The Regional Movement for the Defense of the Territory launched a regional strike in Huila, Colombia on Jan. 3 to protest the destructive impacts of the Quimbo Hydroelectric Project and the entering of UK-based petroleum company Emerald Energy into the biodiverse mountaintop moor ecosystem of the Páramo of Miraflores. The movement, compromised of the Association of Affected by the Quimbo Hydroelectric Project (ASOQUIMBO), the Civic Committee of Western Huila, communities from the Páramo of Miraflores and the Regional Indigenous Council of Huila (CRIHU), has blocked the highway and bridge known as Paso del Colegio and has paralyzed the construction of the Quimbo Hydroelectric Project, courageously pushing the diverting of the Magdalena River behind schedule while facing violent evcitions by riot police and the military and a media blackout.
The three main demands of the strike are that the environmental licenses for the Quimbo Hydroelectric Project and Emerald Energy be immediately suspended, public environmental hearings be held for the project in affected communities and for multinational corporation Emgesa to immediately repair the Paso del Colegio Bridge and other highways that have been damaged while working on the Quimbo project. Last week Colombia's Comptroller´s Office responded by opening a “preliminary investigations” against the Ministry of Environment, the Regional Environmental Autonomous Corporation (CAM) and INVIAS- Highway Transportation Authority for violations of the environmental license of the Quimbo Hydroelectric Project. In addition, Govenor Cielo Gonalez of Huila, House Representative Consuelo Gonzalez de Perdomo and Senate Vice President Alexander Lopez have all come out in support of the regional strike and the demands of the movement.
After two weeks of paralyzing construction of the dam, constant confrontations with security from the construction site in blocking the entry of workers from both land and the river, the Minister of Environment finally agreed to meet for an hour and a half with the communities in a meeting mediated by the governor. January 25 through the 31 there will be public assemblies throughout the region where fisherpeople, agricultural workers, cattle ranchers, loggers, pick-up truck drivers, sand diggers and construction workers affected by the Quimbo will be able to present their grievances to representatives from the Comptroller’s Office and the Ombudsmen Offices followed by a day of presenting the environmental and archaeological impacts and the very serious tectonic risk in the area of the dam. Other presentations for the Paso de Colegio Bridge, the Paramo of Miraflores and other regions affected the bridge damage will be held. Furthermore, on Jan. 18 there was a Judicial Review of the Quimbo Hydroelectric Project as a result of Vice President of the Senate Alexander Lopez’s motion to the Ministry of Environment to suspend the diverting of the Magdalena River to prevent an “irreversible catastrophy” until the Ministry of Environment present its review and response to all the cases presented on February 3. If the Quimbo Dam is not suspended, ASOQUIMBO is prepared to risk lives to occupy the Dam Construction site and stop it indefinitely.
The region of the Quimbo is rich in biodiversity, including over 900 ha of Riparian forest ecosystem along the river´s edge, as well as extensive fertile agricultural lands. During the last four years the project has caused ecological destruction, increased cost of living, psychological traumas, and abuses against local communities. Over 2,000 people live in the region that would be covered by the 9,500 ha reservoir, though more than 15,000 people in central Huila depend on this region for employment and food production.
One of the sectors most affected by the Dam is the fishing industry. “The Quimbo construction site dumps a variety of liquid and other pollution into the river, before the Quimbo a family could catch up to 40lb. of fish a day now a family is lucky if they can catch 8 lb. ad there is no way to live with that” described Miriam Restrepo, a local fisherwoman from Hobo at the strike. “The fish we catch can only live and feed in running water and we fisherman do not own land, we live along the sand banks where we fish. Emgesa does not want to compensate us because they say we won´t be affected by the Quimbo.”
The movement against the Quimbo dates back to 2007 when the first environmental license for the project was given to the Spanish multinational energy company Emgesa (now a subsidiary of Italian Energy giant Enel) under questionable circumstances. At th time, then-President Alvaro Uribe made business deals with Emgesa and did not include any local government or the legislature from any say in the decision making process. It was then that the Magdalena River was handed over to company as a Public Utility indefinitely by the former president Uribe. Since then, the environmental license for the project has been changed multiple times in negotiations between Emgesa and the Ministry of Environment, always to cater to the demands of the company. When issues such as the numerous sensitive tectonic faults within the region noted by INGEOMINAS (the State Geological Institute) or the unique archeological findsthat were discovered by the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History (ICANH), this caused the environmental license to be suspended until an accurate archeological survey of the area was completed. Those decisions were subsequently revoked by the President or the Ministry of Environment. In addition,Environmental Laws were changed by former President Uribe with less than 72 hours before his term ended to favor the company over the impacted communities in August 2010.
On November 29, 2011 the Ministry of Environment and Territorial Development through Resolution 123 revoked its prior suspending of the license through Resolution 1096 of June 14 which had been suspended for not appropriately compensating landowners and for displacing workers from productive farms. The new license was granted stating that prior violations had been rectified without the Ministry of Environment visiting the region to verify what actions Emgesa reported to the Ministry. The License states that Emgesa cannot buy out farms that are currently in production, though “numerous farms that we worked on such as La Virgina, La Güipa and others are abandoned in disarray when they previously employed up to 30 workers each,” explained farmworker Harold Segura, a resident from La Jagua.
During the last four years the farmers who grow tobacco, coffee, cacao, day laborers, fishermen, artisans, loggers, and other inhabitants of the region have grown and unified into ASOQUIMBO, recognized both regionally and nationally as a determined, effective and coherent social movement and as an example of community resistance against a hydroelectric dam project whom many believe will set precedents for other anti-dam struggles in Colombia and elsewhere. As part of National Movement for the Defense of Territories of theMovement Rios Vivos, ASOQUIMBO has grown to build ties with other communities affected by dams, such as Urra I & II en Cordoba, Hidrosogamoso in Santander and Hidroituango in Antioquia.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has placed mining and energy production as a vital “locomotive” of development for the country that seeks to be pivotal in the region´s infrastructure creation and resource extraction. Caught in the path of this locomotive are hundreds of indigenous, Afro-descendent and peasant communities whose territories rich in gold and other metals, coal, oil, hydrological resources and rich soils for agro-fuel production are caught in the middle of a battle between the State resource extraction policies and their human right to self-determination. In Colombia, the struggle against the Quimbo is the struggle against gold in Suarez, Cauca, which is also the struggle against oil Palm in the Montes de Maria, as it is the struggle against the Cerrejon Coal Mine in la Guajira.
Please Support the Regional Movement for the Defense of the Territory by contacting Colombian Minister of the Environment Dr. Frank Pearl of the Republic of Colombia and inform him that you support the Regional Strike and call for:
Minister Frank Pearl
011 57 332 3400
-Immediate suspension of the Quimbo Hydroelectric Project´s Environmental License. Yes to Agro Ecological Food Security Campesino Reserve!
- Immediate suspension of the Emerald Energy´s Environmental License in the Cerro Paramo de Miraflores.
- Emgesa immediately repair of the Paso del Colegio Bridge and the highways connecting La Plata-Garzón, La Plata-Tesalia-Íquira and La Plata-Leticia.
The Occupy Movement reached Colombia's Upper Magdalena River on January 3, 2012. Communities affected by the proposed El Quimbo Dam project paralyzed dam construction by blocking a bridge and road access for 15 days. Inhabitants of this area are concerned that flooding 21,000 acres of fertile lands will wash away the lives of communities that have made these valleys their homes for centuries. Their struggle against Goliath- the project is of a subsidiary of powerful Italian Enel Construction Company- has prevented dam construction from moving forward, and brought new public attention to this problematic project.
As a result of the occupation, several high government authorities agreed to sign a historical agreement with local communities that will result in a review of the project's impacts and of the legal process that approved its construction, and the implementation of protections for affected peoples and ecosystems. Senator Alexander López requested the suspension of the diversion of the Magdalena River to prevent irreversible damage to the river and the diverse ecosystems it supports. The area is rich in biodiversity, including over 900 ha of riparian forests.
"During the past four years, the project has caused ecological destruction, psychological trauma for locals and increased the cost of living," said Miller Dussan, a professor at Surcolombiana University in Neiva, Huila state, and avid defender of the river.
The muddy waters of the Magdalena River meander for 1500 kilometers before reaching the Caribbean Sea. The river is the lifeline of one of Colombia's most fertile valleys, which supports abundant crops of coffee, corn, plantains, manioc, cacao, and cattle ranching. More than 2,000 people would be directly impacted and more than 15,000 people in Huila state depend on this region for employment and food production.
The Magdalena's fisheries are a primary source of protein for many communities. "The Quimbo construction site dumps a variety of liquids and other pollution into the river. Before construction started on the dam, a family could catch up to 40lb. of fish a day; now a family is lucky if they can catch 8 lb. There is no way to live with that" said Miriam Restrepo, a local fisherwoman who took part in the strike. "The fish we catch can only live and feed in running water and we fisherman do not own land, we live along the sand banks where we fish. The company does not want to compensate us because they say the project won't affect us."
The Occupiers of El Quimbo will hopefully help change the national conversation on the importance of living rivers. Many Colombians do not even realize that their most precious river basin, the Magdalena - which supports enterprises that account for 85% of the GNP - is slated to be dammed. In fact there are 27 dams proposed in Huila state and 2328 megawatts of hydropotential identified in Magdalena River, just in the Antioquia state alone. Already built is Betania Dam in the Upper Magdalena (already experiencing problems with siltation). Most recently Chinese company Hydrochina signed an agreement with the Colombian government to create the 'Master Plan for the Exploitation of the Magdalena River.' How are Colombians going to be involved in the decision-making process regarding hydropower development in the Magdalena River? Lessons from Occupiers of El Quimbo will hopefully serve to shed some light.
Perhaps there will also be a ripple effect uniting communities from Patagonia to the highlands of Guatemala, who for years have been fighting against Enel dams.
For now, Huila communities are preparing to present solid arguments about the need to suspend the environmental license for El Quimbo, which they allege was granted with faulty studies. Communities want rigorous scientific studies that demonstrate the viability of the project and other energy options.
Originally published on http://www.internationalrivers.org/en/blog/monti-aguirre/2012-1-18/colombias-el-quimbo-limbo-0