Controversial El Quimbo dam risks becoming 'Colombia’s Belo Monte'

A growing movement of fishing communities, miners and farmers are stepping up their campaign against the dam - one of dozens of hydroelectric projects looming across Colombia - despite violent repression of some protests

Riot police, shielded in head-to-toe black, plastic armour, were positioned in a neat row, waiting for the protestors to arrive. Doorless, brightly painted school buses, chivas, halted at the human barricade blocking the road to the Magdalena River, the principal river basin in Colombia.

But the protestors aboard the chivas were also ready: for a possible confrontation and for a drawn-out battle against a 400-megawatt hydroelectric power project, El Quimbo.

'We are thinking differently about this dam,' said Jimena Chavarro, 32, an unemployed farm worker from the town La Jagua, 30 miles upstream from the dam’s planned site. The mother of one says she lost work within the past year after the Colombian company behind El Quimbo began to purchase land nearby. 'We know our rights. What we want to achieve is difficult, but not impossible.'

El Quimbo, Colombia’s first multinational company funded dam, is quickly becoming Colombia’s Belo Monte – Brazil’s highly contested 11,233-MW dam that stands to displace 40,000 indigenous people, according to the monitoring organization Amazon Watch.

El Quimbo, backed by Colombian company Emgesa, a subsidiary of Spanish Endesa, isn’t quite on Belo Monte’s scale. About 500 people will be immediately displaced by this dam, say critics, which will flood about 8,250 hectares of land.

A disputed number of people, though likely several thousand, will suffer livelihood loses, and possibly be forced to relocate.

An apparent lack of comprehensive environmental analysis leaves environmentalists like José Yunis, country representative for The Nature Conservancy, guessing what long-term impacts El Quimbo could have on the rich bio-diverse department of Huila, eight hours south of Bogotá, and surrounding areas.

'There’s no silver bullet when it comes to what’s best for building dams – only holistic scenarios,' he explained. 'But that analysis isn’t being done in Colombia, looking at things in a broader perspective.'

But this community of fisher people, miners and farmers, united under the group Asoquimbo, fears the worst. They have launched a series of intensifying sit-in protests over the last two months, following the government’s refusal to suspend Emgesa’s environmental license.

Spotlight on dams

Regardless of the protests’ outcome, they are still bound to blaze a precedent for future social responses to dam projects.

'It seems to me you have a lot of communities across Colombia that are paying attention to what is happening here,' said Alfonso de Colsa, director of the South Colombian Observer of Human Rights and Violence. 'They are watching closely, and thinking about if something like this could affect them, too, one day.'

He spoke during a Sunday, March 3rd protest, just off the damp banks of the murky Magdalena. The mood had softened from earlier in the morning, when some of the younger protestors threw stones at the police. The police retaliated with non-sensory gas bombs.

De Colsa lined himself between the approximate 200 protestors and the 20-some-odd riot police.

'There’s no more possibility for discussion with the government,' De Colsa said. 'Our final option is to declare resistance.'

El Quimbo is one five dam projects planned for along the Magdalena, and one of three large-scale dam projects presently underway in Colombia. The USD $837 million project is slated for completion by 2014.

Yunis says the Colombian ministry of environment is currently considering 45 proposals for large-scale hydropower dams and 160 proposals for micro hydropower dams.

'Colombia is a great power in water supply and biodiversity. We are going to light up South America as a hub for energy,' Yunis said.

The country trend falls in line with a recent 'relative resurgence' of hydropower dam projects across South America, according to Richard Taylor, executive director of the International Hydropower Association, an international non-profit coalition with energy industry representation.

'One of many'

There are 128 dams presently being planned or under construction across South America’s Amazon region, according to, a partner project of non-profits International Rivers, ECOA and Fundacion PROTEGER. There are 28 in the Amazon now in operation.

In Huila, Asoquimbo’s concerns center around the process through which the dam is being constructed – not simply the construction of the dam itself.

Asoquimbo and Emgesa held consultations between 2008 and 2009. Emgesa says it has fulfilled the provisions stipulated in the environmental license the Colombian environment ministry first awarded it in 2009, then lifted and modified several times since.

Asoquimbo says Emgesa violated its agreements in the license however, and that the license itself has failed to protect them.

Neither Emgesa nor the Colombian Ministry of Environment responded to the Ecologist’s interview requests.

'We found about 1,359 more people who will be affected than what the company says,' claimed Miller Dussan, an Asoquimbo leader and a professor at Surcolombiana University, in Neiva. 'There are also a number of people who will be indirectly affected by flooding and won’t receive compensation.'

Well into the protest’s afternoon hours, Dussan drove his car slowly along a dirt road, weaving through protestors. They were heading inland for a public assembly. About 90 fishermen still remained camped out along the river, attempting to prevent its diversion.

Sit in protests

This demonstration would only last one day – brief compared to the January 16-day sit-in protest and an eight-day protest in mid-February. It culminated in the forced removal of about 600 protestors. A YouTube video of the event shows riot police throwing what campaigners claim are grenades at protestors, at least one of whom was reported to be injured in the attack.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said last week that the government 'will not permit' protestors to 'block a project as important as this for the country.'

'This project is needed for the country, it is clean energy, it is hydroelectric energy,' Santos told the weekly magazine Semana. 'If we want to continue to develop we need this energy.' He has also warned of guerilla insurgency infiltrations into the movement, a tactic Asoquimbo says has been used to discredit its legitimacy.

In early March, for the first time, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) chimed in on the debate, condemning El Quimbo’s construction.

The challenges in the hydroelectric sector aren’t new, says Taylor, of the International Hydropower Association, but its increasing role in development amplifies the need to 'assure that the social and environmental impacts are better assessed.'

'If it is developed responsibly, this can be a clean and sustainable source of energy,' Taylor furthered.

The IHA is now rolling out the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol, a new tool Taylor says can help guide the industry. Others counter it doesn’t have strong enough teeth, and is backed too heavily by corporate interests.

The survey will judge hydropower projects on a scale from 1 to 5, in more than 20 categories of sustainability impacts.

The protocol has yet to be applied in Colombia, which lacks a 'pilot,' Yunis says, in guiding environmental development.

By the time nightfall crept in on the Asoquimbo protestors that recent Sunday, they seemed resigned that their day’s efforts were not enough. The river was diverted, they learned, and people loaded quickly onto waiting buses. Some still seemed determined to continue.

'I have to keep on fighting. This isn’t just for my town – this is for my country. We have to defend our land,' said 48-year-old Alexander Naranjo Tellez, of La Jagua.

But the farm worker hasn’t been able to find steady work in over a year, and conceded that he’s thinking about moving his family away soon. He says he might not have other options.

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