The union struggle that led to the creation of Ecopetrol and the subsequent persecution suffered by workers and peasants

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What was the De Mares Concession, why the importance of its end for the birth of the state oil company and what was the response of the multinationals foreigners to the workers who demanded their lands back after being dispossessed


Oscar Mauricio López

The union struggle that led to the creation of Ecopetrol and the subsequent persecution suffered by workers and peasants

In the Magdalena Medio region, during the second half of the 20th century, there was persecution and stigmatization of trade union leaders from foreign oil companies. This is recorded in the chapter 'Colombia inside' of the Final Report of the Truth Commission. Illustration: Jesús Avilés (Infobae)

Barrancabermeja has been an oil cradle since extraction activities began in the first half of the 20th century. In the 1940s, workers' struggles were on the rise and with the Unión Sindical Obrera —USO— recognized throughout the country, mobilizations for land became a constant after the granting of titles to foreign multinationals that, on many occasions, provided few or no labor guarantees for hundreds of Colombian workers.

This brought strong repression by governments such as that of Mariano Ospina Pérez —1946-1950— and Laureano Gómez —1950-1951—, generating as a response the organization of liberal guerrillas in defense of violent state coercion and by private self-defense groups. . However, this did not intimidate the union movement and they led large mobilizations such as the so-called 'Patriotic Strike' in January 1948.

According to information collected by the Final Report of the Truth Commission, more than 10,000 people took to the streets of the municipality that is part of Magdalena Medio, a key region in the development not only of the oil industry, but also in the perpetuation of violence due to land ownership and the departure of oil companies from the country. from other countries. This march generated only one positive result, but perhaps the most important in the first half and beginning of the second half of the 20th century: the creation of a state oil company.

The Gaitanista wing exerted strong pressure—from the political sphere, of course—so that the nationalization of oil would become a reality. The Minister of Mines of the government of the ultra-conservative Laureano Gómez defended the project before the Council of Ministers. Thus, on August 25, 1951, the Colombian Petroleum Company, today known as Ecopetrol, was founded after a strong setback in the De Mares Concession to the Colombian State.

But, what was the Mares Concession?

This license was granted (as its name indicates) to Roberto de Mares by means of Law 6 of 1905 for oil exploitation in Barrancabermeja (region of Magdalena Medium). Said agreement, reached in the government of President Rafael Reyes, allowed the beneficiary to exploit the deposits in the area known as Las Infantas for nearly 30 years. The end of this agreement was good news for the nationalization of oil, since after that state and worker bids began that led to the creation of Ecopetrol.

With the De Mares Concession in force, companies such as the Tropical Oil Company began to establish themselves in Barrancabermeja, Puerto Wilches and Sabana de Torres, in Santander. In addition, Law 37 of 1931 allowed the arrival of the Colombian Oil Company El Cóndor (the same Shell) in Cantagallo and Yondó (Campo Casabe, one of the most important oil areas in the country), Antioquia.

By 1945, a good part of Magdalena Medio, it could be said, did not belong to Colombia: it was as if an oil State had been created within a country. Like a Vatican, but full of foreign companies extracting Colombian oil, invading private areas and getting into heavy fights with the settlers who lived near the Magdalena River.

In the 1960s, unfinished land conflicts from previous decades grew. Foremen of the Texas Petroleum Company (known today as Texaco) persecuted settlers settled in areas near the occupied territories and made them sign documents as tenants. They were also carded. Those who did not have this card were persecuted and detained by the Army. Many of those who stayed put together the first peasant self-defense groups. According to the records of the Final Report, some settled in Yacopí (Cundinamarca) in areas controlled by the Tropical Oil Company, Shell, Texaco and Socoy Vaccum (now Mobil).

Continuation of the conflicts and first steps of agrarian reform

Political affinities united popular movements and union groups. Said 'alliance' generated a greater strengthening in the management and development of rallies, statements, strikes, civic committees and production stoppages to demand electricity, drinking water, decent health and education conditions from the State and Ecopetrol, and the improvement of roads of access. The peasant self-defense groups were recognized in the country, as was their main cause: to stop the dispossession caused by the oil companies.

“Some members of these peasant self-defense groups later joined the FARC, adding experience and accumulated struggle and organization,” explains the territorial volume of the Final Report. In 1973, Shell gave the Colombian Institute of Agrarian Reform (Incora) 1,766 hectares of the El Tigre farm to be offered to peasants. This is how Campo Casabe was colonized, above all with the Afro-descendant population that came from many places: from Chocó, Boyacá, Valle del Cauca, etc.

Three years before, the government of Carlos Lleras had developed an agrarian reform project that collected experiences from the plan executed by Alberto Lleras Camargo (1958-1962) who created the Community Action Boards through Law 19 of 1958. In that order, the JAC developed a fundamental role in the associative development of peasants in Magdalena Medio despite the strong presence of paramilitary groups and guerillas several decades later.