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How the Powerful Hidroituango Drowned an Indigenous Territory

Full of planning and construction problems, the hydroelectric dam that will become the largest power generator in the history of Colombia also buried the houses of the last Nutabe Indians, the children of the Cauca River.

Hidroituango, which will become the largest power generator in Colombia's history, for now only occupies headlines as a result of its planning and construction problems, which have kept an area of influence inhabited by 167,000 people and where the country's second-largest river is located concerned by a possible human and environmental tragedy.

Its troubles so far have cost the public company building the mega-hydroelectric plant around $66 billion pesos. They have sparked an inquiries by the Inspector General’s Office or Public Ministry, the Comptroller General's Office and the Attorney General's Office.  

These episodes have all been in the news. As has the importance of opening a project that cost an estimated $14 billion pesos and that will produce 24 percent of Colombia’s current energy demand, a valuable asset in a country that suffered a massive national blackout in 1992 because of the El Niño’s effects.

Some other stories however have not garnered much attention, including the real amounts of money involved in the project or exactly which companies have benefited from it. Or the almost extinct indigenous community that was affected by the dam and which is now finally being able to exercise its right to a prior consultation.  

In practice, this collective right of ethnic minorities to a free and informed consultation protected by the Constitution is supposed to happen before, rather than after a project is carried out. In this case, their ancestral territory had already been flooded already under 2,7 billion cubic meters of water.

The two groups involved represent the vast contrast of strength. The ant and the elephant. David and Goliath. On one side the companies at the helm of the major business contracts in Colombia’s industrial heartland of Antioquia and on the other hand, the few remaining Nutabe Indians, the children of the Cauca River.

A river they call "our blond father".

***

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."

***

The Nutabe did not exist. The canyon Indians, the Orobajo Indians. Here comes the Indian. This is how they were constantly spoken about on roads and streets, sidewalks and neighboring towns. However, they did not exist.

They knew they were Indians. They felt like Indians. They learned it from their elders. They believed in the phases of the moon. Their mothers ground the corn with the same stones and fed them the same herbs. They had a collective life. However, they did not exist.

They did not even exist when they were killed.

It was in 1998, on July 12th. That was the period - between the mid 90's and 2000's - when more massacres were committed in Colombia.

The paramilitaries, or head-cutters as they often called themselves because of their terrifying practices, had committed two of the most tragic massacres in the area in the immediately preceding years: those of La Granja (in 1996) and El Aro (in 1997), two townships in the neighboring municipality of Ituango.

In both cases, the so-called Peasant Self-Defense Forces of Córdoba and Urabá (ACCU) accused the peasants of aiding the guerillas. The ACCU killed 22 persons and displaced 700 others.

These two massacres are relevant in the history of Colombia because the Inter-American Court of Human Rights held the Colombian State responsible for both of them. Because the country's Supreme Court of Justice declared they were both crimes against humanity. Because through these rulings, Colombian courts have asked to investigate powerful former president Alvaro Uribe, who was at the time governor of Antioquia.

Horror stalked the region and all of Colombia. It arrived in Orobajo, wearing a paramilitary uniform in La Granja and El Aro, on a Sunday morning.

The sign that something would happen was highlighted by cows running away. 

The group of uniformed and armed men burst into the village, also in Orobajo and in another neighboring village called La Aurora. They told people they belonged to the FARC, although they had bracelets from the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), the name used by the paramilitaries. They forced people into the little school. "For a meeting," they said. As soon as people came in, they started shooting.

They killed five. Bernardito, Floro, Luis Angel. Sandra and Ricardo also died, but from drowning because in anguish they cast themselves into the river, which holds many of the dead of the Colombian war.

They killed Virgil Antonio Sucerquia, or chieftain Virgil, as they called him; the eldest who served as the respected authority of the Nutabe Indians, who did not exist.

They moved, as they had to do during the bipartisan conflict in Colombia in the middle of the 20th century, and dispersed, gradually returning after months but still in fear. All that, but they still did not exist.

On February 14, 2008, the Colombian Government –led b the head of the Indigenous Affairs Directorate of the Ministry of the Interior- certified for the Hidroituango project that there were no ethnic communities in the area of the hydroelectric dam.

The Blond father Cauca's children were invisible.

The certification was crucial for determining whether or not prior consultation - the collective constitutional right that seeks to protect and ensure the rights of ethnic minorities - should take place before the first stone was to be laid.

Then, a citizen oversight committee of Sabanalarga where everyone had seen the Nutabe selling their fish and gold and walking their streets, wrote to the Directorate of Indigenous Affairs that same year in 2008.

In brief, the observers remembered the community, which also had some members living in the neighboring town of Peque, and requested the process of consultation for them.

Indigenous Affairs replied in 2011, three years later. They stated that the Nutabe Indians were not registered or identified among the country's 86 indigenous peoples. The oversight committee had not sent "support for the existence of the Nutabe community," as stated in an official document of the Directorate of Prior Consultation from the same ministry. And that was a necessary step to recognize them

However, by that time, Hidroituango was already on solid ground: the first physical works had begun, it had an environmental license, and EPM had just signed the contract by which it was in charge of building, operating, and maintaining the plant for 50 years, and then transferring it to the company that owned the project.

(The society is called Sociedad Hidroituango and belongs to the regional Institute for the Development of Antioquia and EPM, on almost equal shares. Its minority partners are the department of Antioquia, the state-owned National Energetic Financer, the Colombian state, the Caldas Hydroelectric Plant and other small shareholders).

Hidroituango had already worked on a partial census and characterization required by law of the populations affected by project, which EPM began in 2006.

Although this characterization had been adjusted over the years, depending on the designs and construction of the plant, official information from EPM states that from the beginning the Orobajo rural area was considered subject to compensation because the reservoir was going to flood it.

The Orobajo area, populated by the Indians of the Cauca canyon whom locals knew.

Due to the census, the Nutabe were aware from the outset that the arrival of progress in the form of a hydroelectric plant would somehow affect their ancestral territory. 

It was not until 2014, however, that they began a process of organizing and asking how they could demand their rights. For the Nutabe did not even know they had rights. 

That year an anthropologist named Jorge Eliécer David Higuita, linked to the Indigenous Organization of Antioquia (OIA) and with relatives in the community, began to help them in their process of self-recognition and registration as an official indigenous group at the Ministry of the Interior: the first step was to legally exist in order to continue living.

Jorge Eliécer unearthed several records at the University of Antioquia. The Ombudsman’s Office accompanied him.

At the suggestion of the anthropologist, the first step was to hold an assembly in the village, formally elect their indigenous authorities and register as an indigenous community (cabildo) in Sabanalarga town hall. They did so on December 7, 2014.

A month later, in January 2015, with this certificate in hand, they went to ask the Directorate of Indigenous Affairs of the Ministry for recognition and inclusion in the register of indigenous peoples of the country.

The procedure, they were told, would not be quick: it would require historical, legal, and anthropological studies that would take time in the case of a community that had hitherto remained in relative isolation and anonymity, and for whom there were no references in the institutional registers.

It would not be short, but they had begun.

EPM not only had the 2008 certification, but records over 14 years stating that there were no ethnic minorities in the area of influence of Hidroituango, issued by agencies such as the Ministry of the Interior, the Secretariat of Indigenous Affairs of Antioquia, and the former Institute of Rural Development (Incoder). They asked the Directorate of Prior Consultation of the Ministry for a new certification.

Is there any presence of ethnic communities near the Ituango Hydroelectric Project, located in the jurisdiction of the municipalities of Sabanalarga, Liborina, Buriticá, Olaya, Santa Fe de Antioquia, Peque, Yarumal, Valdivia, San Andrés de Cuerquia, Toledo, Briceño and Ituango, department of Antioquia?

The company also asked the Directorate of Prior Consultation about "the Nutabe of Orobajo who claim to be an indigenous group," as stated in the official certification.

On May 14, 2015, the Directorate of the Ministry of the Interior replied and certified: there are none.

The procedure for the registration of Nutabe had not been completed and the Nutabe still did not exist.

However, the official document did detail that the recognition process was taking place in the Directorate of Indigenous Affairs. 

That same year, 2015, in light of this new certification of the non-existence of the indigenous communities, EPM began a process of individual consultation with the 35 families, 140 people, of Orobajo, for their relocation outside the village with new homes and new livelihoods.

They left in different moments. The first in 2015. The last in 2017. Four families to urban properties in Sabanalarga and the remaining 31 distributed between eight villages and the town of Ituango.

EPM emphasizes it has all the documents, such as socialization records and assembly minutes, that support these agreements.

On March 17, 2017, the last Nutabe came out of its ancestral territory in Orobajo, as recounted by the community.

On May 19 of the same year, two months and two days later, resolution 0071 finally was issued by the Directorate of Indigenous Affairs of the Ministry of the Interior, ordering the registration in the official registry of indigenous communities of the country of "the indigenous community of Orobajo of the Nutabe people," whose families are scattered in the towns of Sabanalarga, Peque, and Ituango.

The decision is based on a 236-page study that Indigenous Affairs claims to have taken in response to the request of the citizen oversight committee of Sabanalarga, which since 2011 raised its hand to ask for recognition of the community.

It title is: "The indigenous community of Orobajo, of the Nutabe People, located in the rural area of the municipalities of Sabanalarga, Peque, and Ituango, department of Antioquia. History of their resistance process, from the conquest to our days".

In short, it says that the Nutabe have all the characteristics required by law to be considered an indigenous community: an Amerindian ancestry, awareness of their identity, shared customs, and forms of organization of their own.

Beyond this, there is the detailed history of the Nutabe. It is the first written and official testimony of this native indigenous community and extended family united by bonds of compassion and neighborliness at the foot of the Cauca Canyon since pre-Hispanic times.

It tells how, after the arrival of the Spaniards, they formed part of the indigenous reservation of San Pedro de Sabanalarga, in what today is the municipality of the same name, and in the 17th and 18th centuries became one of the most important indigenous towns of Antioquia. Then in the late 19th century, when the Republic was already in place and the idea to dissolve existing indigenous reservations took shape, they disappeared from the map of the department and from the references of the new order that had just been born.

They resisted oblivion and violence by moving through the remotest parts of the canyon, always maintaining their closely knit community ties. Since the beginning of their existence, they have mined for gold in the Cauca, and the center of their territory has been Orobajo.

After the study was approved and the resolution was ratified, 57 families comprising 176 persons were recognized by the State as a Nutabe people.

The Nutabe, the last Nutabe, finally existed.

***

Elder guard Abelardo David Chanci looks as if he were going to stand up, clears his throat, and points with his right index finger towards the floor saying that:

-      It was were that the village was located.

A cascade of murmurs is heard in the boat, which immediately stops and begins to sway in the breeze in the middle of the reservoir.

-      No, we were further down; we could not see the ravine where the aqueduct came from.

-      I thought it is a bit higher up, remembering that in Orobajo the Cauca River has a bend.

-      I said that it was here because there we could see the road that comes from La Aurora and this one in front was the hill to go out to Peque.  

His companions of the indigenous group did not agree very much with each other, so the captain of the boat, who is not Nutabe and was hired for this trip, restarted the engine and started to slowly drift away while his passengers decided.

It was a journey of nostalgia. What they were doing, consciously or not, was chasing memories. In this case, they were literally on top of their memories.

We came from Ituango, where Abelardo introduced me to the authorities of the community, including chief governor Eddy León Sucerquia Feria, son of the former chieftain Virgilio Sucerquia that the head-cutting paramilitaries snatched from this town 21 years ago.

"If Chief Virgilio were with us, everything would be different." "All of this is happening because there is no chieftain Virgilio; he would have defended us." "Chieftain Virgilio would have kept us together because he was the one who taught us that everything had to be shared.” They all remembered him right then and there.

Ten Nutabe Indians; Carlos, the photographer; Hernando, the cameraman; and I followed the trail of Orobajo drowned by Hidroituango on the medium sized boat. I try to concentrate only on the indigenous yearnings, but I cannot help but remember the millions of cubic meters of water on which we find ourselves. The closing of the machine room floodgate, the risk of collapse if that does not go well, the possible collapse, the potential apocalyptic avalanche.

-      Look, look! It was here because this is where the school was. All of this was a dry plain. Oh, we should have come here to fish!

Edelider de Jesús Zapata Valle, the vice mayor of the town council, puts an end to the debate about the destination point and the boat stops again, this time on a small beachhead in the reservoir where you can walk a few meters before the beginning of the climb of the mountain.

We then got off. The Nutabe did not look nostalgic or sad. Or yes, they are sad people. However, they also smile with emotion. ‘My house was there’. ‘In front of that stone was the court’. ‘By this little path I went with my mules loaded with the groceries.’

And with the contrast of scenarios comes grief: they no longer live here, play here, or travel with their mules here. Omar de Jesús Sucerquia González, another elder guard, told me that there are nights when his wife still wakes up crying longing for her old home.

They do not even have the consolation of being united together in the same place, the lack of which is precisely what puts their culture most at risk and causes them to suffer. Due to the new projects they agreed to develop with EPM, most of them now plant coffee in different villages.

Eddy further details the Nutabe lament...

Not even the violence of the armed groups -among which not only have been the paramilitaries but also the former guerrillas of the FARC and other obscure characters linked to illegal mining on a large scale- had managed to take the Nutabe’s territory away, as the vice-governor Edelider says...

This coexistence is precisely one of the centers of their arguments in the previous consultation that, the Ministry of the Interior assures, advances between the Nutabe Indians and EPM, and could finally become official between the end of April and mid 2019.

The proper steps are that the company and the indigenous people sit down at a table with the guarantor from the government, determine the impacts caused on their community, and then agree on measures to correct them.

The Nutabe Indians’ prior consultation is not going to stop Hidroituango. With all its blunders, the power plant is already a reality in the Cauca Canyon and Colombia. 

But it is evidence that the stones of David's sling can reach Goliath, even if they do not always knock him down. 

Specifically, their claim is to a collective territory that can become a legally protected reservation with the necessary community infrastructure and public services that they had. That is their main concern.  

As long as it is on the banks of the Cauca River, next to the blond dad who gave them everything. 

"If they want to take this river away from us, let them give us another one", as Abelardo reaffirms.

For now, the Nutabe have no place to mourn their dead.

The remains of the cemetery are in the custody of the osteology laboratory of the University of Antioquia, which EPM contracted to carry out the exhumation and identification procedures (along with two other flooded cemeteries, one in Peque and another in Buriticá).

In its reports, EPM points out that it has always proceeded with the consent, knowledge, and participation of the community.

Nutabe elder guard Abelardo David Chanci disagrees. “Ah, that's how they did everything, it sounds very concerted but here their workers came to tell us that it was our turn, that there was no other option, they told us “this dam will be here whether you sign or you don’t.” We wanted to leave with something, because we were going out as displaced people. We tried to negotiate. Someone told us “these are uppity, cheating persons.” An official in the Governor’s office once asked me why we appeared later. We didn't ‘just appear’ out of nowhere! We have always been here!” he says.

His eyes sparkle with an ancestral glow. With a glow that has illuminated this canyon since times immemorial.

The Spanish company Unión Fenosa proposed diverting the course of the Ovejas River towards the hydro-electric reservoir of Salvajina, which was built over the flow of the Cauca River in 1986 by the Autonomous Regional Corporation of the Valley (CVC) with the purpose of increasing energy production in the region by 20%. 

“The people said, ‘The Ovejas River is our life, it´s our dignity, and that doesn´t have a price. Not for all the money in the world will we let this river be moved.’ And like that people organized to fight for the river, too”, explains Francia Márquez.

The community leaders assure that EPSA used strategies to discredit their representatives and put them at risk in the region with the strong presence of illegal armed groups. In 2005, the Association of the Council of Indigenous People of Northern Cauca (ACIN), one of the strongest indigenous groups in the region, denounced the directors of the reservoir for having attempted to present signatures of attendance at two meetings as suppose evidence of support from the black communities for the diversion of the river.

The pain caused by the way in which the Cauca River, Colombia´s second most important, was snatched thirty years earlier was still fresh in the memories of the inhabitants of La Toma. That river had sustained them, and therefore they were very sensitive to anything regarding the reservoir at Salvajina, constructed to generate 270,000 kilowatts of electricity.

This concrete and iron structure completely altered the flow of the Cauca River over a distance of 31 kilometers, and it raised the water level by more than 100 cubic meters over the ancestral lands of the Afro-Colombians of La Toma. Their lands, crops, the best mines and a good part of their traditions were left submerged under 849 million cubic metres of water.

For Mayor Isidoro Lucumí, the memory of the impotence that people felt when they were removed from their lands remains fresh, and is today described as a false illusion they had of progress in their community.

 “When these people arrived they caught us with our eyes closed. An engineer told us, ‘You have a lot and it is worth a lot.’ I had a plot of 9,720 square meters and they paid me $300.006 pesos and I asked the engineer, ‘And these extra six pesos, what are they for? Where did they come from?’ His reply was, ‘You can take them or leave them. If you don´t, they´ll be deposited in a bank and then we´ll see how you take them.’ This was total humiliation. This is why we don´t want any more multi-nationals here,” says Isidoro.

The elders of the community assert that with the reservoir they were promised that because it was the biggest infrastructure project being carried out in Southwest Colombia at the time, it would bring tourism, roads, schools, health and all round better quality of life. This promise also turned to dust. It was a wolf in a sheep´s clothing.

“Instead, what Salvajina left was misery for my community. In Suárez, people have no electricity. The energy is miniscule and the people earning the lowest income receive monthly bills of 300,000 to 400,000 pesos (US $100-130). We also have this lake, but my community doesn´t have clean drinking water. Do people have to wait until it rains to drink water?” asks Márquez.

The construction of Salvajina required the displacement of more than 6,000 people. The municipality of Suárez went from 23,500 inhabitants in 1993 to 18,000 in 2006, according to the Black Communities Process (PCN), one of the most active Afro-Colombian community organizations at the national level.

The Ovejas River Once Again

Their dignified resistance, preventing the splitting of the mountain to divert the Ovejas River and holding off the arrival of AngloGold Ashanti from their territory, still were not enough to deter foreign interests from their land. The worst was still to come, and this time it was under the name of illegal mining.

Beginning in 2004 - the community recalls - there were skirmishes with people who tried to enter the river to search for gold, but they always managed to remove them from the lands. However, this siege of outsiders, usually arriving from eastern Antioquia and Chocó, was becoming more and more intense until in 2010 it reached a point that was the worst period they remember.

Threats against environmental leaders from criminal bands known as The Black Eagles, New Generation and The Stubble saw a surge after the demobilization of the paramilitaries, and continued to increase up until August of 2009. Anxiety converted into pure fear after the 7th of April 2010, when armed men assassinated eight miners on the banks of the Ovejas River, in La Toma’s backyard.  

As a result, those who arrive in the municipality of Suárez, located more than an hour from Cali, find a painting that seems to belong to the wrong exhibition. What appears from afar to be a bunker which from a lost diplomatic mission, is in fact a humble house at the dusty entrance to the town, furnished only with a plastic table and various white plastic seats, which serves as the meeting site for the Association of Community Councils for Northern Cauca (ACONC).

Inside the house a handful of leaders discuss the issues that affect them on a daily basis, while outside a convoy of the newest model Toyota trucks waits for them - armed and with a small army of armed men from the National Protection Unit, the governmental agency which is responsible for guarding people placed under threat.

But a tragedy just 40 kilometers from La Toma has brought them new trouble. On the 2nd May, 2014, in the nearby municipality Santander de Quilichao, a landslide in the mine of San Antonio buried three people, while 150 illegal backhoe loaders destroyed the bed of the Quinamayó River.

Francia Márquez participated in the local security council which was then set up to discuss the issue of illegal mining, and how to address the problem that their confiscated machinery as stuck there, but there was no way to transporting it, “and machines were disappearing by night until not one of them was left.”  A score of them ended up in the Ovejas River, on their territory. 

“The leaders could not even get near to the mountain to observe from there because they assigned each one of us a guard to follow us and who would tell them what we were doing. They knew we were not in accordance with this destruction they were causing and from this new threats were invented against us for ‘opposing development’”, says Aníbal Vega, treasurer of the Community Council of La Toma.

Out of this community´s desperation the famous March of the Turbans arose in defense of land and life. In November of 2014, 30 people walked from La Toma to Bogotá to ask that the government stop the destruction of the river.

One month later, the armed forces destroyed the backhoes. The community’s female leadership became the leading voice, including names such as Francia Márquez, Marilin Machado, Alexa Leonor Mina, Sofía Garzón, Yineth Balanta, Marlin Mancilla and Clemencia Fory. 

In spite of all the efforts, illegal mining brought the Ovejas basin to the brink of destruction. The fierce attack of the illegal miners with heavy machinery damaged the riverbed in several different places. With the river’s deformation came a tragic aftermath of pools of cyanide and water poisoned with mercury, with even more impacts on the women of the community. 

“The gold rush brought many people from all over the country, who for the most part were bad people, and this resulted in many sexual violations, and when it came to taking legal action, we didn´t know who to accuse because we didn´t know who these people were. There are many mothers, many women in our land who have children and do not know their father,” complains Aníbal Vega.

The community council itself does not know the exact figure of women who are living in this situation, because there is no official list of complaints, and they presume that many women opted to remain silent about their abuse.

With the destruction of the backhoe machinery in the Ovejas River there also came the death threats again Francia Márquez and her children, proffered by criminal groups who wanted to be paid the the value of the incinerated machinery. Francia was forced to leave in January 2015.

“When you are a woman and you are take on these sort of fights, they see you as weaker and they can get to you easier. A prime example of this is my situation: all of my companions are there in the community, but I am the one who cannot return, and I was the one who had to escape with my children. I´m the one who hasn´t been able to return because I have no guarantees,” affirms Márquez, who also received the National Prize for Human Rights from the NGO Diakonia Catholic and the Swedish Catholic Church after the Women´s March.

Defending Ancestry

The community council of La Toma is convinced that the battles they have had to fight have been promoted by a state which, instead of legally recognizing their territory and their collective rights such as prior consultation, chose to ignore them and gave up their lands to various parties who came after the gold in La Toma´s soil.

According to an answer from the Autonomous Regional Corporation of Cauca (CRC), the maximum authority on environmental matters in the region, the answer a freedom of information request sent for this story stated that tens of exploration and exploitation permits were granted to individuals such as Alonso Giraldo, Miguel Antonio Carabalí, Eusebio Lucumí and  Raúl Fernando Ruiz.

They were also given to companies such as AngloGold Ashanti and the Canadian firm Cosigo Resources, who featured in a well-known lawsuit in the Amazon rainforest and to whose legal representative in Colombia and Brazil, Andrés Rendle, was granted a mining license in Cauca in 2007.

A historic ruling by the Constitutional Court in September 2015 stopped Cosigo Resources from exploiting gold in the area they had been granted, inside the Yaigojé-Apaporis National Park in the heart of the Amazon. The mining title had been granted by the government of Álvaro Uribe after the creation of protected areas and it went against the constitutional prohibition of mining within national parks.

However, the main worries in La Toma now came from the granting of a permission by the former Ingeominas (whose work in granting titles was inherited by the current National Mining Agency) to Héctor Jesús Sarria, a person unknown to the local people, for extraction of gold in an area totaling 99 hectares in the sector of La Carolina for 10 years, beginning in March 2006 and extendable to 2026.  

In a Ministry of the Interior report from June 2009, a certificate was issued to endorse the BFC-021 project, indicating that there was no Afro-Colombian population within an 18-kilometer perimeter. This backing meant that Sarria would not have to carry out the the process of the prior consultation that the Colombian Constitution and Convention 169 of the International Organization of Work of the United Nations, which Colombia signed, both demand.

After the community of La Toma blocked his entry, Sarria solicited an administrative protection requesting the removal of the Afro-Colombian communities from the territory. This protection was conceded in April 2009, and in March 2010, the Court of the First Administrative Circuit of Popayán ordered the eviction of the Afro-Colombian communities.

“When I learned they were going to remove us, I decided to study law. I had no money for transport or to pay for university, but I reminded myself that for our ancestors things hadn´t been easy either, and thanks to them we are not in shackles today”, points out Márquez, who, after 30 years of running freely between mountains and rivers, conducts this interview in a small apartment that serves as a refuge from the threats against her.

By her second semester of law she knew which fundamental rights they could use to legally defend themselves, and the prior consultation was one of them. With her companions Gabino Hernández and Yair Ortiz she prepared a guardianship action that was presented in May 2010 before the Superior Tribunal of Popayán, arguing that a violation of rights, rights to dignified living, the terms of the prior consultation, due process, autonomy and cultural integrity.

The legal petition was rejected in the first instance because La Toma was supposedly not a black community with a collective title, and thus was ratified in the second instance by the Supreme Court of Justice. The community did not give up, and solicited a revision by the national Constitutional Court.

On the 14th December, the highest court of Colombia’s justice system revoked the decision and recognized the fundamental rights of the Afro-Colombian community of La Toma to prior consultation and due process. Amongst other things, the court ordered that Ingeominas, “refrain from granting, or suspend, as the case may be, the licences for mining exploitation in the project of Mr. Héctor Jesús Sarria or any other in the hamlet of La Toma of Suárez, Cauca, until the prior consultation ordered in this ruling is carried out in a proper manner and the respective environmental license is issued legally and if applicable.”

The fight goes on

The La Toma community did not drop their guard and remained alert to the possibility of any legal or illegal attempt to destroy their land and their water. What currently propels them is asserting their legal rights and carrying out a prior consultation that could allow and environmental management plan on the Salvajina Reservoir.

“Thirty-five years have passed since the building of the reservoir and there is still no environmental management plan. Something serious could happen here with this wall and it would take out everything there is below, because there is also no contingency plan. Recently, EPSA started to make an imitation environmental management plan not taking into account the advice of the community council nor the indigenous guards,” says Marilyn Machado, a member of the community council.

EPSA was created in 1995, complying with the order in Law 99 of 1993 which required the separation of environmental regulation and businesses such as those which generate electric energy.  The Salvajina was then property of the Autonomous Regional Corporation of Valle de Cauca (CVC), a regional environmental authority, and was administered by the company Colinversiones.

From here a long lost list of both national and foreign owners began. The Colombian state passed it to the US company Houston Industries and to Venezuelan Electricity of Caracas, who in turn handed it to the Spanish company Unión Fenosa in 200 and later to Gas Natural Fenosa.

It is currently controlled by Colener S.A.S, an organization belonging 100% to Colinversiones S.A. and which today has Inversiones Argos S.A.  among its shareholders, with its energy generator Celsia, and the Bancolombia Bank of Investment S.A. Financial Corporation. Both belong to the Antioquia Business Group (GEA), on the largest in the country.

However, there has been no dialogue between owning companies and local communities.

“There was a meeting here to talk about the prior consultation and the directors of the EPSA arrived, escorted by vans full of soldiers and we all said, ‘We are not criminals so what is going on?’”, recalls Machado.  

Before issuing a legal recognition of their community, the Colombian state installed a military base on the La Toma community´s land. All of sudden their territory figured on military strategy maps under the label of ´red zone´. 

A document from 2013, the community says, indicates that it was through an agreement between the Ministry of Defence, the EPSA and the mining company Anglo American that they installed a base of the 29th Army Brigade in La Toma. 

This ´pain´, as the community call it, is the irony of having a military base as the only permanent presence of a state institution on their territory. It has been captured in various songs, played to a lamenting rhythm on violin strings, the European instrument that the slaves learned to make by hand to imitate their masters´ parties.  

Representational songs such as ´My Buddy is not Going´ composed by Sabino Lucumí, legal representative of the community council and who won second place in the 2013 Petronio Álvarez Pacific Music Festival, the most emblematic of the Colombian Pacific. 

“This song not only expresses our how we feel in La Toma, but that we feel very proud because other communities have also taken it as an anthem and as a source of reflection because we need to protect the gold and the land,” states Eliomar Lucumí, composer and member of the group Cañabrava.

“Look at it closely, friend, look, look what you´re gonna do

The land of La Toma, we´re going to save

Against the big guys (multinationals) who want to remove us

And the others who won´t let us get out

We exploit our gold in the traditional style

Respect our culture, and leave us in peace

“The lands where we have built community and recreated our culture were not a present; they cost our elders many years of work and suffering in the slave mines”, reiterates Márquez.

Meanwhile Jairo Chará, who also plays guitar for Cañabrava, declares that “We Tomans are going fight with our last drop of blood to defend our land.”

Cerca de 40 años lleva la comunidad de La Toma, en el norte del Cauca, resistiendo el embate de la minería ilegal, los intereses económicos de las multinacionales y el menosprecio de un Gobierno que, para otorgar títulos mineros en sus tierras, certificó hace una década que en este territorio ancestral no hay presencia de comunidades negras en 18 kilómetros a la redonda.

A repeated history

El Llanito is not the only town where opposing fracking leads to threats and accusations.

Some 150 kilometers north of Barrancabermeja is San Martín, a town with close to 17,000 inhabitants in the neighboring department of Cesar. In April 2016, fifty citizens with very different profiles came together to create the Water, Territory and Ecosystems Defender Corporation (Cordatec), whose fundamental purpose is to reject the implementation of fracking pilot tests in San Martín land.

Although oil activity in San Martín goes back to the 70s, when the company Petróleos del Norte started operations in the Mono Araña and Tisquirama wells, the town only saw modest volumes of crude oil. In the last two decades, the daily production has not exceeded between 300 and 1,400 barrels of oil, according to figures from the National Hydrocarbons Agency (ANH).

However, studies conducted by Ecopetrol in 2011 show that in the so-called Mid Magdalena Valley, where San Martín is located, geological, geophysical and reservoir engineering analyses estimate that there is a potential of between 2,400 million and 7,400 million barrels of technically recoverable oil and gas.

The problem is that these hydrocarbons are still in what is known as source rock. That is to say, low in a geological formation with little permeability that stores crude oil and gas at depths greater than 3,000 to 4,000 thousand meters. For this reason, these type of reserves are called "unconventional" and their exploitation is only possible through a technology called 'fracking'.

This technology, which began to be used in the United States in 1999, has hydraulic fracturing as its starting point, which involves the injection, at very high pressure, of huge quantities of water mixed with sand and chemicals, which generates microcracks in the source rock to allow crude oil - or gas - to rise to the surface."And, as far as we understand, fracking could generate serious environmental problems in our municipality, such as the contamination of groundwater sources and bodies of water such as rivers, streams and marshes, as well as an increase in seismic events," notes Dora Stella Gutiérrez, current president of Cordatec. Therefore, Dora Stella adds, from the moment of its creation, the environmental organization has held workshops, forums, seminars, marches and awareness days against this technique. And this has cost them accusations, stigmatization, death threats and attacks on their lives. 

The most recent attack against a member of Cordatec happened on January 23. That day, at 1:00 in the afternoon, a man repeatedly shot at José Orlando Reina, a well-known activist in the municipality, when he was walking through the streets of the center area of ​​his town, near the police station. The shots caused the reaction of several uniformed officers, who, in an exchange of fire, killed the hitman. The leader was helped and sent to the hospital in the nearby municipality of Aguachica, where numerous surgical interventions saved his life.

The attack against Reina is added to a long series of aggressions that, until now, have not left fatalities.

In September 2017, another of its leaders, Jassiel Leal, an environmental engineering student, received a couple of phone calls in which, in a threatening tone, he was ordered "not to continue defending what is not in his interest".

Two months before that, on May 29, two other members of Cordatec, Marina Medina and Jorge Eliécer Torres, who also serve as presidents of community boards in two important neighborhoods of San Martín, received threats because of their negative positions towards fracking.

In addition to the aforementioned incidents, a pamphlet was circulated in February 2017, signed by the so-called Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, an armed structure that emerged in 2008 after the demobilization of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), in which they threatened death to "leftists, human rights activists, environmental leaders and indigenous leaders."

"The truth is that the situation is complex", acknowledges the president of Cordatec. "Since the middle of last year, the UNP (National Protection Unit) gave us a collective scheme [of protection], consisting of an armored car and two bodyguards, so that members of the corporation can mobilize. But the truth is that it is not easy. We had been carrying out some workshops with the community, explaining what fracking is and why it is so harmful to our territory, but we have not been able to start this year, because the situation is as tense as it is."

To frack or not to frack

The discussion about exploiting unconventional reserves through fracking is not new in Colombia.

Since the beginning of the current decade, the national oil industry has been raising the issue of the need to resort to this technology - which provokes strong resistance among the environmental and political sectors - to significantly increase oil and gas production and, thus, guarantee the country’s self-sufficiency in terms of energy.

In light of the decrease in current oil reserves, the debate has recently become more urgent and of higher priority. In fact, it featured in the last election campaign of the Presidency of the Republic: in Bucaramanga, on April 11, 2018, current President Iván Duque committed himself to not allowing the implementation of this technique, if he triumphed in the presidential elections.

"We have diverse and complex ecosystems, underground aquifers of enormous wealth and risks of increased seismicity due to the types of soils we have. That is why I have said that in Colombia there will be no fracking", the now-President Duque said at the time, before a group of academics and university students gathered in the auditorium of the Autonomous University of Bucaramanga.

Last November, three months after assuming the Presidency, Duque convened an Interdisciplinary Commission of Experts in order to study the possible consequences that the application of the technique of fracking would cause in the country.

The mission of this commission, comprising thirteen academics from diverse disciplines from biology to law, philosophy, economics, engineering - civil, mechanical and of oil - to the resolution of intercultural conflicts, was to discuss the feasibility of fracking in the country, after talking with communities in the territories where pilots are proposed, evaluating the impacts of this technology in other countries and reviewing the existing environmental regulations.

Its final report, which the experts delivered to the national government on March 15, did not give free rein to fracking in Colombia, but determined that it is possible to carry out comprehensive pilot projects that allow deepening knowledge about the technique, as well as assessing its true effects.

The document, perhaps due to the heterogeneity of the Commission’s members, reached apparently contradictory conclusions, such as highlighting the enormous economic potential of the country's unconventional reserves, whilst, at the same time, warning about the limited access that communities have to information about the projects and the lack of sufficient studies on groundwater, risks of seismicity, the possible contamination of ecosystems, and the capacity of the institutions responsible for environmental control.

The commission also made a series of recommendations to the Duque government, including disclosing all of the information about the projects to the communities; identifying gaps in information on ecosystems, hydrogeology and seismicity; agreeing mechanisms for citizen participation and oversight; building social baselines; agreeing to manage health risks with residents close to pilot projects; and identifying the shortcomings of the institutions responsible for environmental control.

The oil industry interpreted the conclusions of the Commission as a responsible call for the national government to implement the technique in Colombia and as a rebuttal of the arguments of those who oppose fracking.

"What the Commission said is that Colombia has the necessary regulations to develop this technique. In fact, they are the most rigorous and demanding at international level. And that the possible environmental impacts that can result from this technique are fully identifiable and can be prevented," says Francisco José Lloreda, president of the Colombian Petroleum Association (ACP), which brings together oil companies.

"The country has oil and gas reserves that would last six and eleven years respectively. These are extremely short times for this industry, (so) it is essential to maintain energy self-sufficiency. It is also essential that the country has surplus oil to export, with regards internal finances”, adds Lloreda, who was a Minister of Education in the 1990s.

Is there enough 'black gold'?

The economic importance of fracking is clear. So much so that, according to Lloreda, 15 percent of oil and 30 percent of gas worldwide, are exploited through this technology.

That boom, however, is divisive in many countries. France, Germany and Ireland have banned the technique, while some states of Australia and the United States have put a moratorium on fracking.

In Colombia, according to Ecopetrol, there are unconventional reserves in Catatumbo, Norte de Santander, Putumayo and Caquetá, although the greatest potential lies precisely in the geological formations known as La Luna and El Tablazo in the Middle Magdalena Valley and Cesar, precisely fears have been aroused among the local population.

It is also there where two international companies already have contract award resolutions from the National Hydrocarbons Agency (ANH) to start pilots.

One of them is Parex Resources Colombia Ltd, a multinational company with its headquarters in Barbados, to which the ANH awarded an area of ​​61,679 hectares in the municipality of Cimitarra, Santander in 2014. Another is ConocoPhillips Colombia Ventura Ltd., based in the Cayman Islands, which, in 2015, obtained an "additional exploration and production contract for unconventional hydrocarbon reserves" to the one that it has had since 2009 in San Martín, Cesar.

"Production in Middle Magdalena could increase by at least 250,000 barrels per day. Furthermore, significant benefits would be generated in terms of job creation and the demand for goods and services in the areas where the activity would take place," an Ecopetrol spokesperson told us.

Although there are no estimates about to what extent fracking could benefit the country's finances, Ecopetrol emphasizes that, in 2018 alone, it transferred 23.1 trillion pesos in dividends (8.2 billion pesos), taxes (8, 8 trillion pesos) and royalties (6.1 trillion pesos) to the nation. In addition, it points out that, that same year, it contracted goods and services to more than six thousand companies in the territories where it developed its operation, for 10.4 billion pesos, and generated 34,805 indirect jobs.

Hence the companies’ expectation is that the national government gives the green light to the fracking pilots. "Over the past two years, Ecopetrol S.A has proposed the execution of controlled fracking pilots, with oversight from the communities, territorial entities and regulatory authorities, to be able to apply the technology and know, through this field trial, what are their real effects", explained its spokesperson.

Environmental and social risks

Unfortunately, in those areas where these pilot fracking tests were to be carried out, violence has been directed at environmental leaders who are concerned about the technique.

This was documented by the Early Warning System (SAT) of the Ombudsman's Office, the state entity that monitors the risks of human rights violations throughout the country.

"The social and community leaders who in recent months have been subjected to threats, harassment and attacks in the department of Cesar belong to social organizations, especially rural or peasant organizations, who work on (among others) the following activities: 1) defense of the territory; 2) opposition to the extractive development model as well as environmental damage caused to ecosystems as a consequence of the expansion of mining and agro-industry," it says in a risk report dated November 28, 2018.

"Several dignitaries of the Defender of Water, Territory and Ecosystems Corporation –Cordatec - have been the subject of repeated threats, due to the days of peaceful resistance that took place for several days from September 7, 2016, against the use of the hydraulic fracturing technique known as fracking, for the extraction of oil made in Cuatro Bocas, a jurisdiction of San Martín", says the same report.

A similar warning was made by the Ombudsman’s Office about Barrancabermeja, considered the oil capital of Colombia, being the location of the country's main refinery.

In an early warning dated November 2018, the Ombudsman’s Office asserted that the development of new oil exploration and production projects coincided with the increase in threats against environmental leaders, community leaders and human rights defenders in the municipalities of the Middle Magdalena region in Santander. An example of the above, indicated the Ombudsman’s Office, were the threats made against leaders of the towns of Ciénaga de Opón, La Fortuna and El Llanito in Barrancabermeja.

All of them have in common the fact that they live in areas where conventional and non-conventional reserve exploitation projects are taking shape. The SAT of the Ombudsman’s Office argues that this increase in intimidation could be related to the interest of criminal groups present in the region, to obtain resources through the cooptation of contracts for goods, personnel and services required by oil companies for the development of their work.

"Illegal armed groups, including the so-called 'Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia', have deployed practices of harassment, intimidation, and the cooptation of community leaders that establish direct dialogue with the contractors of Ecopetrol. This is because it is between the relations for the supply of personnel and economic financing for the criminal structure through the contracts of goods and services required by these companies for the execution of their works", concludes the Ombudsman’s Office in its Early Warning 076- 18.

In particular, the public body drew attention to the situation of Oscar Sampayo and Óscar Yesid Blanco, two well-known individuals from Barrancabermeja who, due to different circumstances, ended up setting themselves up as the fiercest opponents of fracking and standard-bearers of the protection of the environment and water.

The doctor and the political scientist

The problems for the two Oscars – one, a political scientist, and the other, a pediatrician - began in 2015.

At the end of that year, both Sampayo and Blanco reported that the water consumed by the people of Barrancabermeja was not suitable for human consumption, because the San Silvestre Marsh, the wetland that supplies the city's aqueduct and 190,000 inhabitants, registered alarming increases in heavy metals, including mercury.

"There was a year in which I diagnosed 18 children with a very rare disease that consists of an immunological alteration. I started to look at what could be happening and, with the help of other colleagues, we saw that there was a direct relationship with exposure to heavy metals, including mercury", recalls Blanco, an individual well respected by people in Barrancabermeja for his charisma, his vocation of service and his commitment to environmental causes.

"At that time, a trade unionist friend from Aguas de Barrancabermeja - the company in charge of the local aqueduct - gave me a report that the company had saved, written by the Bolivariana University, which indicated an increase of up to 25 percent in heavy metals, including mercury, in the marsh", adds the doctor.

Thus began a row between environmentalists, the aqueduct company and the local mayor, Darío Echeverri. The disagreement intensified when Sampayo and Blanco pointed out that the deterioration of the marsh’s water quality was due to the construction of the Yerbabuena landfill in the neighborhood of Patio Bonito, in the heart of the District of the Integrated Management of Natural Resources of San Silvestre Marsh.

"The landfill was placed in the heart of an area that is considered an environmental reserve, with all the irregularities that you want," says Sampayo, who set aside his work as a real estate entrepreneur to devote himself, in full, to the defense and protection of the environment. According to Sampayo, "the Oxy oil company donated the land where the works were done and that place would coincide with one of the blocks that Ecopetrol wants to exploit using fracking."

"They degraded a territory that was an environmental reserve," Sampayo continues, "because it is being degraded on account of the leachates that are spilling over the marsh, so that the environmental authority will then say: 'Well, there's nothing to protect, you can carry out fracking.'

Among the evidence that Sampayo presents is that, in 2013, the Autonomous Regional Corporation of Santander (CAS) - the regional environmental authority - approved "the theft of an area of ​​the Regional District of Integrated Management of the San Silvestre Wetland for the construction and operation of a final disposal site for solid waste.”

That approval was given after the company Entorno Verde S.A E.S.P. conducted a technical study that showed the feasibility of the work, which was awarded in 2014 to the construction company Construvías de Colombia S.A. (Construvicol) and that came into operation in 2015 with the labor of Rediba S.A. E.S.P.

The complaints of the environmentalists reached the ears of the Office of the Attorney General of the Nation. As part of an anti-corruption day that took place in Barrancabermeja on June 13, 2017, the Office of the Attorney General collected evidence and testimonies from residents of the neighborhood of Patio Bonito, which, two months later, allowed him to order the arrest of the then manager of Rediba, Liliana Forero, accused of the crimes of procedural fraud, damage to aggravated natural resources, damage to natural resources in homogeneous with environmental contamination, concealment and destruction of probative material and invasion of property. On September 22 of the same year, a judge from Barrancabermeja ordered her imprisonment.

This company, together with Construvicol and Entorno Verde, is connected to Reinaldo Bohórquez, a powerful contractor who has executed infrastructure works in several municipalities of Santander and manages the garbage business in Barrancabermeja, Floridablanca and Girón and the final disposal of waste generated by oil exploitation. His company Construvicol will be responsible, in partnership with the Spanish company Aqualia Intech, for the construction of the Solid Waste Treatment Plant (PTP) of Barrancabermeja.

In political circles in Santander, he is recognized for financing political campaigns, including Darío Echeverri, who was elected in the last elections for Mayor in Barrancabermeja. "I participated in his campaign because he said he would not allow the landfill. In fact, when the Mayor wins, I am appointed Liaison Officer for the Mayor's Office with the CAS," says Sampayo, who adds that, "after six months the man changes his position, they dismiss me and give him free rein over the landfill. Publicly it was said that it had been financed by Bohórquez."

This led to a recall process led by several citizens of Barrancabermeja, including the pediatrician and Óscar Sampayo. Echeverri managed to maintain his mandate at the polls, but, in February 2018, the Attorney General's Office arrested him for the crimes of constraint to the voter, obstruction of the electoral contest, embezzlement and conspiracy to commit a crime. According to the Attorney General’s Office, Echeverri resorted to corrupt practices to prevent voters from turning out in masse on the day organized for the recall.

It has not been the only fight that Sampayo and Blanco have had against Bohorquez's lawyers. In a humorous tone, both assure that they have had to attend the judicial courts so many times in the last years that both of them lost count.

"We report the presence of leachates in the water of Barrancabermeja due to the operation of the landfill. We also note that the environmental authorities have turned a blind eye so as not to take any kind of action against this man. What has that cost us? Well, in my case, being victim of the biggest smear campaign by the lawyers of Bohórquez’s companies," says the doctor Óscar Yesid Blanco.

According to Blanco, a local journalist posted a false news article about him on his website. After the doctor reported him for slander, the journalist acknowledged before the judge that he had received a payment from one of the lawyers for Rediba S.A.'s. E.S.P, one of Bohórquez’s companies.

"It turns out that a journalist, Gustavo Duarte, published on his website, La Tea Noticia, a false news article about me," continues the pediatrician. “I reported him for slander. Before the judge, the journalist acknowledged that the lawyer, Cristián Gutiérrez, who we later learned worked for Rediba S.A. E.S.P, Bohórquez's company, paid him to publish lies about me. That process was carried out by the Prosecutor's Office in Barrancabermeja."

The pressures against both environmentalists intensified as the severity of their complaints increased. In October 2018, Sampayo managed to become part of a protection scheme of the National Government Protection Unit. The doctor, who did not have the same luck, received a call in November from the Regional Corporation for the Defense of Human Rights (Credhos), a regional NGO on human rights issues.

"They told me: 'Doctor, we have very serious information, from very reliable sources, that there is a plan in place to make an attempt against your life. We suggest you leave the city.' I did not think twice and the next day, I was out of the country," he says from his exile in a city he prefers not to name.

Expectantly

Despite the threats, almost all leaders against fracking maintain that they will continue to oppose the technique.

In El Llanito de Barrancabermeja, they do not rule out conducting protests, civic strikes and marches, to protect the San Silvestre Marsh, which they consider the life and soul of its town.

In San Martín, they continue with their resistance towards the pilot tests. In fact, following several meetings and public hearings held throughout 2018, members of Cordatec and officials of the National Agency of Environmental Licenses (ANLA), the entity decided to suspend temporarily two environmental licenses granted to the oil company ConocoPhillips Colombia Ventura Ltda, through Autos 6117 of October 9, 2018 and 6445 of October 23 of the same year.

According to the government entity that oversees environmental licenses, the environmental impact studies - in their words - "do not meet the requirements of the environmental authority" because "they do not comply with the terms of reference for the exploitation of hydrocarbons in unconventional reserves."

"That was like a small achievement for us," says Dora Stella Gutiérrez, current President of Cordatec, "but still, it's a temporary suspension. The company continues to bring machinery into the town, along (path) Cuatro Bocas, where the well Pico Plata 1 is. And truthfully, we do not know what they are doing there."

"If the oil runs out, does life end in Barrancabermeja? I think not and I think it is time to think about making the transition to clean, renewable energies," contends Sampayo.

Meanwhile, Dora Stella, who forged a prosperous career as a grocery retailer in San Martín, asserts that oil will not be the economic salvation of her town.

"About three years ago, this oil company arrived in town with its workers and contractors. Have our sales increased since then? No. On the contrary, we now have problems of prostitution and robberies. With fracking, it will be worse, they will use up the water and the earth and we will then have to go to another town because there will be no life here," says Dora Stella.

The Clearance of the Darién

Chocó, a humid and densely vegetated region which is even more biodiverse than the Amazon rainforest, has lost an average of 25,000 hectares of forest over the last five years.

The warnings issued during 2018 by IDEAM, the national meteorological institute which monitors deforestation, indicate that the municipalities of Riosucio, Lower Baudó and Middle Baudó are home to the most advanced deforestation spots. In total there were warnings for 13 municipalities and 43% of the forest coverage loss was concentrated in the second trimester of the year - or rather, during this season, exactly one year ago.

Edersson Cabrera, coordinator of the forest monitoring group at IDEAM, declared that the main deforestation drivers in the entire Pacific Coast region have been illicit crops like coca and illegal gold mining, but that there were also worrying reports regarding logging -both legal and illegal - in the Lower Atrato.

In 2016 the global illegal wood trade was estimated to be worth up to one hundred billion dollars annually, and is responsible for 90% of deforestation worldwide, according to the International Union of Forest Research Organizations.

In Colombia, where the problem is acute, the Inter-institutional Committee for the Control of Fauna and Flora Trafficking implemented measures: from December 2018 it became necessary to processe a license for the gathering, transformation, transport or commercialization of any species.

Additionally, the Ministry of the Environment increased permit prices for the most vulnerable species of trees by four to five times, which is in effect a tax on the commercialization of wood.

These measures are intended to reduce the trade in rare endemic species, although not everyone is optimistic. William Klinger, a forestry engineer, native of Chocó and director of the Institute of Environmental Investigations of the Pacific (IIAP), believes that these new measures will simply permit intermediaries to obtain more wood.

“The problem is that the new measures have no technical, practical bases: you need to extract the capital that generates interest from the forest, and in this case it is growth. A forest grows around 20 cubic meters per year, and if it is not allowed to grow, the exhaustion of the forest is practically irreversible,” he explains.

The numbers of Colombia’s wood exports are not very clear. In reports by the International Organization of Tropical Woods, the country only appears as a documented exporter of teak, which is not considered a tropical wood. However, in analysis of the situation of different woods, made by the very same organization, Colombia appears as a producer of at least 2,100 cubic meters of tropical wood in 2016.

The same happens with national data. The Virtual Business Centre, which takes independent measures of international businesses, indicates that between 2017 and 2018, 28 kilos of wood left through the Caribbean port of Turbo, 1,382 of wood through Barranquilla, and 2,444 of tropical wood through Cartagena but the trade reports of the DANE (the national institute of statistics) registered zero exports in 2017 and 1,410 tons in the previous year.

For Manuel Rodríguez Becerra, who was Colombia’s first Environment Minister, the warnings in reality are useless. “They simply serve as the chronology of a tragedy,” he remarked. 

“The heart of the deforestation problem is the lack of state control. We are a failed state in these border regions,” he added.

En el Bajo Atrato y el Darién la tala indiscriminada de árboles es una herencia de la empresas madereras de los años 50. Por supervivencia para los nativos o por negocio para los traficantes, a diario caen miles de árboles que están dejando bosques sin mucho valor y con peligros inminentes por su proximidad al Parque Nacional Natural Los Katíos y el Tapón del Darién. Fotografías por: Carlos Alberto Gómez.

The Park Fires

In the first week of April of this year, in Los Katíos National Park, at the far northern end of the Lower Atrato, 1,800 hectares of forest burned. The only thing that managed to control the fire was a downpour, in an area that is protected due to its c condition as a natural a bridge for fauna and flora between Central and South America. 

This means that many plants and almost all large mammals that make up our fauna and flora entered Colombia and thus South America through the Darién forest. And many continue to do so, like the jaguar, which moves from Central America to Argentina.

Two weeks earlier, another fire had destroyed 200 hectares of forest in the buffer zone around this national park of 72,000 hectares, which is connected to the Darién National Park of Panama of 550 thousand hectares and is also considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site due its biological diversity.

Thus, a new fire has been reported every week during this dry season.  

This year’s events have led experts to recall the fires in 2016 which burned 10,000 hectares, eight thousand of which were forest, and affected the national park significantly. Over time, the authorities confirmed that these fires were caused by deliberate burning of land in order to extend agricultural use and by turtle hunting.  

It is also a stark reality that brings to mind the period of the early 1990s when the paramilitaries, under the helm of their bloodthirsty commander Carlos Castaño, cleared large swathes of jungle in order to open up land for cattle farming. 

“The most likely theory is that this could be about large farmers who are taking advantage of the dry season to gain land for their ranches,” suggests Rodríguez Becerra.

The marshland

Indiscriminate logging directly affects bodies of water, mainly the marshes that act as regulators for water systems, because they absorb extra water when the river swells and release it when the river dries. This destabilizing of the marshland circuit may be the cause of the many floods that have plighted Chocó in recent years.  

In 2014, the group of oceanic studies at the University of Antioquia conducted a study of water quality in the wetlands of the Atrato River floodplain. In 18 of the bogs studied they detected a low animal presence, an alarming finding considering that the wetlands act as a type of nursery for fish in the region, just as the mangroves do. The fish pass through there, grow, fatten and later head to the rivers, which is where fish stocks occur.

This is why, Klinger explains, species such as manatees, river otters, and the variety of catfish locals call maidens have gradually disappeared.

Some signs allow room for hope, such as the reappearance of a fish species called widemouth or cachana (Cynopotamus atratoensis), which researches considered extinct ten years ago. After published “wanted” posters all over the Chocó, this encouraging news arrived a year and a half ago.

“Is it reversible? I believe so, but at a price. The first task we have is rescuing the wetlands so that the water surface increases, and the second one is controlling forestry activities and cattle farming,” Klinger says.  

Former minister Rodriguez Becerra was one of the pioneers behind the Great Alliance Against Deforestation that brought together diverse actors from civil society to create pressure on the government to act. He proposed to select three or four hotspots that have difficult security conditions and critical risks of deforestation, in order to reestablish state control in them and provide public services such as health, education and employment to these communities as a way to halt forest clearances. “It is complicated, but it is also feasible,” says Rodríguez Becerra.

The drivers

Fuente: Oficina de Naciones Unidas para la Droga y el Delito, Unodc

“Coca is the fuel that drives further interventions, both for cattle-farming and for deforestation,” says Edersson Cabrera of IDEAM.

This fuel has already arrived in Lower Atrato and it is getting close to the Darién. Up until 2017 only a few plot holders had small coca crops, what they would call a quart. But then it arrived on a larger scale. It arrived in Truandó in March, when armed groups authorized the planting of coca, and by the end of the year it had spread to all the communities in the area.

“They bring us the seeds, the give us a plant, guarantee us a sale, but the truth is that we sell our souls to the devil,” reports a farmer who has half a hectare of coca in his farm, and who asked for his name not to be used due to the associated safety risks of talking about this issue.

Although there are no reports for 2018 yet, the latest census by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) revealed that Chocó had, by late 2017, 2,611 hectares planted with coca, a figure which only represents about 5% of the planted area in Nariño (the main coca growing department of the country), but it meant an alarming 44% increase from 2016. The following statistics show how cultivation of this plant is increasing rapidly:

Calculations by human rights organizations working in the area indicate that 80% of the population has already planted coca to some extent, the majority under duress.

En el Bajo Atrato chocoano, paralelo al río Salaquí se está construyendo una carretera ilegal. Los analistas del Ideam la localizaron con las imágenes satelitales con que detectan los focos de deforestación y dieron la alerta. . Las gráficas muestran tres momentos: 2017 cuando la obra no había comenzado, noviembre de 2018 cuando se inició y enero de 2019 cuando ya había avanzado 14 kilómetros.

The road in the middle of the jungle

A yellow line, of a lighter hue than a river, caught the attention of the analysts of the Forests and Carbon Monitoring System at the IDEAM.

While processing satellite images from PlanetLabs, they identified the line and were able to convert its coordinates and monitor it over the course of several weeks. Their diagnosis: there was already an illegal road adjacent to the Salaquí River on the western edge of the Atrato River and entering into the dense thicket of forest.

Between November 1st, 2018 and the January 2nd this year, the road grew by 14 kilometers, which is the equivalent of one kilometer of construction every four days. If it continues at this rate, it will be a 90-kilometer road by the end of the year.

There was immediate alarm because it seems the same modus operandi as seen with the construction of the Jungle Marginal road project two years afo. This was a long-planned and awaited road that the government wished to construct to link the Amazonian departments of Guaviare and Caquetá, which illegal groups anticipated and began opening in the middle of the Amazon Jungle. It now runs dangerously close to the Chiribiquete Range National Park, one of Colombia’s most important natural treasures and recently declared a World Heritage Site for its biodiversity.

The area of Riosucio where the road passes is jungle, and although it is not a natural reserve nor does it fall in the buffer zone of a national park, it is most likely that an environmental authority would block permission for this type of construction here.

Analysts’ calculations suggest this could be a road that is up to three to four metres wide, enough to allow a 4x4 vehicle to pass, and if it was to follow the routes that are currently used by people and drug traffickers, it could mean the definitive opening of a rainforest so dense it is colloquially known as the Darién Plug.

Although it has since been shelved, the project to build a road that would connect Central and South America was named decades ago as the Pan-American Highway, and included a 62-kilometer stretch which did not directly touch Los Katíos National Park, but which –according to its management guidelines- “did include works in its surrounding areas which would have generated pressure on the neighboring territories of the protected area.” 

The problem is that the Darién rainforest is biologically very diverse and also very fragile. “This track, just like any other legal or illegal path, brings settlers and that generates deforestation,” says former minister Manuel Rodriguez Becerra, adding that the only thing that has saved the area thus far is that Panama has no interest in building the road.

Studies done by the IDEAM seem to support what he says: 72% of the deforestation in Colombia is located less than eight kilometers away from roads.

The process of illegal road construction has accelerated in the country, stemming from “the occupation of spaces abandoned by the FARC which have resulted in projects for transporting weapons, troops, migrants, coca, wood, gold and any other commodity,” according to Rodrigo Botero, director of the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development (FCDS), who has been monitoring the situation in the Amazon.

The consequences for biodiversity, local communities, and collective heritage in general are enormous, explains Botero, because, “these corridors of movement installed today are often done by force, sometimes with a political aim, and sometimes simply paid for by outside actors.”

In the case of the road in Salaquí, it is not a small threat. The possibility of the opening of the Darién Plug would probably mean an irreparable loss as it would severe the biological connectivity of Mesoamerica, which would be as serious losing the connectivity between the Andes and the Amazon.

“This is your classic tragedy that happens in the tropical world, because a road appears and then the most basic and crude exploitation follows, which is extracting meat and wood,” says Esteban Payán, Ph.D. in biology and South American director the Panthera Foundation, which oversees conservation of the jaguar corridor on the continent.

“You are no longer just a hunter once you have a gun. You can kill a tapir, carry it on your back. And once you get a motorbike or a van, you can take 20 tapirs, and have a fridge that preserves the meat, get a chainsaw, build a camp and kill a ton of them, have a mountain of meat that doesn´t rot, and go back and do it again,” he explains.

This entire situation, experts argue, causes the fragmentation of ecosystems. It means there´s no open space whereby the animals can move freely across the land, see barriers installed in their way, causing animal populations to become separated from each other.

“Animals are not willing to cross a road simply because it is open space. For example, an agouti or a lowland paca will not expose itself to the danger of walking for five meters in the open because a jaguar could catch them. Sloths, for example, lose the ability to reproduce because they are not going to look for females on the other side of the road,” explains Payán.

In the long term, this creates genetic segregation on both sides.

Jaguars, the main research subject for Payán, would be the first to disappear because of hunting spurred by fear or because they feed off other animals. But there are also other species like butterflies that are particularly sensitive to changes in their environment and could soon go extinct in the area.

This also affects Los Katíos National Park because the protected area could lose its effective conservation status, which it only maintains due to its buffer zone where the animals don´t come into contact with the outside world.

Another threat which has been seldom analyzed are coyotes. This controlled mammal in USA has never been able to cross over to South America because they are not jungle animals, but they are only 20 kilometers away from the Darién Plug.

They could become a plague, explains Payán. “The moment that a path opens up, they are going to come and there will be a biological invasion of coyotes that will completely change the dynamic of fauna of South America, because this is a very adaptable animal that moves by day and by night. It is what we call a generalist animal. By this I mean that it eats whatever, so it will come and eat everything in its sight,” he adds.

“There is a domino effect of ecological impacts,” concludes Payán. 

Also, according to Rodrigo Botero, there is an ever increasing fragmentation of key ecosystems and forest areas in indigenous reservations, Afro-Colombian communities, forest reservations and national parks, most of which is associated with illegal activities which in its turn multiply the environmental and social impact on these particularly vulnerable populations.

Wherever these roads coincide with international borders or large wooded areas, they generally attract the development of illegal activity, and this the main fear vis-à-vis the Salaquí road. A security analyst who investigates matters of narco-trafficking, but who asked that his name be omitted for security reasons, expressed fears that this road could mean the beginning of a circle of cocaine production and export in the area.

The current routes used are not especially profitable as they have dangerous parts which can delay deliveries by up to a week, or they are simply inaccessible. Therefore, drugs arrive in the vicinity of Bahía Solano on the Pacific Coast, from where they are then exported.

This hypothesis makes sense when verifying the increase in illicit crops which give way to cocaine production, and which require access between laboratories and embarking points where the drugs leave the country. Intelligence organizations have information on the increase in the amounts of cocaine exported from the Gulf of Urabá in the Caribbean given the arrival of Mexican cartels in southern Colombia.

“What could be going on is that they are implementing their business model: you grow the crops, we operate laboratories, process the leaves and meanwhile we work on the road in order to have a swift route to get the drugs out,” says the analyst.  

Besides the disastrous effects that this illegal tarde would have on the vital ecosystems of the Lower Atrato and the Darién are the consequences for the local population, who have been victims of the economic interests of various illegal actors for the last forty years.

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