Colombian farmers to sue BP over oil damage claims

Dozens of Colombian peasant farmers are bringing legal action against British oil giant BP, over claims that it caused significant damage to their properties and livelihoods while constructing major pipeline.

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British-based oil giant BP is facing legal claims pertaining to damages caused by a pipeline it constructed in Colombia during the 1990s, allegedly leaving significant impacts on rural farmers whose land was punctured by the pipeline’s path. Photo courtesy of Reuters.

More than 100 farmers from Colombia are suing BP in the UK High Court, over claims that the British oil giant was negligent during the construction of a major oil pipeline during the 1990s. The small farmers, known in Spanish as campesinos or peasant farmers, claim that the British company Equion Energia, formerly known as BP Exploration (Colombia) Ltd (BPXC), caused significant damage to their land during the construction of the Ocensa pipeline, which was built to transport oil across a vast swathe of the country. The pipeline – which extends from the central-eastern state of Casanare through to Sucre in the north-west – crossed almost 200 rural Colombian villages when it was built, with most of the land owned by small-scale campesino farmers.

The farmers, represented in the UK by British lawyers, are demanding compensation amounting to £18m (around US$28m) in a case that stretches back to 2009 when the lawsuit was first brought against BP. The company no longer holds any assets in Colombia, meaning that the farmers have been forced to take legal action abroad, and the case finally reached the High Court last week, with the trial opening in London on October 15th and expected to last up to four months.

It is the first time that BP has faced a UK court over its actions overseas, and also the first time that financial compensation for environmental damage to privately owned land caused by a UK oil company has been sought in UK courts, according to a report by The Guardian. The case also follows on from BP’s high-profile responsibility for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, with a US judge ruling last month that BP was “grossly negligent” leading up to the disaster, for which the company could face fines of up to £11bn (US$18bn).

Among the allegations made against BP by the Colombian farmers, it is claimed that the oil giant breached agreements made with the farmers before the construction of the pipeline, and that it was negligent in causing widespread environmental damage both during its construction and after. The farmers’ lawyers say that their clients did not fully understand the contracts they signed with BP, claiming that it took advantage of their lack of knowledge of legal matters and, in some cases, their illiteracy.

This paved the way for BP to offer the farmers insufficient compensation for the damage that was then inflicted on their properties, which include landslides, damage to soil and contamination of groundwater supplies, and subsequent crop failures and increased mortality among livestock. Many of the farmers have since reported a drop in productivity on their farms, and some have even claimed that they have been unable to sell their property in order to move away and start afresh, as prospective buyers back down once they find out about the pipeline and the problems caused by it.

The trajectory of the Ocensa pipeline, from Casanare in the central-eastern part of Colombia to Sucre in the north-west. Image courtesy of Energy Voice.

Over the coming weeks, some of the farmers will be travelling to London to give evidence at the trial. For them it will be just the latest step in a long journey to get the compensation they believe they deserve for the damage inflicted on their lands and their livelihoods. BP had reached a private settlement with another group of Colombian farmers in an earlier, related case, but this time they have decided to fight the allegations against them in court. The oil giant is maintaining its position that it ensured that local communities were engaged in the construction phase, that appropriate compensation was paid to those affected, and that the construction was carried out to a high standard.

The case comes shortly after the Ecuadorean government took the unprecedented step of formally apologising to an indigenous community for its role in oil-related damage inflicted on their Amazonian territory, while a Colombian tribunal also recently ordered mining companies operating in the western Choco region to return land to an indigenous tribe who were forced off their land to make way for oil activities. It is said that if the Colombian farmers’ case is successful, it could inspire similar claims in other countries where foreign oil companies stand accused of causing widespread social and environmental destruction through oil-related activities.

The episode also contains echoes of the ongoing dispute between Ecuador and the US oil giant Chevron. That case, like the Colombian one, features lawyers representing rural (and in the Ecuadorean case, indigenous) communities badly affected by activities on the part of the oil industry, attempting to pursue damages in foreign courts due to the company no longer holding any assets in the country where they stand accused of causing social and environmental disruption.

These are just two of many similar disputes throughout the world, with the affected country almost uniformly from the so-called developing world. Just as they have been following the Ecuador-Chevron case, so too defenders of communities affected by oil companies’ activities will be keeping a close eye on proceedings in London, in the hope that BP will indeed be made to provide proper compensation to the dozens of farmers whose livelihoods have taken such a big hit, in some cases quite possibly irreversibly.

Juan Martin Buitrago (L) and Rogelio Velez Montoya (R), two of the Colombian farmers involved in the case who are travelling to London to give evidence against BP. Photo courtesy of Leigh Day via The Guardian.