Colombia: ASOQUIMBO Continues Land Liberations and Resistance to the Quimbo Hydroelectric Project

It has already been four months since the Association of Affected Peoples of the Quimbo Hydroelectric Project (ASOQUIMBO) began liberating the lands which are not destined to be inundated by the impending reservoir, but that are nonetheless properties of the company responsible for the mega-project, Emgesa-Endesa-Enel. These liberations started with farms in the Municipality of Altamira and spread quickly to include other farms in Garzón – such as the Santiago and Palacios farms. There are peasant families affected by the Quimbo Hydroelectric Project who are working and cultivating these lands, growing crops such as corn, plantains, yuca, beans, squash, and herding cattle. “Even though we have had our challenges, we the people affected by the Quimbo Dam have liberated these lands belonging to the transnational company as part of the struggle for the Agro-Nutritional Peasant Reserve that we need for our territory,” explained Mauricio Cabrera, a member of ASOQUIMBO from La Jagua in the Department of Huila.

The company and the National Authority of Environmental Licenses (ANLA) have done everything possible not to comply with the environmental license and have chosen to not respect the decrees released by the Ombudsman’s Office in favor of the communities impacted by this mega-project, such as reopening the census of the impacted population. Regardless, the liberation of land by the impacted population is only an initial attempt to meet the obligations that the company itself has to “re-establish and legally and legitimately restore all productive activities, food security, and the right to a dignified life and work” for all the area’s population. The land liberations are not land invasions; they are needed actions taken to guarantee a dignified life for the impacted population and to protect the region’s food sovereignty, a requisite clearly delineated in the environmental license.

In June, the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History (ICANH), that previously had sanctioned Emgesa-Endesa-Enel for the destruction of archeological remains, has now decided that the company is the responsible entity for the creation of a museum in the impacted area of the Quimbo Dam, subsequently taking control and possession of the remains of the region’s ancestors. In the meantime, the company contracted archeologists from the National University in Bogota to perform an archeological survey of the region impacted by the Quimbo Dam. ASOQUIMBO rejected this immediately. Members of Jaguos por el Territorio documented the archeologists during their survey in La Jagua as they were plundering human bones and ceramics from tombs that they found. In a meeting with the community, the archeologists and a representative from the company referred to the remains as “trash” and confirmed the planned destruction of the sacred petroglyphs in the area of the trenches and are insultingly proposing the creation of a replica.

On August 14 the Municipal Council of Garzón organized a debate between the company Emgesa and ASOQUIMBO. After a presentation from council members, during which the Quimbo Hydroelectric Project’s environmental license and the company’s obligations were reviewed point by point, ASOQUIMBO and the company were able to state their case. What was shown, as has been said for some time now, is that the company has not met with any of their requirements and that the Ministry of Environment has not obligated the company to do so. Accordingly, the council members rejected the Plan of Territorial Order (POT) and have formally requested that the Ministry of Environment immediately suspend the hydroelectric project until the company complies with the environmental license in its entirety.

On August 19 a national agrarian strike commenced that initially had its strongest participation in the Departments of Boyacá, Cundinamarca, and Nariño, which were initially received by the national government to dialogue. Initially left out, other Departments such as Huila, Caquetá, Tolima, Putumayo and Cauca over a week ago strengthened the region´s blockades completely  paralyzing all of South Colombia. Residents of Huila were not only protesting for support and subsidies from the national government as a result of the free trade agreement with the U.S., they were also protesting against many other injustices: the lack of commitment on behalf of the national government’s agreements with coffee growers during this year’s strike; the privatization of seeds, through Resolution 9.70 of the free trade agreement with the USA, that has had a particularly devastating impact on the rice growers of Campoalegre; the impacts of other transnational companies in Huila, such as the oil company Emerald Energy, operating in the Municipalities of Gigante and Garzón; and the rage at the company Hydrochina, that has been given the entire Magdalena River as part of the Master Plan of Appreciation of the Magdalena River.

On August 20, the fisher-people and their families who subsist from the Betania Reservoir (Municipalities of Hobo, Campoalegre, and Yaguara) occupied the main park and City Hall of Hobo with their canoes and cast nets, demanding their rights. A year ago the city’s comptroller’s office found that the fisher-people were not included as part of the Quimbo Hydroelectric Project’s impacted population and ordered that they be included in a new survey as impacted peoples. To date, the company has done nothing to recognize any of the peoples that depend on the fisheries of Betania. A fisherman, Julio Cleves Cuellar, explained, “the construction of the Quimbo Dam, with its constant slick of oil, gasoline, grease, and other chemicals that are mixed in with the cement and used to make the dam, in conjunction with the area’s deforestation has polluted the river. The majority of fish have now died.”

From September 3-6 about 60 members of ASOQUIMBO effectively blockaded three entrances of the construction site of the Quimbo Hydroelectric Project in the area of Paso del Colegio in the Municipalities of Gigante and Tesalia causing losses for the companies involved. Peasants and fisher-people allowed free movement of the local population, ambulances, the police, and military, but blocked all traffic related to the Dam’s construction site. Blocking the company’s access to the Magdalena River, local inhabitants were able to paralyze all the sand and rock extraction activities that have devastated the areas ecosystems and fisher-peoples encampments.

On September 5, at around 8 p.m., a humanitarian caravan of about 20 vehicles escorted by the police arrived to the blockade in transit to the south of the Department with food, natural gas, and other goods brought from the City of Neiva. ASOQUIMBO members explained to the caravan that each vehicle would be inspected and all the vehicles that were taking goods to the communities would be allowed pass but any going to the Dam’s construction site would be sent back. In the town of Tesalia a pickup truck, a food truck, and two fuel trucks that had been sent back days prior infiltrated the caravan.Each vehicle was looked over by a blockade member and was given pass upon seeing the food or other goods that were being brought for the region’s inhabitants. All of this was going smoothly until the vehicles that were destined for the construction site. When ASOQUIMBO members intended to stop and send back these vehicles certain members of the police became aggressive with community members insulting, threatening with arms and pushing people out of the way escalating what was a peaceful vehicle check at a roadblock into violence. Police from Neiva started firing tear gas canisters into the people and two women were physically assaulted by the police. A member of the Jaguos pro el Territorio collective that was filming the occurrences received a tear canister to the right thigh from about 6 meters of distance. As members of ASOQUIMBO defended themselves from the police attack the caravan was able to push through the tear gas and the vehicles that were believed to be going to the company in fact did while the rest continued to the town of Gigante.

During the incident it was apparent the differences amongst the police agents of Tesalia and those of Neiva – the agents from Tesalia criticizing how they handled the situation expressing that they “fucked up bad.” Not long after private security agents of the company made shots in the air with an automatic weapon. Hours later the police arrived saying they were “sorry” that the situation was “not handled correctly” and were asking for permission to allow the return of some of the transit police from Tesalia that had been accompanying the caravan. Because of the incident ASOQUIMBO told the police, with backing from a local military official, that they would only allow an injured police officer to be brought through in an ambulance, but the rest of the police who were in the caravan would have to wait till the following morning to decide if they could. For hours the Transit Police representative that had come from Neiva after the incident insisted to allow the passing of the other police and even threatened while smiling that “they had the means to get them through if you all say no”. At 4 AM the police and a tow truck were allowed to pass after an ambulance came to take care of the injured members of ASOQUIMBO.

On Sunday September 8 Vice-President Argelino Garzón announced an end to the national strike when in fact what has been declared is a temporary lift of the blockades in different regions of the country while negotiations occur in the city of Popayán. Peasant and Indigenous Communities are waiting to see the outcomes of the negotiations before deciding to take up road blockades again as part of the strike. If the State does not create policies that bring justice to the rural communities impacted by the resource extraction industries and the neoliberal policies, the peoples of these territories will continue to struggle against the interests that threaten their existence as well as the Earth’s.