Colombia's El Quimbo in Limbo

Monti Aguirre

Take Action: Support communities in Colombia by signing a letter to the Ministry of Environment, Housing and Sustainable Development, to stop the diversion of the Magdelena River.

Girls on Magdalena River: Courtesy of Polinizaciones
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 hectares 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.

Girl on Magdalena River
Girl on Magdalena River
Courtesy of Polinizaciones

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). In 2010 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.

The Magdalena River is scheduled to be diverted - a first step in construction of El Quimbo Dam - on February 8. Take action now in support of the affected people of Colombia by signing a letter to the Ministry of Environment, Housing and Sustainable Development, requesting a suspension of the river diversion. The government of Colombia and EMGESA should respect the will of the people.

I would like to thank Polinizaciones, who provided much of this information along with the images.