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The Hidroituango Dam and the Struggle of Movimiento Rios Vivos to Protect its Territory, Water, and Life

The Hidroituango Dam and the Struggle of Movimiento Rios Vivos to Protect its Territory, Water, and Life
ituango dam

In the department of Antioquia, in northern Colombia, the Hidroituango dam is severely threatening territory where thousands of families live. Floods, landslides, deforestation, pollution, and mass fish kill are only some examples of the negative environmental impact of the project, currently under construction along the river Cauca, the second most important river in Colombia. However, due to the risks posed by the project, it has been suspended by the Environmental Authority for nearly two years.

The social impact is equally devastating: the local population has not had access to information or an adequate participatory process, since the authorities did not seek their consent before building the dam. Many communities are being forcibly displaced. Fishers, farmers, and traditional artisanal miners working along the river banks are losing their livelihoods and their culture, while facing hunger in place of their earlier dignified life connected to the river. The impacted communities are protesting and denouncing the situation caused by Hidroituango, but they are constantly being threatened and attacked.

Moreover, the hydroelectric project is built in one of the regions most affected by over 50 years of armed conflict. Hundreds of people have been forcibly disappeared in this area, hundreds more have been killed, and families are still searching for the bodies of their loved ones. As hundreds of hectares of this land are flooded, it becomes impossible to carry out further investigations of mass graves and the bodies buried there, severely undermining efforts for truth, justice, reparation, and guarantees of non-repetition of the crimes.

In 2010, various associations of fishers, artisanal miners, women, young people, local farmers, victims of the armed conflict, and human rights defenders joined forces and created Movimiento RiosRios Vivos Colombia (MRV) to denounce and stop the human rights abuses taking place in the context of the construction of the dam, to speak out against its negative impact, and to protest against it. MRV members have all been impacted by Hidroituango and are all inhabitants of the Western, Northern, and Lower Cauca regions in Antioquia province.

Since then, MRV activists have carried out advocacy at the local and international level, have organised peaceful protests and public events, and have brought attention to their struggle through various media, including their social media, like their twitter accounts @RiosVivosColom and @RiosLibresAnt, and their website riosvivoscolombia.org.

The Hidroituango project, operated by Medellin Public Enterprises (Empresas Públicas de Medellin, EPM), was designed to generate 2,400 MW. It is the biggest dam in Colombia and one of the largest in Latin America. With a 79-km-long reservoir and a 225-metre-high dam wall, the dam impacts more than 300,000 hectares and 27 municipalities. The project was expected to flood around 4,500 hectares, but due to the irregular, illegal damming that took place, it is unknown how many hectares were temporarily flooded or are now flooded. The damming caused an avalanche that destroyed the homes, livelihoods, bridges, hospitals, and schools of communities in the area planned for flooding as well as communities downstream from the dam wall.

The 27 municipalities of Antioquia affected by the Hidroituango dam are Magangue, San Benito Abad, Sucre, Pinillos, Caimito, Majagual, Achí, San Marcos, Ayapel, Guaranda, San Jacinto del Cauca, Nechi, Caucasia, Caceres, Tarazá, Valdivia, Ituango, Yarumal, Briceño, San Andrés de Cuerquia, Toledo, Peque, Sanalarga, Buritic, Liborina, Olaya, and Santa Fe.

The Struggle to Save the River

The construction of the Hidroituango dam has had lethal consequences for ecosystems in Colombia.

According to the local communities organised in MRV, in building the dam, the company destroyed the dry tropical forest surrounding the Cauca River, an already fragile ecosystem that is at risk of disappearing from the planet. In 2016, Rios Vivos reported that the company was cutting down the forest, which raised the risk of landslides, migration of species, and the loss of nationally protected plant species. It also increased the risk of losing landmarks for finding the bodies of those killed by political violence, which floated down the river and were rescued and buried on the riverbanks by fishers and artisanal miners in accordance with their spiritual beliefs. Nevertheless, the community was aware of the seriousness of flooding the reservoir without removing the vegetation. That is why, when the reservoir was about to be filled, they asked for this material to be removed to prevent its decomposition and the production of large amounts of methane gas. This was not done; a small part was cut down and most of what was cut down was not removed. Today, with the area flooded, this gas is emitted into the atmosphere, causing more global warming and impacting the planet.

Local human rights defenders complain EPM has not fulfilled its obligations under the environmental licence granted by the State. The National Authority for Environmental Licences (Autoridad Nacional de Licencias Ambientales, ANLA) has opened more than 12 sanctioning proceedings. Some have already ended in the imposition of fines and the full or partial suspension of works. In addition, ANLA has filed criminal charges against EPM for the crime of procedural fraud, after finding that the company repeatedly carried out construction without authorisation, affecting the environment and communities. In particular, this included the third bypass tunnel that caused the avalanche of March 2018, which left thousands of victims. The offices of the Public Prosecutor, the Public Comptroller, and the Inspector General have opened other investigations. The investigations with the greatest progress are those of the Office of the Public Comptroller, which has found that the project is not economically viable and that it will only recover its investment in 114 years. The Office of the Public Comptroller has issued several reports demonstrating multiple irregularities in the construction:

August 2018          July 2019

Although there were multiple requirements for the filling of the reservoir and it was planned for July 2018, the reservoir began to be filled by EPM without permits from the relevant authority. The company sealed two of the three bypass tunnels for the river with cement, damming the river and creating enormous pressure on the third tunnel. It was known that this tunnel did not have the capacity to evacuate the large amount of water that used to pass through the other two tunnels. Without warning local communities, the company flooded their homes and livelihoods. Many of them had to be rescued because they were trapped by the water, and they were taken by aid organisations to parks, especially in the municipalities of Ituango and Sabanalarga. They lost their belongings and today, nearly two years later, they have not received support of any kind from the State. They are adrift, attempting to survive as day labourers on farms. Others went to harvest coca leaves, and in other cases their hunger led to their recruitment by illegal armed groups. The water level rose without any control before the company had finished building the dam wall, the spillway for water overflow, the replacement roads, the tunnel to release water downstream in order to maintain the environmentally necessary water flow, or the power plant.

On 28 April 2018, the tragedy underway since the project was conceived got even worse. A large amount of rocks and vegetation, combined with the water pressure, blocked the only tunnel that had been left for the flow of the Cauca River. This tunnel was suddenly unblocked for several minutes on 12 May, resulting in an enormous avalanche, which destroyed everything downstream from the project. The company urged its workers to leave the area and declared a red alert. Thousands of families fled the area, while others (more than 7,000 people) were evacuated by the authorities and arrived at improvised shelters. Today, they still do not have a definitive solution, because the project continues causing serious risks for the communities since another sudden unblocking of the tunnel is still considered to be possible.

In February 2019, a new emergency put the entire region in mourning. According to EPM, the company had found huge holes inside the mountain, caused by the force of the water which had caused serious damage when it went through the unfinished power plant. In the face of this situation, the company decided to close the intake valve and suspend the water flow for several days, completely cutting off the flow of the river. This disconnection caused an unprecedented lack of water and the death of fish species, which filled local inhabitants with pain. Most local people said that they had “killed the river”.

In June 2018, MRV filed a complaint with the Independent Consultation and Investigation Mechanism of the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), requesting an investigation to verify whether the IADB, through its public and private arms, violated its own social and environmental standards by investing in the Hidroituango dam. So far, the IADB has not advanced in the investigation.

On 1 September 2018, the MICI declared eligible the request for inquiry that MRV filed against the Hidroituango project. According to the MICI, the complaint met all the legal requirements that must be met in order to be admitted. Therefore, the process continues up to date, and passes to a consultation phase, which consists of mediation and dialogue to reach possible agreements between the parties.

“They made many promises, the company said they were bringing sustainable development, peace, and harmony, but we haven’t seen any benefits here. Just pollution, forced displacement, poverty, and hunger.”
- Member, Movimiento Rios Vivos Antioquia

Documented Massacres, 1958-2018 (Memory and Conflict Observatory data)

The impact on inhabitants of the region has been devastating. Because of the dam, fishing and farming communities are losing their livelihoods. Fish in the Cauca River are dying, and displaced communities cannot grow food on their land any more. However, the company has not offered any compensation to the affected population.

Civil society has been asking to be consulted and to actively participate in the decision-making process in relation to this project. However, only one public consultation has been allowed so far, with more than 1,200 people in attendance, almost all of them opposed to the project due to its high environmental, social, and economic impact. However, the concerns expressed there were not taken into consideration and the hearing was abruptly ended by the Environmental Authority because it did not consider the communities’ opinions to be relevant.

Truth and Justice

Antioquia is one of the regions in Colombia that has been most affected by the armed conflict. Local communities have suffered brutal human rights abuses and violence by guerrillas, paramilitary groups, and State forces, which over the past 50 years have been responsible for forced disappearances, massacres, torture, murders, minefields, forced displacement, threats, forced recruitment, confinement of the population, and other serious human rights violations.

According to official figures compiled by the National Historical Memory Centre (Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica, CNMH) and the Memory and Conflict Observatory (Observatorio de Memoria y Conflicto, OMC), since 1958 at least XXX people have been victims of forced disappearances in the 27 municipalities affected by Hidroituango. MRV has documented at least 124 massacres in these same municipalities, most carried out by paramilitary groups. More than 60% of the local population has experienced forced displacement caused by the armed conflict, and 700 families (only including members of Movimiento Rios Vivos) were forcibly displaced by Hidroituango.

The Hidroituango project flooded a territory where there are mass graves and where unidentified bodies were buried during the conflict. This hinders future investigations, violates the right to justice, and inflicts more pain on those families that continue to search for the bodies of their murdered or forcibly disappeared family members. Thus far, the authorities, as a result of MRV’s struggle, have found 159 bodies in the area, but there are reports of more than 3,000 cases of forced disappearance.

Isabela Cristina Zuleta, Spokesperson of MRVA notes, "The forest, the river, the mountains we are defending are part of our memory. Rivers in Colombia are sources of historical memory, because most of the bodies of those massacred by political violence were dumped into the rivers. Just in my territory, hundreds of massacres were committed, and in all of Colombia, there were thousands, and most of those bodies were dumped into the rivers. The rivers are giant mass graves in Colombia, and we need to find those bodies that were dumped there. If megaprojects are built by the rivers, we’ll lose the opportunity to find the bodies of many of the 86,000 cases of forced disappearance in Colombia. The families of those who were forcibly disappeared need to find their loves ones, to heal their pain and rebuild their lives. The pain of a forced disappearance, which is a crime against humanity, does not go away till you find your loved one and are able to mourn. We feel like the Colombian government wants to flood our memory and destroy any chance of learning the truth about those massacres and the political violence. Today, we feel that the anguish that has been inflicted on my community, the uncertainty of not having any certainty on the stability of the construction and therefore of the territory, is the same feeling that is inflicted by forced disappearance.

"We don’t know what will happen to us. Life and our territory have been forcibly disappeared, and we don’t know how to rebuild our lives without knowing whether we are alive or not.”
- Isabel Cristina Zuleta, MRVA

In Danger for Protecting Their Territory, Water, and Life

Since the construction of the Hidroituango dam began, MRV has been organising public demonstrations to oppose the project and raise awareness about its negative impact. Because of their activism, the communities organised in MRV have been repeatedly attacked, in multiple ways: using criminal law against them or through legal proceedings; jointly targeting all of its members in order to attempt to dismantle the organisation; preventing coverage of the peaceful protest actions in the mass media; stigmatising MRV and creating hateful rhetoric against it for its opposition to the Project; murders of leaders and their family members; murder attempts; attacks with explosives; forced displacements; discrimination for belonging to the opposition to the dam; illegal surveillance and intimidation; persecution; smears; harassment; and shots fired by local authorities. These actions have had serious psychological, material, and political consequences for the organisation.

While there are multiple perpetrators responsible for the attacks against MRV members, the private security company hired by EPM and illegal armed groups in the region represent the biggest threat. Currently MRV has a collective Prevention and Protection Plan in place, supported by the Ministry of Interior, which agreed to implement policies and material measures to contribute to the security of the communities in Antioquia. However, these measures have not been fully implemented.

“In the region affected by the megaproject Hidroituango, the humanitarian and environmental tragedy is neither natural nor a coincidence. The ecological disaster and the attacks against the movement speaking out against it are a reality, and they go hand in hand with the development of the megaproject."
- José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective (CAJAR)

Timeline of Attacks

- 27 August 2019: Members of MRV are in imminent risk, especially Isabel Cristina Zuleta, the spokesperson for the movement. Given the progress in the lawsuits filed by MRV before the courts, various political actors in the region have started a campaign of attacks through smears against leaders of the organisation, especially its spokesperson. In addition, she has received multiple threats through social media, flyers, and messages delivered directly by unknown armed actors through other members of Rios Vivos.

- 22 June 2019: The headquarters of Rios Vivos was attacked. Important documents were stolen from the organisation, including certificates and documents that had been filed as evidence in the criminal case against EPM, as well as the list of attendees at the last meeting, held from 15 to 19 June, attended by the main Rios Vivos leaders in order to discuss future strategies in defence of the territory. The thieves also stole the food that had been stored for their meetings.

- 26 October 2018: Members of MRV in Ituango received a threatening message directed to human rights defenders Genaro de Jesus Graciano and Isabel Cristina Zuleta, founders of the organisation. In addition, MRV members have become aware that the paramilitary group Gaitanist Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, AGC) is distributing a threatening pamphlet that declares members of Movimiento Rios Vivos to be a “military target”.

- 22 September 2018: Two family members of members of the Movimiento RiosRios Vivos Antioquia were murdered, one in the municipality of Briceño and the other in the municipality of Valdivia.

- 8 May 2018: Fisherman and human rights defender Luis Alberto Torre Montoya and his brother, Duvian Andrés Correa Sanchez, were shot and killed. They were members of the Association of Small Miners and Fishers of Puerto Valdivia (Asociación de pequeños mineros y pesqueros de Puerto Valdivia, AMPA), which is part of MRV. They were killed while they were working as artisanal miners on the banks of the Cauca River.

- 2 May 2018: An unknown individual shot and killed human rights defender Hugo Albeiro George Pérez, while he was participating in a peaceful protest in Puerto Valdivia. The HRD’s nephew, Domar Egidio Zapata George, was also killed in the attack. Hugo Albeiro George Pérez was a community leader of the El Aro Association of Victims and People Impacted by Megaprojects (Asociación de Víctimas y Afectados por Megaproyectos, ASVAM) in Ituango Municipality, one of the organisations which is part of MRV.

- April 2018: Despite a letter from the European Parliament expressing concern about the Hidroituango project and the impact for local communities, Antioquia’s governor Luis Pérez Gutiérrez said that the Office of the Public Prosecutor would investigate all those who were trying to disrupt and stop the project, publicly stigmatising and inciting legal persecution against the communities.

- 2015: MRV leader Isabel Cristina Zuleta and leader Martín Monsalve were attacked by masked men who attempted to kidnap Isabel and forcibly disappear her. The perpetrators of the attack still have not been brought to justice.

- July 2014: Environmental human rights defender and MRV spokesperson Isabel Cristina Zuleta received messages on her social media accounts accusing her of being a member of the FARC. The previous month, her house was broken into and a hard disk with information about her organisation was stolen. Since she began participating in the protests against the construction of the Hidroituango dam, Isabel Cristina Zuleta has been a victim of surveillance, phone-tapping, death threats, and criminalisation.

- 30 November 2013: Robinson David Mazo was shot at and killed with seven bullets in the municipality of Toledo, northern Antioquia department.

- 14 October 2013: Attempted killing of one of the MRV leaders, Genaro Graciano.

- 17 September 2013: Environmental rights defender Nelson Giraldo Posada was found dead with his throat slit and with bullets in his chest and legs on the banks of the Cauca River in the municipality of Ituango.

- July 2011: The names of around 2,000 people from Ituango and Toledo were published in a blog and accused of being “guerrillas”.

Recommendations

Front Line Defenders joins and supports Movimiento Rios Vivos in calling on the Colombian authorities to:

  • promote a dialogue with MRV, which represents the communities affected by the dam, in order to address problems and find solutions, especially the need to obtain land where they can safely live, productive projects, and new ways of making a living until the river recovers.
  • start implementing the collective protection measures that have been agreed upon with the MRV General Coordination.
  • establish an independent investigation to determine whether the Hidroituango hydroelectric project is feasible, considering the high risks to the environment and the population.

We also call on:

  • EPM (Medellin Public Enterprises) to establish a dialogue with MRV, since the lack of dialogue increases the risk of more attacks, threats, and stigmatisation against MRV members.
  • The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, to grant the precautionary measures requested by MRV.
  • The Inter-American Development Bank, to continue to carry out a rigorous investigation, now that the complaint has been admitted and the consultation stage, in which EPM unfortunately refused to dialogue, has ended.- The Office of the Public Prosecutor, to move forward with the investigation and the plan to search for the forcibly disappeared, exhume and identify bodies in the area affected by Hidroituango, and protect the burial sites from the risks represented by Hidroituango and other mining projects in the area.
  • The government of Antioquia and the mayors of Ituango, Valdivia, and Sabana Larga, to stop the attacks, stigmatisation, and discrimination against MRV activists.
  • The National Police, to stop the attacks against MRV members and to recognise that MRV has a right to decide who its leaders are.