Colombia: Community Takes on Uribe and Allies Over Controversial Tunnel

The mountain road that winds its way out of the Colombian city of Medellin and into the mountains, forests and scattered communities of Santa Elena is lined with battered signs urging readers to care for the rivers and streams that give life to the region.

The mountain road that winds its way out of the Colombian city of Medellin and into the mountains, forests and scattered communities of Santa Elena is lined with battered signs urging readers to care for the rivers and streams that give life to the region. Just past a faded sign proclaiming “One drop of powerful water is enough to create a world and dissolve the night,” a new billboard emerges from the mountain side: “Aburra Oriente Road Connection, investment 869,874 million pesos (US$485,963,128),” it reads.

The infrastructure megaproject announced by the billboard will tunnel beneath the mountains of Santa Elena in the department of Antioquia, linking Medellin with the airport and free trade zones of the nearby city of Rio Negro. As it does so, claim campaigners against the project, it could drain the area’s streams and aquifers, devastating the local ecosystem and causing a social and economic disaster.

The Tunel de Oriente (Eastern Tunnel) project will consist of two tunnels with an over-ground road connecting them. According to its Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), as the longer tunnel slopes upwards towards Rio Negro it will intersect a series of geological fault lines packed with permeable fractured rock. The study calculates that initially up to 185 litres of water a second could drain off through the faults and down the tunnel. This would later drop to 150 litres per second.

This drain effect would empty aquifers and dry out the network of streams that criss-cross the mountainous zone, according to the Tunel de Oriente Citizens Observer Group, a small group of environmentalists and Santa Elena residents that has been waging a persistent campaign against the project. The group claim that if the tunnel is built, the change in water levels could irreparably damage the region’s delicate cloud forests and wetlands, putting numerous endangered species at risk.

According to the Observer Group, the effect would also hit the communities of Santa Elena hard. It claims that with water no longer freely available for irrigation it would become impossible to cultivate crops and raise livestock – the economic lifeblood of the region. The area’s second main source of income, tourism, would also suffer as it would lose its main draw – pristine forests, mountains and streams. “The economic impact on the zone would be very high,” said a spokesperson from the group who did not want to be named for fear of reprisals, “and the people of the zone wouldn’t have any alternative to having to sell up and being displaced for socio-economic reasons.”

The concession behind the project disputes this. It claims the EIA figure is a worst-case scenario describing what would happen if no preventative measures were taken. According to the concession, it plans to use impermeable concrete injections and other preventative measures to seal off the faults. It claims these measures would reduce drainage levels to 46-53 litres a second and that at these levels both the ecosystem and the 14,000 people it supports would be minimally disturbed.

While the environmental damage the tunnel could cause is detailed in the project’s EIA – which was carried out by a company that holds a small stake in the concession – the required plans to mitigate, control or compensate for that damage is not. The only legal commitments made by the company are to monitor the water levels and to take “physical and material” action where necessary.

There are also no legally binding maximum water drainage levels and it is this that concerns the Observer Group most. “What happens if they don’t manage to lower it to this level? Nothing,” said the spokesperson. “In Colombia, no demand is successful if there are no fines or recourse to withholding payment,” he added.

The concession claims that although the EIA did not contain specific information about preventative measures, it has since submitted detailed plans to the environmental authorities and the measures are included in the project’s budget.

The fears of Santa Elena residents however, have already been realised at a tunnel construction elsewhere in Colombia. According to one industry insider, who did not want their name or the name of the project published, the company building the tunnel exhausted its budget using similar measures to those planned by the concession to try to reduce water drainage to the level agreed to in the environmental licence. It then appealed to the local authorities to instead allow the firm to buy the affected land as a cheaper solution to preserving it.

The Tunel de Oriente’s critics say the potential high cost of the tunnel will pay for minimal benefits. The tunnel will save 11-26 minutes on an average journey, which currently takes 40-60 minutes. It will operate as a toll road, charging $7 – nearly half a day’s wages at the national minimum rate – and is expected to bring 26% returns on investment. In a press release, the Observer Group said, “The benefits of the new project are enjoyed mainly by the firms that are members of the consortium and the real estate sector around the Rionegro end of the tunnel … Devoting public resources to this project seems to go against the real social, economic and environmental development and progress of Antioquia.”

The concession set to benefit from the project is composed of 52 of Antioquia’s wealthiest construction firms, backed by the financing of eight of Colombia’s biggest banks and financial institutions and partially funded by the state. “[There is] a web of clients,” said the Observer Group spokesperson, “with different benefits for different private sectors at the expense of environmental damage to a community of over 14,000 people.”

The project also counts on the support of a number of regional and national political heavyweights, including former Mayor of Medellin, Governor of Antioquia and President of Colombia Alvaro Uribe. The former president has recently found his national influence on the wane and he is embroiled in a string of scandals over alleged paramilitary links and abuses of power as well as an escalating war of words with former ally and current president Juan Manuel Santos. However, he retains powerful allies nationwide and is still a popular and influential figure in much of the country, especially in his native Antioquia. It was Uribe who first approved the tunnel, signing off on the concession 11 days before the end of his governorship of Antioquia in 1997. It was also Uribe and his political allies who saved the project when it appeared to be all but dead.

The project first stalled when Governor Guillermo Gaviria suspended it over a lack of funds. The concession suffered a further blow in 2003, when an Antioquia Administrative Tribunal revoked the project’s environmental licence because the concession had not completed the required alternatives study. The decision was overturned and the tunnel saved when the magistrate presiding over the concession’s appeal at the State Council, Uribe’s political ally, overturned the decision on a procedural technicality. When Uribe then threw his personal support behind the project as president, it was fully revived by then Governor Luis Ramos – another ally of Uribe, who is under investigation for ties to paramilitary groups and was recently charged with corrupt public contracting when governor.

One Santa Elena resident who has investigated the issue and who also wanted to remain anonymous said, “Uribe’s influence over all of the politician’s that have defended the tunnel is direct and evident.” The extent of the former president’s influence has made campaigners against the tunnel wary in dealing with other politicians, public officials and governmental bodies. “Uribe’s tentacles are so extensive that in whatever moment I could end up asking a vampire for protection from a vampire,” said the resident.

Campaigners against the tunnel accuse Uribe of supporting the project to promote his own interests – he owns land near the tunnel’s entrance, which is set to rise in value with the improved links to Medellin. “[It is] his farm-Medellin connection project,” said the resident. “He has wanted to construct a tunnel for his farm, at the expense of public money and the users of the toll road.”

Faced with this coalition of powerful commercial and political interests, the Citizens Observer Group has resisted the tunnel by legally challenging the concession at every step. “Once we formed the observer group,” said the spokesperson, “we dedicated ourselves to studying the documents, handing all the basic information over to the lawyers and the lawyers started to file various law suits.”

They have also been in constant contact with the governmental bodies responsible for ensuring the concession meets its legal requirements – but only after assessing how closely the public officials are connected to the concession. “All of the public entities and officials that are not clearly committed to the network of clients around the tunnel are walking a tightrope,” said the spokesperson. “They are trying [to ensure] that at no time any sector of the public or the Observer Group accuse them of negligence, they are trying to show their best face.”

One of the group’s most recent appeals was an open letter to President Santos. Opposition to the project has gained traction as the rift between Santos and Uribe has widened, and the group are hoping to use the tensions to their advantage. The recent change in local government has also offered hope to opponents. The current Mayor of Medellin Anibal Gaviria and the current Governor of Antioquia Sergio Fajardo are close allies and both have a history of opposing the project.

At the start of the year, work on the tunnel was again suspended after discussions between the mayor’s office, the governor’s office and national environmental authorities. The Minister for the Environment Frank Pearl cited irregularities in the environmental licence and concerns over the project’s impact on the Nare national park, which it intersects.

The Observer Group believes political rivalries played a big role in the suspension. The spokesperson said, “We believe that behind this action of the minister, the motivation is to discredit Santos’ competitors in the next presidential elections.” He added, “[we hope] Juan Manuel Santos breaks this network of clients because of his re-election aspirations.”

The Ministry for the Environment will decide whether the tunnel proceeds in the coming weeks. As they wait for the final verdict, the Observer Group has tried to maintain pressure on the authorities by staging street protests at the construction site. The messages they have received from the ministry so far have been mixed. “The ministry’s objective, “ said Frank Pearl, “is to see how the project can be taken forward, but with calmness, responsibility and environmental standards.” However, he added, “We are prepared to protect water sources, watersheds, wetlands and natural resources … our hand will not shake to impose limits when natural resources are at risk.”

The Observer Group is not confident it will see the end of the tunnel any time soon and has recently turned its attention to trying to build international pressure against the project. The group has been contacting environmental groups around the world in the hope they can exert pressure on a national government always conscious of its international image. “A country with political and social conditions like Colombia requires the eyes of the world on it,” said the spokesperson, “[to know] that there are others observing this network of politicians and that they feel watched.”

James Bargent is a freelance journalist based in Colombia. See