Who would not want a father like that? A father likes that, to be called the blond father, the blond daddy. A father who gives everything. Blond for his milk chocolate color.
Every morning, the Cauca River travels from its headwaters in the heights of the Sotará páramo (moorland), between the departments of Cauca and Huila, navigating 1,076 kilometers between the Central and Western Andes mountains to the village of Orobajo, in the municipality of Sabanalarga (Antioquia) to provide a livelihood to its children and residents.
Gold and fish. Fish and gold. Fish at 4 in the morning, when men and women in groups of 10 or 15 arrive at the beach of the village with their hooks and nets. After 10 o'clock, when the most energized decide to continue in rafts - two logs tied with a line - heading for the neighboring village of Ituango.
There is always gold, even in the dry season, when the river flow diminishes. In fact, much more gold is found in those conditions because panning the sand to remove the precious metal becomes less complicated.
The blond father was the daily pantry of the Nutabe Indians since there has been a record of their existence: since the Spanish expeditions of the 1540s, which gave rise to the current territory of Antioquia.
The gatherers were always fishers and gold panners, which is what those who extract gold from rivers by hand are called, usually with circular wooden pans. Always next to their milk chocolate father.
With a semi-nomadic vocation, the Nutabes move throughout the area of the Cauca canyon, where the river descends about 800 meters and begins to meander between the mountains in Orobajo, the most isolated area of the area of Sabanalarga.
Before and after a day of going to the river, they drink a cup of coffee with their neighbors and ask: ‘How much gold did you gather today?’ ‘The prospecting was good.’ ‘Tomorrow we will go farther down.’
Depending on the needs, a trip is made by mule from time to time to Sabanalarga or Ituango to sell gold and purchase rice, potatoes, beans, milk, or oil.
Between eight and ten hours are spent on the way there and, depending on how heavy the load is, it may take longer to return to Orobajo.
Orobajo has three streets; houses built with bamboo timber, mud, and zinc roofs; a small rural school, a field on which they used to play five-on-five football; a cemetery; sewage pipe with untreated water running down from the mountain; and a community sugar cane mill to get panela (sugar gum).
Thirty-five families totaling 140 people lived there permanently.
Some families grew yucca or banana while others raised chickens and turkeys. They hunted lowland paca, coatis, and rabbits.
Before and after eating fish every day, they would lie in their hammocks. ‘What is that you’re saying?’ ‘You have returned my mule.’ ‘Let’s play a little game’ (of football, probably against some nearby village).
About once a week, they danced. With beer and chicha (a fermented drink made with corn), listening to vallenato, reggaeton, salsa, and Mexican rancheras.
However, the most important moments of life were, in order, fishing, gold panning, and resting.
All of this work was done in shorts, without shoes, and in the case of men, shirtless. The gust of wind that runs through the Cauca canyon is a permanent caress on the faces of the laborers.
- With this gust of wind…
comes a sigh.
- We did not need a bank account: our cashier was our father, who gave us money as we put our hand sinto the river. The river has always been everything to us.
Abelardo David Chanci, the elder guard of the Nutabe, sighs again and squints his eyes as he tells me this part of their story.
We crossed in a ferry, together with 27 other people over the Hidroituango reservoir, followed by a bus, a taxi, and motorcycles. The reservoir began to fill up on April 28, 2018 before the original date considered, after the first emergency was declared with the dam’s construction.
It was the day that the country's mega-project, which had been constructed so far without much fanfare, began to have problems.
The leader of the project, public utilities company EPM (longer name Empresas Públicas de Medellín, for the capital of Antioquia and Colombia's second largest city) refers to Hidroituango’s problems as "the contingency".
They began like this: one of the auxiliary tunnels used to divert the Cauca River and allowing the dry work on the dam, suffered a blocking due to rock collapsing on several occasions over several days. This threatened an overflow of water and construction material over the reservoir wall, which had not been fully built yet.
That is, the risk was an apocalyptic avalanche.
Imagine people’s fear: 2,7 billion cubic meters of water from the reservoir covering 3,800 hectares and 70 kilometers long, spilling with the violence of its massive weight over an unfinished dam 225 meters high (29 meters more than Bogotá’s Colpatria Tower, for many years the tallest building in Colombia) and 20 million cubic meters in volume, heading towards the communities inhabiting the riverbanks in three different departments.
Imagine the fear for one consecutive month: that was the period of time during the peak of the emergency, in which bad news arrived almost every single day like domino pieces falling:
Two more collapses occurred in the same auxiliary tunnel, which ended up completely blocked.
EPM decided to flood the underground cavern (also called the machine room), which is the heart of the project, because that is where the turbines that generate the energy must operate, to avoid overflowing the reservoir.
After this, a sudden flood occurred downstream after the evacuation of machine room, leaving 600 persons affected.
The Governor of Antioquia declared an emergency.
An obstruction in the machine room temporarily prevented water to be evacuated.
The National Unit for Disaster Risk Management declared an evacuation alert in the departments of Antioquia, Sucre, Córdoba, and Bolívar, all affected by the Cauca river floods.
A new collapse, higher up the mountain, forced the road to close, and set off an alert of movement in the rock, that resulted in the evacuation of workers at the dam.
Nearly 24,000 people were placed in temporary shelters.
A citizen gave EPM a Virgin Mary statue to oversee construction works while the workers rush against the clock to finish against building the dam wall.
News after news, domino piece after dominion piece, April and May 2018 changed the history of the Hidroituango project.
On “Tranquility,” a ferry property of the project, 43-year-old Abelardo David Chanci, honey-hued eyes like the river and bronze skin, falls into a pensive state before he says: "They messed with nature, and today nature is challenging them.”
Now it is February 2019.
In order to avoid the possible collapse of the flooded machine room, EPM decided to close the last floodgate ahead of schedule and allow water to penetrate that cavern, which must now go to the reservoir and go through a spillway next to the dam that is already finished and then resume the journey of the river - as should have happened since the beginning.
The problem is that it is not raining enough yet. It will take three days for the water from the reservoir to reach the landfill. Consequently, the flow will decrease downstream until the Cauca River is temporarily converted into a little stream.
Indeed, in those three days, the Cauca River went from 650 to 40 cubic meters or less of water per second. According to EPM, which reported hiring 1,000 people to rescue fish, 85,248 fish still died after the river shrank in size. Brigitte Baptiste, ecologist and director of the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Biological Resources Research, wrote that the discussion on the impacts of this catastrophe "will require a serene work of years".
Abelardo and I moved from a port called Brujas to another known as El Bombillo. 20 minutes of travel. Then we continued moving overland for another hour to Ituango, the municipality from which the power station got its name.
We arrived in Medellín and continued driving for five hours on the road towards the north of Antioquia to Puerto Brujas. In a few minutes we passed through one of the two camps where the construction workers live.
One is called Tacuí and the other Cuní, like the villages where they were built. One is home to 2,500 persons and the other to 4,000. They house employees from parent company EPM; Integral S.A., the company that made the designs; Ingetec, in charge of auditing; and CCC, the consortium that won the contract to do the main works. (The CCC consortium comprises Colombians companies Coninsa Ramón H and Conconcreto and Brazilian giant Camargo Correa, one of the multinationals investigated in the transnational corruption scandal known as Lava Jato, whose former directors admitted to having participated in bribery payments for public works in Brazil, although they have said "there is nothing" about Colombia.)
They all have offices and lodgings inside several blocks of white buildings. A permanent monitoring center, an auditorium, meeting rooms, restaurants, a library, a gym, and a swimming pool.
Abelardo knows the place, as do many of the people in the area who have worked or provided any service to Hidroituango.
Abelardo said that he worked with them many times using his seven-year-old motorboat, once traded with prospectors in exchange for gold he panned. It was called “The Favourite”. He used to transport engineers and other employees. And, when the contingency plan was unleashed, it served to rescue animals from the shores, such as dogs and snakes, at risk from the sudden floods.
In Orobajo, they also used it as an ambulance when someone with a severe illness showed up.
However, Abelardo was not born in Orobajo, as he clarified shortly before coming down from the ferry. He lived and raised a family in Orobajo, but was born on the beach of Iracal, a small beach on the Cauca river with his 11 siblings, and he sold fish since he was 15 years old between Ituango and Sabanalarga.
They called him "The Indian." That is where the Indians came in with the fish. And also "Canyon-man", like all those who live in the river canyon.
He no longer lives in the river canyon. After the reservoir submerged Orobajo, he moved with his wife and three children to Bello, a municipality in the metropolitan area of Medellín, five hours from his ‘blond daddy’ and in the middle of the city.
He does not sell fish anymore. He doesn’t fish now either. He now lives from unloading trucks with merchandise in Medellín. Or doing other things. In order to work, you must arrive to a downtown neighborhood, famous for its car parts repair businesses, to line up as transporters arrive and see if they hire you for the day.
The neighborhood is called Jesus’s Heart, but people call it Sad Neighborhood.
From a golden river to a Sad Neighborhood.
From eating fish like the common barbell, the bocachico or the sabaleta, whenever they wanted, to having to buy everything.
Shortly after getting off the ferry, Abelardo points to the shoreline. Its looks rusty, useless. It is parked on a piece of cracked ground that dried up with the reservoir: a road that looks like it is about to crack like a biscuit. It is The Favourite, his motorboat.
It does not have an engine anymore. It does not even serve as a canoe. The hull is broken.
- “Six months ago I had to leave it here. I have no money to get it fixed. I sold the engine.”
The Favourite could be the symbol of the drama of the Nutabe Indians, whose leaders are waiting for us in Ituango, where almost all of this small indigenous people now live, dispersed:
Broken, abandoned. Made for the river, but unable to sail in it.
Someone whose identity Abelardo says he does not know drew a graffiti in blue and black letters on one of the sides of his boat: "Dismantle Hidroituango now."