• New Global Witness investigation shows devastation of a protected area surrounding the Veolia-run Yerbabuena landfill near Patio Bonito, Colombia - with evidence of health impacts on a nearby community whose water and food sources were contaminated
  • Local environmentalists and experts who have documented and spoken out against the community’s suffering have been targeted and forced to leave the area after paramilitary threats
  • In one of the world’s most dangerous areas for defenders, Veolia has not sought to understand or reduce the risks to defenders in the area, with community members still afraid to speak out
  • Despite being one of the world’s largest private waste management operations with reported record revenues of €43 billion, the company is yet to provide the community with access to a local fresh water source, locals say
  • Investigation shows the need for the European Union to pass a strong law to prevent corporates profiting from human rights and environmental abuses and ensure ongoing and meaningful engagement with communities  

Brussels, May 30 – The French waste management giant Veolia purchased a “toxic” landfill in a protected area in Colombia and has apparently failed to address the risks faced by environmental defenders who have spoken out against its environmental and health impacts, according to a new report from Global Witness.

Veolia oversees one of the largest private waste management operations in the world, serving 46 million people around the world in 2022, from France and Germany to the USA.

The local community, environmental experts and local civil society groups were against the landfill being built in what was a rich, biodiverse ecosystem that provided them with clean water and food. Yet the Yerbabuena landfill began operating in 2015, contaminating the water and food sources of the Patio Bonito community, who live in the San Silvestre wetlands in which the landfill is sited. Sediment samples from bodies of water near the landfill taken in 2017 found numerous heavy metals at “significant values”, including arsenic and mercury.

After the landfill opened, newborns and children in the community reportedly began to display a series of serious and novel afflictions, including cases of babies being born without a brain and dying at birth. Newborns were also suffering from “Job“, an otherwise rare skin condition which leaves devastating scarring and boils, with rates of the disease found to be 500 times higher than the norm.

Despite these significant concerns, Veolia bought the landfill from the Colombian firm Rediba in 2019, rebranding the site as an “Environmental Technology Park”.  According to the residents of Patio Bonito and local environmentalists, the environmental and social impacts remain as devastating as ever. “I can’t see any improvement at all. Everything is the same,” one resident told Global Witness in 2023, claiming that her and her family – including her daughter and grandchildren – have suffered health impacts due to the landfill, along with many others.

The Colombian authorities have long been aware of the impacts of the landfill. In 2017 Colombia’s highest constitutional court responsible for the protection of human rights issued an order making the landfill’s operation conditional on its owner building an aqueduct to supply clean water to the community, as well as a series of measures to lessen its impact on the local environment.

However, a local environmental group, San Silvestre Green, suggests that Veolia has to date failed to completely fulfil this order, arguing that leachates from the site are continuing to overflow into surrounding water sources, contaminating the wetlands. Despite being six years since the acquisition, any aqueduct is yet to be built and the local authorities are forced to pay for water to be delivered to the community by tanker trucks, according to San Silvestre Green.

Veolia told Global Witness that “there is no leachate discharge in the water sources from the landfill”, that all leachate is treated within the plant, and that the company conducts a variety of thorough ongoing testing at the site (the results of which comply with international standards). Veolia also told Global Witness that it takes on the arrangement of tanker-supplied water to the community and the historic reporting of medical defects was neither peer-reviewed official research nor corroborated.

Those speaking up against the landfill’s impacts under Veolia’s operations have faced the threat of violent reprisals from paramilitary groups. In 2020, two local environmental defenders, Oscar Sampayo and Dr Yesid Blanco, received death threats from paramilitary groups, a month after they signed a legal action against Veolia. One of the two defenders, Dr Blanco, who first noticed the reported pattern of health defects in babies, had already been forced to flee Colombia in 2018 after being warned that two hitmen tasked with executing him were on their way to his home, and he now lives in exile.

Both Dr Blanco and Oscar Sampayo’s names were published in a pamphlet by a paramilitary group calling themselves the “Aguilas Negras”, which warned 18 local activists that they had 24 hours to leave the territory or would be declared a military target. Oscar Sampayo has also since fled the area.

UN guidance for businesses working with human rights defenders clearly states that companies should “engage constructively” with defenders who raise concerns about their operations, implement policies to protect them, and support a zero-tolerance policy for attacks against defenders.

However, Veolia does not appear to have developed such an approach, and residents of Patio Bonito remain afraid to speak out. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a community member told Global Witness that “Of course there are people who are scared to speak …you never know when they’re going to decide to send someone to get rid of you, so you don’t mess with them as much.” There is no suggestion that Veolia plays any part in sustaining paramilitary violence in Colombia.

Veolia has shown a disregard for the particular threats that Dr Blanco faces in returning to the area. In a response shared with Global Witness, Veolia noted that he was “invited by Veolia Colombia to visit the [site] in order to see the operations, but has never responded to our proposal.” Given Dr Blanco received death threats from local paramilitary groups while the landfill has been under Veolia’s control, any visit back could be fatal.

Whilst there is no evidence to suggest that Veolia or its predecessor commissioned extrajudicial threats or violence, Global Witness urges Veolia to address the full range of harms suffered by the community and defenders who have spoken out against the landfill.

 Shruti Suresh, Land & Environmental Defenders Campaign Lead at Global Witness, said:“Veolia is showing a disregard for the risks faced by land and environmental defenders who are struggling for justice for the harms that have been caused by this toxic landfill in the San Silvestre wetlands. Such a lacklustre attitude is concerning as Veolia’s operation is sited in an area which is well-known to be a high risk for attacks against defenders and indeed Global Witness research has found that Colombia is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for land and environmental defenders. The devastating effects of the landfill on the lives of the local community can no longer be ignored.”

Global Witness’ investigation exposes the ineffectiveness of the due diligence rules companies write for themselves, with Veolia claiming to be “the world’s ‘leading’ company” on environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria.

A law currently being negotiated in the European Union – the Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive (CSDDD) – has the potential to hold companies like Veolia accountable for environmental and human rights abuses.

Beate Beller, Corporate Accountability Campaigner at Global Witness, said: "For too long, big companies have been shying away from their responsibility to people and planet while making huge profits. We’ve shown time and time again that, left to their own devices, they do a poor job of addressing human suffering and environmental devastation associated with their business activities. A new EU corporate accountability law will help address this imbalance of power between companies and communities with the aim of preventing horror stories like those in Patio Bonito and preventing companies from acting with impunity."

On June 1, the European Parliament will vote on its position on the Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive, with negotiations on the final law expected to conclude towards the end of 2023.