Like most Latin American countries, Colombia is a land of contrasts: rich biodiversity second only to Brazil, and polluted, overpopulated cities; world class medical facilities and universities, and isolated communities struggling with malnutrition and illiteracy; a Nobel Peace prize for the peace agreement between the Colombian government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerillas in 2016, and continued bloodshed from FARC dissidents and other groups who continue to fight for resources and territory.
The Colombian people also have a complex relationship with the oil and gas industry. While companies bring economic development and social programs to rural areas, they are not always received well by local populations.
On March 2, the “indigenous guard” and rural residents kidnapped 70 police officers and oilfield workers in the Los Pozos area of the San Vicente del Caguán, Caquetá, in southern Colombia’s Amazon.
The contractors worked for Emerald Energy, a Chinese operator holding a hydrocarbon exploration contract in the Caquetá department. Protestors blocked roads and started a fire to demand that Emerald repair roads in the municipality.
The national government intervened, leading to the release of the hostages, but Emerald Energy later requested the suspension of their hydrocarbon exploration contract in Caquetá.
“Unfortunate situations like the one in Caquetá are the result from the lack of knowledge and understanding and from the historical absence of the national government, which should be working in the territories where communities live and companies operate,” said Flover Rodriguez, executive director of the Colombian Association of Energy Petroleum Geologists and Geophysicists (ACGGP).
ACGGP, formerly known as the “Colombian Association of Petroleum Geologists and Geophysicists,” but has dropped the “Petroleum” from its name, is working to foster understanding between companies and communities and to take geoscience knowledge from cities and universities into remote territories.
Their flagship initiative, Regional Pedagogy, was founded in 2017 as a geoscience education program designed to help rural and urban communities understand the Earth’s processes.
Rodriguez said the program has impacted more than 21,500 people throughout Colombia since it began. And, it is poised to potentially benefit many more, if the work continues.
“Our staff have conducted activities in 57 municipalities in 20 Colombian departments (states) have performed more than 580 activities related to communicating and disseminating information about geology and Earth sciences,” he said.
The Regional Pedagogy program includes three primary projects:
- Geological City: interactive games designed to teach children about Earth science
- Geological Adventures: illustrated books publications that teach geological concepts, including the origin water and energy resources
- Geology and Society: geological schools founded in rural and indigenous communities and designed to integrate scientific knowledge
Rodriguez described Geology and Society as one of ACGGP’s most exciting projects.
“The program is important because it allows us to combine local knowledge with geoscientific knowledge to create a practical tool that aids community members in decision-making,” he said.
The latest implementation of the Geology and Society project took place in a community of former guerilla fighters in Guaviare, a department in southern Colombia affected by the country’s decades-long armed conflict.
Project staff counseled community members on managing the groundwater that serves as the primary water supply for the population center and also worked with community members to develop a groundwater primer for children. The geological primer, entitled “Geological Adventures: Water,” is available for download on the ACGGP website.
Rodriguez attributes ACGGP’s accomplishments to intentional efforts to combine the science of geology with the science of communication. This included adding educational professionals to the team.
“To achieve our goal of connecting geological knowledge and the tools to transmit that knowledge assertively to diverse interest groups, we decided to bring on a professional trained in establishing specific communication channels by recognizing the characteristics of each target group,” he said.
In 2019, ACGGP hired Linda Cárdenas Ramírez, a community education professional with experience communicating scientific concepts to the general public.
“Being a part of the Regional Pedagogy program was a job opportunity that allowed me to link and enhance my knowledge while developing professionally,” Cárdenas said.
Cárdenas describes her work as “creativity resulting from interdisciplinarity.”
“I seek, build and develop ideas and the ways of materializing them,” she said. “I am in charge of formulating geoscience education strategies that adapt to the idiosyncrasies of the target audiences – children, adolescents, senior citizens, indigenous communities, Afro-Colombian communities, peasants – and that illustrate in a simple way the applicability of geology to everyday life.”
Cárdenas noted how the Regional Pedagogy program proposes geology as an indispensable science for successful life in the territories.
“One of the most basic principles for the survival of any living species is the ability to understand and adapt to their ecosystems,” she said. “In my opinion, geology brings us closer to the parts of our environments that are still unknown: the history of our territories from a scientific approach (creation, evolution and adaptation) and the subsurface, an essential and determining part of any territory,” she said.
Cárdenas said working on the program has been deeply rewarding both professionally and personally.
“Although getting people to see the applicability of geological knowledge in their daily lives can be a challenge, it is very gratifying to see how they appropriate concepts and translate them into their own lexicon to understand and explain what happens in their territories,” she said.
Cárdenas also said she is grateful to see how the program has served as a model for other societies in Colombia and throughout the region.
A Model to Emulate
Rodriguez presented on the program at the “Developing Infrastructure in Harmony with Communities and the Environment” executive panel at the AAPG Energy Opportunities Conference in Mexico City on March 23. Lessons learned in Colombia formed an important part of the discussion with other panelists from Mexico and Trinidad and Tobago.
ACGGP also had a stand at the conference and shared resources with other countries and governmental agencies who attended.
Representatives from Pemex, the Ministry of Energy of Trinidad and Tobago, Petrobras and Yacimientos de Litio Boliviano, Bolivia’s national lithium company, requested meetings with representatives of ACGGP to learn about how to apply best practices in their countries.
Cárdenas said this is another important objective of the program.
“We are honored to be a point of reference for other processes and scenarios that want to bet on the dissemination and/or appropriation of geo-scientific knowledge. That shows us that we are on the right track, and that each day more people see the importance of bringing geology throughout all Latin American territories.”
Cárdenas noted that communicating diverse concepts to even more diverse audiences brings its share of challenges, especially for people who do not have formal training in geology.
“Firstly, I must learn from a science that is not always simple. I must learn and understand it very well, because that is the basis for coming up with ways to transmit concepts in languages adapted to the communities. Another challenge is assimilating and categorizing new knowledge, filtering it by order of priority, not only by which concepts are most relevant in scientific terms, but also which are most useful from the community perspective,” she said. “A third challenge is connecting geocientific knowledge to pedagogical methods that harmonize scientific knowledge with effective teaching tools for education processes.”
Carlos Ortega, Regional Pedagogy co-founder and pedagogy and social dialogue coordinator with ACGGP, said the challenges extend beyond just the educational strategies of the moment, but include ensuring the continuity of the program in the future.
“I would say that we have two primary challenges. On one hand, finding enough support for the program to continue and achieve greater impact. For that, it is essential that companies support this initiative and do not see it as an occasional activity that gives communities the opportunity to understand geosciences’ impact on the economy. The program is not just a series of conferences or workshops; it is part of a social dialogue process that could facilitate the construction of social license,” he said.
“Secondly, companies in the energy mining sector must understand that they must change their vision of the territory and contribute through their efforts and projects in the construction of mechanisms for environmental and social governance. It is necessary to change what is being done, to leave the comfort zone and define new strategies hand-in-hand with communities, in harmony with the environment.
Deciding What is Most Important
Though priorities vary from community to community, Cárdenas identified several key principles that she feels community members should understand.
“The most important concepts are those that help community members to develop or improve their quality of life: risk management, especially for communities in a state of vulnerability; recognizing and implementing good practices for the extraction and use of natural resources – minerals, water and hydrocarbons; concepts that help communities understand and design strategies to adapt to climate change; the use and implementation of new technologies for energy transition.”
Ortega noted how communities seek geological knowledge that can help them manage day-to-day issues.
“From my experience I would say that communities want to understand issues related to water resources, climate change, energy transition and risk management,” he said. “The community wants to know everything that can strengthen their organizations and facilitate interactions with local and national government entities.”
Cárdenas said the Regional Pedagogy program provides tangible benefits.
“The program provides community members with tools that allow them to make better decisions in and for their territories, leaving behind that marginality that comes from a lack of knowledge,” she said. “This program makes science available to all. Geological knowledge is no longer a privilege accessible to certain social classes or people who live in cities.”
“This program benefits communities greatly because it helps them better understand their territory, to learn about activities and operations developed there, to answer questions, make better decisions, develop better informed proposals and to incorporate geoscience knowledge into their territories,” he said.
ACGGP staff remain cautiously optimistic about the future of the program.
“I hope that we can continue to be a model for how to implement geoscientific education using a community-based, dialogic approach,” she said Cárdenas.
Ortega said the success of the program depends on the willingness of companies to support it.
“Although I see some uncertainty due to the lack of resources and vision by some energy companies, the program definitely must be part of a multidisciplinary and transverse strategy of social dialogue necessary for construction of social, economic and environmental governance,” he said.
From Dreams to Reality
When social conflicts and funding concerns create uncertainty, Ortega reflects on the “smiles and hugs” of the communities, which comfort him and make him proud, he said.
“I remember a very special moment, in a rural school in the department of Putumayo, a little boy, a student, after participating in a series of activities to learn playing or playing, approached me and said, ‘When I am big I want to be like you, an artist.’ I said, ‘I’m not an artist, I’m a geologist. Artists make paintings, sculptures, write poetry, make songs.’ ‘That’s why,’ he told me. ‘For me, geology is like an art.’
I looked into his eyes with deep satisfaction and emotion and wished that this little one someday can make his dream come true. I was filled with gratitude for having made my own dream come true, ensuring that at least one child, from in his heart recognized that our pedagogy program was born from love.”