Colombia: Communities of Huila Continue to Defend Mother Earth from Mega-development Projects

Throughout Huila, the resistance has not only manifested from the communities affected by the Quimbo Hydroelectric Dam, but also from the communities in Gigante and Garzón affected by petroleum company Emerald Energy, as well as communities in southern and central Huila resisting the Master Advantage Plan of the Magdalena River which would hand over the country’s largest and most important river in concession to the state-owned company HydroChina.

The New Year in Huila started as 2012 finished, with the National Authority of Environmental Licenses’ (ANLA) refusal  to hold the energy company Enel-Endesa-Emgesa accountable for failing to comply with the environmental license for the Quimbo Hydroelectric Project.

The Comptroller’s Office has continually studied the information put forth by Association of Affected Peoples of the Quimbo Hydroelectric Project (Asoquimbo), and has backed the local communities’ demands that the environmental license be respected in regards to resettlement, compensations and environmental mitigation.  Meanwhile in Huila, local media have falsely reported that nothing is wrong in the region and have irresponsibly reduced their reporting to nothing more than public relations on behalf of the company’s image.

Nonetheless, throughout Huila, the resistance has not only manifested from the communities affected by the Quimbo Dam, but also from the communities in Gigante and Garzón affected by petroleum company Emerald Energy, as well as communities in southern and central Huila resisting the Master Advantage Plan of the Magdalena River which would hand over the country´s largest and most important river in concession to the state-owned company HydroChina. In addition to the invasion of extractive industries to Huila, the regions large amount of coffee growers have been impacted by the falling price in coffee which has progressively gotten worse since the signing of the US free trade agreement. As a result, Huila and all of Colombia’s coffee growers have also started pressuring the Colombian State that has resulted injuries in recent days as coffee growers have had clashes with the riot police (ESMAD).

In the coffee lands, fruit orchards, and vegetable fields maintained by the campesinos around the Miraflores Peak, members of the Inter-sectoral Association Garzón & Gigante (ASIEG), continue to fight to have the environmental license that would permit Emerald Energy, a subsidiary of the Chinese chemical company, Sinochem to drill for oil in the Paramo of Miraflores ecosystem. Currently AISEG along with the Regional Autonomous Corporation of the Upper Magdalena (CAM) along with CORPOAMAZONIA from the Department of Caqueta, are pushing the Office of National Natural Parks to declare the 122,000 HA of the Paramo de Miraflores Peak a National Natural park to help create a stronger legal mechanisms for protecting this area and effectively excluding it from any form of oil extraction.

The Magdalena River, born in south Huila, flows north some 1,528 kilometers to its delta in the Caribbean Sea. Its drainage basin is nearly a quarter of the country´s national territory and two-thirds of the nearly 46 million Colombians live in this region which produces about 86% of the country´s GDP.  This year, the Magdalena River will be handed over in concession to the company HydroChina whose plans for the river are to turn a living ecosystem that supports human and nonhuman communities into the country´s most important transportation corridor for cheap goods.

The plan will include dredging the river from Honda, Tolima all the way to its delta to allow large barges to enter that far up-river from the caribbean delta within Colombia. Honda will be connected via high-speed railways to the Pacific-coast port city of Buenaventura as a connection between eastern and western markets.  For the upper area of the Magdalena River Valley the concession involves a total of 11 medium to large hydroelectric dams to generate electricity for use elsewhere. Communities in southern Huila such as Oporapa, San Agustín, and San Jose de Isnos have all become active in the local resistance since the plans for the river were announced last year.

The Impacts are being felt

With sadness, members and allies of the Asoquimbo paid farewell to Sain Pedrazo, a farmer and day laborer from Veracruz, Gigante. Don Sain, known by all who knew him as a sweet, loving and noble man, was an elder and steadfast warrior of Asoquimbo. He joins at least seven other older adults from the affected population that have passed due to the physiological trauma that the place where they were born, grew up, raised their families and have lived in always, might possibly be erased. In his own words he said that he would pass before the Dam could be completed. “If everyone thinks like me, I am leaving before it is my time. I´d rather that no one mention that Quimbo to me, because God does not want it. Though based on what I feel, I am leaving here early. I will not wait for this disaster to happen. Me with my 72 years of birth and life here, I do feel it and it hurts me hard.”  Don Sain is greatly missed though his legacy of his fight and struggle for the love of our territory till the very end accompany those that continue to struggle for the liberation of Mother Earth in Huila.

On January 16, Moises Sanchez, a sharecropper on the Chagres Farm in Gigante, along with his family and cattle, was forcibly removed from his home by the ESMAD by order of the Gigante’s mayor Ivan Luna.  Brutalized during the process, this is another example of how laws are applied when they favor Emgesa-Endesa-Enel, though when it comes to the sanctions placed against the company and making sure they are adhered to, the necessary State institutions are nowhere to be found. To date there is still an open investigation by the Comptroller´s Office of the ANLA for the violations of social and environmental rights caused by the Quimbo Hydroelectric Project and damages totaling an amount over $175 billion (USD) that the company has yet to respond to and the Ministry of Environment has also been silent on.

In mid-February a massive die-off of Tilapia and Bass occurred in the floating aquaculture cages in the Betania Reservoir that belong to local elites. Over 300 tons of fish destined to export to foreign countries died due to anaerobic conditions in the reservoir found down river from the Quimbo construction site. A local aquaculture business owner who asked to remain anonymous accused the National Fishing and Aquaculture Authority (Aunap) of doing nothing. “The uncontrolled growth of aquaculture in Betania threatens the ecological balance as well as industrial aquaculture,” said the business owner.

In 2005, according to the Plan of Fish and Aquaculture Order, there were 1,686 cages, eight years later there are 7,000 cages. This overproduction along with pollution and higher sediment content in the water lowered the water quality and caused the water to lose Oxygen provoking the massive die off.

Regional Political Corruption and a Challenge

On January 9th, 2013 Cielo Gonzalez was finally removed from her position as governor of Huila and her former Secretary Julio César Triana, was appointed by President Santos as the new interim governor in early February. Prior to Triana, Luis Guillermo Vélez Cabrera was serving as interim governor when he visited the construction site of the Quimbo telling local media the “Quimbo must happen, but the right way.”  He also noted that while there had been progress, the company´s delay in the creation of the irrigation district Paicol-Tesalia was especially worrying. Since Triana has come into office as interim-governor, he has only mentioned that Vélez Cabrera would be the “point person” to continue working on the project.

On April 14 there will atypical elections held in Huila to pick the new governor. Asoquimbo is calling on the people of Huila to vote in blank and for the Defense of the Territory.  Currently all the candidates from the different parties support and helped create the Departmental Plan of Development 2012-2015 “Making Change,” which seeks to use extractive industries as part of President Santos “Mining-Energy Locomotive” as a major force in regional and national development. On the ballot, listed as a viable option is the “Program of Unity for Territorial Defense” that is registered with the National Civic Registry. The outlined platforms the make up the “Program of Unity for Territorial Defense” were created through open assemblies in the communities of Agrado, Garzón, Gigante, Hobo, La Plata, San josé de Isnos, Tarqui and San Agustín, Huila from February 9-17 that focus on protecting the local communities, economies and the environment.

The Constant Hypocrisy of the National Authority of Environmental Licenses
The lack of consistency of the Director of the ANLA, Luz Helena Sarmiento, has only made evident that her role is that of a puppet for transnational companies more than a true authority who absurdly has been delegated the responsibility of protecting the needs of the human and nonhuman communities in Colombia.  In late December yet another resolution was passed modifying the Quimbo´s Environmental License through Resolution 1142 attempting to help Enel-Endesa-Emgesa remain unaccountable to the demands placed on it by the comptroller´s Office. As a result, Comptroller Sandra Morelli has declared that the ANLA was deepening the country’s environmental crisis that it had already brought on by its faulty policies. This critique helped eliminate an eco-tourism hotel known as “Los Ciruelos” that was planned for the Tayrona National Park on the Caribbean Coast by the ANLA through Resolution 0024.

The critiques of Sarmiento´s hypocrisy is that the environmental impact of the Quimbo is much greater than that of Los Ciruelos taking into account the over 800 Ha of dry-tropical forest will be destroyed (the same ecosystem that Los Ciruelos would affect) and large portions of the Amazonian Protection Forest Reserve.  Since early February the ANLA has denied licenses for numerous companies including Drummond, CCX, Prodeco and Goldman Sachs, who all had plans for coal mining in the Department of Cesar. ANLA denied these solicitations citing these companies did not follow regulations. This incoherence that directly impacts communities is what is pushing so many to take more direct actions after more than four years of internationally recognized evidence of countless violations of the Quimbo´s environmental licenses even after the licensing has been changed no less than four times always in benefit of the company.

Huila, won’t take it no more

On February 25, a national strike was organized by coffee growers in Antioquia, Huila, Quindío, Risaralda and other coffee growing regions. Tens of thousands of campesinos throughout Huila blocked roads to pressure the government to take action in helping coffee growers as a result of the falling prices. In Garzón, clashes led to over 25 people being injured and curfews being called; meanwhile in Neiva and the roads connecting Huila with Caqueta and Putumayo, all transportation is paralyzed in the region as a result of the strikes. Asoquimbo and AISEG are in solidarity with the coffee growers strike and participate, as well as prepare for more upcoming mobilizations. Mercedes Ninco, a resident of La Jagua, explained “we are supporting the coffee growers and striking as well. The State´s policies that hurt them are also hurting us.”

What continues to be apparent is that the Quimbo and other extraction projects in Huila are only the tip of the iceberg.  Regionally and globally, the methods that governments are using to disguise corporate land grabs, resource extraction, environmental destruction and forced displacement as a minor part of “progress” and “development” has never been akin to the worldviews of most communities affected by these projects. In fact, the struggle of movements like Idle No More in Canada against the Tar Sands and other extraction projects on indigenous lands, the efforts in the US against the Keystone Pipeline, or the incalculable amount of communities standing up against mines, dams, pipelines, agro-industry throughout the world are the same fight.

Since the uprisings led by the Gaitana in the 1530s against Pedro de Añasco and the invading Spanish forces, the people of Huila have never been Idle.  While the Coffee Growers Strike is building strength and shows no sign of subsiding anytime soon, throughout Huila communities are gathering forces and preparing for the regional strike to be initiated on March 14, the International Day against Dams and For Rivers, Water and Life. The Communities affected by the Quimbo Dam and other extractive industries in Huila call for international direct actions in solidarity with the people of Huila with a simple message, “extractive industries out of the territory, repeal the free trade agreements and land reform now”. Just like last year when there were numerous international solidarity actions, the peoples of Huila are asking for all others in struggle for the Liberation of Mother Earth to “flood” Colombian Embassies, Consulates and the facilities of the companies Enel, Endesa, Emgesa, Emerald Energy and HydroChina.