Anti-extractives protests in southern Columbia, civil unrest flares in Sri Lanka and earthquake, cyclones strike Vanuatu
Colombia: Government reaches agreement with protestors at oil site
A weeks-long protest denouncing the operating practices of a foreign-owned oil and gas company in Los Pozos – a town in Colombia’s southern Caquetá Department – escalated to violence on March 2, illustrating mounting tensions between rural communities, representatives of the extractive industries, and the Colombian government. According to local media, the protest initially started in late January with residents demanding that the oil company honor infrastructure investment commitments it had made to the local community. The demonstration proceeded peacefully but triggered significant travel disruptions due to roadblocks surrounding the protest site and the detention of 53 trucks which were released on March 1. However, members of the Indigenous Guard – an autonomous civil organization – joined the protest on March 2, blocking access to an oil field, setting fire to the company facilities, and taking 79 police officers and nine employees hostage. A police officer and a civilian died, and eight other officers sustained injuries in armed clashes between security forces and the protesters; all hostages were freed on the following day. Local media suggested that dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) provided support for the rallies, although the spokesperson for the protest movement has denied these accusations. The national government reached an agreement with the community on March 5 following a two-day negotiation, which effectively ended the protest. The recent unrest in Los Pozos is not an isolated event, but rather part of a trend of activity targeting the energy sector; a 9-day blockade erected by protesters on the road between Puerto Gaitán and Rubiales in Meta Department in February resulted in production cuts of more than 49,500 barrels of oil per day. Protests near oil and mining projects are common across the country, with rural communities demanding improved infrastructure or other benefits. In the absence of adequate state investment in rural regions, additional protests targeting extractives operations – aimed at putting pressure on the national government – are likely in the short-to-medium term. Such activity could also cause localized disruptions to supply chains and overland travel.
Sri Lanka: Economic reforms met with protests, labor strikes
Nationwide protests and labor strikes over rising living costs and recent reforms have disrupted essential services in Sri Lanka in the past week, highlighting growing dissatisfaction with the government’s economic policies. On March 1, workers from forty of the largest labor and trade unions went on strike, causing service disruptions at banks, hospitals, utility companies, and Colombo’s port. Government surveys indicate that approximately 30% of the country’s public servants participated in the work stoppages, with the North Western, North Central, and Southern Provinces experiencing the highest participation levels. The walkouts and accompanying protests are occurring in defiance of attempts by President Ranil Wickremesinghe to suppress mass demonstrations; on March 7, Wickremesinghe used executive powers to compel essential workers to remain on the job. Protests organized by student groups took place in the capital March 7-8; police reportedly used water cannons, tear gas, and other de-escalatory measures to deter protesting crowds on both dates. The current protests were spurred by February 2023 reforms raising income taxes as high as 36% and implementing tariffs on electricity by 66%, as well announcements by the finance ministry that it cannot fund the March 9 municipal elections. These reforms have contributed to an inflation rate of approximately 50%, exacerbating the already challenging economic and operational environment in the country marked by high electricity tariffs (75%), daily blackouts, and shortages of food, fuel, and medicine. A series of ineffective policies, corruption, and external shocks caused Sri Lanka to default on its debt in April 2022 and oust its president three months later. However, officials claim the reforms are necessary to increase government revenues and boost the confidence of international creditors as Sri Lanka works to qualify for a USD 2.9 billion bailout loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). As of March 7, Sri Lanka has received assurances from all of its major bilateral creditors (including China, India, and Japan) in support of debt restructuring, paving the way for the IMF to finalize its loan on March 20. While the loan may be insufficient to cover annual debt servicing, the IMF and Sri Lanka’s president reportedly believe it will pave the way for financing from other creditors, including the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. Until the IMF loan is approved and further financing helps Sri Lanka emerge from its economic crisis, strikes, and protests will remain likely in major cities.
Vanuatu: Earthquake, powerful cyclones inflict widespread damage
A six-month State of Emergency (SoE) is in effect in Vanuatu following a 6.5-magnitude earthquake and two back-to-back category 4 cyclones that affected more than 250,000 people and caused widespread infrastructure and private property damage. The earthquake – with an epicenter approximately 20 km (12 mi) west of the eastern coast of Espiritu Santo Island – struck on March 2 and was followed by four 4.9-5.4 magnitude aftershocks, although no significant damage or casualties were reported. Cyclone Kevin made landfall in Vanuatu’s capital, Port Villa, on March 3, bringing winds up to 130km/h (81mph). The storm exacerbated damages caused by Cyclone Judy, which came ashore on March 1 and triggered evacuations and extensive damage to homes, schools, medical facilities, and power, communication, and other critical infrastructure. According to the National Disaster Management Office, Shefa, Penama, and Malapa are among the most affected provinces, although the full extent of the damage remains unclear due to communication outages. Australia, New Zealand, and France have deployed rapid assessment teams to provide recovery support and humanitarian aid to Vanuatu. French Ambassador Jean-Baptiste Jeangene Vilmer stated that French military and civilian personnel from New Caledonia would assist with road clearing and providing clean water and medical care to the affected communities. While Vanuatu is among the countries with the highest disaster risk worldwide, the frequency of the recent cyclones is unusual; cyclones Judy and Kevin together mark one of the worst natural disasters the nation has faced since 2015 when Cyclone Pam caused widespread damage across Port Villa. On March 7, Vanuatu requested assistance from the EU Civil Protection Mechanism (UCPM) in support of evacuations, delivery of aid, and damage assessment. However, flooding and significant infrastructure damage in the aftermath of the storms are highly likely to hamper relief and recovery efforts in the short term.