Colombian oil pipeline: 'My partner organised the protests. Six months later he was dead'

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The Independent US

Jhon Morales and Fabiola Ochoa Vasquez were respected Colombian farmers making a prosperous living growing oranges, coconuts and avocados and tending to their 60 cows and 120 pigs.

Jhon Morales and Fabiola Ochoa Vasquez were respected Colombian farmers making a prosperous living growing oranges, coconuts and avocados and tending to their 60 cows and 120 pigs.

Then, in 1996, they heard of plans to build an oil pipeline through their land. Fearing for his livelihood, Mr Morales began organising other farmers to oppose the project.

Six months later he was shot dead by paramilitaries as he waited in a hotel room.

Many believe he was killed to show farmers that the authorities would not tolerate opposition to the development. But it is also clear that his fears about the impact of the oil pipeline on the ecosystem have proved to be justified. The farmers have been forced to leave after it has become unworkable because of damage to the water table.

Ms Vasquez, 46, who had two daughters with Mr Morales, is one of 60 Colombian farmers now planning to sue British Petroleum for a total of £15m compensation.

She claims that neither she nor her partner signed a contract for the sale or lease of their land and nor were they consulted about the pipeline. Ms Vasquez said: "We had to organise a committee to put ourselves in the way where the pipeline was being constructed. We stopped [the work] for three days. But the military threatened us because the corporation was losing money." The farmers abandoned the blockade but continued to campaign peacefully against the pipeline.

Shortly afterwards Mr Morales visited the local town of Caucasia on campaign business, where he was murdered.

"The assassination of Jhon by the paramilitaries was because he went several times to Caucasia to speak with Ocensa to demand that they pay us for the damage. He did not have any other problems."

Ms Vasquez claims that the pipeline left a trail of destruction in its wake, particularly because of the effect it had on the water table.

She said: "The water sources in the farm were completely lost. Without water, one cannot do anything and so crops were destroyed and the housing was lost because without water we couldn't live there.

"The vegetation and crops were destroyed, the ponds for the fish dried up, 12 cows died from having eaten the plastic sacks that Ocensa used to hold back the erosion. The house, animal pens and stables also suffered from erosion."

Ms Vasquez has now left the farm. "I had to move, at first into town for fear of the paramilitaries. All the cattle, pigs and hens were robbed. When a woman is on her own, everyone tries to take advantage, and my life isn't a life at this moment.

"Some months ago I had to go to the farm again with my children because in the town we were in hunger and lacked necessities and at least there we can eat yucca. We have to carry the water to cook and we bathe in the river Nechi. The situation does not only keep me depressed, but also on the edge of madness."

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