Colombia produces most of its energy from hydro-power and more dams are being constructed. To many this is a significant achievement, but the building of large dams has been accompanied with high levels of violence and displacement.
Over 60% of Colombia’s energy is produced by hydro-power, and new dams are being built across the country to boost this proportion further. The Sogamoso dam in Santander state will produce 10% of the country’s energy needs, while the Ituango dam in Antioquia will produce 20% of Colombia’s requirements.
This wealth of renewable energy will be promoted by Colombian diplomats attending the UN Climate Change Conference in Lima this week as evidence of the country’s environmental responsibility. But opponents of Colombia’s dams will also be in Lima, arguing that hydro-dams in tropical countries actually contribute to climate change through producing large quantities of the greenhouse gas methane. Hydro-dams are already the largest single source of methane related to human activities.
Their impact on the atmosphere is only one problem; activist Jorge Mario David from Colombia’s Rios Vivos movement said.
“What’s the relationship between the armed conflict and the construction of dams?” David rhetorically asked Colombia Reports.
“We know that displacement and assassinations have hit communities affected by dams, and we need to know the relations between these events for the Truth Commission and to understand how the environment has been made a victim of the conflict and of megaprojects.”
Many expect a peace agreement to be signed in the coming year between FARC guerrillas and the government, and expect that a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” will quickly follow to address atrocities of the conflict.
Jorge Mario says: “In the twelve communities affected by the Ituango Dam there have been 76,501 victims of forced displacement, there have been 1,956 forced disappearances, 12,564 killings, 85 cases of torture, and 3,419 threats.”
Last month, Rios Vivos activist Isabel Cristina Zuleta gave evidence to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington, telling the hearing that “the major cause of displacement in Colombia is the close relationship between armed conflict and the implementation of megaprojects … All my life I have looked for the reasons why, as a 14-year old victim of paramilitarism, I had to leave my village with my family. Today I can painfully confirm that it was on behalf of interests behind the creation of the dams of Urra and Ituango”.
The violence surrounding the construction of the Ituango dam made television news in August when FARC guerrillas fought soldiers guarding the dam, killing two. Zuleta and David were themselves caught up in the attack, and they also lost a leader of Rios Vivos on 17 September last year when Nelson Giraldo was killed by as yet unknown assassins.
Such violence is repeated throughout the country, says Zuleta, wherever dams are being constructed. The Urra Dam in the state of Cordoba, the Salvajina Dam in the state of Cauca, and the Sogamoso Dam in Santander have all, she says, characterized by massacres and displacement.
She delivered that message in Washington, but told Colombia Reports that the Colombian diplomats present “did not recognize what has happened”, and “there are no mechanisms in place to address the causes of such displacement.”
This lack of awareness stems, the activists suggest, from pursuing the construction of megaprojects during armed conflict, for violence both conceals and facilitates displacements related to such developments, and denies truth to victims. The relationship between conflict and megaprojects will be painfully clear, they argue, in the imminent flooding of the Cauca Gorge, which will bring a physical forgetting to the many bodies that remain there undiscovered.
Of the 1,956 forced disappearances in the 12 communities affected by the Ituango Dam, only 24 bodies have been discovered. The rest are likely buried in the area which is to be flooded on completion of the dam’s construction, a process that David says robs the families of any hope for justice. But he has some hope that in the future a Truth and Reconciliation process will find answers to the question of how the construction of dams has driven the conflict which has claimed so many victims in their localities.
For now, however, Zuleta says that we don’t have a right to the truth over the costs of megaproject construction since these developments are occurring in war zones: census figures that immigration from neighbouring conflicts have made redundant have played a high profile role in debates over the numbers of those affected. This results in those most victimized by dam construction, Zuleta says, often having been those who were already displaced by the armed conflict, only to be victimized again.
“The least that people can expect from their government,” she says, “is that those who have already been victimized will not be victimized again.”
- Interview with Isabel Cristina Zuleta and Jorge Mario David
- Colombia: Desplazamiento forzado y proyectos de desarrollo (Inter-American Commission on Human Rights)
- Colombia set to draft new climate law by November (Responding to Climate Change)