The Hidrosogamoso Dam: Communities pay the high price of hydro-electric power in Colombia

At first sight, the small town of La Playa in the department of Santander in Colombia seems gripped by a minor boom. Its population has rocketed while new residential buildings, shops and small bars blaring out loud music have sprung up all over town. Yet the growth does nothing to mask the pervading atmosphere of desperation and frustration among its long-term residents, brought on by living with the uncertainty of whether there will even be a town in the future.

At first sight the small town of La Playa in the department of Santander in Colombia seems gripped by a minor boom. Its population has rocketed while new residential buildings, shops and small bars blaring out loud music have sprung up all over town. Yet the growth does nothing to mask the pervading atmosphere of desperation and frustration among its long-term residents, brought on by living with the uncertainty of whether there will even be a town in the future.

The new buildings and bars cater to the new residents – construction workers from all over the country who have flooded the community to work on the Hidrosogamoso hydro-electric dam. According to the people of La Playa, after three years of construction work the dam has already decimated the traditional local economy, wrecked the eco-system and disrupted the social and cultural life of the community.

When finished, the 190m high dam on the river Sogamoso will hold back a reservoir covering 7,000 hectares. With an 820 megawatt capacity, the dam will provide approximately to 10% of Colombia’s electricity, according to ISAGEN, the mixed public/private company behind the project.

Hydroelectric power already generates over 70% of Colombia’s electricity and dams both large and small dot the landscape throughout the country. Construction is currently underway on a host of new projects, including several controversial mega-dams that have faced a backlash from affected communities. The $.5.5 billion Hidroituango dam in Antioquia is the largest of the new projects and is projected to supply a fifth of Colombia’s energy when construction ends in 2018. Last March, over 4,000 people from the region marched against the construction while in November 80 miners staged a protest against the dam’s threat to their way of life that only ended more than a month later when they were evicted by riot police. In the department of Huila, construction of the El Quimbo dam has also been met with popular resistance and in January this year protesters shut down construction by blockading the site in protest against its impact on local communities and the environment.

Many of the next generation of dams are not just looking to meet the country’s energy needs, they are also looking to capitalize on the growing carbon trading market. Despite increasing concerns over whether large hydroelectric dams can be considered “clean” energy due to methane emissions from reservoir surfaces, spillways, and turbines, hydroelectric projects still make up a large part of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) – the UN’s carbon trading scheme. The controversial scheme allows polluters in industrialized countries to purchase carbon credits from emissions reduction projects in the developing world in order to meet their Kyoto Protocol targets. In Colombia, eight hydroelectric projects have already been approved for the CDM, while 12 hope to be, including Hidrosogamoso and Quimbo.

The people of the Sogamoso river basin first heard about plans for the Hidrosogamoso when ISAGEN held meetings in the nine municipalities that would be affected. The meetings were supposed to fulfill the company’s constitutional obligation to actively consult with communities affected by the project. However, according to “Tomas”, a community leader in La Playa, the community consultations amounted to little more than a series of presentations about the benefits of the project. “They only came to encourage the making of the dam,” he said, “[to tell us] what they were going to do, how they were going to bring benefits to the people, training and work … they never came to ask us if we wanted the dam here, [or if] we agreed with what they were going to do.”

Most people in the communities initially welcomed the project. “It brought a lot of hope for the region” said Tomas. According to Tomas, ISAGEN told them the dam would bring employment while the company would invest in health and education and improve water and sewage systems. They also said that life downriver of the dam would be unharmed, thanks to the company’s stringent environmental standards and careful monitoring. According to Tomas, “The reality we are living at the moment never came out.”

ISAGEN dispute the claim. The company says it carried out consultations in 128 communities involving 2,100 people and that the consultations included the project’s impacts and the company’s mitigation plans. Alberto Bustamente, the project’s Environmental Coordinator, said, “It is not ISAGEN’s style nor is it policy to sell the project, to show the wonders of the project and say ‘this is development,’” he said.

When construction began it was not long before down river communities like La Playa began to feel the impact. Like most of the other nearby communities, La Playa depends on the river for its existence. The river was a source of irrigation for crops, building materials and a tourist attraction. Most of all, it was an abundant source of fish, the engine of the local economy. Before the arrival of ISAGEN, the overwhelming majority of La Playa’s men worked as fishermen. Now most are unemployed or casually employed.  “Carlos” has lived in La Playa for 30 years. “We have lived all our lives from fishing and we have always had the opportunity to take ourselves forwards,” he said. “Now, the environment and the life here aren’t the same, it is culturally completely different to what we had three years ago.”

The fishermen noticed a drop in the levels of fish shortly after construction on the dam began. Some of the men continued to eke out a living but now, three years on, there are no full time fishermen in La Playa. Locals blame the decline on contamination from waste materials from the construction being dumped into the river and feeder streams and residue from the explosives used in excavations. They point to the large piles of waste materials on the river banks, saying when water levels are high it washes downstream. According to Carlos, construction on the dam has also disrupted the fish’s reproductive cycle, blocking them from the upriver streams where they would reproduce.

ISAGEN claim the low levels of fish are because of seasonal fluctuations related to Colombia’s wet season and the affects of climate phenomenon La Niña, although the company has admitted responsibility for one case of killing fish by dumping waste. According to Mr Bustamente, “Throughout construction, there is not a single activity related to the project that affects the river. The residues and material from the tunnels, roads and other works are taken to specially designed disposal sites.”

The company points to the fact that at the end of 2011, some fish began to return to the region. However, according to “Julian,” who has worked as a fisherman all his life, the catch is a tiny proportion of what there was before the start of construction. Julian was also deeply skeptical about the company’s claims the fish levels were related to climatic conditions. “The wet season is something natural but this contamination, this is done by people,” he said.

The company is currently touting its plan to restock the streams where the fish reproduce to try and kick-start the eco-system. The fishermen though, are skeptical, shrugging it off as a futile gesture as they claim the water is too polluted for the fish to survive.

The decline of fishing did not just affect the men of the La Playa. Many of the town’s women worked as fish vendors, selling the day’s catch in roadside stalls. The stalls, abandoned and dusty, still line the road and drivers still pull over stop to try and buy fish when they spot a woman nearby. Although some have returned to selling fish in recent weeks, around half of what they sell is brought from the nearest city. “Roberta” worked for years selling fish side by side with her two sisters. “Just like our husbands worked, we always supported our families as well,” she said. “We always worked but now…nothing.”

The dam has also hit La Playa’s other sources of income. Tourism has slowed to a trickle as the residents say the river is now too polluted to swim in, while agriculture has withered away to near nothing. While the odd papaya tree still spots the town, the semi-formal cultivation of crops to sell, trade or share locally has all but ended. Much of the land used for agriculture was lost when the company bought up small plots of land that had previously been used for crops to use for extracting building materials and as dumps for waste material. Combined with the sudden population boom, this has contributed to a scarcity of food and sky-rocketing prices. According to ISAGEN both the problems with the crops and with the river are related to Colombia’s wet season.

The destruction of the traditional economy in the region has led to a surge in unemployment. According to ISAGEN, the 4,000 plus construction jobs created by the project would fill that gap as locals would have priority when it came to filling positions. “When they [the company] arrived, they said there would be work here even for our children,” said “Andres,” a former fisherman who has worked on site at the dam. However, according to Andres and others who have worked at the company, work is scarce and the men from La Playa are treated as casual, disposable labor. They claim they are ill-paid, ill-treated and have no stability.

The company’s statistics show that in December 82 workers were from La Playa and 1,892 were from the nine municipalities affected by the dam. However locals claim many jobs are taken by people from outside the region who claim residency in the communities. For the people from the town, the company demand certifications and qualifications they almost never have. “You can’t get these [qualifications],” said Andres, “because you are born in the countryside and you are a campesino.

According to Andres, workers from outside the region receive higher wages along with accommodation and food allowances, while those from La Playa work long hours without proper breaks and are often fired without justification. “If you are from La Playa,” he said, “you can’t even get sick.”

According to ISAGEN, local employees are paid the same as their counterparts from outside the region, although most are not directly employed by the company but by contractors, and they have established several bodies to look into claims of labor rights abuses. The company also claims studies show the opposite to what locals claim – that since the arrival of the project residents have improved their income and access to social security

While a few of the town’s women have found work at the ISAGEN administrative center, most have been left with little option but to cater to the work force, renting out rooms in their houses, cooking, cleaning and washing their clothes. Yet the sudden influx of mostly young men, away from their homes and families, has brought its own problems. “This is an invasion” said Roberta.

Roberta and her sisters, “Juliana” and “Marta”, say the workers have brought with them social problems previously unheard of in La Playa, including a surge in drug and alcohol abuse and prostitution. “The people from other parts have brought bad habits that they have had in other places,” said Juliana, “and it is influencing the people of this region, before everyone was clean-living.” Several rapes and attempted rapes involving workers have been reported in nearby communities and many of the town’s women speak of feeling afraid to go out alone after dark.

According to Juliana and her sisters, the social changes are having the biggest impact on the children and teenagers of the town. “Now you have to watch your children carefully,” said Juliana, “because they go about picking up these ideas. When did children ever steal here before? Now they go about stealing everything.”

The sudden influx of workers has also contributed to a spiraling cost of living and has stretched resources such as water to breaking point. The improvements to public services promised by the company have yet to materialize.

While the economic disruption the dam has brought threatens the financial future of La Playa, locals are also concerned about a more dramatic existential threat – earthquakes. Although the science remains clouded in uncertainty, an increasing number of scientists believe the weight of water from newly created reservoirs and the water’s ability to penetrate rock below could change the pressure exerted on seismic fault lines. Experts have suggested hydroelectric dams could be to blame for earthquakes from China to Chile.

The Sogamoso dam is being constructed in one of the most seismically active zones in Colombia, just 70km from the Bucaramanga “earthquake nest,” Juliana said. “We are at the mercy of God here because everyone knows, you shouldn’t play with nature.” In March, negotiations between the ISAGEN and community representatives led to an agreement that the company would carry out a seismic risk study. Many in the community though, remain troubled by the idea of La Playa being washed away. “That is how we are looking at the future,” said Juliana, “that there might not be a town.”

Even when the impacts of construction of the Sogamoso dam began to be felt in La Playa and other affected communities, there was initially little organized resistance to the project. Tomas first took on his role as a representative of the community when people became disillusioned with his predecessor who, he said, was too easily manipulated by the company. “When we woke up [to what was going on], it was already too late,” he said, “because they had everything locked down, we couldn’t do anything.” According to Tomas, until recently opposition to the dam has been hampered by the divisions that have wracked the communities in the region. “There has been terrible disunity here,” he said. “And that has strengthened the company further.”

A turning point came in March, when 700 opponents to the dam staged a three-day blockade of the construction site to force the company into negotiations. On the first day riot police attacked the protesters outside the ISAGEN offices with clubs, leaving several protesters badly injured. Juliana, who attended the protest, said, “They are the powerful ones and we have nothing to defend ourselves with when they attack us like that.” She added, “They treated us like terrorists, like we had kidnapped the workers.”

Despite the police assault, the picket continued until community representatives negotiated an agreement with the company. The settlement included 17 points, dealing with issues from the right to peaceful protest to retraining programs. The success of the protest changed the atmosphere in the area. “Before we didn’t have the confidence we could do the blockade, now we do” said Juliana.

As a result of the agreement, the company has begun construction on public works projects, started retraining programs for fish sellers and other workers, and has increased monitoring of environmental and labor standards.

Shortly after the protest, campaigners were boosted by the news that the Ministry for the Environment and Sustainable Development was refusing to approve the project for the CDM carbon trading scheme. To be certified for the CDM, the projects must receive a letter of approval from their national government confirming the project will contribute to sustainable development in the region, usually through providing long-term employment or alleviating poverty. The Ministry declared it had not seen sufficient evidence of sustainable development. It added the company had not properly consulted with the community, was using local natural resources such as timber and gravel without permission and that it also lacked proper licensing due to the eight changes made to its environmental license.

According to Tomas, communities are now coming together to take the company on. “People are beginning to realise,” he said, “that we are not going to get anywhere with fighting, arguing and disunity.” Talk in the town is now filled with meetings, legal action, political petitions and protest, the next of which is already being planned. The atmosphere of pessimism still lingers over La Playa but there is determination too. “We are tired of being manipulated,” said Tomas. “The only thing we want is to live like we deserve.”

The names of the residents of La Playa interviewed for this article have been changed to avoid reprisals or complicate negotiations

For more information on the campaign against the Sogamoso dam see:

James Bargent is a freelance journalist based in Colombia. See