In the Amazon, a UN Agency Has a Green Mission but Dirty Partners

One of the world’s largest sustainable development agencies has worked with energy companies to quash opposition and keep oil flowing, even in sensitive areas.

A gas flame burned at an oil well in Putumayo, Colombia.
Source: Federico Rios for The New York Times

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 UNDP, 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 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.”

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