Oil cultivation). Acosta defended the presence of oil companies in the region, arguing that oil extraction can actually help the water supply as “for each barrel of crude that is extracted, approximately 10 barrels of water are being extracted”.  

Acosta also mentioned that should an extractive project threaten an aquifer or a zone of “hydric re-charge”, it would be protected by the Ministry of the Environment.

The Minister of the Environment, Luz Helena Sarmiento, for her part, attributed the crisis to an overexploitation of the land (particularly agriculture and large-scale cattle-ranching), a lack of care towards water deposits, and local climate change. Breaking from Acosta, Sarmiento mentioned that oil exploitation “may be” also having an impact.

The President of Colombian Petroleum Association (la Asociación Colombiana del Petróleo), Alejandro Martínez, said that given the “industry standards” there should not be an impact on bodies of water or their sources. Martínez also cited that the oil industry accounts for “only 0.35% of national water consumption”.

However, others are pointing fingers at the oil industry. According to Norbey Quevedo Hernández at El Espectador, since 1973 large-scale rice cultivators in Casanare switched to cattle-ranching/pastoralism due to the armed conflict, and an economic crisis related to contraband. In 1991, Quevedo tells us, oil deposits were found in Cusiana and Cupiagua, and the presence of oil companies followed, leading to significant environmental changes in the region. Citing the government’s Institute for Hydrology, Meteorology, and Enivronmental Studies, Quevedo argues that oil exploitation led to soil erosion due to deforestation.

Although the responsibility of oil companies is still in dispute, many sectors of the local population are attributing the environmental crisis to them.

It’s estimated that the crisis will take around 1 billion pesos (COL) to be properly addressed; oil companies in the region have promised to donate around 205 million. One Colombian lawyer has argued that companies should not have to take on the cost of the crisis at all, given how these are “speculations withou basis” to the claims that oil exploitation is contributing to the prolonged dry season. The Governor of Casanare, Marco Tulio Ruiz Riaño, called the companies collective offer “ridiculous” and countered that each company should pay 100 million. Representatives from the oil companies are apparently going to meet internally and offer a new proposal.

There is uncertainty around whether or not CORPORINOQUIA, the a local government agency, did the proper diligence in terms of planning to mitigate a potential emergency like this. The Minister of the Environment said that state agencies like Corporinoquia have been focusing solely on attending extractive companies in the region, and not on the stewardship of natural resources.

At the same time, an advisor to the Governor’s office in Casanare, Carina Rojas, has criticized the national Environmental Ministry for excessively giving out environmental licenses, that it has enabled deforestation, has insufficient controls, and is ignorant of what oil companies are investing in terms of compensation. Sarmiento has argued that there has been no excess in environmental licenses.

The Agustín Codazzi Geographic Institute (IGAC) has given five “sins” culpable for the crisis: excessive cattle-ranching, the lack of ground-water retention, oil exploitation activity, and the little productive resources of the soil/its acidic nature and low-fertile nature which has a delicate organic surface layer.

Several social and environmental activists have written to the UN and the Organization of American States, in which they attribute to the crisis to cattle-ranching and resource extraction in the region.

Finally, Carlos Victoria at Las2Orillas shares an interesting reflection on the crisis. Victoria asserts that the crisis is but one of many in Colombia, and a product of colonial and neo-colonial concepts of seeing the Earth as a “resource” to dominate, destroy, and profit off of. Victoria says that this logic of trade liberalization, and ‘globalization’, is a concept of development that benefits elites and is in the service of accumulating capital. Victoria also argues that the apolitical and “neutral” response from environmental sciences have only served to legitimate the government’s narrative around the Casanare crisis. He calls on them to no longer be “co-opted by neoliberalism” and to assume an ethical responsibility to the citizenry.

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