Clean Energy Project in Colombia Displaces Community

The valley around the upper course of the Magdalena River, a habitat of diverse flora and fauna, will be flooded soon. (Photo: Cornelia Helmcke)

"No one shall affect the confidence of the investors," said former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe in 2009. It was the only argument given by the national government to allow the hydropower dam project of El Quimbo in the upper course of the longest river stream in Colombia, the Magdalena. Local government and organizations asked for more profound environmental studies on potential effects on the region, but the answer that came back was, "El Quimbo va porque va." El Quimbo comes because it comes.

The company Endesa (which became a subsidiary of Enel in 2009) started to build the dam last year and wants to be finished by 2014. In an interview with the Colombian newspaper El Espectador in March, Lucio Rubio Díaz, president of Endesa in Colombia, said that the annual mean generation would be around 2.2 million kWh. Together with a second older dam, Betania, it could provide 8 percent of the country's energy demand.

Colombia's energy consumption is expected to rise about 3.5 percent each year. The country's annual generation is 51 billion kWh, of which it exports 1.3 billion kWh, mainly to Ecuador and Venezuela. Thanks to this surplus, the Ministry of Energy and Mining speaks about raising the export annually by 5 percent and expanding the market to Central America. Eighty percent of the energy generated already comes from hydroelectric sources. Just 6.6 percent comes from coal, and most coal extraction goes to foreign countries. Colombia is the highest coal exporter in Latin America.

Because of these proportions, Colombia promotes its energy industry as clean and alternative. Hydroelectricity counts as renewable energy, as it uses the natural and never-ending power of water streams to generate energy. And in Huila the capacities are all there. The Magdalena River crosses a valley with the perfect topography for a dam, and at its upper part the river has huge strength. Also, the power lines to Ecuador are already installed because most of the energy generated by the Betania dam, located more downstream, goes there.

The development strategy of Endesa is to promote Colombia's energy industry and provide jobs and infrastructure for the region in Huila. Endesa claims that the project will create 3,000 new jobs, and it wants to implement a new economy of eco-tourism at the soon-created lake.

So far, a bridge that has been the main connection of the region of La Plata with the departmental capital Naiva has collapsed. The company defends that the construction close to the bridge had nothing to do with the collapse. And a new guarded residential area has been developed for the engineers and their families who moved there for the project.

In Gigante, the closest village, the only economy that seems to have developed since the constructions began is the illegal sector. Alerio Murci is a 52-year-old farm worker with eight children. Since Endesa started to buy up land four years ago, he has gotten less and less work. One year ago he started a taxi service on his motorbike. The job is illegal and does not provide security. "The construction brought a lot of workers and job seekers from the outside. Since a couple of months we have four prostitutes in the town, and the criminality is rising. Nobody trusts anybody anymore."

Murci learned to work on the farms in El Quimbo from his father. His salary and food came always from his temporal work on the farms. "I never learned anything else. What should I do now to survive?"

The region, which consists of 8,586 hectors of land, will be flooded. It has been home for more than 425 families, about 3,000 people, mostly farmers and fishers.

The multinational has to provide compensation to the people affected. People who worked in the area were to receive a six-month further education and 500,000 COP ($280 USD) for each month of participation. In total, 900 people have been registered for compensation. But some have been blocked out.

Alerio Murci is not registered. He explains, "When the company came to register the workers, it was not the time of harvest. Nearly nobody of the actual wageworker was there, just some job seekers, and they got registered." His former employers certificated him that he worked for them, but Endesa did not accept his reclamation.

Miller Armín Dussán Calderón is a professor at the University Surcolombiana in Huila and investigator for Asoquimbo, the association of those affected by the El Quimbo project. Dussán explains, "It is not alone the question of compensation. The region that will be flooded is constituted to 95 percent of tropical forest, which is part of a protected reserve. At the same time it is the most fertile area of the department, which contributes significantly to food sovereignty in the region. How could this land be compensated?"

Not only in this territory will families lose their land and livelihood. The dam will change the whole ecosystem of the river and connected land. The surrounding mountains form part of the coffee axis of Colombia. High-quality coffee is exported from here to the world. Due to the ponded water, the water level will fall in the mountains and the regional temperature will rise. Coffee production will become impossible, and a lot more than 3,000 habitants will lose their livelihood. Most of them have organized with Asoquimbo.

In 2008 the resistance started, with locals not signing any document by the company. At the beginning there were 400 people; now there are about 1,000. Asoquimbo holds meetings and seminars to inform and debate about the project and its effects. It also organizes demonstrations, including one blockade of the construction site that lasted 15 days. The people fight against the project on juridical grounds and have proposed an alternative for the region: a reserve for farm agriculture. The idea is to have communitarian land for indigenous people to establish local food sovereignty based on a system of organic production.

After the police tried to forcefully displace resisting families from the land in February, Asoquimbo built a watched gate at the entrance to the area. About eight people are there at all times to control who can enter. Rafael Perdomo, one of the guards, says, "We don't trust strangers anymore. Over a long time people of the company came to look around, asked questions about us, our community and organization. They created suspicion all over. They want to destroy our social network."

To own land in Colombia means to have security for the future, for farmers as for companies. Land is becoming more and more valuable these days, especially when it involves water sources. Companies buying up fertile land in Colombia get limitless title of all the resources included. The megaproject of El Quimbo is hence not the only project creating conflicts with the local population. While foreign investment in Colombia increased by 113 percent between 2010 and 2011, about 260,000 people were displaced in that time. Colombia has the second-largest number of displaced people worldwide.

Don Jorge Quiguanas sits on the terrace of the finca he has worked on for 18 years. Around the house are flowers and fruit trees with pink orchids. "Most of them I found in these forests; some are at risk of extinction." He still plants new ones and takes care of them. He also gets up every morning to work the cacao fields—as if there were still a future for him and his family on this land. He says, "I never owned this finca. The owner lives in the next town and comes by every week to get the crop. I live here and I can live very well off the food provided by the land and the income I get from the owner." But the owner already sold to the company two years ago.

"Endesa came to me one day and said that they will give me five hectors of fertile land as compensation if I sign a paper saying I accept the project. I thought, I have to leave anyway, and this way I at least stay with my own piece of land to cultivate my food." Some months ago the company came back and stated that there is no land, but that they would give him some money if he leaves the land voluntarily. For Quiguanas that is no option. "If they flood this land, they destroy everything, all my life. Without land I have nothing to eat. I am 57 years old, who will employ me? I will stay or I die."

Cornelia Helmcke is a German journalist and student of human ecology in Lund, Sweden. She is currently studying land conflict in Neiva, Colombia.