LONDON — On Wednesday, October 15, approximately 100 Colombian farmers have taken the British oil company BP to the British High Court in what could become a landmark environmental case.
Involving for the first time a U.K. firm facing charges concerning its actions overseas in a domestic court, the farmers claim that BP negligently managed the construction of the pipeline that has led to an environmental degradation of the land and are seeking 18 million pounds ($29 million USD) in compensation.
The suit alleges that the pipeline has severely reduced the productivity of the farmland through drastic soil erosion, reduced vegetation coverage and pasture areas and blocked water sources.
If the lawsuit is successful, it could open the gateway for many other communities in developing countries to submit claims of environmental damage against oil pipelines.
Stretching across Colombia, cutting through forests and mountains, the Ocensa pipeline was built in the 1990s to become the largest oil pipeline in the country transporting 600,000 barrels of oil each day from the central Llanos Basin to the Caribbean Coast. The construction was managed by a group of companies that included the British company Equion Energia, formerly known as BP Colombia Exploration Limited and a subsidiary of BP until 2010.
An important element of the suit states that while farmers and BP entered into contractual agreements that allowed BP to construct the pipeline in their private land, the farmers did not fully understand the implications of the agreement nor did they receive fair compensation for the environmental damage.
BP has countered those allegations in their statement claiming to have conducted the construction in collaboration with the farmers and that significant steps were taken to ensure the pipeline left no material damage.
Although BP sold its assets in Colombia in 2010, Leigh Day, a U.K. law firm representing the farmers, has said the BP is liable under the 2010 agreement.
A small number of farmers have travelled to London to provide evidence. Among them, Rogelio Velez Montoya, has found that the water supply to his 47-hectare (116-acre) farm has been damaged from sedimentation causing him to lose cattle and stop keeping pigs and chickens. Another farmer, Rodrigo de Jesus Mesa, found that farming on his 37-hectare farm became very difficult after his water supply became filled with mud. Selling the farm was impossible as well once potential buyers discovered the property had an oil pipeline running through it.
Despite their apprehension in a foreign land, Rogelio and Rodrigo have remained hopeful of the process, expressing “we have hope and faith that the high court in London will deliver justice to us.”
A group of Colombian farmers did previously reach an out-of-court settlement with BP over environmental damage caused by the pipeline. In this case, it appears BP has chosen to fight these claims in court.
The trial also coincides with the recent U.S. case when a judge ruled BP was grossly negligent in the events preceding the Gulf of Mexico disaster and could face fines up to $17.6 billion.
The implications of the trial are enormous and may change the legal landscape for environmental protection, especially in developing countries where communities may not be able to receive the necessary media attention to force legal reprimands.
– William Ying