When Yuvelis Natalia Morales decided to found a youth activist group protesting fracking projects in Colombia, she had little idea she was joining a war between preservation and profit that threatens to tear her homeland apart.
From Puerto Wilches, a town on the Magdalena River in Colombia’s northern Santander province, Morales grew up on the doorstep of one of the most pristine natural habitats on Earth.
“This area is possibly the most biodiverse in Colombia, where there’s the most water, most animals, and most green zones,” she said. “And it’s also the area with the most armed militias.”
Despite relatively small reserves, Colombia is heavily reliant on oil revenue. Although fracking was outlawed nationally in 2018, the ban does not cover pilot projects.
When, in 2020, a legal bid to block those projects failed, Colombia’s National Hydrocarbon Agency (ANH) assured environmental groups that the pilots would only be allowed in two regions: the Cesar-Ranchería Basins in the country’s extreme north and the Middle Magdalena Valley, where Puerto Wilches sits.
Local energy company Ecopetrol began its pilot in the Magdalena Valley in late 2020. “They started doing this like they were running a race,” says Morales, now 21.
“They started approving things day after day. There wasn’t time for anyone, for the community, to do anything. Everything started happening very fast.”
Fearing the project would lead to environmental devastation, Morales founded Aguawil (Comité para la Defensa del Agua, la Vida, y el Territorio), to bring fellow local land defenders together, and joined the Alliance to Keep Colombia Free from Fracking.
“This committee is quite special and is very important in Colombia as it’s a youth committee. We are all between 18 and 25 years old,” Morales tells Climate Home.
“Once we started organizing, they started to threaten us.”
Morales says that she was first threatened publicly by local officials during a debate in Puerto Wilches. But she persisted, helping in December 2020 to organise a carnival march where at least 3,000 people protested against the projects.
“This was a milestone because normally this doesn’t happen as people are very afraid,” she says.
“However, we did it and people went into the streets to say we don’t want fracking in our territories, that this is bad politics.”
After the march, the threats began to come more frequently.
“They would call our phones, come to our houses, threaten our parents, saying they would take away their jobs,” Morales says. “They started to persecute them, calling them ‘guerrillas’. In Colombia, when they label you a guerrilla, this means death.”