Colombia's Ecopetrol challenged over human rights record

strikers on street of Bogota
Image caption People protesting against the murder of 3,000 trade unionists took to the streets

Colombians recently had a rare opportunity to buy a stake in the state-owned Ecopetrol company, but critics complain that it still has questions to answer over its record on human rights and the environment.

Colourful television advertisements featuring native reptiles were used to sell the shares.

But they glossed over the claims of alleged human rights and environmental abuses that Ecopetrol has been embroiled in.

The pressure group Human Rights Watch says Ecopetrol, along with its foreign partners, has taken no action to address reports of extrajudicial executions and a massacre committed by state security forces close to their oil installations 10 years ago.

But Javier Gutierrez, the head of Ecopetrol, says allegations of massacres committed by state security forces close to oil installations are a government matter and nothing to do with his company.

Commenting about the environment and recent spillages, he says: "We have very strict regulation at the level of the best in the world."

He maintains that what is happening in some regions of the country is what he calls "growth pain".

"We are almost close to producing one million barrels a day. Logically there are some difficulties in some regions with some operators."

He is adamant that he wants his company to be recognised in the future as a one which produces no accidents and no environmental incidents.

"We need to be completely respectful of the interests of the communities and the environment," he says.

'Dangerous allegiance'

The pressure group Justice for Colombia says profits should not come before human rights.

"Colombia is the most dangerous country in the world in which to be a trade unionist. There have been almost 3,000 of them murdered in recent years," says the group's director, Mariela Kohon.

She maintains there is almost complete impunity for the people who are killing union members and that oil workers continue to be persecuted by violent means as well.

Image caption Mr Gutierrez says the sale of shares in Ecopetrol will benefit all Colombians

"There have been about 100 or so members of the national oil workers' union, most of them working for Ecopetrol, who have been assassinated," she says.

Ecopetrol's Javier Gutierrez insists: "People from different income levels, including very low incomes, have the possibility to access shares."

But there are critics.

At a cost of a minimum investment of almost two million pesos (£625; $1,000), who among the country's 45 million people could afford to buy them?

Mijael Duarte, who spent his childhood living close to one of Ecopetrol's biggest refineries, says he would never have the money.

"They shouldn't be selling the shares. They should be giving the shares away to the people because the oil and gas belongs to everyone in Colombia," he asserts.

Some people have been more fortunate, however.

Virginia Tristancho bought shares in Ecopetrol the first time round because she thought they were a good investment.

"We were thinking about our daughter's future, just in case she needs the money to go to university or one day to travel the world," she says.

"It's great because the more the shares rise in value, we can sell them for more money," she adds.

According to Mr Gutierrez of Ecopetrol, every Colombian will benefit.

"We are generating important resources for different social programmes and for the improvement of the conditions of the people in Colombia," he says.

The government sold a second batch of shares which reduced the government's holding in the company by a further 10% to 80%.

It says part of the $1.4bn it raised will be used to rebuild areas devastated by recent floods.

This share issue is supposed to be something that all Colombians should benefit from, a unifying process.

But in reality, the majority simply do not have the money to buy a share in the country's oil wealth.

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