In the Amazon, a U.N. Agency Has a Green Mission, but Dirty Partners
RESGUARDO BUENAVISTA, Colombia — At the edge of the Colombian Amazon, in an Indigenous village surrounded by oil rigs, the Siona people faced a dilemma.
The United Nations Development Program, or U.N.D.P., had just announced a $1.9 million regional aid package. In a village with no running water, intermittent electricity and persistent poverty, any money would mean food and opportunity.
But the aid program was part of a partnership between the United Nations agency and GeoPark, the multinational petroleum company. The company holds contracts to drill near the Siona reservation, including one with the government that would expand operations onto what the Siona consider their ancestral land. To the Siona people on the Buenavista reservation, oil drilling is an assault, akin to draining blood from the earth.
This collaboration is one example of how one of the world’s largest sustainable development organizations partners with polluters, even those that at times work against the interests of the communities the agency is supposed to help.
From Mexico to Kazakhstan, these partnerships are part of a strategy that treats oil companies not as environmental villains but as major employers who can bring electricity to far-flung areas and economic growth to poor and middle-income nations. The development agency has used oil money to provide clean water and job training to areas that might otherwise be neglected.
But internal documents and dozens of interviews with current and former officials show that when the United Nations has partnered with oil companies, the agency has also tamped down local opposition to drilling, conducted business analyses for the industry and worked to make it easier for companies to keep operating in sensitive areas.
The Siona people of the Buenavista reservation have fought against oil companies for years. Credit…Federico Rios for The New York Times
The agency’s Colombia office, in particular, is a revolving door of officials moving in and out of oil companies and government energy ministries. The United Nations development agency has also worked with the government and the oil industry to compile dossiers on drilling opponents. There is no evidence that those dossiers were used to target anyone, but in a country where environmental activists are killed at a rate higher than anywhere else in the world, activists and community members said they felt their lives had been put at risk.
Even as the United Nations sounds the alarm on climate change and calls for a dramatic reduction in fossil fuel consumption, its development arm at times serves as a cheerleader for the oil and gas industry.
“The oil and gas sector is one of the industrial sectors worldwide capable of generating the greatest positive impacts on people’s development conditions,” the United Nations Development Program wrote in 2018.
The development agency said it supports a clean energy transition and does not encourage drilling. But Achim Steiner, the agency’s head, said its mission is to bring people out of poverty, and that that often means working in countries that are built on coal, oil and gas. “We have to start where economies are today,” Mr. Steiner said in an interview. “I don’t see a contradiction, but there is a tension.”
Adding to that tension, current and former officials say, is a relentless fund-raising pressure. The agency takes a cut — from about 3 to 10 percent — of donations. Officials, backed by the agency’s own audits, say that puts pressure on development officers to find partners in their assigned countries, even when the donors work against their agency’s interests.
Internal emails show that senior officials have bristled at having to put a glossy sheen on the world’s dirtiest companies — a process critics call blue washing, after the organization’s signature color.
In 2017, for example, two years after world leaders adopted the Paris climate agreement, the agency published a report on the positive role the oil and gas industry could play for the world. It listed an Exxon Mobil recycling initiative and Chevron’s promotion of engineering in classrooms.
“I really think this publication is problematic, as it aims to portray the oil and gas industry in a favorable light,” one agency employee wrote in a group email. The report “was undermining our message on sustainable energy,” read another email.
As a share of the agency’s $8 billion budget, money from the energy industry is a pittance: about $6 million a year, according to data provided by U.N.D.P. But locally that money can have outsize effects.
Nowhere are those effects felt more than in Colombia, where oil companies, the government, armed groups and environmentalists are fighting over the future of the Amazon. Deforestation has reached record levels, threatening a rainforest that serves as a crucial buffer against climate change.
Until last year, the Siona people living on the banks of the muddy Putumayo River in southern Colombia saw the United Nations development agency as an ally in that fight. The community had benefited from a previous grant from the agency.
Then came the GeoPark partnership.
‘Deal of the Year’
Mario Erazo Yaiguaje, a soft-spoken community leader and former governor of the Buenavista reservation, suspected that the U.N.D.P. aid program was a stealth attempt by the oil company to push his village into accepting its presence in the region.
The Siona of Buenavista live in wooden homes on a small territory cut into the Amazon on the border with Ecuador. Community life revolves around the chagra, a traditional farm plot, and yagé, a substance that the outside world labels a hallucinogen, but the Siona consider a medicine that, when taken under the instruction of an elder, allows them to receive wisdom and guidance.
This region has been the scene of conflict for generations, and the Siona of Buenavista see oil companies as the source of their problems, drawing in both leftist rebels, who have attacked the oil pipelines in the area, and the government soldiers who are sent to guard company infrastructure. The oil industry and the cocaine trade have together contributed to so much violence that one of the country’s highest courts has designated the Siona at “risk of extermination.”
The United Nations announced its GeoPark partnership at a moment of controversy. The company was already defending a lawsuit over an oil spill in the region. Then, a local advocacy organization publicly accused GeoPark of hiring an armed group to threaten drilling opponents. The company fiercely denied the allegation, but activists in the region said they feared for their lives.
Mr. Erazo saw the GeoPark deal as a tactic. “Clearing their name,” he called it. “When we saw that GeoPark was giving money to U.N.D.P., we realized that they’d made the deal of the year.”
GeoPark says it has no interest in drilling on the Siona reservation and has taken steps to give up its lease on the disputed territory. It said its partnership with the development agency was intended to help communities that had suffered economically during the Covid-19 pandemic. The money was never intended for the Siona, the company said.
“We have always had a relationship based on dialogue, respect and building trust with our neighbors,” the company said in a statement.
The Siona of Buenavista saw things differently and began preparing for a difficult decision. Sitting in the front row of a community meeting last year, wearing the traditional white tunic reserved for special occasions, Mr. Erazo listened as the community’s lawyer, Lina María Espinosa, laid out their choice:
“You are going to receive a sum that will provide for any family need,” she said. “But the money comes from, or will come from, the oil company.”
She asked: “Will you accept it?”
‘Feeding the Beast’
Mr. Erazo understood why GeoPark might want to partner with the United Nations. But why would a sustainable development agency partner with an oil company?
The origins of these deals are murky. Unlike the broader United Nations, the agency receives no dues from member nations. Its donations mostly come from governments and large international funds. Groups like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and private companies make up the rest.
Former officials say today’s relationship with major energy companies can be traced in part to a fight with one of the agency’s biggest benefactors, a nonprofit fund called the Global Environmental Facility, which pools money from governments to address major planetary challenges.
In 2011, Monique Barbut, the fund’s top executive at the time, became convinced that U.N.D.P. was too focused on raising money, with too little to show for it. “These people were accountable to no one,” Ms. Barbut said in an interview. She began cutting funding.
Those cuts coincided with the lingering effects of the global financial crisis and increased demand for development aid. So the agency doubled down on its fund-raising. Energy companies were among the targets.
“In an environment of declining aid, revenue from extractive sectors can serve as an additional source of financing,” U.N.D.P. wrote in 2012 as part of a strategy dedicated to oil, gas and mining.
That year, the agency announced a partnership with Shell Oil that helped train Iraqis to work in the oil and gas industry. A project with the energy company Pemex helped expand oil production in Mexico.
Development officials, who operate with broad authority in their assigned countries, recall constant pressure to find money.
“It’s a system centered on feeding the beast,” said Benoit Lebot, who worked on environmental projects during that period. Mr. Lebot said he erupted at his supervisors “I am not a number on a spreadsheet!” and ultimately quit.
Even today, staff members say — and performance appraisal forms reiterate — that supervisors prioritize raising money and starting projects. “How many projects did you get? How much money did you bring in?” said Dominic Rassool, who in 2018 quit his job as a technical adviser. Whether or not projects succeed, he said, matters less.
Mr. Steiner, the agency’s top executive, makes no apologies for the fund-raising focus.
“For those who say that that pressure is there, I can only say, ‘Well, welcome to reality,’” he said.
He firmly rejected, however, the notion that he prioritizes raising money over running successful programs. He said that independent evaluators review and rate every project.
But current and former evaluators say that when they do find problems, United Nations and local government officials often pressure them to soften their conclusions.
“Most of the time, it’s done in a tasteful way,” said Roland Wong, who evaluated projects for the agency for over a decade. Other times, the changes are more egregious. “Evaluations can suffer from gross embellishment to the point where it’s almost untrue.”
A common technique, current and former officials say, is to recast failures as “lessons learned.”
‘This Is a Trick’
Mr. Steiner talks about meeting economies where they are, and Colombia’s economy relies heavily on oil. It is the nation’s most important export. Anyone looking to raise money for development here would naturally find their way to fossil fuel companies.
Though Mr. Steiner says the agency does not support drilling projects, records show it does work to make it easier to drill. For years, Colombia’s national oil and gas agency and the country’s largest company, Ecopetrol, have contracted with U.N.D.P. to analyze risks and give advice on how to run the business more smoothly.
That business risk might mean a leaky pipeline, where the agency’s analysis could help prevent or mitigate an environmental problem. Other times, the business risk might be an angry community that opposes drilling.
In those situations, records show that development officials step in to smooth things over — with the goal of ensuring that operations continue as planned. As part of several U.N.D.P. projects, the agency worked with Ecopetrol and the Colombian fossil fuels ministry to compile dossiers on people in oil drilling areas.
One report, in the department of Meta, in the central part of the country, was inadvertently posted on a government website in 2015. The dossier, prepared for the interior ministry, identified town counselors and farmers who held “aggressive discourse” against the oil industry. A church was identified where the priest gave “speeches against the industry” at the end of mass.
Environmental activists are killed in Colombia at a rate of more than one a week, according to Global Witness, a human rights organization with offices in London, Washington and Brussels, making Colombia the world’s deadliest place to defend the earth. When activists saw themselves in the report, they felt the development agency had put them at risk. There is no evidence that this document or other dossiers led to violence.
In a statement, Ecopetrol said it works with the development agency because of its reputation for impartiality and to ensure that underserved communities get the attention they deserve.
“The company has long recognized the importance of social leaders and their contribution to society,” Ecopetrol said, using a local term for environmental and community activists. The company said it rejects threats or any other tactics that impede “free, safe and legitimate exercise of their work.”
Mr. Steiner said this is an essential process known as “stakeholder mapping.” If governments are to consult people on all sides of an issue, the key players must be identified.
The published report, however, focused in particular on opponents of the oil industry. Among the report’s action items: organize a forum of community members and environmentalists and “dismiss their speech.”
The U.N.D.P. said that, while the report was written by an agency contractor, was hosted on the agency’s server and included the agency’s logo, it was actually written at the behest of the Colombian government. Thus an agency spokesman would not comment on the report’s content.
One environmental activist, Edgar Humberto Cruz, who is listed in the report under the category “problematic,” said U.N.D.P. organized meetings to highlight the benefits that Ecopetrol and other companies brought to the region. “They told us that it was not convenient to oppose the industry,” Mr. Cruz said.
An agency spokesman said that such conversations are not part of the agency’s policy.
Today in Meta, suspicions run deep.
“The only reason it has come here, to our region, is to try to soften up the communities so that Ecopetrol can come in to do its oil work,” said Gustavo Carrión, a leader in Castilla La Nueva, a town in northwest Meta.
The agency’s own employees acknowledge as much. Fabian Espejo, who worked for the development agency in Colombia for five years, wrote in his 2020 doctoral thesis that the agency had good intentions but also took its cue from the oil, gas and mining ministries “to keep the production running smoothly.”
Mr. Steiner said his agency works under difficult conditions to bring money and opportunities to people who need it most. He does not set Colombia’s energy policies and cannot order the government to stop drilling in certain areas. What he can do, he said, is look for ways to minimize harm to communities and the environment.
“But also to maximize the benefits of an industry — extractive industries writ large — that is very significant, and a very significant revenue source for many developing countries,” he said.
A development official made a similar argument last year in a tense call with Mr. Erazo and others about the GeoPark deal. The United Nations did not invite the oil companies into the area, the official, Jessica Faieta, said. But “now that they’re already in the region, we can in some way guarantee that they comply with human rights.”
The Siona of Buenavista were livid. The United Nations seemed to be vouching for oil companies, Mr. Erazo said.
That conversation torpedoed any hope of winning them over. The Siona filed a formal complaint with the agency, returned their earlier grant and swore off ever again accepting help from the development program.
“People applaud every time a U.N.D.P. representative arrives because he’s arrived with something. ‘God bless!’” Mr. Erazo said. But, he went on, “This is a trick.”
The partnership with GeoPark, he said, was “the death of that organization for us.”
Today, along the banks of the Putumayo, Mr. Erazo sees trouble ahead. Inflation has sent food costs soaring. Gasoline prices have made even simple transport difficult.
A relationship with the United Nations Development Program would certainly have its benefits.
But he has no regrets.
The development agency canceled the GeoPark partnership and is now investigating why it ever got involved with the company when the Siona’s grievances were already so well known.
“I think that is a legitimate critique,” Mr. Steiner said, adding, “You know, we have learned lessons.”
Sofía Villamil and Genevieve Glatsky contributed reporting from Bogotá.