FYI.

This story is over 5 years old.

The Colombian Farmers Taking On Oil Giant BP in a British Court

Rodrigo Mesa Leon and Rogelio Velez Montoya are among more than 70 smallholders challenging the multinational over environmental damage in one of the largest such cases in UK history. On Monday, they take to the stand.
October 17, 2014, 3:49pm
Image by Kayleen Devlin

Rogelio and Rodrigo are a long way from their native Colombia, their straw sombreros sticking out like a sore thumb against a grey London backdrop.

They have never before set foot in the UK, and they don't speak a word of the language. Yet on Monday they will stand up in court to give evidence against the multinational oil giant BP, which they claim caused environmental damage to their land due to an pipeline it built in the mid nineties.

The court case, which opened on Wednesday at London's Technology and Construction Court, is one of the largest environmental cases in UK legal history.

Alongside Rogelio and Rodrigo, the case is also being brought to court by 71 other _campesinos, _as the smallholder farmers and rural workers of Latin America are known. Lawyers from the firm Leigh Day who are representing the farmers will argue that the British company Equion Energia — formerly known as BP Exploration (Colombia) Limited — caused damage to their land by negligently managing the construction of the OCENSA pipeline, which runs 515 miles from the Cusiana and Cupiagua oil fields to the port of Covenas in Colombia. The campesinos are seeking about £18 million ($29m) in compensation from the company.

BP, however, are vigorously defending their case. They argued in a statement that the company is confident in its legal position and that the construction of the pipeline was carried out to a high standard.

On the eve of the case being brought to court, Rodrigo Mesa Leon said he felt confident about his legal position, but nervous and frightened by the process.

"We are only campesinos," he said. "We are in a foreign country far from home where we don't speak the language, and we are going to have to face professional lawyers from a big company."

Rodrigo and other farmers involved in the case allege that the construction of the OCENSA pipeline caused severe soil erosion and sedimentation, and blocked up vital water sources, which reduced the productivity of their farms.

Illiterate campesino Rogelio Velez Montoya, 54, has lived his whole life in Segovia, a remote municipality in the department of Antioquia. His father owned the 47 hectares of land that he and his son now work and earn a living from.

He claims that since the pipeline was laid, his water supply has become damaged by sedimentation.

"We now have a smaller supply of water. Many of the fish in my ponds died," he said. "We also have little water to keep pigs or hens."

Yet for Velez Montoya, even the alleged damage caused by the pipeline to his farm would not persuade him to leave it.

"I love the land," he said "It's part of my identity."

For BP, the timing of this case comes just weeks after a US court ruled that the company was "grossly negligent" in the run up to the 2010 Gulf of Mexico disaster, in which millions of gallons of crude oil were released in to the ocean basin.

The case is also the second involving BP and a group of Colombian farmers. In 2006, a number of campesinos won a multi-million pound out of court settlement from the company after it was accused of benefiting from a regime of terror imposed by local paramilitaries employed by the government to guard the OCENSA pipeline. It was never alleged that BP were involved in any of the paramilitaries' activities, however.

Both Rodrigo and Rogelio say that they've never received threats relating to their case.

But the men do know what it's like to live amongst the guerrillas and drug gangs that have long blighted much of Colombia. In the country's decades-long internal conflict, it is perhaps Antioquia that has suffered the most.

For 63-year-old Rodrigo, who owns a farm just outside of the town of Caucasia, the violence is something you have to learn to manage.

"At the beginning there were the guerrillas, called FARC, later the auto-defense groups or paramilitary groups arose, and later on-during Uribe's government — these auto-defense groups surrendered and other groups called bacrim came," he said — the latter the latest generation of organized criminal gangs.

"One could be killed by his mouth, or by the gossips. If you haven't been threatened, the best you can do is keep quiet."

But while keeping quiet is what Rodrigo recommends when surrounded by violence at home, as he argues his case of environmental damage over the next four months, silence is out of the question.

"We hope that all the farmers who have brought this case together will get justice," he said.

"We have faith."

Follow Kayleen Devlin on Twitter: @kayleendevlin