How Change Happens: Defeating Oil Exploration in the San Andres Archipelago
I recently gave a weekend ‘pro-seminar’ on ‘how change happens’ to masters students at Brandeis University in Boston. I’ll post the powerpoints separately. The students were from all over the world, many from activist backgrounds – a fascinating and fun crew, most of them on the ‘sustainable international development‘ Masters. For their assignments, they had to apply HCH thinking to a case study of change and I promised to edit down and publish the best one – here it is, from Paula Garcia (right).
In November 2010, the Colombian government authorized the exploration of oil in the marine ecosystem of San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina Archipelago. This decision threatened the island, part of a marine protected area and the Seaflower Biosphere Reserve, not just with pollution but possible catastrophic impacts such as those that followed the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of México. Yet less than a year later, in October 2011, on an official visit to San Andres Island, President Juan Manuel Santos announced the country was not going to carry out oil exploration or production in the Archipelago due to the risks to the marine environment. How did such a U-turn take place?
San Andres, Providence and Santa Catalina Islands form a Colombian archipelago located in the Caribbean Sea, 750 km from the mainland (see map). The Archipelago’s Old Providence barrier reef is one of the “largest coral reefs in the Americas” and was declared a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in November 2000. In addition, in 2005 the Seaflower Marine Protected Area (MPA) was created with the support of Coralina – the Corporation for the Sustainable Development of the Archipelago of San Andres, Providencia and Santa Catalina –. In 2010, Coralina was selected among 1,100 partners as one of the 20 best success stories in biodiversity conservation by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). It won because it managed to combine environmental awareness with economic, social and cultural development.
Despite this level of international recognition, that same year the National Agency of Hydrocarbons (ANH) and the Ministry of Environmental, Housing and Territorial Development Affairs (MAVDT) authorized the exploration of oil in the marine ecosystem of the Archipelago. The companies in line for exploration licenses included Empresa Colombiana de Petróleos (Ecopetrol), Repsol from Spain and Argentina’s YPF. While oil licenses for the Archipelago were given when Juan Manuel Santos was just starting his administration, these licenses were a continuation of a legacy left behind by former president Alvaro Uribe Vélez.
Once the communities of San Andres, Providencia and Santa Catalina Archipelago heard of the government’s decision, the reaction was swift. With the support of the Coralina and claiming violation of national and international laws related to indigenous people and community rights, in February 2011 a Civil Action (Acción Popular) was submitted. By not consulting the raizales before authorizing the oil exploration, the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples under ILO Convention 169 were not being enforced by the government. Likewise, articles 329 and 330 of the National Constitution, which guarantee the community`s rights to participate in the decisions related to the exploitation of natural resources, were being infringed. Two days after receiving the Acción Popular, ANH suspended the exploration in order to carry out the proper consultation process with the Archipelago`s communities.
Oil exploration in San Andres became a subject of intense public debate, with the media lining up on both sides of the argument. The academic community produced multiple articles explaining the serious environmental, social and cultural implications of exploring oil in the Archipelago. On the other hand, the industrial and economic sector argued that responsible exploration would not hurt the environment and the revenues would especially benefit the communities of the islands.
The temperature rose still further in June 2011 when a corruption scandal engulfed the director of ANH, Armando Zamora. In September 2011, he resigned.
Meanwhile, Colombia had a new president, Juan Manuel Santos, elected in June 2010. It was his first visit as president to San Andrés Island in October 2011 that saw the announcement of an end to oil exploration in the Archipelago.
How did change happen in San Andres?
The U-turn on oil came about through multiple factors interacting with one another. These involved a combination of institutions, agents and events: on the institutional side, Coralina’s constant participatory work with local communities was essential in enabling the local community to exercise its rights, for example through the the Acción Popular (which also showed that the institution of the law can play a pivotal role in bringing change in Colombia). International recognition by UNESCO and IUCN helped to legitimate their actions. The role of media both in providing information and hosting the public debate was key to promoting cross-sectoral interaction.
Three events played a particular role: the Deepwater Horizon tarnished the image of deep sea oil extraction throughout the region; the corruption scandal at ANH was decisive in undermining the legitimacy of the licenses given to Ecopetrol, Repsol and YPF. Finally the transition from Alvaro Uribe to Juan Manuel Santos brought a change in government and a new receptivity towards biodiversity and social justice.