“The oil companies are operating in the Amazon anyway, and we can help make sure they abide by human rights standards.” Such was the rationale presented by the head of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Colombia, Jessica Faieta. The UNDP managed to get itself into quite a pickle and found itself in the uncomfortable position of trying to justify an ill-fated decision to outraged community partners.
The week prior, UNDP Colombia had announced a new private sector partnership to implement a program called “United for Territorial Reactivation,” part of a series of initiatives to kick-start local economies in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Who was their corporate partner? None other than the Chile-based oil company GeoPark, which had been run out of the northern Peruvian Amazon by Achuar and Wampis communities.
Somehow, in their rigorous application of scrutiny of their new partner, UNDP missed an important part of GeoPark’s history in the region. Two local community groups in the Putumayo department – both of which were beneficiaries of another UNDP program – had publicly accused GeoPark of environmental devastation and support for illegal paramilitary groups that were threatening the grassroots Amazon defenders. Both community processes – the Siona community of Buenavista and the Campesino Reserve of La Perla Amazónica – have been indicated by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights as facing high risks of human rights abuse. So much for “due diligence” by the UNDP.
In fact, it appears that the UNDP taking money from the oil industry has recently become a regular practice. In 2018, the UNDP announced that they had signed a global agreement with the Spanish oil company Repsol. These arrangements are strategically transactional: the UNDP gets financial backing for programs and the oil companies get to tout their association with a prestigious international agency and ward off any accusation of impropriety.
GeoPark has proven thirsty for such arrangements as a means of finessing their image toward the investment community and other international audiences. Prior to their forced departure from Peru’s Block 64 in June of 2020, GeoPark struck up an agreement with the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Conservation and Sustainability and attempted to join the “Amazon Best Social and Environmental Management Practices” initiative, supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development. Those efforts were ultimately fruitless, as GeoPark eventually realized that these PR exercises would never buy them the missing social license to operate in the Peruvian Amazon.
The newest scheme with UNDP might well also backfire. Within days of learning about the UNDP-GeoPark agreement, the communities rapidly issued a joint public denunciation, directed to UNDP (full text below). Later that week, they held a withering Zoom meeting with UNDP Colombia head Faieta, in which all justifications were disabused and the communities forcefully reiterated their vehement opposition to any association of UNDP with GeoPark, whether in Putumayo or anywhere in Colombia.
Other parts of the United Nations system have heard the call of the communities and started to add their voice to the discussion. The U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues weighed in, expressing their concern in an official resolution that came out of their annual two-week session in New York City:
“The Permanent Forum is concerned about reports of UNDP entering into a strategic partnership with the oil company GeoPark, a private entity that has been accused by Indigenous communities of disregarding their rights, to carry out economic development activities in Colombia without the Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC) of the Indigenous communities that will be impacted. This contradicts UNDP’s own Social and Environmental Standard 6, and the Forum urges UNDP to suspend all related partnership activities until a proper FPIC process can be carried out.”
Interestingly, following the communities’ advocacy over the last week of April, UNDP Colombia has begun to scrub their social media timelines of any reference to the GeoPark deal. It has disappeared from their Twitter and Facebook pages. However, UNDP has not yet announced a cancellation of the agreement and GeoPark continues to feature the UNDP at the top of their partnerships page.
Meanwhile, the international pressure mounts, as will the reputational cost to the UNDP of maintaining their association with an oil company that has been accused of abuses against grassroots and Indigenous communities in the Colombian Amazon.