Putting a community, and its land, underwater

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The World

NEIVA, Colombia — As the muddy waters of the Magdalena River meander south of the sweltering city of Neiva, its banks give way to some of the most fertile land in the country.

Crops of cocoa, coffee, maize, plantains, yucca and tobacco creep up hillsides.

If the peasants have their way, they will continue to cultivate their land, tend to their cattle and live in their tightly knit communities as have generations before them.

If the government and the Colombian arm of Spanish energy giant Endesa have their way, more than 21,000 acres of land will be flooded in several years time and turbines will churn out 2,216 gigawatt-hours annually through a dam that will be blessed, cursed and known as El Quimbo. 

The dam, constructed on the country’s largest river by Colombian subsidiary Emgesa, would create a reservoir 34 miles in length, displacing some 1,500 inhabitants and uprooting eight cottage industries and various jobs in the local economy.

The project is part of a plan to encourage international investment in the country and has been sold as part of a national plan for energy security, but it is unclear how many of El Quimbo’s kilowatts will stay in Colombia. “Colombia has been self-sufficient in energy for many years,” said Colombia’s minister of energy and mines, Hernan Martinez Torres, adding that El Quimbo will only contribute 2.5 percent of the country’s energy production (Emgesa put that figure at 5 percent). Colombia is already a net exporter of energy.

“El Quimbo is an environmental and social catastrophe,” said Miller Dussan, a professor at the University Surcolombiana in Neiva and leader of Plataforma Sur, a coalition of social organizations in southern Colombia opposing El Quimbo.

Inhabitants who will see their towns flooded have staged protests, interrupted government meetings and voiced their opposition en masse in forums, along the way feeling more and more abandoned by their elected officials. “They haven’t represented us because the people have always said we don’t want this,” said Humberto Espinoza, a resident of the town Gigante who raises cattle on the Magdalena’s banks.

At one point, they had some allies in the government. The inspector general requested the Ministry of Environment not grant a license, pointing out it would be hard to replace land that has some of the highest agricultural potential in the region. The regional environmental authority originally said mitigation efforts weren’t enough to compensate for the dam’s myriad environmental impacts.

But now, politicians and government entities list the project’s benefits: 1 percent of the project’s $700 million cost must be invested into the affected river basin. And 6 percent of annual electricity sales will go to surrounding municipalities and environmental authorities, said Diana Zapata, director of licenses at the Ministry of Environment. She also said the company will invest in agricultural projects that could triple current revenues for the region. The project will generate 3,000 jobs, according to Emgesa’s website.

The environmental ministry last month finalized the license, which requires Emgesa to "recuperate" nearly 50,000 acres of land elsewhere to over-compensate for the land it will flood — 95 percent of which is part of an Amazonian forest reserve.

What will happen to the residents who will be displaced? “They will be offered land that is equivalent or better than that they currently have,” said Zapata.

It’s a condition that few residents have much faith in.

“They say we’ll go to another land, but we still haven’t been told where,” said Espinoza. “This is a very stressful situation.” Espinoza found land his family felt was appropriate for relocation but the company said it was too expensive, he said. He believes it is impossible to find a true replacement for his land because it is right on the river’s bank.

It is not hard to predict how disagreements may end: President Alvaro Uribe decreed the affected land a public utility, meaning that land can be expropriated from residents who fail to reach an agreement with Emgesa. “Absolutely there will be impacts,” said Manuel Macias, the secretary of agriculture and mines for the department of Huila, adding that all efforts are being made to mitigate them as best as possible. “But this is energy security.”

However, newspapers have reported that El Quimbo’s energy is destined for markets in Ecuador, Central America and Puerto Rico, and would only be used in Colombia in the case of an energy shortage. Emgesa did not respond to several emails and phone calls requesting an interview.

Plataforma Sur has filed a legal action calling for the annulment of the land’s designation as a public utility. Another legal action calls for a new environmental impact study. Emgesa itself carried out the study used by the government.

Zapata says construction could start within a month or two. Full operation is expected by 2014.

Residents also fear another presence: construction of a military base at the foot of El Quimbo they say is meant to protect the dam’s construction and quell local opposition. There have been cases where armed forces protecting resource extraction projects have been accused of human rights violations. Emgesa was reported to be chipping in 40 percent for the new base, which the military said will tackle guerrilla presence in the area.

Elsa Ardila Munoz, who has cocoa crops in the affected area and is the president of AsoQuimbo, an association of 60 families that formed to defend their rights, said residents won’t back down if the company does not comply with its obligations. “We’ll have to take a position of resistance and move ahead in our fight,” she said.

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