Breach of Trust

A mega-dam in Colombia was supposed to bring economic development. So far, it’s brought violence and loss to a region that’s already suffered decades of conflict.

“THE RIVER IS DRYING,” a local fisherman says with a worried look on his face. It’s the beginning of May when the people of Puerto Valdivia, Colombia notice that the Cauca River is withdrawing quickly, in the middle of the rainy season. Everyone knows the culprit: Twenty-seven kilometers upstream, the state-run company Empresas Publicas de Medellin (EPM) is building Colombia’s biggest hydroelectric power plant. It’s clear that something is wrong with the dam.

It turns out that a tunnel used for redirecting the river during the construction of the dam is blocked. The two other diversion tunnels constructed for the project have already been sealed as the dam is nearing completion. The powerful Cauca River, Colombia’s second longest, has nowhere to go. In a matter of hours, the river below is reduced to a trickle, and the canyon upstream is flooded with such force that those living along the river’s banks can only run, leaving their belongings behind.

And then things get worse. As EPM tries desperately to resolve the situation before the dam breaches, on May 12, some two weeks after the tunnel became clogged, it suddenly unblocks, unleashing an avalanche of water and debris downstream. Puerto Valdivia, the first village below the dam, takes the hardest blow. Fifty-nine houses and three bridges are lost, along with the lone school and healthcare center. Some 600 people from the town are left displaced. Puerto Valdivia and four other villages are declared emergency zones, and according to EPM, some 17,000 people are ordered to evacuate.

For many of them, this isn’t the first time they have had to flee. The Medio Cauca region, north of Medellin in Colombia’s Antioquia department, sits in a drug corridor between country’s coca-producing inland areas and the Gulf of Urabá. The department has been at the center of Colombia’s half-century armed conflict as the government, paramilitary groups, and guerilla forces have fought to control the region. Massacres have been commonplace: Between 1982 and 2016, paramilitary groups committed 62 massacres killing 372 people in the 12 municipalities affected by the Hidroituango project, according to the local activist movement Ríos Vivos (“Living Rivers” in Spanish). Some put the numbers much higher. In 2016, the government entered a peace process with the Revolutionary Armed Guards of Colombia (FARC), Colombia’s largest left-wing guerilla group, but the region has remained unstable as paramilitaries and the National Liberation Army, another guerilla group, battle to fill the power vacuum.

For local communities that have long lived with violence, the dam is one more injustice heaped upon them. And as EPM pushes through the recent setbacks and inches closer to completing the dam, they can’t help but worry about the permanent environmental, social, and cultural implications of a project they never asked for and that they say they weren’t properly consulted about.

HIDROITUANGO – HIDRO for “hydroelectric plant,” Ituango for the town it sits next to – has been a long time in the making. The dam was first conceived of in 1969, and became the subject of feasibility studies and environmental impact reviews over the next several decades. It was put on hold in the 1990s during Colombia’s recession, resurrected in the 2000s, and licensed in 2009, billed as a project that would bring economic development to a region beset by violence and poverty. Construction began in 2010. The dam was initially slated to begin operating by the end of 2018, though that’s no longer feasible. If finished, Hidroituango will meet nearly 20 percent of Colombia’s electricity needs.

The dam and its 79-kilometer-long reservoir – which became prematurely flooded during the May emergency – affects 5,400 hectares of forest in the Cauca canyon. This includes large swaths of rare dry tropical forest, and experts say that several plant and animal species endemic to the area are at risk. Ríos Vivos, which began organizing against Hidroituango in 2010, points to additional environmental impacts of construction, including sedimentation in the river and air pollution. Contamination of the river, in particular, has major implications for both upstream and downstream communities, which depend on it for water, as well as for their livelihood – the vast majority of residents in towns like Puerto Valdivia make a living by fishing, farming, and artisanal gold mining along the river’s banks.

William Gutierrez is one of them. He and his brother inherited his father’s land in Puerto Valdivia back in 1999. “We started working the land together,” he says, his baseball cap shading his tough but friendly face. “We planted coconut trees, banana, yucca, corn, beans. The soil is very fertile along the river. One day we would pan for gold, the other we worked the land. It’s our way of life, as we have been living it for centuries.”

Like many of his neighbors, Gutierrez has come face-to-face with the violence that has plagued Antioquia. He believes that at least some of this violence can be linked to a sustained effort to clear land for the mega-project.

“In 1997 paramilitaries came to our hamlet telling us they came on behalf of the patron (boss) – referring to Álvaro Uribe, provincial governor at the time,” he tells me when I visit the village in September. “They told us to leave, because they needed the land for the dam. That’s how we knew that the paramilitary raids were not meant to fight the guerrillas, but to clear the territory for the project.”

Gutierrez’s brother was killed in one of these raids in 1997. “Paramilitaries came to his finca (land) and murdered him, supposedly for being a guerrilla,” Gutierrez says. Around that same time, paramilitaries with the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) entered the nearby village of El Aro – another town impacted by Hidroituango – and killed 15 peasants over several days. Gutierrez’s sister-in-law – his deceased brother’s wife – was killed by a grenade flung on their property two years later. (Álvaro Uribe, who was governor of Antioquia during the massacre and later served as President of Colombia between 2002 and 2010, is now under investigation for his possible involvement in the El Aro massacre. Uribe was a strong supporter of the dam project during his time in office.)

Photo by Ynske Boersma
Like the majority of residents in Puerto Valdivia, William Gutierrez’s (right) livelihood is largely dependent on the Cauca River. Photo by Ynske Boersma

In addition to the loss of loved ones, locals mourn the cultural and historical losses linked to the dam. The Colombian government has officially recognized that some 45,000 people went missing during the country’s half-century conflict. “Our collective memory lies buried in that canyon. How could they permit the flooding of the truth?”More than 600 of these missing people – or the disappeared, as they are often referred to – were from the 12 municipalities affected by the hydroelectric project, according to the Colombian National Center for Historical Memory. Most of them are presumed to have been killed, their bodies dumped in the Cauca River. As some of these bodies have been recovered over the years, they have been buried in anonymous graves by local Indigenous people living on the river banks. Those graves are now believed to be flooded.

Ríos Vivos says that the project should not have been approved in an area where crimes against humanity have been committed, at least before clarifying the truth about hundreds of deaths and even more disappearances. As Isabel Zuleta, spokeswoman for the movement, says, “Our collective memory lies buried in that canyon. How could they permit the flooding of the truth?”

EPM asserts that the company has done everything in its power to find these bodies. In 2014, a team from the National Unit for Disappeared Persons exhumed 159 bodies in the area, based on information provided by local authorities. However, during my visits to Puerto Valdivia and Sabanalarga, a town just upstream of the dam, locals say most anonymous graves have never been reported.

Maria Lucely Muriel, a tiny woman with a weathered face and long white, braided hair, says that she stumbled upon dead bodies twice in the late 1990s, both times while panning for gold in the river. “But we could not say anything, because they [the authorities] would have accused us of killing them,” she says. Now 75, she has lived in Puerto Valdivia for nearly 40 years, making a living from gold panning and fishing while taking care of her eight children.

Like most people in this corner of Colombia, she lost a family member in the conflict. “Now I have seven [children] because one of my children was killed,” she says. On May 12, when the dam’s tunnel burst open, she faced further loss: The river destroyed everything she had. “My house, my animals, my plants. Everything,” she says, breaking down and covering her face with her hands. “The river used to be our father, brother, our boss. It never caused us any problems. But the company turned the river into our enemy.”

COLOMBIA DOES NOT KEEP track of how many people are displaced by mega-projects like Hidroituango, but Ríos Vivos estimates that roughly 700 families connected to their movement have been forcibly evicted to make way for the dam. Others, displaced by conflict over the previous decades, find themselves unable to return home. And then there are the recent displacements caused by the tunnel collapse. Some 1,200 families are pushing back against the project, united by Ríos Vivos. “Our [land] lay in the way of the road they planned to build towards the dam,” says Gutierrez. “And so the police came to our finca telling us we had to leave, because the territory between Puerto Valdivia and the dam was declared for public use. But we would not leave, and instead we began campaigning against the project, by joining Ríos Vivos. They were never able to get rid of us. Until the 12th of May, when the river took it all,” he says, smiling despite everything.

At the core of their opposition is the lack of adequate consultation with local communities that say they have opposed the project from the start. In addition to the lack of sufficient consultation, which is required by law, Ríos Vivos says the National Authority of Environmental Licenses (ANLA), which is responsible for approving and supervising major mining, energy, and public works projects in the country, did not sufficiently take into account the environmental and social damage that would be caused by the dam when it approved the dam in one of the regions hit hardest by the Colombia conflict.

“Life is not for sale. It is to be loved and to be defended. Water for life, not for death,” reads an anti-dam sign in the Cauca River valley where many communities are opposed to the dam. Photo by Agensia Prensa Rural
“Life is not for sale. It is to be loved and to be defended. Water for life, not for death,” reads an anti-dam sign in the Cauca River valley where many communities are opposed to the dam. Photo by Agensia Prensa Rural

Nor did they adequately account for the engineering challenges presented by such a large-scale dam. Luis Alberto Arias, professor of geological engineering at the National University of Colombia and a co-author of the initial feasibility study for the Hidroituango project, has been pointing to the engineering challenges of a 225-meter-high dam along the Cauca since the 1980s. “At the time we came to the conclusion that the project was feasible, but with some important limitations,” Arias says when I meet him in Medellin. “The Cauca canyon has a very delicate geography, situated on a geological fault. In other words, it is still moving. Because of this, the slopes are very weak and prone to landslides. Also, the region has high seismic activity. When an earthquake occurs, it could have catastrophic consequences for the dam.” As he and his colleagues noted in their report, “to deal with these limitations, the project would have to be technically perfect.”

Arias believes that the environmental study that followed the feasibility study should have considered these limitations, and that they should have been reflected in the design of the dam. “But to me it seems that they haven’t taken into account these risks,” he says “It cannot even be called an environmental study; it is no more than a propaganda campaign for the project. By not taking the geological risks into account, the project will continue to generate a risk for the whole population of the canyon.”

The Colombian comptroller’s office came to a similar conclusion in a recent report. Comptroller Edgardo Maya Villazón writes in the report that the “social and environmental damages” associated with the dam can be traced to errors in the licensing process. “The Ministry of Environment licensed the project knowing of the geological faults and the presence of landslides,” he writes in the press release for the report. Moreover, “while developing the project, EPM hid information from the Environmental authority and exercised construction works without having the proper permits.”

A former employee of the Ministry of the Environment and Sustainable Development, whose name has been withheld to protect their identity, suggests that shortcomings associated with the licensing process can be traced to corporate influence. “My biggest objection was that the people displaced from the area during the conflict weren’t included as affected by the project,” says the employee, who was one of the three persons in charge of supervising the licensing of Hidroituango. “But when I handed in my report, that information was removed by my superior … The problem is that the ministry gets paid by the companies to supervise them. But in practice, the ministry gets paid to do the opposite. ‘Ningun proyecto es inviable,’ is an unwritten rule at the ministry. Unviable projects do not exist.”

This same employee confirms that EPM did organize a public consultation on the project in 2008, which included a census to determine how many people would be impacted by the project. Still, locals say it was insufficient, poorly communicated, and that their input was essentially ignored as the project barreled forward. What’s more, they say the census excluded most of Sabanalarga, an upriver village composed largely of semi-nomadic gold miners. Of the town’s 9,000 inhabitants, most of whom depend on income from mining and fishing activities now rendered impossible by the flooded reservoir, only 570 have received any compensation from EPM.

When I arrive in the village on a September morning, I find about 200 residents still sleeping on floors in municipality house, as they have been since the canyon was flooded. They have tired-looking faces and blood-shot eyes. Next to the municipality house, a fire is lit for their only meal of the day, a soup with chicken and plantains. “But some days we have only agua panela (cane sugar water) to feed our children,” says Maria Rojo, one of those who have been living in the municipality house. “We are a resilient people, but after months of being displaced this struggle is wearing us out.”

Many residents of Sabanalarga village were forced to flee when the Hidroituango resevoir suddenly flooded in May. Many remain homeless months later. Photo by Ynske Boersma
Many residents of Sabanalarga village were forced to flee when the Hidroituango reservoir suddenly flooded in May. Many remain homeless months later. Photo by Ynske Boersma

Ríos Vivos is pushing back against these layers of injustice throughout the Cauca River Basin. In 2017, the organization went to court to demand Hidroituango’s environmental license be canceled. In their complaint, the nonprofit argues that in allowing EPM to bypass environmental and social safeguards provided for by law, the government granted the license illegally. Specifically, they say that EPM should have been required to present and evaluate alternatives to the dam project; that they should have considered the cumulative impacts of the project, including the fact that it was being carried out in a region plagued by decades of conflict; and that they should have fostered meaningful public participation, among other complaints. Since local resistance to the dam began, four leaders connected to Ríos Vivos have been murdered.The court has accepted the case, but it has yet to proceed. Earlier this year, Ríos Vivos also filed a complaint at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), which has financed the project directly, and also manages a $1.1-billion loan from several investors. According to the movement, IDB has violated its own social and environmental standards by financing the controversial mega-dam.

As these challenges proceed in court, Ríos Vivos continues the fight against the dam locally. But this type of organizing and protesting can be dangerous. Since the resistance began, four leaders connected to Ríos Vivos have been murdered, joining the ranks of the more than 300 civil and human rights defenders who have lost their lives in Colombia since 2016. Two of these murders – those of Hugo Albeiro George Pérez and Luis Alberto Torres Montoya – occurred just in May, following the dam emergency and ensuing protests. Several other Ríos Vivos activists, including spokesperson Isabel Zuleta, have received death threats.

EPM has contracted both private security companies and military and police battalions to defend their work in the region, which is permitted under Colombian law. But the company has denied any involvement in the deaths. “EPM regrets that dissatisfaction with the project is being linked to acts that don’t have anything to do with the company,” the company said in an emailed statement.

THOUGH INITIALLY SCHEDULED with a December 2018 completion date, the fate of Hidroituango remains uncertain. EPM’s license was suspended in June, meaning the company was required to postpone non-essential construction. The company has continued working towards stabilizing the dam, however, and in November began opening floodgates to release water from the dam’s spillways. The full extent of the damage from the May incident is unclear. But with billions of dollars invested, a dam already in place, and a reservoir that’s now been flooded, it’s hard to imagine Hidroituango will be scrapped.

Ríos Vivos continues to use the #DesmantelenHidroituango (dismantle Hidroituango) slogan. “Only by dismantling the hydroelectric will we be able to live with dignity in our territory,” Zuleta says. But the group is also pushing for intermediate goals, like the right to continued assistance in the face of the May disaster, the right to remain on their land, and the right to compensation for losses. They are fighting for social, political, cultural, human, and environmental rights in region. And they are pushing for a transformation of Colombia’s energy policies, so that other rural populations aren’t subjected to the same loss and displacement.

Along the river, however, the situation for many remains hopeless. In Puerto Valdivia, more than 2,500 people are still unable to return home due to the damage from the May floods and the risk of another accident, and in Sabanalarga, hundreds remain homeless, their future uncertain. “Hidroituango was supposed to bring development after decades of violence, that’s how they sold this project to their investors,” says gold miner Angelmiro Castillon Feria, a tall man with a wooden cross dangling from his neck. “But instead we have been made victims again, this time by the hydroelectric.”

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